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How To Talk with Children about the US Presidential Election

"Dr. Laura....I have always told my children to include everyone in their play, to treat everyone with respect, not to bully or call people Stupid or lie or expect special treatment. Today I wonder how to explain to them the results of the United States Presidential election."

This was such an acrimonious election that no matter who won, half the population would probably have felt the apocalypse had arrived. Now those of us who live or work with children have a responsibility to help them process what has happened. That can feel impossible, when we're still trying to process it ourselves.

No matter who you supported for president, Mr. Trump's election may bring up questions and concerns for your child, who may have heard of the president-elect speaking and acting in ways that frighten them, or that they have been told not to act themselves.

So if you supported Mr. Trump, you'll probably want to share with your child that you voted for him because of the change you hope his election could bring to our country, but that you don't support everything that he does and says, and why. 

If you didn't support him, you can explain why, without demonizing the people who did. And you can talk about the long and honorable history of peaceful social protest in this country, and the moral obligation to protect those who need it.

Each of us must be the change we want to see in our country, and model for our children how to participate responsibly in a democracy.

Here are three suggestions for talking with your child. But most important of all, before you start talking, get as centered as you can. Going into a discussion with your child while you feel frightened or despairing will only communicate your upset. So do whatever centers you -- meditate, breathe, spend a few minutes in nature. Then, you can be there for your child, and you can access your deeper wisdom instead of your fear.

1. Your child needs, most of all, to feel safe.


Children will struggle to put this election into the context of their lives. They will wonder what it "means" -- as do many adults. How you explain what it "means" will depend on your world view, but we need to remember that a child's developmental work is about intimate personal challenges, rather than global ones. Children deserve protection from adult fears and struggles. Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite writers, says: "The comings and goings of politics and political actions in our lives must not be allowed to dominate our daily existence...If we emphasize to our children the necessities of community, ongoing life, daily pleasures, and shared enterprises, although we may not defeat the ogres of history, we can hope to remain who we are in their face."

Einstein once said that the most important decision we make is whether we live in a friendly universe. You can assume this election has undermined that confidence in your child. The whole process has been anxiety producing for many adults, but even more so for children, who feel even more powerless and frightened in the face of news and discussion they can't understand. So regardless of your own worries, your job is to be the grownup and reassure your child that your family is safe and that you will always keep your child safe, no matter what. 

I've heard from families of immigrants who are concerned about their children's future. I know that reassuring your family will be more challenging given your situation, and my heart goes out to you. But I think you can still promise that you will keep your child safe, even if you don't know exactly what the future holds.


2. Ask what your child has heard, and what he or she thinks.

Do a lot of listening to identify any worries or feelings that your child may be struggling with. Don't be surprised if your child has heard things that scare her, or has misinterpreted things you've said. For instance, your child may worry that your family will have to leave the United States, or will lose your health care. 

You can open the discussion simply. "Did you hear anything about the election today at school?" or "I mentioned at breakfast that our country elected a new president, but we didn't really get to talk about it. What do you think about it?"

Then, repeat what you hear your child say. Ask more questions. Acknowledge any feelings he or she expresses. "I hear you're tired of talking about the election. I'm tired of it too. It made me feel worried for a long time. Did it make you feel worried?"

You may not know how to answer all of your child's questions. That's okay. Just tell your child you don't know, and that you will find out. But don't underestimate the power of simply listening to your child's concerns. As TeacherTom says, "In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers."


3. Explain and answer questions simply, at the developmental level of the child. 


"In our country everybody gets to vote. Many people felt the government was not listening to them and did not care about them. So they voted for someone who promised to fix their problems. What do you think?"

"On the playground, the kids say he's a 'bad guy.'"

"Well, you know that there are really no bad guys. Every one us has "bad" feelings and "good" feelings inside. What matters is which feelings we act on. Right? So you might want to hurt someone but you choose to use your words instead."

"But some words are bad. The new president calls people Stupid. You won't let me call people Stupid."

"You're right. In our family, we don't call people names. You can tell someone what makes you mad without calling names."

"How come the president can call people Stupid?"

"I hope he won't keep doing that now that he is president. Remember, all of us feel that way sometimes -- like we want to call names. But we always have a choice about how to act. We can always choose to act kindly. "

School-age kids: 

You can use the same approach as with preschoolers, but go into deeper discussion. Kids this age are often concerned about fairness and have a simplistic approach to solving problems. Always give kids hope that they can have an impact. When children feel there is nothing they can do about a situation, they end up feeling cynical and angry. When they feel there is something, anything, they can do to make a difference, they feel empowered.  


"Do girls have to be a 10, like the new president says?"

"No, I think that's a ridiculous idea. What matters about both girls and boys is that they try to do the right thing and be kind. You know I voted for the new president because I really did not like Secretary Clinton, but women can do anything men can do."

or, if your child knows that you voted against President-elect Trump:

"But it's not fair he got elected! You said you didn't like him!"

"I don't like the things he has said and done. But in a democracy, everyone gets to vote. The person you want won't always win. That's why it's so important to get out and vote in every election."

"Why bother, when you don't win?!"

"The vote was very close -- in fact, the other candidate, Secretary Clinton, actually won more votes. But the U.S. has a system called the Electoral College, where the states get a certain number of votes, and Mr. Trump won more states with more votes, so he won the election. Many people think we should get rid of the Electoral College and just use the popular vote. Maybe when you grow up, you'll work on changing the election system."

