How to talk to kids about the end of democracy

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Dr. Seuss’s art

This is not really a how-to essay. I’ve always hated anyone telling me how to raise my kids or giving me books about parenting.

But we’re living in the last days of the American constitutional federal representative democracy, and we have front-row seats to its rapid descent into hell.

What better teaching moment could you possibly ask for?

Our kids are pretty engaged with news. They have their very own sources, which is important to understand. They get their news through Snapchat and Instagram and maybe a little bit of Twitter.

They follow their own favorite news personalities, and they’ve never picked up a newspaper, unless it’s when I ask them to get some from the garage to start a fire in the fire pit on summer evenings.

They watch Trevor Noah and John Oliver clips on YouTube and Snapchat, and now, more than ever, they listen to their teachers talk about the news.

And still I find myself at the dinner table talking to them about the news.

My job as explainer-in-chief is over. It is no longer my world to explain to them. It’s their world to process. I can merely guide the conversations.

These days I listen more than I talk, because they are all on the cusp of crawling off this ship onto whatever platform they choose in life and executing their own life cycles like the gamers they are.

Where I learned about the world by going out in it and getting lost with no digital directions or gadgets, they have seen it all virtually through the screens that have dominated their lives.

In an increasingly digital world, they are better off than I am. I’m a digital immigrant, they are digital natives. For the savviest of marketers and communicators, the audience is built-in.

So what’s left for us as parents who’ve bridged the digital divide? What can we offer our kids from our analog cum digital life experiences?

Borrowing Lessons from the past

We could take a page from some of our favorite books if our kids still read anything on paper. A lack of words isn’t the problem. Our kids read, but they do it on screens.

But I’m talking more about borrowing concepts from the past to help our kids ease into an increasingly uncertain future with a bleak outlook.

Dr. Seuss Art – Firebird

In the mid-1700s, a French Benedictine monk, Antoine Augustin Calmet, wrote two-volumes on the mysticism, superstitions and culture of Southern Europe.

He was sent by the Pope to collect the monsters that parents used to scare their children into good behavior so that the church could profit off of selling protective items and amulets to this younger generation as they became the worshippers who would fill the coffers and the pews.

These monsters haven’t changed much over the centuries. They live in dark places and forbidden places. They lurk outside of open windows and beneath stairs. They’ve evolved into lore. They are vampires and werewolves. They are witches and djin, angels and demons.

And the church created the antidotes to these creatures of the dark in garlic and stakes to the heart. Silver crosses and silver bullets. Holy water and burning at the stake. And a myriad of other incantations and prayers.

At the heart of this strategy is fear. Fear is a powerful force in the universe. All animals are subject to it, our life cycles are heavily influenced by it.

Wielded carefully and managed tightly, fear is one of the most effective weapons and management strategies.

If a person is able to make sense of the world around him or her, they are at risk of becoming complacent. Fear is an essential motivator that keeps us moving and therefore less at risk for predation or the impacts of natural disaster.

So fear is not a bad thing, but as Roosevelt said, it’s the only thing we have to fear.

Because fear used against us to control us is one of the main reasons humans have been able to build empires on the bones of soldiers willing or unwilling to die for a cause.

Dr. Seuss once explained that he kept his characters and landscapes purposefully vague, because kids respond to that with a little fear and trepidation, which fires up their synapses and makes them more responsive to the moral of whatever tale they are witnessing.

Seuss, though he didn’t have any children of his own, well understood the age-old notion of a scary or confusing story that forces people to think and therefore engage with it.

His answer to that was to create creatures that vaguely resembled the creatures children saw at zoos but just odd enough to keep them from fitting into the comfortable narratives kids associate with those creatures.

Portrait of Daniil Kharms

A contemporary of Seuss, Daniil Kharms, wrote absurdist poetry and plays in Soviet Russia.

In a time of great confusion and fear, he buried unique criticism of the regime in bizarre stories that forced people out of their survival modes and confounded government censors. He also kept hope alive for a generation of people who would spend their entire lives in the hell that was Communism. And this seed germinated in a new generation that would come to revere his writing some seventy years after his death.

“There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we don’t talk about him any more.”  Daniil KharmsToday I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings

Both of these men understood something about human nature, and they created art that was subversive and important and which would outlive them.

We live in a time where parents try to protect their children from monsters. We’ve largely buried or animated the myths and have forced our kids to live in a reality that is anything but.

When my wife and I sat in front of the television on Nov. 8, 2016, our kids were peppering us with questions about what would happen next, expecting some expert analysis and a reassurance that everything is going to be OK.

That’s what parents do.

But we didn’t. We watched in despair as the evening wore on. We had tears, we expressed our frustration and revealed our fears.

Because fear is what motivates us. And unbridled optimism is what gets you picked off by predators.

The world looks more like a Seussian landscape today than the one I remember living in when I was a teenager. I look outside and see things I can’t explain to them.

Subtexting our kids

“kids can see a moral coming a mile off.” – Dr. Seuss

Seuss and Kharms influenced a generation of children by creating subtext in absurd and confusing settings.

I can’t help my kids make sense of our current sociopolitical situation, but I can subtext them, quite literally by using the technology they love so much.

I share stories I find fascinating with them on Twitter, Snapchat and through text messages to help them avoid the threat of echo chambers.

Of course we raised them with our values, but we also raised them to value independent and critical thinking. When and where we are able, we challenge them look at a situation outside of their digital devices by revisiting something from the past and applying the morals they recognize from their own experiences.

There is no playbook for raising kids. Those who were raising their children prior to World War II could not have foreseen the bloody atrocities that would be committed on their neighbors, but they experienced the winds of change leading up to it.

Some of those children grew up to make decisions that would save the lives of thousands of Jews from imprisonment and death.

Those kids would have grown up with an uncertainty about their world and the shifting landscapes and Seussian world leaders creating new narratives.

The subtext from their parents mostly likely boiled down to the simple notion of loving your neighbors as yourself. And so powerful and innate is that notion, that these kids ended up on the right side of history and preserved the lives of so many who would go on and contribute to our world.

In the end, that’s what I hope would happen should we forget our history and lose our minds and shed our humanity again.

And even if we don’t, there is no map to the future, no way to predict what it holds. It’s a vague Dr. Seuss book with strange trees and characters that we don’t quite recognize.

But there will always be a rhyme and a rhythm and a moral.



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