Don Shifrin MD FAAP
As parents, we encounter “teachable moments” every day. There is an old saying about children that they have small heads but big ears. It is unlikely and impossible to ignore that they have not seen or heard, media portrayals of both presidential candidates this year that were (OK, perhaps not unjustifiably) significantly negative. And certainly, vitriolic rhetoric from the candidates and media pundits as well. We have seen and heard hateful remarks on all media venues and our children have been watching. We have not seen many role models of civility.
America has concluded a contentious election, and now there is a significant winner/loser mentality among at least half the population, again not unjustifiable based on previous statements by both candidates, especially from our new president-elect.
Regardless of what we are experiencing we do have a president-elect. And as parents we need to model respect for the office. Yes, we can comment that politicians can be flawed, but accusations of racism, sexism, and classism are going to stay in children’s minds a long time.
So how should we to speak to children and families about the results, how to help families cope with disturbing rhetoric, and how to explain news reports of increasing numbers of protests?
It is vitally important that we calmly reassure all children so they feel safe and protected in their day-to-day lives.
Explain clearly that the way democracy works is that we vote to elect who will oversee our government. This is a good opportunity to invoke what Abraham Lincoln (our 16th president) meant (in his Gettysburg address in Nov. 1863 - 153 years ago) when he said “government of the people ( coming from the people), by the people, and for the people.”
Do find out what your children and teens have heard and what they understand. Teens may be very passionate when expressing their opinions about the election.
Listen! Try not to quickly interrupt. Allow your child to express what he or she is feeling, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Do not minimize or dismiss their concerns. As you listen, note any misconceptions, misinformation, or anxieties.
Every child is different. Their age and individual anxiety level will determine how much and what information you may wish to share. Try to separate fact from fiction. Put provocative statements (i.e. building a wall - deporting all ‘illegals’ - putting Ms. Clinton in jail.) in the context of our democratic system.
Because we live in a media saturated world, pay attention to what your children watch on screens. Try, if possible, to watch with them and use those ‘teachable moments’ to help them digest what is being discussed. Be careful not to verbally provide aggressive, dismissive, discriminatory, or inflammatory color commentary about topics being discussed. Children are not politically savvy and are unfamiliar with the checks and balances of the US Government.
We are all American citizens. You now have a continuing opportunity to be a positive and reassuring role model for your family. When you share your feelings about new information, do so in a respectful manner. The teachable moment emphasizes that respect and kindness are important values for families, even if they have significant disagreements with someone. If we see or hear that some adults do not understand or demonstrate disrespect by using shouts or threats, we will still value these attributes and proclaim them. Avoid generalizations about gender, race, or culture. And note that a strong democracy is designed to protect all Americans.
How can we act if we disagree? We have legislators we can petition, op-eds we can write. And we can recognize and provide commentary on incendiary and offensive words and actions. Your child is always watching, and you are the door they walk through on their way into the world. Your calm reassurance (we will be OK) and ability to promote wellbeing is the most empowering part of parenting.
So this Thanksgiving please pay attention when political commentary (if you even agree to discuss politics) becomes inflammatory or overwhelming to children that are present. Focus on what is positive is your lives, that our Republic has survived almost 250 years and will indeed survive this administration. If adults will not cease angry or fiery words, you can gently point out to the children that is not the kind of talk that you endorse. “Our thanksgiving table is a place where we model love and value acceptance, tolerance…. and thanks.”
Finally - Always encourage your child to tell you or a teacher if he/she feels threatened or bullied, and to speak up when they see or hear something inappropriate.
J. M Barrie (Peter Pan) “Always be a little kinder than necessary.”
Warren Buffet, (a vocal Clinton advocate) stated, “I support any President of the United states. It’s very important that the American people coalesce behind the President. That does not mean we cannot criticize him or disagree with what he is doing. But we need a country unified. He (the president) deserves our respect.”