We try to teach our kids basic tenets of kindness.
Learn to share. Don’t throw tantrums.
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
From the terrible twos to the depths of teen angst, ensuring children grow up with healthy self-esteem, a modicum of emotional intelligence, and the ability to cope in the face of adversity is a tireless endeavor.
So what happens to our children when the bully wins? Donald Trump is set to take office next month, and our children are already paying for it. The Southern Poverty Law Center released a study on “The Trump Effect,” where teachers reported an increased number of election-related bullying incidents and documented higher level of anxiety among students particularly children of immigrants, Muslim children, and children of color.
With the rate of suicide now surpassing car crashes for the cause of death for middle-schoolers, bullying is an issue adults and kids must confront together.
Whether at school or on social media, this generation of kids faces a higher degree of exposure to menacing messages than ever before. But what happens when that messaging comes from one of the most powerful people in the world? What happens when a political debate turns into questioning the very nature of sexual assault? When a man whose attitude towards women is limited to publicly shaming, grabbing, or discarding their bodies is entrusted with our futures? When immigrants are told they are no longer welcome? When campaign slogans are made the war cry of white supremacists?
While parents everywhere are beginning to grapple with how to deal with Trump and his pending policies, we’re also responsible for shaping this new reality for our children. Bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman wrote a great piece that got us thinking about strategic steps we can take to help.
Here are a few suggestions:
1) Continue to Engage- Throughout life adults and kids need to have “the talk.” It’s not only about the birds and the bees. Depending on who you are, race, gender, sexuality, faith, parenting style, “the talk” differs from family to family. In fact, think of it as an ongoing conversation. One thing is for sure, our kids don’t live in a vacuum, and they will hear about it. Talk to them about what’s going on in terms they can understand. Allow them to ask questions. Listen to their opinions and focus on how it makes them feel. It’s Ok not to always have the answer, but creating the platform for the conversation is imperative.
2) Contextualize Living History- With the pervasiveness of social media, it’s easy for anyone to fall into only reading headlines, tweets, and memes. But children are particularly susceptible. Limited information can stoke fears and build anxiety. Take time to explain what is happening and why it’s important. Point to other moments in history where people faced similar circumstances and sentiments, and as Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers.” Offer hope by reminding them of their own resilience.
3) Emphasize Safety- Kids need to feel safe. With this election, it’s not limited to simply creating safe spaces for kids to feel free to express themselves. There’s a very real and immediate danger to some children dealing with the aftermath of the election. There are Muslim girls who must decide whether it’s worth it to wear their hijab. There are children of undocumented immigrants who worry their parents will be taken away, and children who encounter swastika graffiti at a park or nooses at school.
Children of any age need to be comforted and reassured that they’re safe. Creating a check in system is a great way to do that. Let kids know that it’s important that they speak up when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe for themselves or others. It can be as simple as a ritual text or a having someone you both trust look in on them. The purpose is simply to reassure them that they’re not alone and there are systems in place that work for them even if it feels like the world is against them.
4) Expand their Worldview- The fear and anxiety felt by this election spans a large cross section of the population. We all have our own concerns about discrimination and toxic rhetoric. Intersectionality can help us not only understand how our oppression is connected but also build coalitions against hate. For kids (and some adults), it’s easy to get stuck thinking about how life is unfair to just us. Without trivializing what they’re feeling, remind them that others are also facing similar problems. The more we recognize our connectedness, the better we will be at practicing empathy.
5) Activate Leadership- Just because a world leader models bad behavior doesn’t mean kids must follow his example. Whether on the playground or in the Oval Office abuses of power are not acceptable. Address what true leadership looks like for both of you. Empower children to stand up for what they believe in, and not be bystanders. Start by encouraging small acts of kindness in their communities. Donate or volunteer to support causes they think are important. Teach kids they can make a difference in their own way today.
Jess Weiner is CEO of Talk to Jess, LLC, a consulting and strategy firm advising brands on the issues facing women and girls.