Back in April, as I shuttled my daughter, C*, from the crafts store to her lacrosse game, we found ourselves on a sidewalk full of Bernie Sanders supporters. There was a huge rally happening in a nearby park, and the Berners were everywhere—carrying signs, wearing t-shirts, selling buttons, and chanting slogans.
I saw all of this in my peripheral vision; navigating a pre-tween through a crowded Brooklyn street is difficult any day, and the Bernie people were not helping. But C had seen the signs and the excitement, and she wanted to process. "Who are you supporting in this election, Mommy?" she asked. I hesitated, remembering my mother's childhood dictum: don't talk about politics, money, sex, or religion in public. Then I remembered I'm not my mother; I talk openly about all of these topics with my children and pretty much anyone else who will listen.
So I told my daughter, "I like Hillary. I think she's the most qualified, and I like her plans for our country."
She nodded, then replied nonchalantly, "Well, I support Bernie."
I suppose I had just assumed C would pick up my viewpoints—and my loyalty to Clinton—by osmosis. My partner and are fairly typical GenX liberals. We compost, we shop at the greenmarket, and we volunteer at our kids' public school. We talk to them about economic inequality, food insecurity, and institutionalized racism and sexism. And yes, we're Hillary supporters. We're ready for a woman president, we're concerned about the future of the Supreme Court, and we are sick of the hate-mongering in this primary cycle. We think she is the better candidate.
Despite my love for Hillary, I have appreciated Bernie Sanders' candidacy. For the most part I like his politics, and I love that a Democratic Socialist has been a serious contender for president. But hearing C say she supported him made me feel strangely betrayed. I wondered if I hadn't been outspoken enough about the election at home. Was I a bad parent? A bad feminist? A bad lesbian?
Despite my love for Hillary, I have appreciated Bernie Sanders' candidacy.
I knew our son was on the right track. At six, he's too young to really appreciate the intra-party fighting between Clinton and Sanders, but he's got the big picture covered. On primary day he delivered a capsule message to us at breakfast: "You can't vote for Trump! You're both women, and Trump hates women." Mission accomplished there.
I turned to C. "Tell me why you're for Bernie," I said, "I want to know."
"Well," she started, smoothly, as if she'd had this conversation before, or even rehearsed it, "He seems like a nice man. And I think he deserves it more. Hillary has already been in the White House, with her husband, so I just think it's Bernie's turn now. It's only fair." She stopped, clearly expecting me to see her irrefutable logic and change my loyalties. I'd been Bernie-splained by my own child.
We continued walking, and I considered what C had said, framing a rebuttal, and still feeling like the whole conversation was a little surreal. She was using the playground's essential rules of conduct—be nice, and everyone gets a turn—while I was coming from the ugly world of American politics, where, truly, no one is that nice. And lots of people don't get a turn. I took a deep breath.
"You're right, fairness is important. And letting everyone have their turn is important." I had delivered several parental lectures on these topics within the last week. "But when it comes to elections, taking turns and fairness is about everyone getting to say their piece, and everyone getting to vote. It's not about taking turns being president. People are chosen for president because of their qualifications."
I made eye contact. Feminist eye contact. "Senator Sanders is a very nice man," I told C. "Hillary is very nice, too. But there is more to an election than who is nice." I paused to see if she was paying attention. "Plus, historically, women are expected to be nice, not just with their friends but also in their jobs, in ways men aren't, and that isn't really fair, is it? We've talked about that." I was kind of proud of my civics lesson, but not sure I had been very convincing.
I made eye contact. Feminist eye contact.
C went off to lacrosse, seemingly unmoved by my sally. I texted my partner, Ingrid: "Are you sitting down? C said she likes Bernie! WTF?" I knew I was overreacting, but I couldn't let it go. Parenthood is full of surprises—but I hadn't expected a political rift before C was even into double digits. It's not like we hadn't disagreed before, obviously—but that she was even thinking about which candidate to support came way out of left field.
So, I was curious as to exactly where and how she'd been having her political conversations, and what had led her to Bernie. Kids are influenced by their classmates and friends, of course, but I wanted details. Had a Bernie-supporting friend converted C? Did other children have opinions that diverged from the rest of their family? Obviously somewhere—during recess, at after school class programs, or on playdates—there was election talk happening that I wasn't aware of.
Kids are influenced by their classmates and friends, of course, but I wanted details.
Over the next few days, I investigated, casually asking C's friends about where the playground was leaning politically. I wondered if we were the only ones who had found stealth opposition in our own home. I soon discovered that C's Sanders love was mostly due to the influence of one friend who comes from a household of Sandernistas.
But Bernie doesn't have the third grade locked down. One of C's friends declared resolutely, "I like Hillary. My parents also like Hillary. They say she can stand up for other people very well, and that she's a good leader." Another explained to me that "Hillary would be the first woman president, and she could enforce more stuff for women. Like, she could make baseball games that women could play in professionally. And she could help small companies run by women like my mom be bigger and more successful."
Unsurprisingly for central Brooklyn, my daughter's peers agreed on this: No Trump. "He says bad things about people and makes them feel bad," said L, a Hillary supporter. One kid, R, took his anti-Trump platform to the next level, writing a letter to the presumptive Republican nominee, advising him to drop out—and to wash his hair. The boy told me, as clearly as if he were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, "He shouldn't be mean to people!"
We were hardly the only family where a child's opinion differed from that of her parents. There were even parents who disagreed with one another. Of course, it's traditional to have generational conflict. I used to chide my mother for not being a more outspoken feminist, until she reminded me that as a single mother and a woman of color, she had become a successful biotech executive at a time when the industry was even less integrated than it is now. (Yes, I felt terrible.) And my partner and I usually just change the subject when her conservative parents want to discuss Obamacare.
We were hardly the only family where a child's opinion differed from that of her parents.
Admittedly, a lot of my outsized struggle with C's Bernie endorsement came from a sense of guilt. I felt bad that we hadn't been talking to her about the election earlier and more concretely, and for underestimating her interest in politics. Not to mention that, had we been having those discussions, I could have made a better case for Hillary. Parental guilt and feminist guilt.
I resolved to let C make her own decisions, even if they led her Bernie-ward. And we talked about politics a lot more in the ensuing weeks.
By mid-May, there were signs that C was being swayed by my arguments. "I actually do like Hillary," she said, during one of our now-frequent political chats. "I think she would make a good leader because she has experience. I'm feeling good about her winning." Parenting triumph? Had I not only witnessed my daughter grow into a political being, but also into one who agrees with me?
Then again, there was her reaction last week when I told her that Hillary had clinched the nomination: "Mommy! Enough! I don't want to be only thinking about politics when I'm 9! Can I watch TV now?"
*All children in this story were interviewed with the permission of their parents, and are referred to by their first initial in order to protect their privacy.