After Donald Trump’s win on Nov. 8, many parents immediately wondered how they would explain to their children what happened.
“It’s hard to be a parent tonight, for many of us,” CNN political commentator Van Jones said during an election night conversation that quickly went viral. “You tell your kids not to be a bully, you tell your kids don’t be a bigot, you tell your kids, do your homework and be prepared. ... How do I explain this to my children?”
Now, as the reality of a Trump presidency sets in, concerned parents face a new slew of questions about raising their children in a time of collective change and uncertainty ― not to mention bad behavior being modeled by our highest elected official. Seventy-five percent of Americans with kids under the age of 18 say Trump is not a good role model for children, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll.
Many parents of children from minority communities have expressed particularly strong concerns. Actress Kristin Davis, for one, recently said that she fears for her adopted 5-year-old daughter, Gemma Rose, who is black.
While no one knows what the coming months and years hold for our country, if the current climate is any indication, political polarization, ugly rhetoric and intolerance are likely to continue, if not worsen.
What can parents do to raise strong, respectful and kind children during these times? We spoke to family counselors and psychologists about their advice for parenting in the era of Trump.
Teach kids to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
With kids being more exposed to arguments from adults around them and in the media, it’s important to teach them how to disagree and have their own opinions without attacking or undermining those who hold different views.
“That’s a really important skill that will help children throughout their lives,” psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Erica Reischer told The Huffington Post. “It’s important to be able to stand up and say what you think, what you believe in, but to be able to do so in a way that is not disrespectful.”
Reischer suggests that parents take this opportunity to educate their kids on the do’s and don’ts of having arguments and expressing opinions and beliefs. Try having a mock argument with your kid, and coach them on expressing a difference of opinion in a respectful way. Remind them that respectfully considering someone’s opinion and actually agreeing with them are not the same thing.
Make media literacy a priority.
Teens spend a whopping nine hours a day on average using media, but they often know little about how to assess the validity of online information. In particular, young people are at high risk for falling prey to the massive proliferation of fake and biased news. A recent Stanford study of middle school, high school and college students found that most young people showed a “shocking” inability to determine the credibility of news and information received online.
In the wake of the election, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to educate your children about thoughtfully engaging with media, psychologists advice. Sit down with your kids and explain to them the difference between a news article and an editorial or analysis piece, and point them to some strategies for determining if a story is real or fake.
“We live in a society that’s become increasingly subject to click-bait,” Reischer said. “We have to teach kids to be able to pause and know that a story might not be what it seems, even if we want it to be true.”
Some schools are beginning to incorporate media literacy in their curriculums with programs like “cyber civics” ― which covers things like online news, digital footprints and cyberbullying ― but in most cases, parents will have to take the lead. If your children are younger, psychologist and media expert Dr. Nancy Mramor advises watching the news with them and talking through what they’re seeing.
“When children see things on television, they can draw their own conclusions and make erroneous decisions about what they hear,” Mramor told The Huffington Post. “But when parents create awareness of how events are presented, children take a completely different point of view that’s a lot healthier.”
Find engaging ways to expose kids to diversity.
Teaching kids about diversity has never been more critical, says Deborah Best, a psychologist at Wake Forest University who studies the development of gender stereotypes among young children. Expose your kids as much as possible to other cultures, religions, belief systems and even cuisines as a way to nurture openness and tolerance toward those who are different from them.
Best explains that children are vulnerable to what psychologists refer to as “in-group bias” ― the tendency to favor one’s own social group over others ― so it’s important to address issues of racism and bigotry early on. This vulnerability was demonstrated in a now-famous classroom experiment in which children were told that students with blue eyes were “superior” and those with brown eyes “inferior,” and quickly began to segregate themselves and treat each other unequally.
On the other hand, Best explained that when children feel that they have shared goals and values with others ― even those who look or behave differently from them ― they will get along and treat each other with respect. Attending cultural and community events where kids can learn about other backgrounds and traditions, or watching movies and TV shows featuring characters of minority backgrounds are good ways to start teaching your children to find common ground with others.
Maintain a zero-tolerance rule on bullying.
How do you teach your kids not to be a bully when our president is constantly bullying others? It’s true that seeing bad behavior from adults in the media can give kids a skewed sense of what’s acceptable, according to Best.
“Some of the things that are being said on television and that are being repeated to our children are things that they would get punished for in school or at home,” said Best. “This can bring up bad behavior ― behavior we would not like to see in our children.”
While this is a legitimate concern, it’s important to remember that parents and people close to children have a much bigger behavioral impact than public figures. Modeling respectful and tolerant behavior at home is still the best way to prevent bad behavior in your children.
“It comes back down to setting an example and modeling for kids what it means to be responsible and ethical and to live with integrity,” Reischer said. “That’s the only thing we can do and it’s very powerful when we do that.”
Put on your own oxygen mask first.
As obvious as it sounds, making peace with uncertainty and finding ways to temper your own stress levels may be the most important key to being a good parent.
“In my practice, I’ve had dozens of sessions where people come in and they just have to vent and get support,” Mramor said, referring to her clients dealing with post-election stress. “They’re grieving, they’re deeply hurting, they’re sobbing and they’re not sleeping. There’s a lot going on. ... I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“If parents get the care that they need for themselves,” she added, “then they’re going to be able to be better parents for their children.”
So remember to take care of yourselves, teach your little ones to be thoughtful and kind, and give them a few extra hugs. The kids will be all right.