CONTENT GUIDANCE: This is a hopeful piece about the intersection of parenting and current events. I wrote the majority of it before news about yesterday’s school shooting in Nashville (and the subsequent attempts by conservatives to use the shooting as an excuse to target the trans community) as well as the deadly fire at a facility for migrants in Ciudad Juarez. Those tragedies are acknowledged below, and I truly hope that the piece as a whole is a useful salve. However, I also understand if you don’t want to read an essay about politics and parenting that doesn’t center the acute fears that so many are feeling right now. If that’s the case, there’s no shame in skipping this one. As an alternative, here’s a piece (from last week) by the brilliantabout guns and schools as well as a New York Times explainer (gift link) about the human risk of Biden’s current border crackdown (which is sadly prescient after last night’s events).
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About a month ago, a smart friend asked if I could write about how my kids inform my work, writing, and politics. She meant it less in the '“how do your kids motivate your activism?” sense and more in the way we’d consider the question in regards to a trusted colleague, friend or peer. I replied that I thought it sounded like a great idea and then subsequently… didn’t write that piece.
Truth be told, I wasn’t just procrastinating. I was worried about writing something too treacly, too flat, too much like the kind of trump card I might play if I wanted to be King Woke Dad of the Park Slope Food Co-Op (“Oh, we’d love to drop by Xander’s birthday party, but my Aurora is busy that weekend at her pansexual reparations coven/SAT prep class”).
More importantly, I was scared to write that piece because we live in a world where (in the United States at least) children are shot and killed at school, where Black and Brown children’s lives are viewed as particularly expendable, and where trans kids’ lives have become mere fodder for rallying a base. I worried that by expressing optimism or gratitude, that I’d disrespect the very legitimate reasons why parenthood feels so fraught and tenuous right now.
So I punted, sort of. I wrote about the broader miasma of parental emotion and how frequently it is weaponized for reactionary purposes. A pretty timely topic, all things considered.
I might have been content to leave it at that, but there is SO MUCH CONVERSATION ABOUT KIDS AND POLITICS THESE DAYS. Most of it is from the right, and by “conversation” what I actually mean is “an astroturfed campaign designed to shore up conservative minority rule through the passage of cruel, reactionary legislation under the guise of ‘parental rights’ or ‘protecting children.’” This is the same bad faith carnival game I wrote about in my essay about weaponized miasma, but I still can’t stop thinking about it.
Parents, we are told, are supposed to be afraid right now. Of everything. Especially White parents. Especially straight, cis, White parents. Fear! Fear! Fear!
Here is an incomplete list of things that conservative activists, lawmakers and talking heads have encouraged me (a parent) to be frightened about over the past couple of year: Books, Black Professors, books written by Black Professors, White people who have ever read a book by a Black professor, Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo specifically (I am to assume, from the level of vitriol that each of those individuals has received, that at any given moment they might rush into my house without notice and I don’t know… critical race theorize my children?!?), other people’s trans kids, the fact that other people’s trans kids may bully my kids into becoming a trans kid (which is, naturally, the only explanation for why my children may one day come out as trans), the fact that trans girls might be playing sports with and against cis girls, doctors in Cleveland and St. Louis (just generally, maybe?), pronouns as a general concept, CRIME, the fact that there is so much crime because all the police were defunded, the extremely high likelihood that somebody will attempt to shoplift my child from a San Francisco Walgreens and (lest we forget)… the Walt Disney Corporation, who, it pains me to report, is “woke now.”
This is, of course, old news. It’s boilerplate moral panic stuff— one part Mothers of Massive Resistance-style reactionary galvanization and one part “They are putting razors in the Halloween apples!” folk hysteria. We have seen it all before and we will see it all again. It is the old trick of reframing our most self-centered fears that our children will one day reject us under the guise of benevolent mama and papa bear protectiveness.
It’s worth acknowledging that the left is no stranger to fear-centric rhetoric about our kids either. I would argue, however, that we are less likely to do so in bad faith, and that there are excellent, non-moral-panicky reasons why, for instance, Black parents would be frightened that the U.S. education and justice system doesn’t love their kids, why parents of trans kids would feel that their children are being targeted for extinction, why parents of school-aged children would live in fear of yet another mass shooting, and why parents generally would be frightened that the planet won’t be fully inhabitable by the time our current kids reach late adulthood.
This is all to say: Even though I’m deeply sympathetic to leftist fears and immensely critical of fears from the right, I am neither anti-pessimism nor am I immune to the disorienting mix of abundant and scarce emotions that every parent knows so well. To parent is to be afraid. To parent in an interconnected, politically volatile, immensely inequitable world is to be very, very, very afraid.
All of that is true. And….
Here’s what the merchants of fear (and by this I mean particularly the bad faith merchants of fear) get wrong about parenting.
It is a tremendous gift to watch your children make sense of the world (in all of its joy and all its pain).
It is an equally tremendous gift to learn from your children as you too try to make sense of the world (in all its joy and pain).
It is immensely wisdom-giving to be forced to justify your moral and political beliefs to and with your children.
It is wildly humbling (in the most wonderful way) to have your children point out the ways that you are living in opposition to the values that you purport to hold dear.
