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The Nostalgic Weirdness of Talking to Kids About Russia

Adopt a tone halfway between Foreign Affairs and Highlights.

Even for adults the world is confusing. Did Russian interference change the results of an election? Unclear. What is Putin’s endgame? Unclear. Why can’t a billionaire kleptocrat seem to afford shirts? Well, that’s kinda clear: When you got it flaunt it. Thing is, it’s a confusing time for everyone and, for children, the intricacies of the American-Russian relationship might as well be gobbledy-gook. It’s just a bunch of scary nonsense. And yet having a basic understanding of what’s going on is reassuring in the short term and potentially helpful in the long term. Understanding politics is, after all, the process of accumulating disappointments and neuroses. To that end, I’ve started to try to describe our country’s relationship with Russia in ways that my sons can understand. It’s like a mix of Foreign Affairs and Highlights. So far it’s worked pretty well.

This was the conversation I had on the way to school with them this morning:

You know that kid Xander, who invites you to play dates but then doesn’t let you play with his toys? Well, that’s kind what Russia is like. Sometimes we have playdates that go well — World War II, Space Station — but other times Russia doesn’t play nicely with us.  Sometimes we spend a lot of time playing in parallel, building our Lego forts bigger and bigger, but barely interacting. Sometimes Russia wants our toys and sometimes we want Russia’s toys. But just like you did, that one time at Xander’s house, we want to go home and play with our own toys. What’s happening now is that Russia is trying to tell us what toys to play with even though we have a lot more toys.

As far as what Russia’s been up to, it’s like when you and your brother were playing together a week ago and I got really mad at you because you wouldn’t let him play with anything. You kept on saying, “No, this squishy animal is mine and so is this one and this one.” Even when he would go into the living room and make his own squishy animals with paper towels and rubber bands, you’d follow him and snatch that.  And what did I do? Well, if you remember, I said actually your toys don’t belong to you. (Neither do Tubes’, for that matter.) They belong to me and that I was the one that decided who had how many toys. You didn’t like that system very much but your brother did. Anyway, that’s what Russia was like for a long time.

But remember I had to make dinner  — chicken tenders, again — and so I had to leave you and your brother to your own devices? And while I was busy, he snatched all your toys and declared them to be his? That’s where Russia is now. 

The guy who runs Russia is named Vladimir Putin. He’s pretty silly. Sometimes, when he rides horses, he forgets to put on a shirt. In fact, he often forgets to put on a shirt. Anyway, remember that time we went over Vera’s house and her older sister Zoe was there too? Zoe seemed super cool, right? Vera’s Daddy let her do pretty much whatever she wanted, since she’s a little older than you. But there was that time when you and Vera were watching PJ Masks and Zoe was like, “PJ Masks is dumb” and you, wanting Zoe to think you were cool, said, “‘Yeah PJ Masks is dumb'” and Vera, with whom you have been watching PJ Masks since Kindergarten, got really quiet and sad. Later, on the way home, I explained that Zoe does in fact seem cool but isn’t good or nice and that you’re real friend is Vera. Now you and Vera watch PJ Masks at our house and Zoe doesn’t come over any more. Well, Donald Trump is kinda being like you watching PJ Masks and Putin is like Zoe. That makes us Vera I guess.

Remember when we went to visit Gramps’ farm in Perkasie and, as we were walking in the stables, I explained that when you walk near a horse, you want to give it a lot of space because it can kick you? You said, are horses scary? And I said, no but they can be dangerous. But, if you know how to act around them and interact with them, a horse can be a man’s resolute companion? Well, Russia is like that horse. You don’t need to fear it, but always know where you are around it and always make sure it knows where you stand. 

It’s important to know who your friends are and who your enemies — and you don’t really have any of those yet, but some people are nice to you — are. And it’s also important to know when your enemies are pretending to be your friends and vice versa. That doesn’t happen very much to you because being in first grade and being a country are pretty different. But, still, it does happen. There are people that you don’t trust because you think that maybe they don’t want you to be happy. Russia is like those people.