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Faith in Vermont: Let's Act Like the Kids are Watching

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Posted on November 22, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



On the morning after the 2016 Presidential election, I took my daughter to preschool. This preschool – a magical place that looks and feels like a throwback to 1970s Vermont – has a daily morning “circle time,” during which parents and children sit around the carpet to hear a story, sing songs, and greet each other. As I looked around the circle that morning, the contrast between parents and children was dramatic. The adults were haggard; nearly everyone appeared exhausted from staying up late watching the election returns. And although I can’t pretend to know how everyone had voted the day before, most of the adult faces around that circle bore glazed looks of shock.

Then there were the children: These three-, four-, and five-year-olds did not look exhausted, shocked, or anything other than excited and ready to begin the morning’s activities. If their world had changed overnight, they seemed unconcerned. They were busy just being kids.

So, in a performance that felt slightly unreal, we adults put on the show of a normal morning for our children. We helped stash lunch sacks and choose daily chores, we listened to a story, we discussed the day’s craft. We kissed our children goodbye and told them to have great days. We saved urgent, whispered conversations for the parking lot.

It felt like the best thing I could have done that morning. Even when the world does change overnight, what can we do but continue to breathe in and out, to put one foot in front of the other, to take our children to school?

In my circles, many first responses to the election involved children. “How do we explain this to the children?” people asked, in person and on social media. If I learned anything from this election, it’s that my circles are not everyone’s circles, but apparently this phenomenon was widespread enough to prompt the American Academy of Pediatrics to release a paper on how to discuss the election results with children.

American children reacted to the election results with a full spectrum of emotions, as did American adults. Some children, like my two youngest, couldn’t have cared less. Some children, like my two oldest, were disappointed and concerned. Some children were terrified for their own safety and that of their families. Some children were happy.

But when the first reports of harassment and intimidation began to pour in following the election – incidents that may or may not have been due to people feeling that they were now liberated to follow President-elect Donald Trump’s example of unfiltered expression – many of them involved children. Between November 9 (the day after the election) and November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled a list of 437 reported incidents of “hateful intimidation and harassment;” of these, 166 (roughly 38%) occurred at K-12 schools or universities. This phenomenon was widespread enough to prompt Peter Burrows, Superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union, to send a letter to parents reaffirming the ACSU’s commitment to “empathy, equality, and responsibility.”

Here’s something I know about children: They are watching adults very, very closely. They pick up on our moods, our words, our actions. It’s their job to learn how to become adults, so they look to us for cues on how to navigate the world. Unlike every other animal in the world, human children stay with their parents for a ridiculously long time. The reason we don’t push our children out of the nest or abandon them at birth is because they are still dependent upon us; they have so much to learn.

When children threaten their classmates that they’re going to be deported, when they leave their Muslim teacher a note suggesting that she “tie [her Muslim headscarf] around your neck & hang yourself with it...,” when they deface their school buildings with swastikas, these are not behaviors that flow from the natural course of child development, like eating solid foods, rolling over, and getting pimples. Hateful speech and actions are acquired; they are learned by example.

As of November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website registered no reported incidents of harassment in Vermont. That afternoon, as I ran errands around town, I felt so grateful for this small community where people know and take care of each other; where, on the day after the election, parents and children chalked messages of love, hope, and peace around town.

That same evening, a friend whose daughter had just played at our house emailed to tell me that two swastikas had been drawn on the door of Middlebury’s Havurah House, the gathering place for the Jewish Congregation of Addison County. My friend’s children attend Hebrew school in the building.

This is a time of heightened emotions. We cannot stop ourselves from feeling, but we can be aware that our children are watching us closely to see how we respond. And we can be assured that they will carry what they see from us out into the greater world.

I am not suggesting that we lie to children, coddle them, or isolate them from reality. To tell children beyond a certain age that life is all rainbows and unicorns is to set them up for severe disillusionment. I’m all in favor of talking to children about current events in age-appropriate ways, and finding opportunities for them to engage with their communities. But most of us can agree that children deserve a childhood in which they feel safe, that children are entitled to not feel terrified, that children should grow up feeling a sense of hope in their future. This kind of childhood is not a reality for far too many children – a number that has now increased as a result of our post-election behavior.

But guess who gets to create the reality that children experience? We do. The adults. Us.

We can teach our children that they should be fearful of or angry at those who look, act, or believe differently from them. Or we can try our best to act like all of the things we tell them are true: That you should share, and wait your turn, and be kind. That bullying is bad and cooperation is good. That two wrongs don’t make a right. That it’s what’s inside a person that counts. The beauty of it is: If we all acted like these things were true, then they would be true.

And we can try to act this way despite our own feelings. A few days after the election, I heard a friend tell the heart-wrenching story of the car accident that killed her husband during a family vacation with their two young sons. She sustained several broken ribs in the crash, but she didn’t register the pain for weeks, because she was too busy taking care of her sons.

Couldn’t that be us? Couldn’t we behave ourselves through our pain and fear, for the children’s sake? Isn’t that what being a grown-up is?

This has nothing to do with whom you voted for: At least 20 harassment incidents on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website were classified as “anti-Trump.” Two wrongs don’t make a right, remember?

This also has nothing to do with whether you even have children. Guess what? My children can still see you.

One of the wonderful things about this country has always been that it allows us the freedom to believe differently, and to speak freely. The point of that freedom is that we don’t have to resort to harassment, to terrorism, to vandalism under the cover of darkness. We can air our differences respectfully, responsibly, in the light. So, please, let’s step into the light, and let’s act like the kids are watching.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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