It is deeply motivating to evolve your family’s choices in order to lessen the gap between those expressed values and the ways you’re living your life.
It is challenging but life-giving to process all the ways that those now-less-hypocritical-but-still-imperfect choices legitimately make your family’s life more complicated.
It is inspiring to watch your kids operate with more kindness, inclusivity and belief that everybody-can-and-should-be taken-care-of optimism than you ever imagined was possible. It makes you hopeful, not that they will save the world, but that they will navigate it more responsibly than you have up to this point.
My kids (like their parents) are not perfect paragons of political and moral virtue. All four members of our nuclear family can be self-centered and distracted by shiny objects. At least three of us (my wife excluded) are too likely to spend our disposable income on cheap plastic nonsense. Every single one of us occasionally need to slow down, grab a snack, and rest up before getting back in the game. And no, we don’t spend the majority of our time together in self-serious familial struggle sessions (I am giving this essay a final edit while my kids are choreographing a dance to the Sing 2 soundtrack that would most accurately be described as “enthusiastic and shout-y”).
But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t lucky to get to muddle through together.
This past week, there was a meeting for parents and teachers at my kids’ school. It’s been a tough year for our little educational community, just as its been a tough year for just about every U.S. school (and for schools like ours— Title 1, non-selective, majority Black and Brown public schools— in particular). We’ve had to navigate teacher turnover, burnout, and a wide variety of student mental health and behavioral needs. There are kids in our building who are struggling mightily, in ways that are both heartbreaking for them personally and that put strain and stress on the broader school. Some days, those challenges impact my kids directly, other days they don’t.
The meeting went pretty well, as far as those meetings go. It is (of course) heart wrenching to hear other parents talk about the ways that a school we love has let their kids down, and dispiriting to witness faculty members whom I admire look and sound so visibly and audibly fatigued. But it was also gratifying to see a legitimately diverse school community talk about our love for this shared space and to commit to the hard work of finding a way together. The meeting was mostly productive, only occasionally alarmist, and before I left I had the opportunity to walk up to a couple of moms I had never met previously and say “I’ve heard such great things about your kid.”
My own children— a kindergartener and a fourth grader— couldn’t wait to get my report. This is, after all, much more their school than it is mine or my wife’s. And while they didn’t need to hear the full blow-by-blow, it was such a treat to debrief with them generally, for so many reasons.
It felt important for my White son and I to talk through my relief that neither White parents nor men took up an excess of space in the meeting. It felt even more important for him to articulate back to me, in his own words, why it would have been so dangerous had the opposite been true (and for me to admit to all the many meetings in my past where I’ve been the primary over-talking culprit).
It was heartwarming to hear my six-year-old daughter jump into that exchange in order to ask me, “wait, Daddy, did you get to talk?” and, after hearing my response, quickly reply “oh yeah, oh yeah sometimes its better if you listen more.” I don’t know if she meant the royal “you” or me personally but, again, in the latter case she was spot on.
It was eye-opening (for me) for my son and I to debrief how the facilitators had to strike a tricky balance between providing individual parents the chance to share their concerns while re-directing the meeting’s overall energy towards the needs of the school as a whole. He talked about the parallels between that meeting and the way he experiences that same dynamic in his classroom.
The conversation went on for a while. Race and class and gender came up again, as did the broader question of why our district has so much less money to spare than the leafy suburbs to our North and West. At one point, my six-year-old jumped back in, eager to contribute to what she properly identified as an ethics-based exchange. She paused for perfect dramatic effect before interjecting, “You know what I think?… Sharing IS caring!… and Reading is, um, Being Smart!” I laughed out loud, both because she wasn’t wrong and because aren’t all my grand political and social statements just trite, flowery reiterations of those two sentiments?
Nothing about the conversation was uniquely earth-shattering. My kids weren’t any wiser or empathetic than anybody else’s’ kids would have been in the same situation. I wasn’t any wiser than any other parent would be. What mattered was simply that we were and are three human beings who love one another and who got to puzzle together about what it means to live a kind and decent life.
I could go on, both about this particular exchange as well as all the other ways that doing/talking about/discovering your politics with your children is a hundred times more delightful than muddying through it alone. Going to protests with kids? Way more fun than doing so with boring grown-ups (if only because there’s more impetus to stop for a snack on the way home). Trying to make more responsible climate change decisions? Ditto (bikes and bus rides with kids are so much less stressful than being stuck in traffic with kids). Deciding who to vote for? Harder, but better! I’ve come to love having to justify why each of my preferred candidates do or don’t live up to our family’s values (rather than just telling my kids “we vote for the Democrats because they’re nice and the Republicans are mean”).
When I engage with the world in isolation from my children, I’m more likely to consume the empty calories that make up so much of contemporary politics— I’m liable to get pulled down into distracting but non-essential rabbit holes, to fall for cheap “hahahahaha the other side did something bad” schadenfreude, to scroll and scroll and scroll for so many wasted hours. I do less of that now, not because I’ve evolved to a higher consciousness, but because it’s a bummer to have to tell my kids why I was distracted by my phone (if I say “oh, just reading the news” I’ll have to explain “what news” and then they’ll have a million skeptical follow-up questions if my answer is “oh, because a second term Congresswoman from Western Colorado said something that I think is stupid and that means our team won the news cycle!”).
