How do I talk to my kids about Kavanaugh?

Friday, October 5, 2018

I've got a daughter in middle school, and just a couple of days ago I lectured her about not opening the door to strangers when she's home alone.  Some of her friends have started dating.  Yesterday we were at an event to benefit victims of domestic violence.  Sexual assualt is a timely topic.

I also have a nine-year-old son, and I recently lectured him about the importance of treating girls (all people, in fact) with respect after I caught him being especially mean to his sister.  I know that if we hope to gain any significant ground from the #metoo movement, it must begin with talking to our boys about responsibility and accountability, about sexual assault and harrassment.

Yet I am struggling --- really, really struggling --- with how to talk to my kids about Kavanaugh.  I know there are plenty of good "how to talk to your kids..." articles out there; I've read some.  But how exactly do you talk about this when you and your husband find yourselves on opposite sides of the Kavanaugh debate?  When you don't see eye to eye on the issues at all and you both feel solid and strong in your convictions.  Heck, it's hard enough to talk to each other.  How do I, or we, talk to the kids about this?

Sure, I could default to "good, reasonable people can disagree," even really smart, well-educated people can disagree.  We can try to model respectful disagreement and demonstrate healthy debate.  That's always good.  We do that a lot, given political viewpoints of extended family.  But that doesn't feel like enough, when we need to address the more substantive points brought up in the Kavanaugh hearings.

It's not enough to talk about what sexual assualt and #metoo mean, though that's certainly a good starting point.  We need to talk about much more --- how victims should be taken seriously whenever they summon the courage to tell their stories, how such allegations and accounts should be reviewed and investigated, how presumption of innocence works, how criminal proceedings differ from civil proceedings and political ones, what corroborating evidence is, how memory works and how it can be affected by trauma, how we can support victims and seek support when we find ourselves victimized.  We need to talk about the severity of false allegations and what they can do to people, the importance of an independent judiciary, why judicial temperament matters.  We need to talk about drinking, how it can impair judgment, how an entire culture can emerge around it in high school and college, how it can lead to people finding themselves in compromising and dangerous situations, and the lasting impact that can have on people's lives.  And, thanks to high school yearbooks, I guess we should also talk about shome choice terms and how some people may be inclined to brag about sexual conquests of all sorts and the damage that can be done to reputations when that happens.  

We now know how the politics of all this is going to play out --- Justice Kavanaugh will be deciding cases well into my children's adult lives.  He may well solidify the Court's majority on important issues of our time, which will affect generations to come.  What's less certain is what I might say about it to my kids in the days ahead.  

What do you say when one parent sees a courageous model of civic conscience who stands up for America's women, while the other sees a political operative who is out to take down a good man and willing to destroy his family in the process? 

What do you say when one parent believes that we must hear out a victim who comes forward to tell her story with nothing to gain and everything to lose, while the other parent believes that when a so-called victim waits too long or alleges teenage stupidity, then the only story we should be concerned with is the accused's?

What do you say when one parent thinks America has been engaged in a discussion about attempted  rape and sexual assault, while the other parent thinks we've talking about a political party's coordinated campaign to defeat a nomination at any cost?

What do you say when one parent views the investigation as a sham orchestrated to reach a preordained result, while the other parent believes that no investigation could have reached a different result and the investigation was thus a waste of time, especially when the parties involved were already questioned by Congress?

What do you say when one parent worries that these last two weeks will tell women who have been victims of sexual violence that their pain does not matter and will discourage them from coming forward, while the other parent worries that women will be encouraged to manufacture allegations in an attempt to remove men (especially white men) from positions of power? 

Simply put, what do you say when one parent believes Dr. Ford, while the other doesn't?  Or when one parent thinks Dr. Ford's allegations make a difference, while the other doesn't?

What do you say when one parent hears hostility, declarations of bias, and threats of retribution, while the other hears righteous indignation at being falsely accused?

What about when one parent finds lies and misleading testimony disqualifying, while the other finds any misleading testimony excusable?

What do you say when one parent is cheering on Senator Klobuchar, while the other believes Senator Graham makes a lot of sense?

If you've been watching the Senate proceedings, as I have, you know this is a wide chasm.  

In all fairness, it's possible (even likely) that I may have mischaracterized or exaggerated some of my husband's views.  It's always dangerous to put words in someone else's mouth.  But I stand by my point here, which is that it is awfully hard to figure out what we teach our children about this historical moment, or even what we ourselves can learn, when our views of this process are so fundamentally opposed.

I'm wondering if maybe the answer is in the questions themselves and how we each arrived at our different viewpoints.  In other words, maybe we should focus more on the process we're both using to analyze these questions, and less on the fact that it has ultimately led us to different conclusions.  Perhaps I might help my children to see that when confronted with difficult issues, we each have a responsibility to educate ourselves, pay attention to the facts and the context, keep an open mind and try to understand both sides of an argument, listen to others who come from different backgrounds have have different experiences, question our own assumptions and internal biases, think through potential implications and consequences of different decisions, and ultimately decide where we come down.  After all, this is what we are asking of our judges.  It is what we are asking of our senators, who approve our Supreme Court justices.  It is the standard we must hold ourselves to and it is what we should expect of those we engage with --- ask important questions, analyze thoroughly and critically, and take a defensible stand.

This is not easy.  It is not meant to be.  Important decisions are usually hard decisions, and hard decisions require extra care.  Some people are better at this deliberative, decision-making process than others.  Some are more methodical, other more instinctive.  Some are able to see and credit arguments from all perspectives, others see from one clear vantage point.  Some can imagine what might happen as a result of any particular decision, others simply can't predict.  Some see shades of gray, others see black and white.  Some are decisive and have no trouble picking a side, others waffle and try to straddle lines.  And some never try to engage in this process at all, but simply follow others they believe have already done the hard work.  But we must never let this keep us from engaging in a  critical analysis process that will ensure our decisions are based on reason and conviction, grounded in fact, and consistent with our principles and deeper sense of who we are and who we want to be. 

When we've engaged in this process, acknowledging its difficulty, maybe we can better understand and respect how others might end up in a different place.  After all, America is roughly divided half and half right now, so plenty of people who are giving a lot of thought to hard questions end up in different places.  "Good, reasonable people can disagree," right?  While I disagree with my husband on the important questions we've been wrestling with the past couple of weeks, I do trust his analytical process.  That may ultimately be what pulls us through this awkward time and allows us to still respect and value each other's input and opinions going forward.  Even if we're both left feeling a little raw and uncomfortable at the dischord.

At the end of the day, though, the message I really want my children to get is this:  Good, reasonable people who have deliberated and decided must vote.  We have a choice, we have a voice.  It is in the voting booth.  Feel like screaming?  View the "cast ballot" button as a loud, angry scream.  Feel like crying?  View the "cast ballot" button as a cathartic, tearful cry.  Feel like throwing your hands up at the absurdity of it all?  View the "cast ballot" button as a middle finger to the whole system.  Feel like walking away because it's too hard?  Don't.  View the "cast ballot" button as a reminder that you are capable of sorting through this and your voice is important.  Use your voice wisely --- ask those important questions, analyze thoroughly and critically, and take a stand.

But please do not hold yourself down, cover your mouth, and silence your own voice.  Please do not wait for someone else to speak up, thinking their voice is more valued than yours for whatever reason.  Please do not put off using your voice, thinking that you'll speak up another time when you've had more time to figure out what to say.  Because that hurts everybody.  America deserves better.  America deserves to hear your voice loud and clear.  CAST BALLOT.

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