Lessons from Trump's win

The US President-elect's rise hammers home the need to teach our children sound values

A day before the watershed presidential election in the United States, my son told me in a worried voice that he dreamt Donald Trump had won.

"That's a nightmare," I replied with a laugh.

My nine-year-old was out on a play date with some friends when his dream became reality. I'd been updating the mums who were chaperoning the group via WhatsApp as I stayed glued to CNN for the results.

Finally, it was game over. "Hillary Clinton has called Trump to concede the election," I texted.

One of the mums promptly replied: "Your son is asking, 'How can we go to America now?'" (For the record, a trip to the US was never on our agenda.)

One thing that has surprised me more than the tycoon's victory during this bitter campaign is how widespread anti-Trump sentiments are among children here, and how fervent their interest was in the outcome.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

We are talking about primary school kids who don't read or watch much news and have little inkling of this delicate thing called global balance of power. Kids who have no reason to care about what goes on beyond the safe bubble we call Singapore, basically.

My friend C's 11-year-old boy showed a maturity beyond his age in his reading of the results.

"He said it is unfair we have to live with him and be affected by what he does even though we didn't have a say in voting for him," C reported.

Another friend told us she went home after work and asked her son, who is nine, if he knew who'd won. His swift reply: "Donald Trump. We are all in trouble!"

I admit part of the doom and gloom is spread by us parents. My son has probably heard more than a smattering of my conversations with his father in the last few months that harped on one theme: How can such a guy run for president?

He must have also caught the headlines and soundbites on the latest outrageous thing Mr Trump said or was alleged to have done.

Much of the (mis)information, though, is spread among the kids in school. They, in turn, probably picked up bits and bytes from their parents, the media and the Internet, then came up with their own version of the bogeyman.

There is a bit of Trump in all of us. We all tell lies, harbour prejudices, say mean things and think even worse about those who are not like or in line with us sometimes.

This contradiction is, perhaps, one of the greatest parenting challenges. How do we teach our kids to disagree without being rude or disrespectful? How do we cultivate empathy and an open mind towards those whose views clash with ours? How can we ourselves walk the talk?

"I hate Donald Trump. He's going to kill black people," my six-year-old daughter announced to my surprise one night.

"That's not true. Who told you that?"

She pointed to her brother.

I turned to my son. "Who told you that?"

He named a good friend of his. "And who told him that?" I probed.

He named another boy he hangs out with.

Clearing Mr Trump's name was a task I was neither able nor willing to do - there were way too much bluster and hate-filled rhetoric to wade through. Besides, there are indeed segments of American society that have been fearing for their safety even before his win.

I settled for this warning to my son instead: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Don't pass on information unless you've checked your facts.

That turned out to be just one lesson I realised we could draw from the Trump phenomenon.

After I'd turned on the TV briefly one afternoon to get news updates as the anti-Trump rallies spread across the US, my kids showed me the protest signs they had made.

"Rude and racist!" read one, with the Trump name obliterated by a bright red X.

"Donald Trump, you should be dumped!" read another.

My amusement turned to unease as they began to call him all sorts of names and wished for him to meet his end in assorted horrible ways.

Mr Trump has been reviled for his vulgar, bullying behaviour, the way he demeans women, insults minority groups and threatens those who don't agree with him.

"By doing this, you guys are behaving like him," I told my kids.

The American President-elect is, as one columnist put it, everything we raised our kids not to be.

Yet, there is a bit of Trump in all of us. We all tell lies, harbour prejudices, say mean things and think even worse about those who are not like or in line with us sometimes.

This contradiction is, perhaps, one of the greatest parenting challenges.

How do we teach our kids to disagree without being rude or disrespectful? How do we cultivate empathy and an open mind towards those whose views clash with ours? How can we ourselves walk the talk?

The vitriolic US election reminds us of the importance of forging in our kids values such as self-control, tolerance and respect, without which a society will be torn asunder.

As it is, the US seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Between March and April, an advocacy group which works on civil rights cases polled about 2,000 teachers across the US on the impact of the presidential campaign on schoolchildren.

Their responses showed "an increase in the bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates". The group's report dubbed this the "Trump effect".

For instance, fans at high school sporting events in Iowa and Indiana reportedly taunted players, especially the Latino ones, with chants of "Trump! Trump!" and "Build a wall!"

Mr Richard Cohen, president of the group, Southern Poverty Law Centre, noted: "We've seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old, and now we're seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump."

Besides a simplified crash course on the American voting system ("Huh? How can Hillary Clinton win more votes but still lose?"), I've also had to explain to my kids why they shouldn't simply dismiss or detest those who supported Mr Trump.

These people might not share his personal views but were voting for what his party stands for, I tried. After all, Mrs Hillary Clinton is no saint either.

"In the real world, you don't get clear-cut heroes and villains like what you are used to in cartoons," I said. "There is a bit of the devil and angel in all of us. Our challenge is to always try to tame our inner devil and bring out the angel more often."

For those who believe in a higher being, we seek comfort from the knowledge that no matter who is in power, God is in control.

For those who don't, well, clinical psychologist Cathy Moser has these words that will reassure kids and parents alike: "The world has lived with nasty presidents and mean presidents and great presidents and all sorts of different presidents of the United States for hundreds of years and they've survived, and they've still grown."

As President Barack Obama said, no matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning.

We parents can live to fight another day against racism, bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia.

We should be even happier to know, by their adverse reactions to such behaviour, that most of our kids already have a sound moral compass.

Now, it is up to us to walk the talk.

•The writer, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons from Trump's win'. Print Edition | Subscribe