I am aware that emotions run unusually high after any US Presidential Election. I am also aware that this was particularly the case in 2016. This was an ugly, brutally contested and personal campaign that highlighted the stark political polarisation that now exists not only in the USA but also across the West. But here is the position I want to defend; if your child, or the students in your classroom, still believe in Santa, then they are too young to understand politics. Let kids be kids. To put it another way, no child will, of their own volition, choose to sit in front of the television to watch hours-long political debates by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Little children would much rather kick a ball around or play with Play-Doh than watch stiffs in suits (or pant suits) talk economics (or throw about insults as the case was in 2016).
There are two obvious exceptions to my statement above. Firstly, in the USA it is very common for educators to use political speeches as texts for analysis, public speaking preparation or in introductory civics lessons. Yes, very young children are exposed to politics from a young age. Secondly, parents may well sit down to watch speeches with their Santa-aged children but it seems fair to assume that in the vast majority of these cases it is because of deeply-held partisan political beliefs held within the family. In these cases, children will be exposed to the speeches of Republicans only or Democrats only as a means of recruiting the next generation of the party faithful. What both of these exceptions have in common, however, is that in each case the child did not watch of his own accord, rather he was compelled to do so by an adult in a close position of trust. In the case of the teacher who is using speeches and texts in class, it is a fair assumption that he will use suitable texts, those that reflect the emotional and intellectual development of the children in the class. Again, this should not be a controversial idea. However, from my interactions on Twitter and on FaceBook since the election, it would appear that this is a position I have been repeatedly told is wrong.
I became politically aware in the 1990s under President Clinton and I have followed US elections carefully since 2000. I have seen plenty of unsavoury tactics used by competing candidates over these years but this was the first time that I have seen children used as a political weapon. Now, I write this post out of a sense of obligation as an educator to young students and I urge you not to stop reading at this point if you hold strong affiliations to the Democratic Party; but the evidence indicates that in 2016 the Hillary Clinton Campaign was responsible for cynically using children to further her political ambitions. The Trump campaign did not directly target young children. The advert below, which was endorsed by Clinton, was aired nationally before the election. In it, an array of children, all of whom are Santa-aged, look at snippets of Donald Trump saying terrible things during his campaign speeches. All of the children look sad, scared and confused. When Trump boasts of being so popular that he could shoot someone in the head in the middle of Times Square the advert strategically positions a young child in front of the television to make it look like Trump is aiming at him. When Trump speaks about Latinos a young Latino girl looks distraught. The tagline of the advert reads: “Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?” It then continues into a selection of inspiring moments from Hillary Clinton’s speeches. The advert is as powerful as it is dishonest.
This cynical effort continued after the Election ended. On election night CNN contributor Van Jones also used children to make political points by asking rhetorically how would he and other minorities explain the election result to their children. His emotional response was picked up by disillusioned Democratic supporters and in the following days I noticed a huge volume of posts by educators asking the same question: How will I explain this to my children? The letter below was widely circulated among teaching communities on social media in the week after the election. In it, an educator states: “I am very sorry to let you know that Donald Trump has won…Mom and I are very upset by this. And we know that you will be, too. But we want you to know a few things…We are not alone…You do not need to be afraid…There is a lot to be hopeful about.” It is unknown what age the children that this letter addresses are but it can be assumed from the tone that they are young. Some of the passages are telling. “I am sorry to let you know that Donald Trump has won.” Why would a parent be sorry except that he has invested time and effort to demonstrate that Trump is a bad person? Is that healthy for a child? He continues, “Even though you have heard hateful things from Trump and his supporters…” This statement should raise the question, what has this parent exposed his children to, and is it useful to expose a child who is still not mature enough to understand the Santa ruse to these words? What can a child do about Donald Trump being president-elect of the USA? This educator, I am sure, does not want his children to live in fear, then why expose them to the most unpleasant elements of this election? Surely if a parent is adept at convincing a child that a jolly fat man squeezes down their chimney every December 24th then they can make a grumpy fat man in the White House disappear for a few more years.
