Here we are. Election day. A probably unnecessary reminder, unless you’ve been living under a rock that’s been buried by an avalanche on a deserted island that’s also contained by a force field, in which case boy do we have a lot to catch you up on this year.
For the rest of us, it’s here. Many of us have been either longing for or dreading this day. Or both, simultaneously, because as Daniel Tiger has taught us, it’s okay to feel more than one feeling at the same time. This year, as the political ads and debates and media coverage have dragged on, many of us have probably spent periods of time wishing we were living under that imaginary rock on a deserted island. (See: me for most of August.) The election isn’t the only thing to have us feeling this way. We’re all ready for whatever comes next, in more ways than one.
This year has me thinking about the election in a new way: through the lens of a mother. Four years ago, I had twin two-year-olds and a baby. They were young enough that the anxiety I felt over an unprecedented election didn’t affect them. Then, they didn’t know the names of the candidates running for president. Heck, they didn’t even know what a president was. Whatever emotions I was feeling, the entire process didn’t even register on their radars, which were more concerned with drinking all the milk all the time (the baby) and stacking things up and then knocking them down (the two-year-olds).
But I knew, even then, I wouldn’t have that luxury this time around. Fast-forward four years and I have two six-year-olds and a four-year-old. That’s old enough to know who the president is, for their still-little ears to be attuned to the conversations around them, to have questions (so. many. questions.).
We’ve talked about politics more with my six-year-olds in the past few years than I would have thought possible. They’re interested, curious, and did I mention they’re full of questions? So much of what we talk about during election season falls back to our values and things we should be living out every day. While voting is one way, one day, to live out and support our values, these are the things we should be talking about all the time as concerned, involved parents and citizens.
As I reflect on this right, this day, and this election in particular, these are the things I’m thinking about. These are the things I’ve tried to instill in my own children (and, let’s be honest, myself) as we have these sometimes hard, always necessary conversations.
Loving Our Neighbor
This is the one that comes up over and over again. Our vote is a chance to represent not just ourselves, but the people around us: our neighbors, their classmates in school, and our greater community. There is so much more on the ballot than a handful of names: our values of compassion, honesty, and kindness include voting for representatives who embody those things.
Asking our kids – and ourselves – questions can help them to process the things they hear through the lens of our own values. Did their words sound kind? How did what they said make you feel? How would you feel if a friend talked to you that way? Can you call someone names and also love them? What would you say if you were a leader?
Don’t Be a Jerk
Sometimes, when I overhear my kids using less than kind words with each other, I yell out, “Don’t be a jerk!” I’m not sure any parenting advice professionals would recommend this tactic, but it often works in my house. It’s a simple phrase, an easy reminder, for them to use their words, to share, to take turns, etc. Really, it covers so many things.
So often I want to (lovingly) yell this at people, whether in my real life, on TV, or on social media. “Don’t be a jerk!” is something I want to insert into nearly every Internet comment section. Because what it boils down to is respect. We want people to have respectful conversations around our values, opinions, and beliefs. We don’t all have to agree with one another; we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can listen and respond thoughtfully without name-calling or put-downs. And while it may take the reminder of “don’t be a jerk,” that’s something even my four-year-old can understand.
Be Thoughtful in Our Content Consumption
Speaking of the Internet, it’s important for us to monitor the types of content we’re consuming. I’m not talking about the amount of time we spend in front of screens—though that certainly is important.
My concern is for the types of content we view and are exposed to. I personally block anyone, from either side of the aisle, who shares content that name-calls, shames, or spreads flat out lies. Period. (Ahem, please reference my “don’t be a jerk” philosophy above.) For other content, I seek out sources and ask questions if I’m unfamiliar with them: Who said these things? Has an author attached their name to this article? Is there a publishing date? Is it from a reputable news source that values fact-checking and corroboration? What other types of things do they publish?
My six-year-old daughter ran in the other day and told me something a friend had said to her. “Is that true?” she asked. While I don’t need to get into the details here, it was something that wasn’t true. I’m sure my daughter’s friend had no malicious intent: they’re young and were repeating something they’d heard. We sat down and had a long conversation about why it wasn’t true. That if she ever hears anything from her friends that doesn’t sound right, she can always, always, come talk to mommy and daddy about it, because we’ll help her sort out the truth.
I couldn’t help but think of how needed that type of attitude is, particularly during an election season. Sometimes it takes some digging to unearth the truth. And it is always, always worth it.
There’s a tension in parenting. We have to deal with our own emotions and mental state while also wiping butts, making meals, and going through the motions of running a household. This struggle has been more evident this year than ever.
So while we should be invested, engaged, informed voters, there’s also such a thing as overload. I know when I’ve consumed too much media, particularly of the political variety, and how it affects my mood. A handful of political candidates are not the end-all-be-all of our existence. Sometimes my husband and I have to look at each other over the dinner table and say, “We don’t need to talk about this anymore right now.” Sometimes it takes a dance party in the kitchen or a walk to find the most perfect leaves around our neighborhood to remind ourselves of our values and what’s most important.
I sincerely hope you already have or will vote today. It is a privilege to live in a country with free and open elections. As women, it’s a privilege we fought decades for. Though this year, voting may have felt more like a burden than ever, we can remind our children and ourselves that not everyone is so lucky.
I also hope you involve your children in our political process in age-appropriate ways. Their ears pick up so much: they’re watching us and how we interact with, well, everything, and that includes politics. Let’s talk with them about how voting helps us live out our family values. Let’s show them how we love our neighbors. Today and every day for the next four years and beyond.