I wasn’t the most ardent Hillary Clinton fan, but when it came down to the wire, there was no contest. You don’t decry Mordechai when Haman is banging down your door.
So I breathed a sigh of relief when Samuel’s school election results came in: Clinton won the general. I wasn’t entirely surprised, given the demographics of his day school, but my relief was palpable. It told me I was among my people, assuming children parroted the political views of their parents. Just as importantly, I thought it was a harbinger of things to come.
(We all know how that turned out.)
But before we found out how it would all go, which is to say, into the ether like flames coming out of a trash can, I picked my son up from his after school program at the JCC.
“How was your day, Shmu?” I asked my 5-year-old as we walked out of the building.
“Good!” he replied. “We voted in the election, you know.”
“Yes, elections are important and exciting,” I said. “I voted, too!”
“I know,” he said.
“And how was your first Election Day?!” I asked.
“I voted for Trump,” he said, irrationally triumphant, “He lost the school election, but I voted for him anyway!”
“What do you mean?” I snapped. I could see myself, morphing instantly from a person of reasonably sound mind to Jewish Joan Crawford, wide-eyed and trembling in the JCC parking lot.
“I know you don’t like him, and I know he lost but I voted for him anyway!” Sammy said, grinning.
I contemplated how I might convey the magnitude of my displeasure, without projecting my political beliefs upon my child. I contemplated calling in an expert, and I contemplated that golden chestnut of parenting we call reverse psychology. I contemplated changing the subject, and I contemplated biting my tongue and saying nothing at all, perhaps the safest course of all in these troubled times.
But I didn’t do any of that.
“He eats children,” I said instead.
“For dinner?!” Samuel asked.
Immediately, I realized the magnitude and depth of my error.
“Um, no! It’s just—“
“I get it. He doesn’t ACTUALLY eat children. He just wants to eat them?” Samuel asked.
“Not exactly,” I trailed off.
I’m not sure if it was my worst parenting moment, but it certainly ranked up there in terms of mistakes. I messed this one up pretty fantastically.
“What I meant to say was that he likes to eat dinner with children, he knows many children, and he likes to eat dinner with them.” I said.
Clearly, I was really winning at this parenting thing, between traumatizing my child with talk of presidential cannibalism—an alternative fact, which is to say, an outright lie.
No one gives you a guide when parenting, and this is especially true in an election cycle. I needed a life raft or a guru or a guide. In the context of the most recent presidential election, I also needed 17 massages and 45 glasses of wine, but that is another story for another day.
Why did I tell my son that the Republican presidential nominee (and now our President) was a cannibal?
I had no idea where the thought came from, or what on earth possessed me to blurt it out.
I went to bed that night gutted, devastated, terrified, and concerned about the future of this country—and the fate of humanity moreover. But my biggest fear, in that moment, was not the rollback of progressive policies or the social and economic ramifications of this man’s election.
Instead, I worried narcissistically about what would happen when Samuel went to school the next day, only to reveal the unthinkable: our President-Elect was a cannibal. How would I explain that to the kindergarten teacher?
The next morning, the actual results were in. I had to pick up the broken pieces and find a way to mend them.
But how do you talk to your child about a political event you find catastrophic and appalling, knowing you don’t have the lexicon, knowing that on the best of days you’re going to screw it up? I knew at the time that many of the people closest to us would be adversely impacted in very real and life-altering ways. I believed at the time—before the JCC bomb threats began circulating and Jewish cemeteries began being vandalized—that my child, possessed of tremendous privilege, would be well-insulated from the worst of the ensuing chaos.
I knew I had said the wrong thing, and covered it badly. But I also realized that I was torn between two contrary impulses: for my child to mirror my political perspective without question, and for him to think for himself.
I knew that I couldn’t have both.
And I knew that to redeem myself, I had to tell my child the truth.
“I don’t choose who you vote for,” I explained over breakfast. “That is not how democratic elections are supposed to work. Everyone gets one vote and no one can bully or make fun of anyone else for their choice.” I trailed off, thinking, “even if you voted for a child-eating cannibal.”
“So it’s OK if I voted for Trump?” Samuel asked. “My teacher said we have to give him a chance.”
“Well…” I said. I was getting better at holding it together, but even I had my limits. This time, I did not say what I was thinking, which was: “I don’t advocate giving train wrecks or house fires or chlamydia a chance.”
Instead, I said. “You get to choose.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Because actually, I wanted to vote for God.”
“We’re going to need him,” I thought.
“But God wasn’t on the ticket,” he said, adding, “I told you I voted for Donald Trump, because I knew you wouldn’t like it,” he said, “But I lied.”
“Great,” I thought to myself, “The kid’s a liar. I can only imagine where he gets it.”
If the current political context—and my response to it—are any indication, lying is a hallmark of our time, and a family trait. It’s also another parenting challenge I’m going to have to contend with, and an issue for which I don’t have any ready answers. Still, there are moments of redemption.
“In the end I voted for Clinton,” Sammy said. “She didn’t win, but I think that’s what God would have wanted.”