The point is this: for any parent or educator who falls on the liberal side of this argument, even if they believe completely that Donald Trump campaigned on hate, what good is telling that to children? Think of it this way; would you write a heartfelt letter to your very young children telling them that they have a 40% chance of getting cancer when they are older? What would be gained from telling them that it is a certainty that mommy and daddy will die some day? These are harsh realities of life but it would take a sadist to tell this to young children and a severely emotionally crippled human to tell this to young children and then say, don’t be afraid or don’t be anxious. To reiterate my stance, let kids be kids.
The days after the election gave me concern that some educators were unable to leave their politics outside of the classroom. A sentiment I detected many times was that this election was different, teachers have a duty to be partisan because this election is a case of good vs hate. This Washington Post article signed by 10 former State and National Teacher of the Year recipients was widely shared on Twitter and FaceBook after Trump was elected and sums up the sentiment. In it, these teachers openly endorsed Hillary Clinton and stated “We believe that Donald Trump is a danger to our society in general and to our students in particular.” Aside from being unhelpful, this kind of talk from rank-and-file educators and from highly-decorated and potentially influential educators is politically partisan. While this particular article was written in October, before the election, it is being widely shared now as many educators struggle to come to terms with the outcomes of the election. An unforeseen problem here, just one of many when we bring politics into the classroom, is that when teachers start saying personal and negative things about the future president of the USA not only does it engrain a negative attitude in young children towards their future president, it also replaces critical thinking with indoctrination in the classroom. This forces the young children of those parents who voted in an electoral college majority for Trump (and who also negligently drummed politics into their young children) to feel isolated and unwelcome in their own classroom and that their parents are hateful for having voted for Donald Trump. How can any teacher expect something good to come of that? No matter the outcome, when politics enter the classrooms of young children it is inevitably the child that loses.
Since the election, the use (or abuse) of children for political purposes has gathered pace. One FaceBook group called “Dear President Trump: Letters from Kids About Kindness” had 11,000 members at the time of writing and was heavily reported in global media. In it, parents posted photos of letters that their young children wrote to Trump urging him to be kind. In the liberal media, such movements are portrayed as “turning a negative into a positive”. However, in order for these young children to urge Trump to be kind they must first have been told by someone they trust, a parent or teacher (or Hillary Clinton through her advert), that the President-elect is a bad man. To me this smacks of using a child to make a political point. Similarly, the HuffingtonPostEducation article below gathered a series of things supposedly said by young children during and after the election. The majority of posts referring to Clinton were positive while the majority referring to Trump were negative. The quote that the Huffington Post led with was attributed to a four-year-old who said “Maybe Santa can take Donald Trump away?” Another four-year-old supposedly said “I want to find Donald Trump and punch him in the face”. My first reaction is that no four-year-old would say these things of their own accord and that most likely these are the words of their parents and not the children at all. But perhaps this does happen where parents are careless enough to impress their political beliefs upon them in a negative manner.
For those educators who think that this post is somehow partisan, naïve or unhelpful, please remember that I write with confidence about the future of our children because every school in the USA and in the West is readily equipped to make sure that children have the tools to combat those political opinions that they find repugnant later in life. Every school has a Mission Statement and most have a set of Learning Objectives. These ensure that every child is given a values-led education, is taught to be a compassionate, empathetic, reflective and thoughtful individual. For those educators who believe they need to make a stand against Donald Trump in their classroom, I would urge them to remember that the most powerful way to challenge those ideas that he holds that may be offensive is to bring the values outlined in the Mission Statement to life in each and every one of their lessons. Far more powerful than forcing our political beliefs onto young children is to instil in them the virtues that our school community values most.
For ideas on how to design and implement a meaningful Mission Statement in your school, please read the following.