My daughter Madelyn came home from school the day before Election Day asking me questions about 2016's set of options for President. I never considered having to explain stuff like this to her while she was still this little, and this year's shit-fest of a campaign cycle really wasn't where I wanted to start. The questions came anyway and as parents we all know that serious questions come when we are least prepared to answer them.
"Kids in my school said Hillary Clinton lit a house on fire and left people to die in it," she said to me, knowing that I was intending to vote for Clinton. "Why would she do that?" She looked at me, grilling me, like I was an accomplice because of where my vote was going. I did suffer a bit of shock in the moment directly following her question at the idea that parents were telling their kids this kind of misinformation. The shock subsided pretty quickly when I considered how many children are indoctrinated into religion at such a young age. Still, it is staggering to think that these kids might demonize my daughter because of nonsense their parents fed them.
"She didn't honey. The police investigated and found that she did not do that, even though lots of people think she did," I tell her. My wife and I exchange cautious glances over the potatoes we are all enjoying. How far is this conversation going to go?
"Is Hillary Clinton a bad person?" She asks me, pressing the issue further.
I take a long sip of my water, really thinking about what to say to her. Because this election, if nothing else, has taught all of us in this country that sometimes you have to eat some shit to avoid eating a lot more - no matter which candidate you support. How do you explain this to your child? When they are learning about choosing options, usually the choices are clear-cut. Ya know? Like, do you choose to pet the happy puppy or the angry dragon? Would you rather have cookies or poop? Okay, I may have made that one up, but you get the point. When we teach kids at young ages about making choices, we teach them in black and white, A or B, good or bad. The choices are just there to allow the children to see that they have them and can select what is usually an easily more favorable option.
Is 8 years old too young to learn this harsh truth about life? That there really are no perfect choices and that every option, no matter how positive it is, also comes with unwanted side effects. Would you like these delicious cookies or would you like some yucky poop? The choice there is pretty clear. But life is more complex than that. Nobody is perfect and we all compromise everyday. The real choices in life are usually between mint-flavored poop or cherry-flavored poop. It is all shit, you just pick a flavor.
"Well, honey," I start, unsure exactly where we are going here, "maybe she is. I don't know. But I think she has better plans for our country than Donald Trump and so that is why I want her to win."
She was staring at me, very interested. She was not phoning this conversation in like she does every time I ask her what she did at school and how her day was. This was not some daily routine, there was genuine interest in her eyes. She wanted to know why her "vote" (they are having a mock-vote at school - because that is reasonable for 2nd graders I guess) was different than so many of her friends. Then she asks me, "Is Donald Trump a bad person?"
"Probably, honey." This was an easy one. Trump's entire campaign was fueled by paranoid rhetoric, and irresponsible generalizations. Not to mention the insults he has been hurling since the days before his name was mentioned in the political arena. Is it responsible for me to tell her that? I don't want her to look at her friends and think that they all like someone who is bad. But he is bad - and what's more is that we MUST make it a point to tell children they should not behave like Trump because it is despicable.
"Yes, he is a bad person," my wife chimes in. My wife has never really taken an interest in politics, but some of the terrible things Trump has said and done has really affected her and caused her to take an interest this time around. Neither of us is a big fan of Hillary, but we are both pretty sure that she will do a better job for the country as a whole than anybody else currently running.
Madelyn continues her interrogation, "Did he kill anybody?"
"I don't think so honey, but he probably has hurt people," I answer. "Most of the things that are bad about Donald Trump are things that we are not going to talk about until you are older. They are grown-up things." How am I supposed to tell her about the allegations of Trump's sexual assault? How do we explain the "grab'em by the pussy" line we have heard played over and over in the media to an 8 year-old? Have other kids in her class heard this? Suddenly, all the NPR reports of "the Trump effect" started rushing into my mind and I became worried about things that she might have heard already, things that I don't want her to hear, things that I think she is still too young to discuss.
"I won't tell anybody! What did he do? I want to know!"
So I thought for a second. Of all the disasters this man's campaign has survived, some of them have to be mild enough to explain to my daughter. "Well, he was very disrespectful to our soldiers a couple of times. He made fun of one soldier because he got captured by the mean guys and they hurt him really bad for years."
My grandfather was a Marine in Vietnam and was also, unfortunately, a POW in that conflict. He still deals with the repercussions of that conflict today, just like most of our soldiers who fought that war, and my daughter loves him very much - he is an American hero. My grandfather was drafted and served multiple tours in Vietnam. The idea that a Presidential candidate would discount my grandfather's service to this country is, honestly, so jarring to me and something that I never expected to come up in such a fashion in a Presidential election.
"Well, if they are both bad, why don't we pick somebody else to be President?" This query is perfect. She is not ready to eat mint or cherry flavored shit. She wants some real ice cream! That's my girl!
The simple conclusion that eludes (whether intentionally or not) millions of Americans every election. The idea that someone outside of the "big two" should be voted for is a growing sentiment, especially this cycle, but never really growing enough to make a difference (unless you listen to the cry babies that blame Nader for Gore's loss in 2000). The idea of a "third party" or third option is not widely accepted in America but instead demonized as frivolous and a "waste of a vote" that will only help/hurt [insert either candidate here].
But before I could reply, she continued, "I don't want a mean guy to be President and do mean things like war." The term 'mean guy' is how my kids identify all antagonists, this was not directed at Trump specifically.
That's when it dawned on me. My daughter is not just an 8 year-old. She is MY 8 year-old. She and I share some deep beliefs and values just by the nature of how we live in my house. She knows that I have friends in the military. She refers to them as "knights" like the medieval warriors from history (and, more recently, from stories that she enjoys).
"Well honey, that is the sad part. We don't know what any of these people are going to do until they get elected. Honestly, it is pretty scary sometimes. Even for grown-ups. Life isn't usually about making easy choices. It is about making hard choices. It's about trying to find the good in the bad. Sometimes that is just how it is."
It made me sad to have to break this truth to her. As parents, we try to shield our children from the parts of reality that are unpleasant until we feel they are ready to understand and appreciate them. We opt for waiting for "the right time." Maybe there is no right time. Or maybe the right time is when your child presses you for the truth. I like to be honest with my kids about everything that I can be honest with them about (Santa, obviously, excluded), but there are some things they are too young to hear when they are in elementary school.
And then I started to wonder, while we all quietly ate dinner, what has she heard at school? Do these children watch Trump at home? We don't have cable in my house, so our family was shielded from Trump's media blitz over the past year. But others do have cable. Are there kids in my daughter's school that are talking about building walls? Are they mocking disabled children like Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski?
Madelyn sensed the sadness in my last reply, which hung in the silence as we ate, and decided she was going to change it. "When I grow up, I'm gonna be President. And I'm gonna stop all the wars and give everyone ponies!"
I said, "There is a candidate that wants to do that now, honey. His name is Vermin Supreme."
She recoiled in disgust, "That's a weird name."
"It sure is, dear. Absolutely. And that's the drawback. You can vote for him if you want a free pony, but his name is still gonna be Vermin Supreme."
No matter who wins this election, I hope that our country can come together for the sake of our children and their future. There is a lot of doomsday rhetoric circulating around this cycle, moreso than I remember for an election cycle since I started paying attention back in 2000. The truth is, our actions today can and do directly impact how our children will get to live and how their children will get to live. Vote and act responsibly, no matter who you choose. Because when it comes down to it, today, we are all eating a shit sandwich - whether you believe it or not, we are. Hopefully one day, down the road, all of our children will have a much better menu.