Magazine December 5, 2016, Issue

The Kids Will Be Fine

Talking to children about the election

On November 9, the morning after America chose Donald Trump to be its next president — yes, friends, this is happening, and it’s happening big league — social media went completely bananas.

To be fair, social media have always boasted an enthusiastic banana population, whether it’s election season or not. In fact, one of America’s first viral flash videos, 2002’s “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” featured a crazy-eyed, manic banana dancing to a hip-hop beat, occasionally shouting the following catchphrase: “Peanut butter jelly with a baseball bat!” It was baffling. It made no sense. People loved it. Internet users shared that hyperactive dancing banana all over the globe, and countless goofy memes were born. There you have it, folks: The modern world may be slightly insane, but at least it’s frequently lovable.

In any case, on Day One of the official countdown to Trump’s presidency-to-be, one particularly earnest Twitter hashtag took off: #WhatDoWeTellTheChildren? Based on two post-election stories — one in the Los Angeles Times and another in the Huffington Post — the question was posed by angst-filled parents deliberating how to break the news of President Trump to their kids.

The question of properly discussing politics with children is frequently a good one, particularly in our hyper-politicized, NC-17 culture. After 2016’s wrenching, absurdist presidential contest, this dilemma rings especially true. But predictably, most of the post-election “What do we tell the children?” anxiety rattled on a single anti-Trumpian rail, conveniently forgetting the other contributor to this year’s decidedly un-fun roller-coaster ride: the spectacularly awful Hillary Clinton.

In her piece for the Los Angeles Times — “Donald Trump Is the Next President. What Do We Tell the Children?” — Michelle Maltais talked to several despondent Clinton-supporting friends. “My kid went to bed believing in the best of America,” one said, still stunned, like many pockets of America, the morning after the results rolled in. “I can’t bear to wake him up.”

Excuse me? Hillary Clinton, a corrupt D.C. fixture with an unfortunate lying habit — an individual, it should be added, who often seems to have trouble imitating basic human emotions — suddenly represents the “best of America”? Are we talking about the same person?

Look, I understand if you’re not a Trump fan, but if you voted for Clinton, you can’t pretend that you voted for a virtuous and flawless imaginary opponent imported from Paradise Island, Wonder Woman’s verdant, all-female, conflict-free birthplace. You voted for a woman who apparently thinks it’s a good idea to campaign with people like Lena Dunham, who recently posted on Twitter a video celebrating the proverbial “extinction of white men.”

Let’s move on with the Los Angeles Times story, because I fear it gets worse. “Many said they cried with their kids, who had stayed up to watch the returns.” Well. That sounds like a recipe for calm, well-adjusted children. One parent upped the ante, Maltais reports, by saying he planned on “flipping the immigrant story” and encouraging his kids to leave the country: “Your mom and your grandparents are immigrants. Sometimes you have to leave your home for a better life.”

Sleep tight, kids! Good thing we bought you that bigger Star Wars backpack for your next escape-the-country run! Other parents, distraught at Trump’s presidential win, declared that they would dispense the following downbeat wisdom to their children: “In real life the bad guy wins way more often than the good guy.” (Here, as always, we can cue the sound of a sad, anemic antique klaxon, which has been the official sound of 2016.)

There are multiple problems, of course, with this philosophy. First, it likely isn’t true. Second, it’s a recipe for turning otherwise hopeful kids into future sociology or gender-studies majors at second-tier liberal-arts schools that cost more than the GDP of several small Eastern European countries.

But finally, and most important, for many Americans, this election represented no clear “good” or “bad” choice. That was why 2016 was such a torturous year. To paint Hillary Clinton as the “good” candidate is downright comical, given that her most animated moments on the trail seemed to involve calls for rah-rah, no-limits, all-systems-go abortion. On the Republican side, as we all know, Donald Trump was certainly no peach. He was a walking minefield — and not just on policy, but for reasons that you can’t discuss in front of children.

Many in America recognized this dilemma, processed it, and made the best decision they could. Some Americans, including former first couple George W. and Laura Bush, declined to vote for a presidential candidate at all, supporting down-ballot Republicans instead. Some, like me, wrote in a third-party presidential candidate and then voted down-ballot GOP.

When it comes to politics and life, navigating this complexity — and the uncomfortable uncertainty that comes with it — might be one of the most important things a kid can learn to do. In fact, when we put its many tragicomic elements aside, 2016 can offer multiple non-apocalyptic lessons for kids: Politicians are flawed. Groupthink runs rampant in politics and in life. Limited government is the best government. In politics, whatever power you give to your own team will inevitably be passed to your opponent in the future.

But for all the traumatized parents out there, there’s a final, more comforting truth: Unless you try to indoctrinate them, most kids don’t give a rip about presidential candidates, at least not beyond their entertainment value. Nor should they. They’re kids!

During parent–teacher conferences this year, I learned that my son had told one of his kindergarten classmates that I was voting for Hillary Clinton. (Earlier, he had told another friend I was voting for Donald Trump. Fact check: both false.) On learning this scandalous news, my son’s best friend promptly told him, in very hushed tones, that Hillary Clinton was “a robber.” At the thought of a lady robber in the White House, both boys broke into cackles. Then they went on with their day.

As the hallowed vote counters of any fourth-grade mock election can tell you, the entire exercise is essentially a stealth tally of the parents’ votes, not the preferences of the kids. During my first mock election, in 1984, my small Christian school served as a microcosm of deep-red Reagan country. Most of us voted accordingly. Not my friend Sara, though. As the results came back, she sat there, stunned. “My parents,” she whispered, cagily scanning the room, “are voting for Mr. Mondale.”

For sheltered fourth-grade me, it served as a good, early lesson: People have different opinions, and that’s okay.

The great choice of 2016 is finally over. The consequences are yet to be seen. But after all the agonizing over what to tell the children, and as we watch college social-justice warriors gearing up for another season of censorship, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and canceled classes — a hysteria that was fashionable way before Donald Trump — perhaps the answer is simple. “Please, kids,” we might say. “Whatever you do, don’t grow up to do that.”

– Heather Wilhelm is a National Review columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.

In This Issue

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