When I was growing up in 1980s Yonkers, New York, our criteria for choosing friends had nothing to do with our parents’ political affiliations. There was a distinct separation between our world and theirs. I never asked the kids in my neighborhood what they thought of President Ronald Reagan and they never asked me. Our parents might roll their eyes at the mention of a family whose opinions differed from theirs, or express their dislike directly to the adults, but they never brought us into it.
I have seen my political language change within my household, and I’ve witnessed it change among my friends. We never used to ask our kids if their friends’ parents were Republicans or Democrats.
For our part, we almost never brought politics into ours, to the extent that we even had partisan affiliations. We chose our friends based on questions like: Debbie Gibson or Tiffany? Run-DMC or LL Cool J? John Stamos or Ralph Macchio? Yankees or Mets? We never asked, Reagan or Mondale?
I personally was raised in a conservative household but never focused on politics until I went away to college and started thinking for myself. I zoned out when my father played Rush Limbaugh’s talk show on the car radio, staring out the window at the signs on the Cross Bronx Expressway as they whizzed by. I didn’t pay any attention to his political musings, and I certainly never repeated them on the playground.
Yet, for my kids, politics confronts — and defines — them everywhere they turn.
When my nine-year-old daughter made a new friend at the pool this summer, she skipped over to me in delight to share the exciting news. But as she walked away, my teenage son warned, “You know, they’re Trumpers.”
It’s not just my teenagers warning me away from “Trumpers,” either. Rarely a day passes without my 10- and 12-year-old daughters coming home with a political comment on their lips. When I ask my daughters about school, my 10-year-old tells me about the comic she and her friends are creating during recess, but also the boy who yelled “Blue Lives Matter” to her African American friend at snack time, and the kids who have Trump 2020 slogans as their profile picture on class Google Meets.
There’s no doubt that some of this politicization comes from external sources, like the 24/7 media environment they’ve grown up with, in which news of every partisan denominator is available in their palm. Or a culture in which advertising, not to mention football games and awards shows, take on political dimensions. It’s not surprising that a national obsession with politics would trickle into the classroom and onto the playground.
But there’s also no doubt that as the country has become more polarized, parents have contributed to the environment our children now find themselves in — and that they need to stop. When we give our kids a Donald Trump hat or a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris mask, we’re politicizing them. When we take them to political rallies, we’re returning them to the playground with a clear message that creates an instant divide.
Over the course of the Trump era, I have seen my political language change within my household, and I’ve witnessed it change among my friends. We never used to ask our kids if their friends’ parents were Republicans or Democrats. We never gave them campaign merchandise.
We raised them with our morals and values, but we kept our political world separate. But now, if we pick up our kids from a house with a Trump or a Biden sign, we instantly comment on it. We often express our approval or disapproval to our kids without even knowing their friends’ parents and exactly what their beliefs are.
As the political climate in this country heated to a boiling point during the Trump era, I think a lot of us felt an obligation to take a stand and state our views clearly. But by dropping our boundaries, we’ve inadvertently sent our children into the world as our emissaries.
While my older boys talked about Barack Obama when he was running for president, it was out of excitement at having an African American leading the country. In his first campaign, the only mentions I ever heard of opponent John McCain were respectful. And I never heard any Obama vs. Mitt Romney talk. I don’t think they even knew who Romney was.
But now, our children seem to feel pressured to choose a side. They are suddenly anxious when they discover a new friend from the pool is from the “enemy” camp, when before the enemy camp didn’t even exist.
My 12-year-old told me that during morning meeting on the day of Biden’s inauguration, a boy shared that he no longer felt hopeful with Trump gone, that he was scared for what his life would hold now. In turn, she shared that she finally feels hopeful again with Biden in charge.
Why have we suddenly dragged our children into our political fight, when they haven’t even begun to figure out their own opinions? Why are we talking about the current political landscape with them so much? Why are we letting them take our fight to the playground with them?
Do we want our children to look at the kids standing in front of them at school and wonder, Trump or Biden? Or do we want them to wonder, Gryffindor or Slytherin? Shouldn’t they be free to just be kids, free to evaluate one another’s characters based upon their own experiences, not their parents’? Are we so blinded by our rage at one another that we’ve forgotten how to separate our world from our children’s?
Maybe if our kids leave our political beliefs at home with us, they’ll discover a common interest in Harry Potter, “Black Panther,” anime or Billie Eilish. Maybe instead of yelling “Blue Lives Matter” at a classmate of color, that child will ask her for help with a math problem. And then maybe that child won’t feel attacked and will no longer need to remind her classmates that her life matters as much as theirs.
Ariel Ellman is the author of the Boston Harbor Romance Series and a forthcoming lyrical memoir about how language and messaging follows us throughout our childhood, shaping us into the women we become.