In the aftermath of the most devastating election this country has ever known, I’ve seen all kinds of advice and commentary about how to talk about it with our kids. What do we say to them to explain how this could happen, that a man who represents everything we’ve taught them to view as abhorrent, was just chosen by millions of people to lead their country, to represent it to the world?
But the kids this commentary is aimed at are generally the young ones. The ones who went to bed early on election night, leaving parents to figure out what to say the next day. The kids who may not understand the language, or who may be facing bullies of their own at school.
I have not bothered reading most of these articles. At ages 18 and 21, my own children are beyond that stage. They are young adults, both off at college, both old enough to understand—as much as any of us can—what just happened.
But what I’m learning is that there is a whole other heartbreak to be had with older kids.
This was the first presidential election either of my kids could vote in. For my daughter, who turned 18 in August, it was the very first vote she ever cast. She was so excited. She is a dedicated feminist, a crusader for racial equality and LGBT rights and human rights around the world. She sends her own earned money to Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List.
Within hours of arriving on campus for orientation last September, she had registered to vote. And now, voting from her college in Ohio, she was going to elect the first woman president.
On election night I settled in with my husband and some others to watch the returns, confident in media predictions that we would not only end the night with the first woman president-elect—a candidate many have termed the best qualified in modern history—but also defeat a racist, misogynist, bully who is deeply unfit to be president.
I knew my kids were watching, too, on their two campuses, with their friends. I thought we’d probably connect to share congratulations all around the next day.
Instead, as returns started to trickle in, we got first a nervous call from my daughter. “Should I be worried?” she asked. I assured her that the race was just tighter than expected, and it would probably be fine in the end.
A while later, a text from my son, who’s studying music in Boston. Three words of disbelief: “This isn’t happening.” Then, throughout the night, rising panic, and increasingly more calls and texts, back and forth with both of them.
My kids are white, middle-class, straight and cisgender. This gives them a level of safety and security not afforded to many other kids witnessing this election, including many of their friends. But they are Jewish, and the coded, and not so coded, anti-Semitism that has arisen in this campaign is already more than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.
And they are smart, empathic, and politically-aware, so the stupid, angry, violent rhetoric—and actual violence—embodied by our president-elect and the people who elected him pose a real threat to that sense of safety and security.
The future that was unfolding for my kids was already uncertain—we live in uncertain times, and with one an aspiring musician and the other an aspiring social activist they weren’t necessarily going to get a major piece of the economic pie—but there was promise.
Perhaps Hillary really would do something about the cost of education. Perhaps—when it came time for them to need their own health insurance—a time pushed mercifully back thanks to President Obama—they’d be able to get decent care, and be able to afford it. Perhaps my daughter would have added protections against harassment. And of course, she could always access birth control and, should she ever need one, a safe abortion.
So here is my question, the question for parents of kids who aren’t so little anymore:
How do you face your kids, kids who have come to maturity under the kind, inclusive, forward-thinking rule of Barack Obama, kids who are at that moment in their lives when everything is about the future, when uncertainty should be the delicious uncertainty of not knowing exactly what path they’ll take, of knowing that anything is possible—how do you face your kids and say this, this is the world I am handing off to you?
A world in which deep economic hardship is probable, in which our tentative attempts to save the earth from the devastation of climate change are dangerously threatened, in which women will quite possibly lose control over their own bodies? A world in which hatred is not just tolerated, but actively condoned and celebrated?
Tell me, someone. How do you—how do I—do that?