We do owe our kids an apology for this election. It’s not the one you think.

img_1267Many parents—Clinton supporters and Trump-opposers, to be precise—woke up Wednesday morning with a problem. After days, weeks, months, even more than a year of demonizing Donald Trump to our children while at the same time reassuring them that he wouldn’t win the presidency, a surprising thing happened.

He won.

For those parents, there’s a lot to explain, and the questions are unlikely to stop soon. It’s not just a question of talking about what it means to have a president-elect with a history of sexism and racism and who has been described as reckless by members of his own party. Those things are hard. But it may be even harder to explain why we, and so many people they trusted—people, organizations, and institutions that we taught them to believe in—were so wrong about his chances. Or to persuade them to trust us again.

I am one of those parents. My phone and my social media have been filled with this question since the unexpected outcome of the election became clear. What to say to the 10-year-old girl who went to sleep in tears in Brooklyn, or the young Muslim boy worried about what would happen with a president who “doesn’t like people who look like me?” And filled, too, with broad-brush apologies to our children, texts and letters from parents who feel like they’re part of a failure, or maybe just want to distance themselves from this one. We’re sorry, they say, that we’ve given you this, that whatever happens next will lead to your future.

On election night, I found my 15-year-old in a dark room close to midnight, iPhone glowing in his hand. “How could this happen?” he demanded, and I knew he wasn’t just asking how Trump could win, but how so much of what I had taught him, about what was important to people and how the world was changing, could have been so far off. I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t even have an answer for myself.

We do owe our children an apology—but not for the result of this election, a clear victory for a candidate who promised something his opponent couldn’t: the hope of change. Instead, we owe them an apology for this whole campaign, for creating an apocalyptic vision of the future that would haunt some of our nation’s children no matter who won, be it “madman” or “crook.” And we owe our kids an apology for letting those stories drown out our ability help them even try to understand what was really happening in their world.

Nothing is different about our country than it was Tuesday, or the day before, or even the day before that. All that’s changed is that we know more about each other than we did then.

More importantly, we know we were wrong about what we thought we knew. We know that whatever tools we’re using to evaluate our world are faulty, and that the more we want something to be true, the more we need to question our conclusions. We know that we can be blind and deaf, especially when we are not dumb, except maybe in the derogatory sense of the word. We talked so much, and we thought so hard about what we wanted to say next. We didn’t listen.

So where does my son put his trust now? Not in me, I hope. I don’t even feel as though I can trust myself. Instead, I can only offer him the journalistic maxim: trust, but verify, and add that where you cannot verify, you should be very aware of the risk of trust. The next news stories he reads, the next conversations he hears around the dinner table, will all be about what lies behind Mr. Trump’s victory. Disillusionment? White populism? Or maybe—hope? He knows now what I should have told him before, which is that none of us know as much as we think we do. He (and his sisters and brother) will be hearing it all from a new perspective of doubt, and from a whole lot further down the road towards figuring it out for himself.


5 Responses to “We do owe our kids an apology for this election. It’s not the one you think.”

  1. Pam says:

    I am starting to have some rational thoughts again, and I have to question all the reasons we have come up with to explain why Trump won. Were people voting for his hate, misogyny, and crazy? for his persona and salesmanship? People I love voted for him. The only one I’ve heard from says she was voting against Hillary. So I am wondering if we were really so wrong about his chances; we were instead wrong about having overcome misogyny.

  2. I’d have to agree. I allowed my own stubbornness into assuming Clinton, the perceived more qualified candidate, to win the election easily and I rubbed that stubbornness onto my kids. When they’d ask questions about Trump’s outrageous behavior, I told them to not worry about it. “He’ll never win. Don’t worry yourself,” I’d say ignorantly as we’d half-watch CNN. Now, I’m left explaining to my kids why we see a flood of news reports around the country of certain people exercising post-Trump victory racial insensitivities – and even some violence – to Muslim women, blacks, Asians, etc. on my Facebook feed. But after breaking the news to my kids about Trump’s victory – and right after my 9-year old pretending to throw herself down the stairs in mock-disbelief – I reminded them that they grew up with a President (Obama) who also broke barriers, ran our nation for 8 years with no personal scandal, who was always very gracious with small children, and just appear to be a delightful leader.

    So, I’m not sure how you feel about President Obama, but I’d offer to remind your children that they grew up with a mostly gracious, poised, and eloquent man as president because, policy aside, he was a decent individual. It may help them restore some faith and trust in our nation’s leaders.

  3. I completely relate to this. The first coherent thought that crystalized within the fog of disbelief and terror Tuesday night was, “Oh my God, how will we tell the kids in the morning?” My boys are 6 and 10 and we talk a lot about politics in our family. I asked my husband, “If we had known this could actually happen, would we have talked about him differently?” We still would have talked about the intolerability of his bigotry, because we must, but I think we would have been a bit more measured about the whole thing. We weren’t, so we were faced with telling children who would know just how bad the news is.

    You’re right that one lesson we know comes from this, both for us and our kids, is that things are not always what they seem. How unsettling for them, but true and important to remember.

  4. KJ says:

    “If we had known this could actually happen, would we have talked about him differently?”
    That’s such a good question.

  5. Barbara Thimm says:

    I am not sure that it is necessarily an apology. After all, this is something that happened to all of us, and I do believe that it is good for our children to learn that things sometimes don’t go the way one anticipated … and that we can still work with it. Rather, I see this as an opportunity to tell and show our kids that one throwback doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything, that politics and civic engagement & responsibility are not just situated in Washington and political institutions. We can use the momentum created by this ugly campaign to have conversations with our kids about values, about the situation of minorities and immigrants. We can support grass root efforts, follow them on social media and give money and time.

    I am well aware that there are many children who are literally threatened after this election, but an apology won’t help them either, and we may not be able to protect them. What we can do is tell them that we’ll fight, that there’s hope in a country with division of powers and courts, that there are many people in this country who will stand with them.

    I think these are conversations worth having, especially with children. (Mine are 9 and 12)

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