If random conversations I am overhearing on the street and a totally unscientific poll of friends and acquaintances are any indication, then parents and kids are having some pretty awkward conversations about politics and current events of late.
A few months ago while visiting a bookstore with my kids, I overheard a mother trying her best to explain who Hitler was and it was a complete train wreck. The child had asked a question about the election and the conversation had veered off the rails, way off the rails. It was obvious that this mother would rather be doing pretty much anything else than telling her sweet child about the horrors of WWII and the child kept asking more and more questions. And I was loving it because that happens to me, with my kids, at least ten times a day and it was nice for once to be the onlooker and not the drowning lady. In fact, I’d had nearly the same awkward, nausea inducing Hitler/Nazism conversation with my own nine year old just days before. At one point I caught the mother’s eye and smiled an empathetic smile, one that I hope conveyed solidarity and compassion. One that said “I see you, but I can’t save you, you are too far out.”
Maybe it’s because it is an election year or maybe it’s because I have a kid on the cusp, of double digits but the questions, the awkward, stumbling explanations of horrors past and present keep coming and they don’t get easier. And the questions tend to come at entirely inconvenient times. In my case, they are often shouted through the bathroom door while I am showering or mused upon while we are running late for school. My anxious (and kind and sweet and funny and rule-following) child likes things to make sense, she needs answers but often the answer to one question will lead to another more difficult question and then another and I end up feeling like that Dutch kid plugging holes in the dike with my fingers. Not enough fingers. Too many holes.
Like most parents, I imagine, I struggle with two opposing parenting instincts: I want my kids to be citizens of the world, to expose them to news, current events, politics and I want simultaneously, just as much, to protect them from all the ugliness of that same world. As a result I have been teetering along an uncertain path that involves equal measures of censorship and exposure, with exposure quickly gaining ground. We generally have NPR on at home and while it mostly serves as background noise, every now and then a story jumps out at them. Almost as frequently I jump up to shut off a particularly gruesome story. We have been watching the presidential debates together as a family (thank you, Pacific Time) and while my six-year old usually, wisely, finds something better to do, my nine year old has been interested in watching with us. Some questions that my nine year olds newfound interest in politics and current events have spawned are, as follows:
How do people become dictators?
Why would the police kill someone? Aren’t they supposed to help us?
Why has there never been a woman president before?!
Did Trump just call America stupid?!
What is terrorism?
You can imagine that each one of these questions was a worm hole into another world of yet more questions that were equally unpleasant to answer. The “what is terrorism” question came during that rabbit hole of time after dinner and before bed, when my nine year old is quietly winding down and becoming contemplative and my six year old is ramping up to rage level rebellion against all and any night time routines. Said ragey child was in full expression, on the floor screaming, half in her pajamas when my older daughter casually strolled in and dropped that question seemingly oblivious to the tumult. I did what I am sure every parenting expert advises; I held up one finger and told her to wait. “Let me get your sister sorted, then I will explain terrorism” (add that to the list of words you could never have imagined you’d put together in a sentence that would actually make sense). Plus I needed to buy time. Shape my response a little bit. Would I go full September 11th on her? Would I talk about Syria?
No, I wouldn’t. When I finally had a chance to sit down with my kid later that night I was exhausted and my brain already hurt. I just flopped on her bed and said “why are you asking about terrorism, anyway?”
She explained that she’d read about it in this magazine supplement her teacher hands out to the class every Friday, specifically she had read that Hillary Clinton would make America safe from terrorism. Hmm. “Well, terrorism is when an individual or group of people do something purposely to hurt and scare people.”
“But, why would they do that?”
“Well, they think they are bringing attention to their cause, but it never really brings attention to their cause, it just hurts and scares people.”
I braced myself for more questions, but this time they didn’t come.
“Oh, ok” she said and turned her attention back to her book
Wait, what? That’s it? Yes, that was it. At first I felt relief. Maybe my anxious kid is finally accepting that some things just don’t make sense, no matter how many questions you ask. Since then, I have decided to embrace the difficult questions and to embrace, more importantly, my awkward, hesitant, pained responses because explaining things like WWII or Police Brutality to a child is hard and it should be difficult, it should be pained and honestly, it probably will be awkward, especially if, like me, you end up having these conversations in supermarket checkout lines. Or bookstores. And, let’s face it, of all the things my kid could have been curious about after reading an article about Trump and Hillary, honestly, terrorism was probably the easiest.