TRAVERSE CITY — They know.
They overhear your kitchen small-talk and your sassing at the television. They see the news, the headlines, the snappy Tweets and the Facebook spats.
It’s too late to shield children from the division, vitriol and hate dominating U.S. politics — and the critical point it has reached this month. It’s tempting to ignore the riots, the historic second round of impeachment hearings and the bitter discourse as burn-out smothers Americans.
But those little boys and girls have questions.
So, parents of northern Michigan, when your child asks about the events of Jan. 6 and wonders what happened on Wednesday the 13th, what will you tell them?
Justina Hlavka’s boys will hear the truth.
“We don’t beat around the bush with our kids — we just answer honestly,” said Hlavka, whose two sons are 18 and 5.
With the eldest casting his first vote last November and disinformation more prevalent than ever, Hlavka’s household is one grounded in science and reality. And vigilance and honestly are must-haves with a five-year-old running around.
“You’d be amazed, the stuff they take in. They are hyper-aware of everything going on around them, whether we give them credit for it or not,” Hlavka said of her ever-curious youngest, who likes to repeat lines from news broadcasts. “He picks up on all the negativity.”
Class discussion first broached the topic for Northport parent Dan Scripps’ two sons. It fostered discussion among the students, allowed them to exp- ress fears and ask questions.
He and his wife try to do the same — explaining things their boys hear on the news, reassuring them that they’re safe and protected, and trying to spur further discussion on what America means, what institutions mean and what lines mustn’t be crossed.
“I mean, it’s scary,” Scripps said. “One of the interesting things about having kids that I was completely unprepared for is when they’re scared, they talk about it a lot. And whether we as parents are ready to talk about it with our kids, they have questions.”
He and Hlavka are divided on whether it’s classroom fare. But both say it’s a weighty responsibility — one scared children and teens are owed.
Discussion is limited for online-based teachers like Suttons Bay Virtual’s Adam Couturier, but he too finds value in offering tools and a space for open discussion. .
“We can’t be too afraid to go to those topics, or we might be missing an opportunity to have enlightened minds,” Couturier said. “The cat’s out of the bag.”
It’s easier for his students, and easier yet for older ones.
John Zachman teaches ethics, philosophy and political science at Northwestern Michigan College. Remote classes started Monday.
His class discussions have centered around the Jan. 6 riots, occupation of the Capitol Building and violence that led to the death of a police officer, Zachman said. His pupils come from all perspectives — moderate, conservative and liberal.
Like Couturier, who teaches English and social studies to high-schoolers and is a parent himself, Zachman’s approach is helping students process what’s going on by giving them a voice and a forum to work through the complex situation.
“For our young people, this is very hard to digest,” Zachman said. “To have a president who has lied about election fraud, has called for extra legal actions and who has spoken with such incendiary language … it’s very important to recognize the gravity of this in a democratic country.”
Most students have easy access to low-quality information via Facebook, other social media and purported news sites that preach propaganda, Zachman said.
Couturier urges students to view information with skepticism and think critically when discerning the truth. Checking multiple sources is another safe bet.
Both educators face a difficult job.
“We have a responsibility to educate, not indoctrinate,” Couturier said. “You can show a group — whether it’s your own kids or your students — as much information, have access to it and have a voice, but they need to decide on their own or it’s not worth anything.”
Hlavka says it’s part of the job — difficult conversations, uncomfortable topics and lighting your child’s path is part of parenthood. They’re important ones to have, and protecting can quickly become sheltering.
The one good thing of Trump’s presidency, she added, is the deeper issues it has revealed in the nation, like racism and hatred. It means she can discuss the topics with her boys.
She hopes that, whatever they encounter, her sons will remember her lessons on empathy, tolerance and understanding.
Perhaps that’s all a parent can ask for.
“There’s families that are teaching hate out there, and it’s terrible,” Hlavka said. “All we can hope for for our kids and future generations is that we’re raising them to be better, kinder, more efficient people.”