“Did Hillary Clinton kill people?” asks my nine-year-old boy. “Is she a liar?” For the last several weeks now, part of the daily debrief I have with my son after school includes decoding what’s being said there. I attempt to clarify (and to correct when necessary) the election’s endemic hyperbole spewing from the mouths of children. Much more difficult though: how do I ease the confusion and terror of a child who fears that one candidate (if elected) will start a nuclear war as I had to do yesterday? I did not create his fear. His fear was born on the playground, but it was not conceived there.
Let me tell you, children are engaged in this election, perhaps like never before. They are out there stumping for their candidates—well, their parents’ candidates, which would be really cool if it weren’t so distressing. Because while it is exciting to see the seeds of activism sewn so early, the political stumping taking place at the elementary school is done in the vernacular kids hear at home—more hate speech than dialogue. On the one hand, I applaud discussions about integrity and dishonesty, know-how and ignorance, strength and weakness, but much like the grown-ups, the conversation has devolved and reason has given way to spin and insult. Words like ‘Killary’ and ‘Drumpf’ and ‘crooked’ and ‘idiot’ are lobbed back and forth. Too much like the grown-ups the disagreements at school have become personal. What is happening among our children, young humans still in the single digits, says a lot about who we are, says a lot about the discourse of our nation. One thing’s pretty clear, we are too emotional—far too angry, and our passion is mucking up the conversation.
When I was growing up, politics was a taboo topic, never ever discussed. I had no idea whether our family was Republican or Democrat or other, because I grew up in a total political vacuum. Only when I was an adult did I learn that my parents cancelled out each other’s vote. They must have made the conscious decision to spare us the confusion, the battles, the drama, the pain of having to choose one parent over the other. My children, on the other hand, are being marinated in political affairs, as if I have a choice these days. I can’t imagine raising unconscious children given the world they are inheriting. I don’t have the luxury of controlling the message or hiding it from them altogether, because as I said it is no longer possible to hide from the campaign madness filling the airwaves all around us.
I was going to let my daughter watch the second debate, that is until that horrid tape surfaced and I knew that the evening would move in an unsavory direction. It was late when I learned that the 11 year-old did in fact sneak out of bed to eavesdrop from her hidey-hole. You know what America? Our children are listening. They hear us bicker and name call and defend the indefensible. I had work to do to undo the impact of the shit-storm of a debate.
As “punishment” for her indiscretion, my daughter was required to write a 200-word essay on both what she heard and what she thought about what she heard. I gave her 72 hours to complete the task. When I picked her up from school on the first afternoon, she presented her work to me upon entering the car. “I finished it in first hour, 237 words. I can write 1,000 words if you want.” Among the many thoughts she had, she shared this: “I heard him say ‘No one respects women more than me.’ I also heard him insult lots of women before the debate. Worse, he doesn’t limit his insults to women. I do not think he is the president we want for the United States.” Yes, our children are listening.
We are supposed to raise our children to be critical thinkers, to separate fact from fiction. Pretty difficult to do when our Presidential Candidates are free to sling mud and insult, and lie ad infinitum without penalty or consequence. It’s being called the most negative campaign in history. It paves the way for future campaigns to be even uglier and even more devoid of facts, if that’s possible. Democracy is messy. Nevertheless, I believe we have a duty to elevate our conversation for the sake of our nation, for the sake of our children who are listening. The campaign season has been too long, too painful. While this election may not kill me, it most certainly is critically wounding me and I know it is hurting my kids and yours, too.