We’ve all been feeling it. An intensity within us, rising up, as we process the results of the election and an upcoming transfer of political power. Whether it’s excitement, peace, uncertainty, anxiety, or tremendous fear – we are all experiencing something. For or against our president-elect, let’s agree on one thing – our children are watching and they’re feeling the feels right alongside us.
Let’s be honest, the kids are not ignorant of our reactions to the world. They read our faces and mirror our emotions as we process and discuss current events. They hear our words, often parroting them as truths to their friends, and they bring dinner table discussions to the school cafeteria with the same passion and enthusiasms they see modeled in our homes. Some of that’s good. We want our kids to be politically competent and engaged with world events. Unfortunately, civil discourse is difficult. Heck, even adults don’t always get it right – especially in the arena of politics.
I work at a school for 5th through 12th graders and what has grieved me the deepest in the aftermath of this election are examples, local to me and across the country, of children isolating their peers and feeling entitled to committing acts of hate and divisiveness in the name of politics. Politics that, in many cases, kids are too young to fully grasp the complexity of. This goes for both sides. Examples of little kids building a human “wall” to intimidate minority peers, overtly racist graffiti in the name of president-elect Trump, blanket labeling of students whose families voted republican as racist and xenophobic. Sure, some stories in the media are of the he-said-she-said nature and difficult to validate, but others (like this, or this, or this) are well documented with objective and indisputable evidence.
Unfortunately, it’s not just in the headlines. I’d challenge you to ask any one of your middle, high school, or college-aged kids whether or not they’ve seen a fellow student hurt, isolated, intimidated, or rejected in the wake of the election. I guarantee they can provide you with a first hand example.
My point is: this is real. I’m not trying to argue that every time a kid acts out in the name of politics it’s because they are mimicking the actions and rhetoric of their families, however, basic social learning theory argues that we learn through observation, imitation, and modeling. Let’s face it, kids spend a heck of a lot of time, especially in their formative developmental years, at home. They see us, they imitate us, and the outcome it isn’t always positive.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bobo experiment? It’s an infamous study showing that when kids observe aggression, they model aggression – especially when they observe an individual being rewarded for their aggressiveness. The study wasn’t perfect, but it inarguably suggested that kids readily imitate the behaviors of a trusted adult, even when the behavior is antisocial. Thankfully, the opposite is also true. Parental values regarding justice, morality, and prosocial behavior are strongly mirrored in their kids. Families who value social justice are likely to have children that value equity. Parents that model civil discourse are likely to have kids that feel empowered to engage in disputes respectfully. Families that embrace diversity are more likely have children with a diverse group of friends.
It’s OK to have strong emotions, I’m surely I’m dealing with my own. But let’s show our kids how to channel these emotions into healthy outlets and how to share political opinions in a manner that is respectful and kind. Also, let’s agree: hate, harassment, and bullying, for any reason, are NEVER ok and are NEVER acceptable expressions of political opinion. Further, if we want the kids to boldly stand up against hate and contribute to a school environment that is inclusive and safe, we must provide examples of doing this in our own lives, volunteerism, and careers. Trust me, the kids are more likely to make good choices if we model the behavior we desire to see.
In writing this piece I’m not coming from a lofty place of having done this work well myself. Also, my kids are little – I have no clue what type of citizens they will become. I write because I am saddened by our divided nation and I’m convicted of the many ways I fail as a parent and also as an activist for what I believe. In this conviction, I’m inspired to do more and to provide a better example to my brood. Because friends, our children really are watching, and it’s up to us to teach them well.
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