Will My Children See the World Any Differently Tomorrow?

For four years I’ve been telling them a lie they may finally be able to believe.

Mother embracing child amid a collage of election symbols.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus and /iStock/Getty Images Plus.

A few years ago, right around the time Donald Trump became president, my kids started asking if people were good or bad. The oldest was getting a sense of the world outside his own life—he was curious and questioning—and the younger two followed his lead. They’d read an article or hear an interview or catch a snippet of cable news, and need to know: Is the person at the center of this story good, or bad? Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, John McCain—my husband and I found ourselves constantly confronted with the question of whether these were decent people, or terrible people, and the children would not accept any answer that allowed for a space in between.

I’ve been thinking about that stage of parenting a lot lately. How my instinct to push my kids away from such morally certain determinations—“Most people are a bit of both!” I’d try to tell them, or “Good people do bad things sometimes!”—coincided with my desperate desire for them to see the world as basically good, despite its feeling bad, and their need to categorize and understand the chaos of the news around them.

What must they think? The world is basically good, I say, but the police kill unarmed Black men and hurt peaceful protesters. The world is basically good, I say, but it’s not safe to go to school and don’t forget your mask, and no, we can’t see your grandparents for Thanksgiving. The world is basically good, I say, but the president can break the law without consequence. The world is good, I say, but the ruling party is trying to make it harder for people to vote. The world is good, I say, but all the news you hear every … single … day is bad, and Dad and I are always stressed or down or angry. Please ignore.

There are a thousand reasons why I want Donald Trump to lose the presidential election. I could list them, but whether you agree with me or not, you’ve heard them all before. Still, the biggest, truest, most consuming reason is the selfish one: I want my kids to believe me when I say this is not who we are, even as I’m not sure I believe it myself. I want them to be able to trust me when I drone on and on about how, yes, you’ve lived all of your formative years with this president, but just wait, you guys, it’s not always like this—even as I know getting rid of Trump won’t solve everything. I’ve been pushing some form of this frantic assurance at them while the world reveals otherwise for the past four years. Now, I want the lies I’ve been telling them to be true.

For a while, I subscribed to a few “good news” newsletters and told the kids that we’d be expanding our nightly routine. Dinner, shower, but before book or TV, I would read them one piece of good news from my inbox. Unfortunately, they only saw the bad in the good, like they’d been trained to zero in on the hard truth of each story rather than allow themselves to see the bright side. A woman rented out a bunch of hotel rooms so that homeless people in Chicago could have a warm place to sleep during a cold spell? What a wonderful act, I would say. Why does this country let people be homeless? they would answer. You get the idea. I suppose I should have been thrilled to have such perceptive kids, but I wanted them to see human potential, not systemic failure.

Eventually, I stopped trying to force a glass-half-full view of the world on them and adjusted to instead confront the reality of their world (pretty good!) and the world at large (pretty shitty!) and help them carry both ideas in their heads at once. I have no idea how that’s going. The first thing my 12-year-old said to me when he woke up this morning was, “No matter what happens tonight, we’ll be OK,” which felt both true and regrettable, though I don’t know if he realized he was giving himself a pep talk because he is scared or if he actually understands that our family has been insulated from the worst of Trump, or both. Maybe he wants permission to act or feel fine tomorrow. To think about football and soccer no matter what happens. Maybe he doesn’t want Trump to consume the next four years of his life, win or lose. Maybe he was just trying to lay the groundwork for comforting his mom.

We’re letting the kids stay up really late tonight and ordering in their choice of dinner. They’ll surely be asleep before we know anything. Only once have I let myself imagine what it will be like to tell them Trump lost. For them to not just hear me say that a truly good thing can happen, but to see it. Will that be the start of something new for them? A childhood with fewer worries? Less skepticism? More optimism? Will a weight be lifted for them like it will be for me? Will they be able to look back on this period as an aberration? Like, remember Trump and that pandemic? I don’t want to get my hopes up. But even worse, I don’t know if I want them to get their hopes up. They’ve already learned to expect bad things from people and believe their country to be broken. They’ve grown up with a dumb and dangerous president and remember little before him. If I have to wake them up one morning this week and say Trump won, do I want them to be crushed, or unsurprised?