Parenting in election hell: I want my kids to be politically aware, but not like this

Throughout this ugly campaign, I've found myself at a loss for words with my daughters

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 20, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)


On Wednesday night, my two daughters, aged 16 and 12, did what Donald Trump could not — they admitted defeat. Worn out by the endless ugliness of his campaign, they threw in the towel on watching the final debate. They conceded. So instead of catching a fact-checker's endurance event, they spent the evening listening to show tunes, leaving their mother extraordinarily relieved.

At least I didn't have to spend another night cringing in front of the television with them. Because with every day that we draw closer to the election, this presidential campaign leaves me, like a whole lot of parents and educators across the country, at a stunned loss for words.

Politics has never been off-limits in my family's home. Every year I take my daughters with me to the polls and lecture them about the 19th Amendment. I tell them about how when my grandmother was born, women still didn't have the right to vote in this country. Last summer we made a pilgrimage to the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester. We sit together at the dinner table and talk about education and climate change.

But lately we talk about sexual harassment and why a presidential candidate says he would jail his opponent. It's pretty depressing dinner talk. It's depressing because, as Steve Enders, a parent of twin daughters and a young sonwrote this week on Medium, "Instead of celebrating the possibility of a female president on the heels of our first black president, we’re hiding the kids from debates where Trump shouts down moderators and tries to intimidate his opponent." 

Earlier this week New York Times writer Julie Bosman described the challenge of teaching this "total mess" of an election cycle to America's kids, including Wisconsin middle school teacher Brent Wathke's admission, "Honestly, I just can’t wait until it’s over."

And earlier this month, after the second presidential debate between Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Wathke had to tell his seventh-graders, "There are some things in there that just aren’t appropriate for school, so we’re going to stick to the issues today." And he tries to instill lessons from bad behavior, telling his students, "We don’t want interruptions today."

On Tuesday The Washington Post similarly explored the dilemmas teachers are having, with a California high school teacher lamenting, "This is the first time I’ve really said to myself, 'I can’t cover this election like I want to because it’s not school-appropriate.' There’s certain things I don’t want to be talking about."

A Virginia teacher, citing the media coverage of Trump's lewd comments to Billy Bush, said, "When I couldn’t even bring in the newspaper to show my students, that’s just a different level, a different low." And earlier this month, a high school history teacher's post went viral as he tweeted, "I formally apologize" to his students for telling them to watch one of the debates for their homework, saying, "I should have known better."

I've faced similar regret and confusion over this election with my own daughters. I certainly couldn't have imagined, even a few months ago, that my teenager's class would now be referring back to its previous lessons on totalitarianism with such fresh context. And though there had been inklings during the Republican National Convention of what we might expect at the debates, my middle schooler's back-to-school assignment to watch all of them quickly proved downright upsetting for her and her classmates. By this week her class had been released from their obligation to view the final one. 

When I told my daughters on Wednesday night that I intended to watch the last few minutes of the debate (like you finish the bad book you just want to read the ending of), they left the room in disgust. At least I can be relieved they don't share my masochistic curiosity. And I guess I can be proud that they have already learned self-care and how to walk away from offensive media content. 

Because I have older daughters — daughters who have already experienced their share of harassment and sexism — I don't have to shield them from bad words. I'm just trying to use this garbage-fire period in America's history as at least an opportunity for new, if difficult, conversations. My friend Shannon, whose daughters are the same as mine, is doing likewise. 

"The biggest thing we talk about with them is 'name the behavior,'" she says. "We dissect what they're hearing and seeing. So we name it: the bullying, the sexism, the interrupting, the racism, the gaslighting, the entitlement. The biggest one? How an unqualified white straight male is 'on par' with an overqualified, fully-vetted female public servant. We are making sure the girls understand that this is the archetype for white male-dominated society. It's powerful."

And my friend Karie, whose daughter is 10, says, "I really struggled with whether or not to show her the video of Trump's comments on that bus but decided to go ahead and show it to her as well as the entire speech that Michelle Obama made in New Hampshire in response to those comments." Adds Karie, "There were some gasps — I think there was a bit of innocence lost over all of it, which makes me sad, but I don't regret showing it all to her."

I showed my girls that video, too. I cried watching it, remembering some of the crap I've endured because I'm female, and knowing my daughters endure it, too. But I was also grateful and hopeful that a new generation of young men and women hearing Obama's message that "this is not normal" can move forward to change things.

I believe that most of us want to protect our kids from abusive language and from dishonest rhetoric. I believe we also want to teach them how our imperfect system of democracy works and why it is worth cherishing and give them an America to be proud of. In election years past, the lessons have been hard and contentious, but comparatively civil.

This time, with decorum out the window and p__y grabbing a subject of evening news reports, the rules have been rewritten. And if the current events our kids are studying in civics class can't be an example, then we just have to let them be a warning — a warning they'll remember in just a few years, when it's their turn to vote.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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2016 Election Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Parenting Presidential 2016 Election Presidential Debates