Once upon a time, parents were content to read their kids books about talking pigs and rabbits that wear cute blue jackets. If politics was present at all, it was only under cover of riddles and absurdity, in stories like Dr. Seuss' The Lorax — a commentary on capitalism and environmental destruction.
But now, subtlety and metaphors are out.
The Atlantic reported recently that more and more liberal parents are buying picture books with explicitly politically progressive messages. There's Dreamers, which is full of inspiring messages about immigration, and the best-selling A Is for Activist, aimed at parents eager to raise social justice warriors.
While I'm all for molding tolerant kids, I can't wholeheartedly cheer the success of these woke bedtime stories. I'm worried that there's a trend toward telling our children too much about politics too young, when they're not equipped to process it emotionally or intellectually.
I first noticed the uptick in political awareness for the very young during the 2016 presidential election. Parents in my progressive Brooklyn neighborhood were discussing their Hillary hopes and dreams, not just with their age-appropriate offspring, but with their preschool and early-grade kids. And when Donald Trump was elected president, Democratic voters' devastation and trauma rubbed off on these children, who'd been intimately apprised of this historic race between good and evil.
That fact that some high schoolers struggled to deal with the election result was well reported. But little kids, specifically those who knew too much, were also reeling, and I found this troubling.
It's true that we need to educate our children about the stuff that can directly harm them. We need to tell them not to talk to strangers, and that no one other than a parent or a doctor is allowed to look in their underwear. We also need to provide them with a moral framework and teach tolerance, and books are a great way to do this. But it's a small hop from here to giving young kids anxiety-inducing information they're not ready to understand.
After the 2016 election, some parents I spoke with were so hysterically wrapped up in it all, they actually seemed to delight in telling everyone how devastated their offspring were when they found out Trump had won.
A couple of moms whose kids were taking the same class as my then nearly 4-year-old asked me how she was dealing with the result. At first I thought they were joking. When I realized they weren't, I told them I actually hadn't mentioned the election to my daughter. They looked at me like I was an alien. These folks, it seemed, had been sitting their kids in front of Rachel Maddow every night for the duration of the campaign. One woman's child, who was in pre-K, apparently cried when she found out Trump had won. So, I imagined, off this kid went to school the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, woke but living in a nightmare where the big orange wolf ate up sweet Grandma Hillary and stole her nice white house.
Why do parents feel the need to burden their kids with this kind of bleakness?
For some, it's about bragging rights. These days it's not enough to boast about your children learning to read and write early; you also need to talk up their emotional IQ and how able they are as social scientists.
I suspect these same parents would have been aggravated and even a little embarrassed if their kid had simply shrugged at the news and then happily skipped to school. Or if their kids had been upset about something developmentally appropriate, like another child pulling their hair or stealing a toy. Yet, these are the kind of trifles that, if parents are doing their job right, should bother small children.
So next time you're tempted to tell a young child that the apocalypse is nigh, ask yourself if it's really fair to impart complicated, scary information to a kid who can't even tie her own shoes. I certainly don't want my 5-year-old fretting about "silly Donald Trump" (that's what she calls him). Or, for that matter, school shootings, other people's recently dead relatives, drowning refugees, or children who are separated from their parents at the U.S. border. For now, it's enough that our kids know they're lucky to have food and toys, a nice bedroom, and a loving family, and that not everyone is so fortunate. I want to forge them the happiest childhood possible, even if it means going full on Life Is Beautiful for the few years they can be easily hoodwinked.
Knowing when to impart a little more about the real world is difficult. With politics and tragedy, I think we need to adopt a similar approach to other big life reveals, like sex and admitting there's no Santa: Tell kids when they ask. That's when they're likely ready to know more. And then, perhaps, don't say, "There's an evil man in charge and we're all doomed!" Frame it with hope. Children need our optimism, even if we're faking it.