A colleague told me that on election day his 7-year-old daughter said she was scared. When he asked her why, she responded that both he and her mother had repeatedly said that there was no good person to vote for as president. "I'm scared to have a bad person as president," his daughter explained. What should parents say and do, to help children process the sometimes messy, often distressing, and clearly history making election we've just experienced?
This election has certainly taught us about the power of words. How they can influence, and how they can harm. There has been a lot of discussion about how the negativity of politics can impact our children. But what we need to realize is how our own language, how the statements we make in earshot of young people, whether they are one, or ten, or 18, are heard and understood.
To do that, we have to understand that little ears hear differently than we do. Young children do not have the perspective of adults. When we talk about bad candidates, they, in their concrete thinking, hear the same bad we use to refer to dangerous strangers, and as was the case for my colleague's daughter, we unwittingly raise their anxiety. While adults can accept that whether we are elated or devastated by the election results, many elements of our day to day lives will go on, just as they did on Monday. Children, hearing either our intense demoralization or our unbridled joy, may wonder and worry if their immediate world is about to be significantly altered.
So, the powerful lesson of this election for parents and educators is to watch our words. We will do a great service to our children if we realize that they are listening, 24/7, always. If we remember to use words thoughtfully, to know that they impact both intended and unintended listeners, then we will not only model civility for our children, but we will appropriately shelter them from our adult anxieties.
The second important lesson we learn from this election, and it is being driven home in the surprise with which many are greeting today's results is highlighted by a moral paradigm in Jewish thought: dan l'chaf zcut - loosely translated as judge with the benefit of the doubt. More broadly this moral imperative suggests that we avoid drawing conclusions without full knowledge or information. For this election, played out on the digital stage, we feel we were barraged with tons of information. On every screen, through all our devices, every day, every hour, we were supplied with news of the candidates, of their beliefs and their behavior. We must help our children understand that even with all we see and hear, we are rarely hearing the whole story.
Media does have a bias, but not the one usually discussed. Media is biased towards reporting that which is newsworthy. That means we hear about the big problems and the horrible behavior of candidates. We hear about outbursts and insults, mistakes and tragedies. We, and our children can come to believe that the world is made up of only the bad, the dangerous, the cruel and the vicious. Candidates waking up, having a normal day, eating lunch, and going to bed, will not make the news. On any given day, as media stories inform us of school shootings, and floods, and homelessness, there are millions of children safely going to school, under sunny skies, and snuggling safely in their family's lodgings. We should know about the tragedies and extraordinary events that make the news, but we should know they are never the whole story.
This election allows us to help children see that there is more to every story than what we see, and certainly more than even the most extensive media coverage can tell us. This can help us develop thoughtful media consumers, but well beyond elections and candidates, it can help us grow our children into reasoned and understanding consumers of reality - recognizing the nuances in the complexity of our world, and taking care not to jump to conclusions.
The lessons about this election are really about words, and stories, and their power. Whether we are feeling victorious and vindicated, or demoralized and hopeless, we can commit to considering words and stories - those that come from us, and those we hear from others. We can commit to our children hearing from us thoughtful words, and to teaching our children to be careful about judging stories as complete, when whatever we know, there is always more to learn. We can use this election to be both selective, in what we say, and inclusive in the information we accept in order to understand our world. If we watch our mouths, and open our ears and hearts, our children will grow into stronger people. And we will grow, too.