Our numbers became visible to 9-year-old Theo when we reached the Santa Fe Plaza. Before then, he couldn't see the size of our local Women's March on Washington crowd over so many heads or through narrow streets.
“Wow,” he said, taking in the thousands in front of us on one side of the Plaza and thousands behind us on the other. “I feel powerful.”
“Why?” I asked.
“There are so many of us!”
Women’s marches were dismissed by some as whining, but our experience was a positive lesson in democracy—in the power of collective voices, as Theo observed. This is why I brought my children with me last month. Sylvia, 6, was a reluctant activist, more interested in string-cheese and cocoa; but Theo held high his homemade sign.
Neither is completely new to civic engagement. Theo first walked at a call center during the 2008 election; he perched on my hip at a City Council microphone; both kids join me at polls and stick “I Voted!” stickers on their bikes and my car windows.
I bring them because, well, childcare ... But, more importantly, I want them to know it’s a privilege and a responsibility to participate in representative government. I want them to know their voices are vital, if they use them.
This is especially true when we inaugurate someone who rejects every value of compassion, integrity and responsibility I try to teach my children.
There’s nothing revolutionary here: These values correlate with empathetic, assured children and thoughtful, engaged adults. They headline everything from classroom “character counts” campaigns to Disney movies to the basic moralities of major religions and secular humanism.
They’re grounded in parables that affirm the bully never wins—or that, if he does, he does because he stops being the bully. So, when—shocker!—the bully wins but continues bullying, how do we parents navigate the territory between our reality and our children’s?
I don’t want my kids’ day-to-day to mimic mine. The least I can do is try to protect their childhoods—which means filtering the news, big time. My children do not need a news feed.
I wake them to the Sing soundtrack instead of NPR, and I usually switch to music with them in the car. Our family doesn’t watch much television. We explain The Economist cover art in the simplest terms.
“My desire to be informed is at odds with my desire to be sane,” says a circulating cartoon. It’s not new, but its dilemma is timely, what with legislatures in session and Donald Trump weeks into a presidency that, were it the reality programming it’s emulating, I would censor for my kids.
"Right?!" I yell in solidarity with my laptop. "So, then? What do we do?"
The computer responds with dire headlines culled from 10 major news outlets, five long-form essays on autocracy and climate science, 52 activist emails and an endless Facebook feed detailing how to fight tyranny. Amid outrage and gratitude for people of principle, I feel bewildered, quashed and exhausted—and remiss in registering my voice.
I don’t want my children—or me—to feel this way. But “getting over it” and “gracefully” hushing my moral and democratic values isn’t appropriate, either. There is no one resolution to this dilemma. Our answers reflect our roles in our families and communities, and they must be the opposite of whining.
“To repair the damage [Trump] will have done, Americans must give particular care to how they educate their children, not only in love of country but in fair-mindedness; not only in democratic processes but democratic values,” writes Eliot Cohen for The Atlantic.
Our children must learn that honoring citizen voices is the essence of patriotism—that speaking up against power does not constitute whining—that the "fourth estate" of solid journalism isn't "the opposition" any more than more checks and balances. They should know protest is an American tradition, but that we start with dialogue and diplomacy.
For now, I ask them about school, things that interest them or a conflict they face. I want to hear about books they read, projects, field trips, forts. If we value their thoughts, they learn to value their ideas. If we talk with them, they learn to engage others. If we honor their questions, I hope they keep asking more.
Pure villains and saviors are rare in anyone's reality. Integrity, however, cuts through everything. Integrity means being honest; being true to the things we think are important; standing up. We can teach our children this even if our leaders do not exhibit it. It's a valuable lesson: Ultimately, leadership and integrity come from us.
My husband did, in fact, open the US Constitution recently to instruct us in Articles I and II while the kids built kingdoms under chair legs and I folded laundry—but our household isn't usually a running civics lesson. I fly our heraldic flag of baseline success if most of us get to work/school on time.
Are the kids all right? Probably. They’re likely better than we are. A friend, worried her post-inauguration tension was affecting her 10-year-old, was set at ease: “I’m fine,” her son said, “but I think you’re stressing out the dog.”
In civically productive moments, I contact elected officials. I teach. I read well-regarded news sources. I also visit echo-chamber sites, obsessively hide in crosswords, and respond to my news feed with animation incommensurate with my actions.
We are parents and citizens both. They inform each other in our quest to raise mindful, responsible adults. Often, we prioritize the former to raise the latter with some sanity.
We read stories, sing lullabies and kiss our children goodnight. We impart fundamental truths: We love them more than anything, we’re proud of them, they delight us, they are safe.
We teach them our values by how we live them. And we hope, with this footing, that they come to know how powerful they can be when they choose to speak up.