One of the many unprecedented aspects of this presidential campaign was how it became a topic of discussion for families across the country.
From the dinner table to carpool lines to the voting booth, children engaged with their parents about the candidates and the campaign more than they might have during previous presidential elections.
And many parents, specifically those who supported Hillary Clinton and hoped and expected she’d become the first female president of the United States, woke up with the tough job of explaining the results to their children.
“I am at a loss. I am terrified for my lovely and sweet gender-non-conforming child,” said Cecily Kellogg, mom to a 10-year-old daughter and founder of a content marketing and social media management firm. “I don’t know what to say. I can only hold her, let her cry and tell her I will keep her safe.”
One of the first things parents can do, experts who work with children say, is take time to pause and collect their own feelings, since children will be looking for signs from their parents about how to react.
“Kids do take cues from you, so it’s important not to catastrophize the results” if you are upset about the outcome, said Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical College. “Remind yourself and your children that we have had some very varied presidents of very varied values, styles and moral character, and we have always pulled through as a nation.”
‘Democracy is messy’
This is a time to explain to children that “democracy is messy,” said Leslie Bushara, deputy director for education at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and mother of a 14-year-old boy.
“When you can, talk with your children about what President Obama called ‘the boisterous diversity of our country,’ ” she said. “Help young children understand that like a family, we won’t always agree as citizens, either.”
Louise Sattler, a psychologist and frequent contributor to CNN Parents stories, said this is a great time to explain to children how the nation is made up of not one person, but a system.
“For young children, start with a fundamental talk about how one person doesn’t rule the United States,” said Sattler, owner of Signing Families, which teaches the basics of sign language to people of all ages and abilities. “That is why our ballot has many names on it, and all have a special role.”
For older children, Sattler says, education is key, including talking about the electoral college and the importance of checks and balances within our government.
“I think it is a great time to discuss how every vote matters and … (how) being popular doesn’t always mean you win,” she said.
One of the challenges for parents of children who hoped Clinton would make history as the first female president is helping kids, especially young women, cope with their tremendous disappointment.
“It was especially hard to tell my daughters that the best candidate we had to break the glass ceiling failed even after years of proving herself worthy,” said Rhonda Woods, a Connecticut real estate agent who has 15-year-old boy-girl twins and a 22-year-old daughter.
Acknowledging that disappointment during her concession speech Wednesday, Clinton sent a message to young women: “Someday, someone will” crack that glass ceiling, “and hopefully sooner than we think right now.
“To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and to achieve your own dreams,” Clinton said during the speech.
Nancy Friedman, a mother of two, said she was looking for what she could say to her 16-year-old daughter, and instead, it was her daughter who comforted her.
“To Hillary, I love you. No one has ever been more qualified to be president than you,” Rachel Friedman wrote on Facebook. “You embodied everything a candidate is supposed to be. … Keep your head high Hillary, you cracked the glass ceiling and I have faith it will soon be shattered.”
Teaching kids to be ‘gracious winners’
For parents like Marie Stroughter, who voted for Trump, there are also important conversations to have with her three children, ages 13, 15 and 18. She said she and her children saw the “gamut of reactions” about Trump’s victory on social media, with a lot of “ugly comments” and people unfriending or threatening to unfriend her on Facebook.
“We talked about how emotions are high and how we felt the last two times when things didn’t go the way we had hoped,” said Stroughter, co-founder and host of African-American Conservatives, referring to the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, when a Republican lost to Barack Obama.
Stroughter said she and her children said a prayer together “and continue to pray for healing for our nation.”
Talking to kids about how to be gracious winners and good losers is also important, said Bushara, of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Children of families who are delighted by the outcome should remember that there are many families — and many children — who are disappointed.
“Remind them, as in sports, don’t make fun of those who supported the losing candidate, and don’t be unkind towards those who won,” she said.
Part of the conversation with children can also involve explaining how we live in a divided country, and how many people who voted for Trump are struggling to make ends meet and think Trump, more than Clinton, may bring about the change they believe is needed to get ahead.
Christine Koh, founder and editor of Boston Mamas, wrote about “the way forward” for her, her family and the country in a blog post.
Finding a path ahead will involve hard conversations about topics such as fear of diversity, racism and gender inequality, and then committing to work together to make things better, said Koh, who has two daughters, ages 5 and 12. That also means no more jokes about leaving the country if Trump becomes president, she said.
One of her older daughter’s first questions Wednesday morning, after she learned that Trump was elected, was whether the family would be moving to Canada.
“And I said, ‘No, we can’t move away from our problems, we need to move towards them,’ ” wrote Koh, who is also an author, podcaster and consultant. “Part of privilege is the ability to move away from problems — which leaves people in need behind. It’s just an option. We need to deal with what is in front of us.”
Brian Gresko, a writer and critic, said he has spent the past year talking with his 7-year-old son about how Trump is exactly the kind of man that they shouldn’t model themselves upon, so it was a tough morning conveying that Trump had won the presidency.
That said, Gresko encouraged his son to practice kindness and compassion and to be optimistic but also sensitive to the many different reactions — anger, sadness, shock — on the part of residents in their Brooklyn community.
“And that this would be the beginning of what will be a four-year period of remaining positive and hopeful and, even more than that, active in making sure we accept others who are different from ourselves,” said Gresko, editor of “When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood.”
Lauren Smith Brody, author of “The Fifth Trimester,” which will be released in April, said she’s talking to her boys, ages 5 and 8, about the lessons from the campaign.
“The lesson for all of us, I’m telling them, is to keep your heart and mind open. Let people feel heard. Never act superior to anyone else. Speak out against bullies,” she said. “We all have things to learn from one another.”