The divide between how Gen X parents grew up and how our children are growing up was already a wide chasm before the political world turned upside down.
Compare our coveted technology (a Walkman) to theirs (an iPhone), or our parents’ parenting style (benign neglect) to ours (hovering helicopter). Our ways of communicating and operating in the world are fundamentally different than theirs.
But the past few years have upended norms in a way our generation had never experienced before: Overnight, we went from electing the first black president to one whose rallies feature racist chants. Do our children grasp how strange things are right now, or is this their version of normal? What’s the best way to explain to them how far we’ve drifted from political and social norms without unduly terrifying them?
I asked one of the most prominent political voices on the internet, who frequently warns about the dangers of normalizing an acutely abnormal moment in our history. Sarah Kendzior is a progressive writer and scholar on authoritarian regimes, a frequent MSNBC commentator, bestselling author, co-host of the “Gaslit Nation” podcast, and has nearly half a million followers on Twitter. She’s also a St. Louis-based mom with two young children, 12 and 8 years old, who have heard her discuss difficult current events on TV and at home.
“I’ve flat-out told them, ‘This is not normal. This is not how the government is supposed to work,’” she said. “We’re in a turning point in American history.”
It’s not normal for the president to be retweeting white supremacists or tweeting racists taunts. It’s not normal to have a president who has lied more than 10,000 times in office, many times about things people easily can see and hear simply aren’t true. It’s not normal for an American president to dismiss a foreign threat to American democracy, and, in fact, openly encourage that foreign interference in an election.
None of us have ever seen a president behave like this before. And it’s unsettling to the majority of Americans who don’t support this to understand how others can go along with it.
It’s tempting for parents to simply want to seek refuge for their family life from the storms swirling outside. But Kendzior says that for many kids, especially those targeted by this administration, that’s not an option. Like most parents, she wants her children to appreciate the gravity of what’s happening, while maintaining a sense of security and hope.
Kendzior makes a point to teach them about American history by visiting museums and historical sites, so they can recognize patterns and see how the past impacts the present. She talks to them about how to stand up for others who might be getting picked on or suffering, and why that is the right thing to do.
She believes it’s important to validate children’s feelings and to reassure them that many people are working to make things better.
“Always tell your kid that you’ve got their back and that there are millions of other people who are fighting for them,” she said, adding that it’s normal to feel angry when children recognize things are unfair. “It’s a horrible thing happening,” she said. “We should be mad.”
There was an exchange during the televised hearing with former special counsel Robert Mueller that speaks to the fear that some things in our political system may have become permanently broken. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, asked Mueller: “Have we established a new normal from this past campaign that is going to apply to future campaigns, so that if any one of us running for the U.S. House -- any candidate for the U.S. Senate, any candidate for the presidency of the United States -- is aware that a hostile foreign power is trying to influence an election, has no duty to report that to the FBI or other authorities?”
“I hope this is not the new normal,” Mueller responded. “But I fear it is.”
It’s a collective fear. What if pathological lying, racist bullying and open defiance of laws are what our children come to see as “politics as usual”?
To them, our message can be this simple: Yes, things are totally out of whack, but lots of us are trying to fix it.
We believe you can help.