Last night I cried.
I didn’t cry the night of the election. I didn’t cry the next night. Or the next. But last night I cried. I cried for the Latino children at Royal Oak Middle School in Michigan whose classmates chanted “Build the wall.” I cried for the teenage girl at Woodside High School in California who was assaulted and accused of hating Mexicans by a classmate after posting on social media that she supported Trump. I cried for the 6th grade children at Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School in South Los Angeles who were told by their teacher that their parents would be deported and that they would be left behind in foster care. I cried for the 11-year old boy who was attacked by his classmates at Stafford Intermediate School in Texas for saying he voted for Trump in the school’s mock election. I cried for the African American children at Maple Grove High School in Minnesota who came to school in fear after seeing racist graffiti on their bathroom doors “Go back to Africa – Make America Great Again,” “F*** N***ers,” “Whites Only,” “White America.” I cried for the high school students at York County School of Technology in Pennsylvania who were spat upon and called slaves as their classmates chanted “white power.”
And then it all came flooding back…
When I was 7 years old, I took every Korean doll, painting and trinket in my room – every last trace of evidence that I was Korean – put them in a brown paper bag, handed them to my mom and told her I no longer wanted them, that I was “American” now. I didn’t want to be any different. I wanted to be just like “them” – I wanted to be a “real ” American.
To me, “real” Americans had white skin. Even though I was born and raised and had lived my entire young life in the United States of America, I still felt like an imposter. I wanted to scrub the yellow out of my skin and bleach the black out of my hair. In my small Jersey town, where our Founding Father, George Washington, had spent the night to rest as he led our country to victory and independence in the Revolutionary War, there was some diversity. My Korean-American family, a Japanese-American family, an African-American family, a Vietnamese refugee family… But in my mind, we weren’t really American. We had to “prove” that we belonged.
When people asked me “Where are you from?”, I would innocently reply that I was from New Jersey, even though I knew what they were really asking. And when they asked again “No, where are you really from?” I would say with a sweet smile, “Well, my family is from Korea, but I’m American. Where are you really from?” I half-jokingly called myself a “Twinkie” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I was in NO WAY an F.O.B. (“Fresh Off the Boat”). I belonged.
Fast forward almost 40 years from when I was that little 7-year-old Korean-American girl from Jersey. Are things much different now?
This past week since the election has witnessed an intolerable, shameful, and heartbreaking rise in hate attacks against children, by children, across all ethnicities, political beliefs, and socioeconomic status. No child should feel unsafe because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, their gender or sexual orientation, or who their parents voted for.
The elections have pointed out how very many Americans feel disenfranchised, unheard, and outcast. How many of us feel that we don’t “belong.” But nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies acts of terror and hatred, from either “side.”
In times of stress and crisis, our children look to US, their parents, to make sense of what’s going on, and how they should act and react. WE inform them how to think and feel. WE inform them how to respond to their stress, and what actions are okay or not okay.
Depending on our child’s ages and developmental stage, they are going to have totally different understandings of what this election means to them. At school, they are hearing truths and mistruths from their peers and even their teachers, and it is up to us, as their parents, to help them put a context to their fears and support them through this uncertain time. And believe me, they are HEARING, and they are LISTENING.
My 1st-grade daughter told me she hated Trump. We have kept most political conversations out of our house and away from our almost-7-year-old and 5-year-old. I asked her why. She said, “Because Trump hates kids.” Kids are afraid that they may actually move to Canada and leave their friends behind. Kids with US-born interracial parents are afraid that they will be separated from their parents. Kids are afraid that World War III is about to happen. Kids are afraid that they are unsafe because they are Black, Asian, Mexican, Muslim, Jewish, female, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Kids are afraid because they supported Hillary. Kids are afraid because they supported Trump. Kids are afraid.
Our children are looking at us to interpret what’s going on. They’re reading our facial expressions and body language, listening to the words we’re choosing, and the tone we’re using. They subconsciously and consciously are modeling their stress response after ours. They lack a larger context for their fears and worries. Young children in particular are very literal. When they see us crying, scared, and angry, they are asking themselves, “Should I be as sad and scared and angry?” While we don’t want to sugarcoat and hide the fears that we feel, it’s important to remain calm and model that we can cope with this stress and anxiety positively and that it is not the end of the world. Our kids are looking to us to figure out whether their world is safe, whether they are safe.
