In her new book, How Do I Explain This to My Kids: Parenting in the Age of Trump, child psychologist Ava Siegler brings together stories by authors and writers, including novelist Mira Jacob, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and New York Times blogger Nicole Chung, about the conversations they are having with their children in the current political climate. In this Q&A, Karin Kamp gets advice on how to thoughtfully explain Donald Trump’s words, behavior and policy ideas to young people, as well as how to raise them to be engaged citizens.
Karin Kamp: Why did you decide to write this book after Trump’s election?
Ava Siegler: I had written a previous book, titled What Should I Tell the Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Real Problems in the Real World and when Trump was elected to the presidency, I thought: What problem could be more real than the ascendency of Donald Trump to this office?
KK: In general, there’s a lot of mudslinging and meanness going on in politics right now that kids might see online in the form of nasty memes, video clips and language. How should parents handle this?
AS: Decency, civility, knowledge and truthfulness are not values in this administration. I believe that we are in the midst of a national disaster and parents are our first responders. To counter what’s happening, you need to redouble your efforts to criticize what you see and hear in the Trump administration and reinforce the values that you want your child to have. For example, you can say to your kid, “No matter what Trump does, we don’t call people nasty names in our family.”
KK: What is the biggest threat to our children, not only of Trump’s statements but also the negative tone in general of our current political discourse?
AS: The biggest threat we are all facing as Americans is the diminishment and destruction of what I could call the civilizing emotions — empathy, self-control, morality and realistic self-regard. Parents must double down on their efforts to foster in their children these civilizing emotions; they must consistently point out when they see a disregard for these emotions in any situation, especially coming out of our nation’s highest office.
KK: If children can’t emulate the president (as he is hardly a role model), which political figure can they look up to?
AS: Trump operates in an amoral, unethical and nakedly opportunistic environment. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Trump spokeswoman, was asked this question, she didn’t defend Trump as a role model. Instead, she said she looked to God as a role model. The figures that your children admire will be those you yourself admire. For some it could be President Obama and Michelle Obama, and for others it will be Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, or Jerry Brown, governor of California, or Susan Collins (R-ME), one of the senators trying to oppose Trump’s policies. You decide who you admire and hold them up to your children as good role models.
KK: It’s crucial for our kids to involve themselves in our political system as they grow older, so they can change and improve it. How do we keep them from being discouraged by all the ugliness in politics right now — or is the ugliness actually making it more interesting for children on some level?
AS: An unintended consequence of the Trump presidency is the outrage and protest and resistance of most Americans. You need to encourage your children to persist and resist against Trump’s values and policies. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution and our children are our soldiers. They will vote in a future election and change our world and save our democracy.
KK: How can we change the conversation to focus on the real issues affecting us all and explain where both parties stand on the issues?
AS: Knowledge really is power — and the Trump administration is remarkably ignorant, so you need to watch the news with your older children and point out the issues that are being raised and what your beliefs surrounding those issues are. Name and explain when there are falsities or alternate facts. Press your children’s school to teach civics and history. And if they don’t, you teach your kids.
KK: Some children may be scared about some policies that they are hearing about now, such as the immigration ban or losing health care. How do we reassure them and teach them to be engaged?
AS: For younger children, realistic reassurance is the most helpful intervention. For example, you might say: “Trump is making bad decisions, but lots of people are fighting against him and are trying to stop him.” For older children, it’s extremely important to increase their knowledge of what’s going on in the world and engage them in social activism. Involve them in writing letters to representatives, invite them to march alongside you in safe and appropriate demonstrations, and have them volunteer for campaigns when appropriate. It is also important for parents to encourage children to hold out hope for the future. Reassure them and remind them that no matter how bad things are, how bad Trump is, he is not a king. We are a democracy and we are all working hard to make sure we elect someone better in four years.