None of this should be mistaken for an argument that kids are an automatic salve against despair. We live in legitimately scary times. So many of our loved ones are being targeted in truly dangerous ways right now. Nor am I arguing that you need to have children to cultivate a community of love, accountability and challenge around you. Every single example I used as to why I’m grateful to live in a spirit of political accountability with my kids could be true for caring, trusting adult communities too (including going out for treats after protests… I mean, why not be the non-boring protest adult you want to see in the world?).
I am saying, however, that there’s something beautiful on the other side of parental fear and despair. Discovering and re-discovering my politics alongside my kids makes me smarter, more honest and less hypocritical. Put differently, it makes the way I engage with the world that much more human. And if our greatest fears in life are disconnection and isolation, then I can think of no more profound a gift.
Song of the week:
Would you like to hear a very beautiful dulcimer-based song about pretending that your infant child is a vegetable? What if I told you that my mom once played and sang it for me (and also passed it along to the host of Montana Public Radio’s legendary Children’s Corner program, who then played it on her show a bunch, thus making it a favorite for so many other Big Sky country families)? Would you enjoy it even more if I told you that I ended up going to college with the person about whom it was written? And that I then sang it to my kids when they were babies? And that they now don’t want to hear it, because I probably overdid it when they were younger, but maybe they’ll change their mind when they’re grown?
As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.
This week’s discussion for White Pages subscribers:
Some times I keep these things thematic, and, well, this week is one of those times. Tomorrow, the paid subscriber crew will be talking about our earliest “political/current event” memory (and what lesson you took from it at the time). I’m excited because we’re such an intergenerational community and I’ve got a hunch that we’ll have a pretty broad decade-span of memories represented.
As always, if you’d like in on the fun but can’t afford a paid subscription, just email me and I’ll comp you. No questions asked and no need to justify (seriously). email@example.com.
[Oh, and if you haven’t joined the Flyover Politics discord, I highly suggest doing so before Friday evening, especially if you have any interest in women’s college basketball. Full disclosure: all are welcome, but we are a Caitlin Clark-stanning community and the live Iowa game threads have been a thrill ride].
There is so much here! Wow.
This week my four children are at their dads. In the past two days, my 15-year-old daughter has messaged me with fear about asteroids hitting the earth, the ozone layer, a deadly bacteria thawing and infecting people, and most importantly she asked if we could move out of Iowa. Because of all the recent trans and LGBQT+ laws. She was 10 when she decided she was a lesbian. At that point I was a little impressed with the school because the associate principal called me in and wanted to be sure that during an incident in the cafeteria when she outed herself she wasn’t being made fun of or picked on. They had policies in place against that and took them very seriously. I’m guessing those policies will change. I’m also hindsight wondering if maybe they were making sure to out her to me? He seemed a bit surprised that I knew.
When I told my daughter that we are staying in Iowa until they all graduate (they have all been in the same school district for 99% of their schooling - it’s the most well funded one in the area, and when we moved to the next town over, I kept them there through open enrollment) she was very upset, and asked “why is switching schools a bad idea? If Iowa is doing this bullshit we should move.” So, I’m staying for my kids, but this one is begging me to move out of Iowa.
I also kept them in the school district because it’s a smaller community, and it somehow felt safer to me. On my oldest son’s second day of Jr High, a boy in his grade brought a gun to school in his backpack. He pulled it out during a class and aimed it at the teacher’s head point blank and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, he had forgotten to take the safety off and the teacher was able to wrestle the gun from him. Had he not forgotten to take the safety off... I almost pulled my kids to homeschool that day.
We have had a lot of conversations about diversity, inclusion, racism, politics, etc. And everything you say here about those conversations with your children is spot on accurate and resonates with me. Especially now that my kids are 17, 15, 13, and 11 - those conversations are so special and important to me. I can now start to see some of the things I did right!
This was such an excellent and thoughtful piece.
This was such a beautiful and thoughtful piece, Garrett. Thank you for writing it. I went to harass my 17 year old last night for not yet being in bed and she burst into tears and said “I’ve just been reading about the Tennessee shooting, okay? I can’t go to sleep now.” 😮💨 And then we were able to talk, especially about how some are using the shooters gender identity to distort the facts and the response. It is amazing to watch them on their own political journey and it really does give me hope.
Last night our DART affiliate (called RISC) held our annual action with 1200 people and some of our city council members. We’ve been working on specific recommendations for affordable housing, mobile home repair/replacement and gun violence. It went well and I had a big role (I’m co-president this year and helped chair the meeting, negotiate with the public officials, and provided the summary/call to action at the end). My 12 and 17 year-olds were there and the best part was that they clearly saw a different side of their mom. The overall vibe was “whoa - that was cool.” I hope giving them these glimpses of people who care for one another and even for strangers can help them feel a little less hopeless and a little more empowered. What a privilege to do this work (and I mean parenting and organizing, esp when they overlap!).