In this time of great uncertainty, the only thing that is certain is that there will be more uncertainty. So when we are reeling on the inside and filled with moments of panic and fear, what are some things that we can do to help our children maintain calm, compassion, kindness, tolerance, respect and civility?
- Listen to what your child has to say. Find out exactly what is worrying them, and make sure you haven’t jumped to any wrong conclusions. You may be surprised. Remember, kids are literal.
- Ask casual questions. Let their questions come out spontaneously. Younger kids may act out what they’re hearing and what they’re worried about in play or song.
- Take their concerns and feelings seriously, even if they seem totally silly to you. Don’t laugh, judge, or minimize. Watch how you react to what they’re saying.
- Discuss what’s happening in an age-appropriate manner. Use language that they understand.
- Answer the questions that they are asking, literally. Be simple and brief. Don’t read too deeply into their questions.
- Kids DO NOT need to know ALL the details. Don’t offer more than your child wants or needs to hear.
- Share your feelings and thoughts, but stay calm and maintain a neutral expression as you are doing this.
- Be truthful. Children can sense when you are hiding something, and may fill in the blanks with their fears and worries. Answer your children’s questions truthfully, but in age-appropriate language that they can understand.
- Respect their desire to stop a discussion or take a break until another time.
- You don’t have to paint a rosy picture, but you shouldn’t paint one of just doom and gloom, either.
- Children need to feel safe, and they look to their parents to provide that safety. Reassure them that you are there 100% to fulfill this responsibility, and that you will protect them.
Be mindful of media exposure
- DO NOT expose your children to unnecessary media coverage and social media posts about the election, the future of a Trump presidency, and the rise in hate crimes we are witnessing. The media thrives on shock and sensationalism – this is not appropriate for our kids at any age.
- Resist the temptation to look at your newsfeed in front of your kids. But if for some reason you absolutely must, then monitor your reactions and facial expressions, and temper those sounds of fear or disgust, or any expletives that may easily bubble to the surface.
- If you have older children, be WITH them when they are watching the news or reading social media. Help them interpret what’s happening, and understand and express their feelings and thoughts in a calm and rational way. Help them understand how to post wisely and thoughtfully, and understand the ramifications of the words and tone that they choose.
- Let your children know that hate crimes are NEVER acceptable. That seeing injustices around us in no way justifies acting in a similar way.
- Let your kids know that most people are GOOD, no matter who their parents voted for. Yes, there are racists and bigots and misogynists. Yes, Trump’s election is giving a voice and power to this group that is terrifying. But yes, most people are good.
- Use kind words. Remind and model for our children, as you did when they were in preschool, that: Hands are not for hitting. Teeth are not for biting. Voices are not for yelling. Words are not for hurting.
Be positive and proactive
- Model “stress tolerance.” It’s totally ok for your child to see you stressed and worried. But it’s what we do with that stress that’s most important for our kids to see. Show your kids that you can handle your stress and worries calmly, AND then do something positive and proactive about it.
- Let your children know that they can make a difference.
- Let your children know that what makes our country great is not that we are all the same, but that we can embrace our differences.
- Let your children know that they have a choice in all situations – to be kind, forgiving, inclusive, and tolerant.
- Let your children know that they can stand up for injustice, and stand against bullying and discrimination in their school and community.
- Let your children know that they can do something with their feelings. Young children can draw pictures. Older children can write letters to their elected officials to let them know what they wish for themselves, their families, and their country. With your guidance, older children may even be able to choose to peacefully protest and show the nation how to love.
I believe that every parent, no matter who they voted for, what color their skin is, what religion they are, what their sexual orientation is, wants the same thing for their children – for their kids to believe that this is their country, that they are proud to be an American, that they “belong”, that they are safe. Let’s not let divisiveness make some children believe that they belong and not others. Let’s work together in peace and love to ensure that our children believe in unity and the greatness of our nation. Yes, let’s Make America Great Again – for ALL of our children. Let’s make sure that our children know that:
Love will ALWAYS trump hate.