He’d been crying in the shower. I could tell by his red, puffy eyes. So I pulled myself together despite the sickening knot in my stomach and asked him to sit next to me on the couch. My son, at 13, is generally no longer game for snuggles with his mom when things aren’t going his way. He’s reached that stage when he tries to be stoic about pretty much everything. But watching Donald Trump win the election turned him back into what he really is: A hurt, frightened, and very sad child.
How did we get here? More importantly, where do we go now? I’m not talking about the nation. I’m talking about raising my son.
For months I’ve watched with pride and delight as Eddie turned into a politics junkie. He is, as my wife would say, my “mini me.” During primary season he’d eagerly watch results with me and spout the daily twists and turns of FiveThirtyEight’s prognostications when he clambered into the car after school. It was fantastic and fun and it seemed so harmless. Now, as he wept into my shoulder, his body feeling so much smaller and more frail than he tried to project every day, I wondered if I’d failed him by teaching him to care so deeply and to hope so exuberantly about something over which he had no control.
“How can everyone be so stupid?!” Eddie asked me.
I assured him that the people who voted for Trump weren’t stupid—though internally I had my doubts. I said they were just scared by change. And that an awful lot of people across the country didn’t vote for Trump.
“Can we please move to Canada? Please!” he wailed.
I wanted to say yes. I wanted to say of course we’d run for the hills to get away from everything Trump represents—that we could get away from it. But I told him he wouldn’t really want to leave his friends and his school and his family. He might want to now, but things would look better when he realized that his day-to-day life wouldn’t change much. He’d still have school, still have swim practice, still have a mom who nagged him to practice piano and a twin brother who sometimes seemed like he was from a different planet.
“But the Supreme Court!” he shot back.
At this point I was cursing myself for encouraging him to learn and understand his government. See, we are a two-mom, two-boy household. He knows that the Supreme Court gave his family legitimacy. But I took a deep breath and reminded him of how little our daily life and our family had actually changed after the Court legalized the marriage between his moms. I told him they wouldn’t take away our marriage, and that even if they did, they couldn’t tear us apart.
“Can I please stay home from school tomorrow?” he begged.
I confess, this one was hard. After all, my plans for Wednesday included curling into the fetal position in my bed, turning off the lights, and pretending it was all a bad dream. How could I ask more of my child? But I did. I told him it wouldn’t get easier to go to school and resume life until he went to school and resumed life. I told him we had to stop wallowing and keep living. And hey, there may be new Pokemon released any day! Distraction is a parenting technique that never gets old.
And so, with swollen eyes and unable to stomach breakfast, Eddie and his brother Chas trudged off to school the day after the unthinkable.
Once they left, I began to worry if I had handled Eddie’s post-election trauma correctly—a feeling many other parents I know have also grappled with these past few days. So I called an old friend from my grad school days who is now a child psychologist across the country in Connecticut, Nancy Fredine. What the heck do I tell my kids?, I asked. I could tell her voice was weary. She’d been talking about this all day. But she went on to offer some useful advice for parents and non-parents alike.
First, “just assure them that as adult you will keep them safe,” she advised. “This is probably the first time for many of them that they’ve really gotten invested in something so much larger than themselves.” But loss is part of life. “It’s a learning experience. There were a lot of people who lost. And life goes on. Losing and risk is part of life.”
Fredine also said we need to remind kids—and ourselves—that we live in a system where there are people to provide checks and balances. “He’s not making decisions on his own. He’s got people around him that didn’t even vote for him. This is where humanity kind of steps in.”
She said President Obama’s post-election statement on Wednesday provided good guidance for people of all ages. “Tell your kids we are all on the same team. We didn’t necessarily get the person we wanted to coach the team, but he recognizes we are all one team.”
After such a polarizing, hate-filled campaign, that can be hard for any of us to believe, but Fredine doubled down on the value of sharing this empathetic message with kids. “We all want America to run well. We all want people to have jobs,” Fredine argued “We are all in this together.”
Who knows, she mused, “it could be a really good lesson for kids. How do you turn the other cheek?”
I felt, somehow, a little better about my response when I picked the boys up from school. Were they still sad? Yes. “Did anyone gloat,” I asked, revealing my own fears about leaving the house. “Yep,” Eddie said. “Did you wanna punch them?” A half grin crept across his face. “Kind of. But when they go low, we go high.”
That’s when I realized, for all the pain they’ve experienced from paying close attention to this election, they’ve also learned some pretty amazing coping skills.