When I was growing up in the 1980s in Yonkers, New York, our criteria for choosing friends had nothing to do with our parents’ political affiliations. There was a clear separation between our world and theirs. I never asked the kids in my neighborhood what they thought of President Ronald Reagan and they never asked me. Our parents may roll their eyes at the mention of a family whose opinions differ from theirs, or express their dislike directly to adults, but they never got us there.
I have seen my political language change within my family and I have seen it change among my friends. We never used to ask our kids if their parents of friends were Republicans or Democrats.
For our part, we hardly ever introduced a policy into our own, even to the point of having partisan affiliations. We chose our friends based on questions like: Debbie Gibson or Tiffany? Run-DMC or LL Cool J? John Stamos or Ralph Macchio? Yankees or Mets? We never asked, Reagan or Mondale?
I was personally raised in a conservative family, but I never focused on politics until I went to college and started thinking for myself. I zoned out when my dad played the Rush Limbaughs talk show on the car stereo, staring out the window at the Cross Bronx highway signs as they whistled past. I did not pay attention to his political reflections, and I certainly never repeated them on the playground.
Yet for my children, politics confronts and defines them wherever they turn.
When my nine year old daughter made a new friend at the pool this summer, she happily came by to share the exciting news. But as she walked away, my teenage son warned, you know, they’re Trumpers.
It’s not just my teens warning me about Trumpers. Rarely does a day go by without my 10 and 12 year old daughters coming home with a political commentary on their lips. When I ask my daughters about school, my 10 year old daughter tells me about the comic she and her friends make during recess, but also about the boy who yelled Blue Lives Matter at his African friend. American snack time, and kids who have Trump 2020 slogans as their profile pictures on the Google Meets class.
There is no doubt that some of this politicization comes from outside sources, like the 24/7 media environment in which they grew up, in which information from every partisan denominator is available in their palm. Or a culture in which advertising, not to mention football matches and awards, takes on a political dimension. It’s no surprise that a national obsession with politics spills over into the classroom and onto the playground.
But there is no doubt that as the country has become more polarized, parents have contributed to the environment our children find themselves in now and which they must stop. When we give our kids a Donald Trump hat or a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris mask, we are politicizing them. When we take them to political rallies, we send them back to the playing field with a clear message that creates an instant ditch.
During the Trump era, I saw my political language change within my family, and I saw it change among my friends. We never used to ask our kids if their parents of friends were Republicans or Democrats. We never gave them any campaign merchandise.
We raised them with our morals and our values, but we kept our political world separate. But now if we take our kids to a house with a Trump or Biden sign, we instantly comment on it. We often express our approval or disapproval to our children without even knowing their friend parents and what their beliefs are.
As the political climate in this country reached a boiling point during the Trump era, I think many of us felt an obligation to take a stand and clearly articulate our views. But by abandoning our borders, we have inadvertently sent our children into the world as our emissaries.
While my older boys would talk about Barack Obama when he was running for president, it was out of excitement to have an African American running the country. In his debut campaign, the only mentions I have ever heard of opponent John McCain were respectful. And I’ve never heard of Obama versus Mitt Romney. I don’t think they even knew who Romney was.
But now our children seem to feel compelled to choose sides. They are suddenly anxious when they discover that a new friend by the pool is from the enemy camp, whereas before the enemy camp did not even exist.
My 12 year old told me that at the morning meeting on the day of Bidens’ inauguration, a boy shared that he had no hope with Trump leaving, that he was afraid of what his life had in store for him now. In turn, she shared that she finally felt upbeat with Biden in charge.
Why have we suddenly drawn our children into our political struggle, when they haven’t even started to understand their own views? Why do we talk so much about the current political landscape with them? Why do we let them fight our battle on the playing field with them?
Do we want our kids to look at the kids standing in front of them at school and wonder, Trump or Biden? Or do we want them to wonder, Gryffindor or Slytherin? Shouldn’t they be free to just be children, free to assess each other based on their own experiences, not their parents? Are we so blinded by our rage towards each other that we have forgotten how to separate our world from our children?
Maybe if our kids leave our political beliefs at home with us, they’ll discover a common interest in Harry Potter, Black Panther, anime, or Billie Eilish. Maybe instead of yelling Blue Lives Matter at a colored classmate, that kid will ask them for help with a math problem. And then maybe this kid won’t feel attacked and no longer need to remind his classmates that his life is as important as theirs.
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