The night of the election, Mary Laura Philpott and her 10-year-old daughter danced to “The Schuyler Sisters” from the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a song about three strong sisters who depend on their brains, not their looks, to succeed in their patriarchal world. It was a perfect fit for a night both assumed they would be celebrating the first female president.
So when Philpott had to wake her daughter in the morning and tell her the news, she hesitated in front of her daughter’s bedroom door. “To me, it feels like what this taps into is the most primal parenting fear. I can’t protect you from everything,” Philpott, a writer in Nashville, said on her way to work. “I tried and I can’t do it. It’s the darkest sphere in parenting. That bad things happen we can’t protect them from. And that’s how I felt standing outside her room, thinking we did everything we could and we couldn’t make it happen.”
For many parents who had supported Hillary Clinton, this was a familiar scene the day after the election. Girls who had gone with mothers and fathers as they tried to elect the first female president were shocked to hear the news when they woke. Children who were scared by the harsh comments and chants from Trump followers were full of questions. And parents were at a loss to explain why the election turned out the way it did.
Long after Tuesday-night bedtimes, when the results were rapidly leaning toward a President Trump, the texts, tweets, calls and emails from parents started:
“How will we explain this to our children?”
“How will I explain this to my daughter?”
“The only thing you can do is be a little tiny shining light,” Philpott and her husband told their disappointed and fearful kids. “All the things that we thought and believed in yesterday, we still think and believe in today. It’s not like our brain voted for Trump. It’s not like we suddenly don’t believe our feelings. So we just need to act in accordance with what we believe.”
Braden Bell, a middle school theater teacher in Nashville, spent the morning after the election with his two teen sons. He reminded them to be empathetic to other kids, no matter whom they supported. And he made special note of the girls who might be feeling extra discouraged. “We talked yesterday about how this election could be potentially very exciting for their peers who are girls. So I tried to pull that back in today and said there might be another layer for friends who are girls who may have received this election very differently,” he said. “I think they understand the idea. I hope it sinks down to the practice, what they do and interaction in the moment.”
At Lafayette Elementary School in the District, a fourth-grade girl walked to the entrance to start her day, tears streaming down her face behind her glasses. The principal, Carrie Broquard, went straight for her and hugged her. “I’m just so scared,” the girl said.
“We’ve got you, honey. We’ve got you and we’re right here and we’re going to be okay.”
The girl wiped her tears, nodded and walked inside the school.
“A lot of kids are very scared because they feel like they are somehow going to be in danger, and we have to reassure they are not going to personally be in danger,” advised Kathleen Trainor, a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do.” And remind them, she said, that “there are a lot of good people who will be working with President Trump, and we’ve got to hope that the country is going to come together.”
Children have been caught up in the election, she said, even little kids, and a lot of them “have thought of Trump as a bully or a big bad man. And thinking that this man will now be president, they feel like something is going to happen to them, that they aren’t safe.” Parents need to hold back on their own emotions if they are scared themselves, she said. “There is a lot of uncertainty, but we have to protect our children from that.”
Trainor suggested asking children how they feel and what they’re thinking and take their cues. That way, parents can be sure they aren’t creating anxiety where there may not be any. And then “stress that there are a lot of good people who share our family’s values, and we are going to continue to work for and stand up for those values,” she said.
A group of mothers in the District texted each other Wednesday before their kids awoke, discussing what to say:
“We have to see this as a renewed call to support all the values of inclusion and acceptance and tolerance we care about,” wrote one.
“Our kids get a dose of honesty about what happened last night, but we feed them mounds of optimism and hope. We will be okay,” wrote another.
“Maybe this is an opportunity to pick something that will make a difference and show our kids what it means to stand behind our convictions. Enlist them as a family in deciding what we do about it. Isn’t that the silver lining of politics? That it encourages us to act?” wrote another.
And finally, a mother said her daughter might have said it best: “She said, ‘Mom, I know we aren’t happy, but let’s focus on what he does and not what he is, or who he is.'”
Phyllis Fagell, the counselor at the Sheridan School in the District (where 93 percent of the vote went to Clinton) and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, suggests parents help kids be specific with their concerns. You may be surprised what they’re worrying about. And better yet, you may be able to allay that fear easily.
Help them to do something with those feelings. At the school on Wednesday, Fagell helped about 30 students write letters to Clinton and to Trump. Others wrote journal entries. Kindergarten teachers asked kids to think about one kind action they can do and they illustrated it for a “kindness board.”
When talking about the results of the election, she said, “the goal is to be authentic without alarming your child. Hear their concerns, respond to them in a calm and reflective way.”
And don’t shy away from the “really big, scary issues like sexism, racism, disability rights, health care, immigration,” she said. “Kids are thinking about them anyway.” She said her second-graders had expressed their fears about racism; the fourth-graders worried about deportation.
Finally, she said, focus on the positive things around them. Talk about the traits they admire, the kinds of people they want to be and the concrete ways they can make a difference.
When it became clear Clinton would lose, “all I could do was stare at my 6-year-old black son and wonder what I’d say,” said Rae Robinson Trotman of the District. “The man who has denigrated every minority group. … How do you go from celebrating the Obamas, getting excited about the Clintons, feeling over-the-moon proud because your kid cares about the process – to telling him that his new president thinks only straight white men matter?”
Like many kids, her son, Lucas, was resilient. One night recently, he said to his mother, “Mommy, all we need is each other.”
“I held on to that this morning when I told him about Trump. I watched his little shoulders droop as he asked a few questions about what this means for him.” Trotman let him talk until the conversation turned to breakfast. But her feelings haven’t dissipated. “I look at Lucas and know how soon society will see him differently, how he won’t be this cute little boy with glasses,” because he is African American, she said, forcing him to “grow up so much faster than his friends and so much faster than he should. So I chose enjoying being 6 over a healthy breakfast and added cupcakes to the menu. Sometimes you just need cupcakes.”
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