“Ask the Matriarchy” is a four-part advice series running on Thursdays.
How do I raise a son in the age of Trump?
Dear Boy Mom,
In the days following the election, I read a lot of advice about how to tell our daughters about Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Each article had its own gentle slant on making misogyny a little more understandable for our daughters. They were heartfelt and each one made me cry. After all, I had to explain in my own way, to my five-year-old daughter, why a woman lost, again.
But now it’s March, the explanations are over, and we have something else to turn our attentions to. Something a little bit harder, because this time we have to explain why it’s not okay to be corrupt, why it’s not okay to discriminate against people who look different or have a different religion, why it’s not okay to assault women and call them demeaning names, even when you can still do that and be elected president. After all, what’s the harm in letting boys be boys, in letting locker room talk go unchallenged, when you end up the winner anyway? If everyone else is doing it, including our president, our job as parents becomes that much harder. How do you make a compelling argument for goodness and decency when goodness and decency are being roundly mocked with every cabinet pick and conflict of interest so casually flouted? How do you parent when our government is in crisis and our nation is deeply divided?
This isn’t the first time the highest office in our nation has been occupied by a bully, by someone who is corrupt, who rules by threat rather than law, who restricts fundamental human rights, ignores our country’s most needy and vulnerable citizens, and who treats women and people of color as inferiors, and it won’t be the last.
And yet, in the context of modern history which is pockmarked with the horrors of Stalin, Hitler, Milošević, Assad, Putin, Trump’s behavior is no different from what we’ve already seen even in America. He is just another bad president in the history of a country where goodness is the exception rather than the rule. Andrew Jackson led a campaign of genocide. Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed in genocide for people with disabilities. Warren Harding’s cabinet members took bribes. We all know about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, so there’s that too. Franklin Pierce actually expanded slavery by repealing the Missouri Compromise. I haven’t even mentioned Nixon. Then there was Teapot Dome. Slavery. Civil Rights. The Trail of Tears. And on and on. Every generation has its own darkness—its own genocides, corruptions, conflicts, and assaults. But ours is now seated in the White House and we can’t look away. And if we try to look away from our national politics, it’s there in our own families, replicated on a smaller scale—the hidden abuses, forced silence, our own misogyny and racism, our own rapes and assaults. I’m not saying this means we shouldn’t point out these problems in our politics, but just to say that these problems are inescapable in a world where so few powerful men see justice.
So, from my perspective as a white, liberal working mother in the Midwest, it’s better to face this darkness. Better to grab the darkness by the collar and call it what it is. Better to drag it into the light and examine it. It is better to tell our sons the hard truths, not just about our current president, but about all of our presidents, all of our fathers and forefathers. Better to show them the complicated legacy that built America, and not hide under the lie of American Exceptionalism. Forget the history books that leave out the blood. Let’s tell our children about the blood. About the genocide, about the frequently brutal legacies of their founding fathers and mothers. Let’s tell them the same things we told our daughters in November—sometimes being good, or at least better, doesn’t make you the winner. Sometimes, it’s crushing and devastating to know that loving others and looking out for one another makes you vulnerable to attack, but as humans it’s the only choice we have.
It can be overwhelming, to be sure. I see a lot of my mom friends encouraging everyone “to just be nice” or asking people to “be more positive.” I get it. I want to crawl into a hole with a bottle of whiskey. I call my senators, but they are Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and they don’t care. But I think the best part about having a child is that you have someone who is holding you accountable. And while your efforts to change the world may feel flat sometimes, you can raise them to see the world as it is. Hiding from the truth is a privilege few kids have. So, I think our children should see it too. Teach them about freedom of speech and expression, read them good books by dissidents, tell them about climate change.
My son is three. When these four years—whatever they may bring—are over, he will be seven. That is a lot of time in which to talk about how Pilgrims may have come to this country and survived a lot of hardship, but they were unkind to women and genocidal to Native Americans. And you can bet I’ll be telling my children this, even if their schools don’t. We need to talk about this, not so we can smear people, but because facing the truth seems to be a lost art in American society. Instead of facing truth, we create our own truths, or “alternative facts” as they are called. As a result we have a culture that accepts what is most comfortable or fits most easily into our worldview. So get uncomfortable.
There are a lot of good children’s books that introduce the realities of America in very simple ways. I’ve been reading my children Mr. Lincoln’s Way, The Last House on Market Street, and The Invisible Boy, to name a few. They introduce concepts of racism, bigotry, prejudice and the transformative powers of kindness. I’m also not afraid to listen to the news with them and answer their questions. Since my son is so young, he doesn’t ask much. But I’ve had to explain to my daughter why I’ve been sad or angry or the things she’s heard me overhearing. We live in a bipartisan family, so I am doing my best not to vilify our leaders, but so I pick language that is simple. “There are a lot of people in the world who think that if you are different, they don’t have to share. What do you think about that?”
I know these conversations will provide us the framework for the bigger talks when they are older. This Thanksgiving, my daughter learned about how “God helped the Pilgrims” live through the winter. So, I sat her down and told her that actually the Native Americans, who lived here first, helped them. Then, I broadly the history of how America was founded, by taking native lands. I think I said something like, “a lot of Native Americans were killed and it was not nice, because white people wanted their land.” Maybe you can do better. I kept it simple. I kept it short. Layer your answers and your lessons. This isn’t a matter of one good lecture and walking away—this is a lifetime commitment.
It’s not comfortable. But it’s necessary. If children are old enough to ask, they are old enough to hear answers. Also, even though my kids are little, we volunteer together. I let them help me pick out food from the store for canned food drives and I let them donate their pennies to helping an animal shelter. At Christmas, we pick out presents for Toys for Tots. When friends are sick, I have them help me make cookies or soup. I try to do better in calling out racism when we hear it. When someone we love says, “They should just learn English.” in front of my kids, I’ve been speaking up. Usually I say, “We were all immigrants once.” And my family is so Midwestern that solves the matter. You know your own family, but don’t let your kids hear hate go unchallenged.
I feel uneasy about bringing kids to marches. That’s just my baggage. I was dragged to anti-abortion marches as a child and those pictures of aborted fetuses still haunt my dreams. So, I am personally waiting until mine are older. But I love seeing pictures of kids marching and my personal experience isn’t some sort of rote lesson. But if you and your partner are united on the issues, and it works for you, take your kids into the streets with you. March or don’t march with them, but let them always see you engaged and passionate in the cause of justice.
I know this sounds a little “woke white mom” and if you are cringing, that’s fair. But part of raising children means you have to own your mistakes, learn from them and apologize. So read, listen, be willing to change and get uncomfortable with the truth about yourself. Ultimately, there really isn’t a perfect way to raise kids at any era, especially now. But we always need to be ready to engage in the lessons that come up every day and make our lives a constant conversation about kindness, power, and what it means to let everyone have a voice.
We do our children no favors in pretending that history is painted in the bright colors of happy optimism, where heroes are all good and villains are all bad. We do them no favors when we ignore the poverty before us or pretend we didn’t hear them when they ask why someone has different color skin. Or when we just hope they didn’t hear the racial slur or hateful comment.
So, how do we raise sons in this age of Trump? The same way we should always be raising all of our children: By giving them a view of a complex world. By refusing to engage in reductive binaries. By refusing to hide from ugly truth. By being accountable to them for the world we made. By making ourselves uncomfortable in giving and in loving. So that when it comes time for them to take over, they don’t waste any time, and can get straight to work building something better.