As pro-Trump insurrectionists began to swarm the west side of the U.S. Capitol building around 2 p.m. ET on January 6th, my panic attack began. I watched events unfold from my desk via a YouTube live stream of national news. The chaos on my laptop was in deep contrast to the quiet of my two young boys, aged 7 and 9-years-old, who were playing a game of pretend in a living-room pillow-fort they’d constructed so as to not disturb my wife, who was napping sweetly in the adjacent bedroom.
As my anxiety grew, I occasionally turned away from my laptop and paced into the hallway to look in on my children, who were blissfully unaware of the unprecedented capital mob trying to subvert democracy. And I realized that I faced a choice: I could close my door and shelter them from chaos, or I could turn on the television and live the moment with them.
This kind of choice is the hard work of parenting. Do you shelter or do you expose? The world offers a firehose of lessons for children. When do you take a time to stop and drink? The answer is, when you can, or when you have to. But it’s not a choice afforded to many American parents. As a white, middle-class suburban father, I have the privilege to shield my kids from the trauma of white nationalist violence, racially-biased police practices, hunger, and abject poverty in America. In the past, I’ve opted to talk to my kids about these issues at the dinner table rather than show them the reality in person, but it is my choice. Many of my fellow American parents have no other choice but to confront the harsh realities of America.
I did not want to keep my children from witnessing the madness of their fellow citizens. But I wouldn’t let them navigate the moment alone, either.
As a parent, I am responsible for providing my children with a context for what’s coming into my home. I’m also responsible for raising Americans who will be resilient and active citizens with a set of prosocial values they’ve learned from mom and dad. I had no intention of using the chaos as a “teachable moment.” I had every intention of being present, answering questions honestly, and quelling fears.
I woke my wife first and told her as gently as possible what was happening. We turned on the television and left the children to their game. But our kids are curious and preternaturally attuned to an active screen. There was no need to call them up and introduce them to the insurrection, we knew they’d wander in eventually, and minutes later, that is exactly what they did.
“What are you watching?” asked my 7-year-old.
“We’re watching the news, sweetheart. Something very serious is happening right now,” my wife replied. Her voice was weary and tearful.
“What’s happening?” my 9-year-old questioned, a note of worry creeping into his voice.
“Well, a bunch of supporters of President Trump are angry that he lost. They are at the capital, where laws are made, and they are breaking in and trying to keep Joe Biden from being president by keeping a vote from being counted,” I explained, trying to be as precise, simple, and unemotional as possible. “This is not how Democracy works.” It was a clumsy explanation, but the best I could do in the moment.
There was silence for a moment as they watched with us. Shouting, smoke, rampant destruction, and angry white faces splashed across the screen. And I realized that my boys probably weren’t aware that they could have thoughts and questions about what they were seeing. It had to be made explicit. I told them that if they had any questions, they could ask us anything. The floodgates opened:
9-year-old: Are they going to come here because they know we voted for Biden?
No. Right now we are safe and alright and our neighborhood is quiet.
7-year-old: Are they going to try and kill Biden?
Well. They are very angry, but Biden is surrounded by very heavy security and is being kept safe.
9-year-old: Why’d they say it would have been different if they were Black?
Because the people who were protesting the Black men being killed this summer were treated much more harshly by police. If these people had been Black, there probably would have been more deaths.
7-year-old: Why does Trump only love himself?
Probably, nobody told him it was important to love others and treat others with kindness and respect.
9-year-old: Who was killed? Will other people die?
A woman was killed. She was shot. We don’t know who she was yet. We hope nobody is hurt but it’s a very dangerous situation.
I did not present these answers to my children as unimpeachable fact. I can only provide my children with what I know to be true based on the information I have. That’s all any parent can do. And I would not presume that every parent would answer their children’s questions in the same way. But my goal was to provide comfort and honesty and to do so within the framework of the values we uphold in my family: love, charity, and good humor.
Along with the questions, and what I had not expected, were the observations from my children. The eldest claimed that in his experience the news reporters “always understated” the situation. The youngest, a fan of Halloween monsters, proclaimed President Trump to be “beautiful but evil.”
After about an hour, the novelty of the situation had worn off. They drifted off to other parts of the house to play video games or resume pretend with their stuffed animals.
We made a quick convenience-food dinner and continued to watch the news. We did our best to remain calm and stoic — in moments of crisis, stoicism is a powerful and effective tool — though an errant f-bomb meant my wife paid a dollar to both boys who heard it loud and clear. We spoke gently. We parented as normally as we could. We held hands and talked quietly.
By bedtime, the mob had been turned away from the Capitol building. Luckily, things had not become worse. Coverage switched back to legislators getting back to the business of certifying the electoral college votes. And this was when I chose my teachable moment.
I called my boys back and asked them to watch for a minute.
“They’re back at work,” I said. “They’re doing what they were elected to do. Democracy isn’t so easily stopped,” I said.
“I bet you two dollars that they come back and take over again,” the 9-year-old said.
This morning he asked if he could owe us. I told him he owed us nothing. Instead, I said he could pay us back by remembering last night and being a good citizen. I owe him to do the work and make sure that he has a Democracy to grow up in.