"Since we don't like the new president, can't someone just kill him?"

"Well, there was a time in human history when people just killed other people they did not agree with. But when we solve problems by killing off our enemies, it always ends up resulting in the strongest people hurting other people to get their own way. So over many thousands of years, humans have evolved political systems that allow us to have elections, instead of having physical fights. It's a much better way of solving problems!"

"Well, I don't like him. If I see any of his signs, I will tear them up!"

"I understand getting upset when you disagree with someone. But of course, they might think our opinions are wrong or harmful, too. So in a democracy it's important that we are able to stay civil and listen, even when we disagree with someone. Just like in our family, we can always find a way to say what we need or stand up for what we believe without attacking the other person."


Preteens and Teens will probably have a lot of opinions, and it's a perfect opportunity to talk about values.

"The new president says he's going to build a wall and send people like my friend Maria back to Mexico. Why did you vote for him?"

"I supported him because I think he will bring jobs back to this country, but that doesn't mean I agree with everything he says. I certainly don't like the idea that he would send your friend away, but I think our country has basic protections that would mean he can't really do that."

"But some people who voted for him must have liked the idea of a wall."

"Some people said they felt like they have been standing in line a long time, waiting, and got mad because they thought other people were cutting the line. They see immigrants as cutting the line -- even if that isn't true. You know our family were immigrants too, once."

"How can he be president? Didn't he do bad things to women?"

"Yes, Mr. Trump admitted in an interview to grabbing women's breasts and vulvas, and kissing them on the mouth, without their permission. Obviously this behavior is very disrespectful to women, and it is also a crime against the women he assaulted."

"Ew, gross! Did he really do it?"

"Nobody knows. The stories seem to be true because some of the women told other people at the time the events happened, years ago. But Mr. Trump said he was just bragging in that interview and did not do the things he claimed. He said that was just the kind of talk that men do in locker rooms, when only men are around. What do you think about that?"

"It seems weird he would brag about hurting women."

"I agree. And as your dad, I want you to know that I have never had that kind of conversation and I would never do that kind of thing. I think there may have been a time when men did talk that way, but I am happy to say that times have changed and men can't get away with that kind of behavior any more."

"But why did people vote for someone who said things like that?"

"They told reporters* that they think the American economy only takes care of the rich and powerful, and that Trump was the only one listening to them; the only one who would change things. I think people are scared and worried about their kids' futures, and they voted for the person they think will change things."

"Why are they worried about their kids? My teacher says that anyone in America can work hard and grow up to be whatever you want, even president."

"In the past, children could usually be more successful than their parents if they worked hard, but that often isn't true any more. In the last generation, policy changes have restructured the tax code and dismantled the New Deal and made it hard for unions. That concentrated lots more money in the hands of a small number of people at the top, so ordinary people don't make as much money and there are fewer middle class families."

"Is it true that the government wasn't listening to them?"

"Well, we don't have good campaign finance laws like some countries, so most politicians in the US are rich, so they don't understand the pressures on ordinary people. They listen a lot to their rich donors. Maybe when you get older, you'll get involved politically, to help ordinary people have more voice in government."

"The new president said Muslims shouldn't be allowed to come into the U.S. because they might be terrorists. Is that true?"

"Immigrants to the U.S. go through a thorough screening process. Muslims who come to the U.S. are just like my great-grandparents from Ireland -- they want a better life. You know, when Irish people like your ancestors first came to the U.S., they couldn't get jobs. Now we are just Americans like everyone else. I hope that will happen soon for Muslims."

"But do the people who voted for the new president believe all those things he said?"

"I sure hope not. A lot of people who voted for Mr. Trump voted for President Obama last time. So I don't think that everyone who voted for Mr. Trump shares all his views, any more than they shared all President Obama's views. I think that when people are scared of the other candidate, they make allowances for their candidate. Just like I did not think that whole issue of Secretary Clinton's emails was a big deal; the people who voted for Mr. Trump probably decided that some of the things he said and did were not a big deal."

"But what if the new president does the scary things he said he would do?"

"Don't worry. The president can't just do whatever he wants. We have a whole system of laws and courts to make sure of that. So he can't actually do many of the things he said he would. And the good thing about our country is that we're allowed to protest and organize when we don't agree. If we need to, our family will join protests to protect the human rights and civil rights that make this country what it is."

"But our family doesn't believe the things he said, do we? Even though he's president?"

"You know, when someone else says something that feels wrong to you, that's an opportunity to get in touch with your own inner compass. So you have to decide for yourself what you believe. But I'll tell you what I believe. All people deserve to be treated with fairness and respect. I hope I will always find the strength to stand up against bigotry and racism and sexism and any other way that people try to build themselves up by making someone else feel small."

"That's what you always tell me bullies do. But bullies shouldn't win!"

"I think history shows us that sometimes they do. But as Martin Luther King said, 'The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.' He meant for us to keep working to make the world a place of more love and tolerance and fairness, no matter what. Let's think of ways our family can do that."


ADDENDUM: Our democracy has a long and honorable history of peaceful protest. If you're thinking of taking your child to a March, here's a great article on how to keep everyone safe, by 



*Seventy-two percent of Americans who voted said they believed that “the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.” Sixty-eight percent agreed that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”

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