Talking With Kids About the Capitol Riots

13 mins read

The struggle to maintain a child’s innocence and curiosity is often at odds with a parent’s desire to raise informed, socially aware children. While the news channels were a constant noise in the background of my own childhood, I find that keeping my children protected, without hiding them away from the world entirely, is exponentially harder than the balancing act my parents had to manage with my generation. In this wildly divisive political era, how much information is too much? 

I have never disparaged Trump’s supporters in front of my children. Through everything he has forced this country to endure, every outright mockery of our sacred democracy, every racist/sexist/arguably unlawful tweet. Not during his largely incoherent MAGA rally speeches nor during the on-again, off- again press briefings full of alternative facts and untruths. I never, in all this time, have spoken ill of his supporters and voters in front of my two young sons. 

Until the Capitol Riots, that is. 

I do not shield my children from politics. Both of my sons, now ages ten and five, have worked campaigns with me, walked neighborhoods to deliver campaign literature and yard signs, helped decorate postcards to voters, and have accompanied me each and every time I have voted. For everything from city council to the United States Senate, my children have watched me engage in the political process in many different ways, always stopping to share information and insights into the importance of the process of democracy. 

For all the questions I eagerly answered and the knowledge shared, however, I held one very hard line: any time they asked a question about an opposing candidate, I never disparaged the person or their supporters. No small feat when working on campaigns that ran against anti-anything-not-white-male-and-Christian candidates, but I held my ground. I will talk about policies and platforms all day long, but I would not delve into the dirty, and at times terrifying, details of who these people and their supporters were. 

Why didn’t I care for that state Senate candidate? Well, she has different ideas about how to pay for schools (nevermind that she was an anti-choice extremist). And why did one of our family members have that state Senate candidate’s sign in her yard? Well, everyone is allowed to research the candidates for themselves and make their own choices. That’s what a democracy is all about! 

This tactic became a fair bit more difficult in 2016, when lines drawn in the sand seemed to indicate some measure of morality as much as they indicated political party affiliations. Still, when asked why half our family and friends were voting for this Trump guy, I kept it civil. “They have different views on what he can do for our country, and I happen to disagree.”

Living where we do, in the deep red suburbia of North Texas, I know that a fairly large swath of my children’s community, school, and circle of friends and family is devoutly Republican. I have never  removed a person from my life or the lives of my kids simply based on political affiliation. I know wonderful people who are kind, caring, decent individuals who vote across the full political spectrum, from independents to Democratic Socialists to Tea Party Republicans and absolutely everything in between. Before the era of Donald Trump, it was much easier to avoid concerning oneself with the voting history of your child’s soccer coach. I could tell my kids, in all honesty, that wonderful humans vote for all sorts of reasons and for all sorts of candidates, and that doesn’t have any bearing on what kind of a person they are, at their core.

And then, our Capitol was under siege, and it changed everything for me. 

Driving home from school pickup on January 6, I was trying desperately to focus on the excited chattering of the two young humans in my backseat, telling me all about the rules and regulations of color tag and wondering what snack we would have when we arrived home. I had been glued to my phone the entire day, watching the madness unfold moment by moment. I needed to break away from it all, for a moment, and focus my energy and attention on simply being Mom.

The radio station we had been listening to broke into an unusually serious tone as a breaking news announcement began to play: The United States Capitol building had been overrun, members of Congress are hiding in a locked basement, Capitol police had been unsuccessful in their bid to stop the insurgents, and one woman had been taken away on a stretcher, a gunshot wound in her neck. 

The mood in the car shifted dramatically, and the chatter and giggles fell silent. 

“Mom, what’s wrong? Who is that lady that got shot? Is something bad happening? Are we … okay?”

I never lie to my children. There are times when I may tell them that a subject matter is a bit ahead of where they need to be or that I need to research more before answering their question, but I do not outright lie. I needed to tell them the truth, but my words caught in my throat.

How do you explain to a kindergartner that men and women with guns went to a building to scare, and possibly harm, people because our president told them to? Would my fourth grader know words like “coup” and “insurgency” and “treason”?

I began with a lump in my throat, nearly unable to keep the tears at bay.

“Donald Trump told his people some lies. They believed those lies and they got very angry. Then he told them to walk to the Capitol and let the vice president and congresspeople know how mad they were. These angry people, they weren’t supposed to be in that building, but they pushed past the police and went in anyway. The members of Congress are safe, and so are the current and future vice presidents. The lady who was shot might not be okay. This sort of thing … I don’t think it has ever happened before. I don’t really know what happens next.”

The rest of the ride home was cold and mostly quiet. I wanted to reassure the two worried young ones in the backseat of my car, tell them it would all be fine and that this event, while scary in the moment, wasn’t that big of a deal. 

I have never told them a person, any person at all, is a bad person. We don’t use the word “hate” in our home. We do not cast off any one group of people as irredeemable or unwelcome. 

The riots at our nation’s Capitol took away that piece of protected innocence, though, and there was no going back. Some people are irredeemable. Some people cannot and will not be welcome in our lives, any more. Some questions take everything you have, to answer without breaking down. 

“Mom, why would Donald Trump tell them to do that? Why would they listen to him?”

And so, I told them the hard truth. This person, who just so happens to be our president, is not a good person. The people choosing to still follow after him at this point, don’t have any place in our lives, I’m afraid. Anyone who could see what he did, what he ordered these people to do in his name, and still want to support this man did not share our values, morals, or beliefs. 

I do not yet know what this looks like for them, going forward. We live deep in the heart of Trump country. As many Trump 2020 flags fly in these neighborhoods as American flags. Swag-adorned sycophants appear in every one of our grocery stores and parks and ice cream shops. 

Some people that we’ve known and loved for a very long time are among them. It isn’t possible to raise my children in this particular pocket of the country without intermixing with a great many people from the opposing party. The problem, as we all know, is not that my kids might have friends with Republican parents. Of course not. Political parties still do not serve to disqualify someone from our lives. 

Trump’s people, though? The ones still in the fight, still defending him, still idolizing him? That has nothing to do with political party and everything to do with decency and character. 

What happened is yet another major piece of history my children have borne witness to, in real time. A historical global pandemic (during which they lost one grandparent), in addition to a tumultuous political climate, felt like more than enough for my young sons to cope with, and now we had to add a half-hearted attempt at a coup.

We’ve spent the days since answering questions and quelling fears. Conversations with topics ranging from citywide curfews to the difference between a riot and a protest to why one of the men was wearing Viking horns and a fur costume have all been covered. 

How we move forward is a question I do not have an answer for, I’m afraid. The misinformation is already running rampant, the aforementioned line in the sand growing deeper still. I do not want to raise my children in a nation divided. I do not want to cast people out of our lives over any of this.

It would seem, however, this is not a choice that is mine to make any longer. Either you stand on the side of decent Americans who, regardless of party, believe in protecting and upholding our democracy, or you stand with the rioting man in Viking horns. May we all have the strength to know the difference.

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Jenn writes deeply personal, occasionally humorous pieces, from her home, deep in the heart of Texas. A stay at home parent and budding bleeding-heart activist, she seeks to inspire the quiet ones to find their voices, by way of equal parts sarcasm and compassion.

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