Imagine that you are a White suburban, able-bodied, heterosexual Christian American who is observing Donald J. Trump’s campaign this election cycle. Now, imagine that you are a teenage or preteen boy.
At Marin Country Day School, where I work, half the enrolled students are boys in kindergarten through the eighth grade.
As educators and parents at MCDS and across the nation search for a counternarrative to Trump’s woefully racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric, young boys from every demographic are both listening and watching him closely. And the impact of some of the Republican presidential nominee’s most egregious comments are unmistakable.
In an elective course that I teach, “Philosophy and Knitting,” middle school students, ages 10 to 14, hone their knitting skills while contemplating questions like, “Who defines good and evil?” and “Who would run a faster footrace: Quicksilver or the Flash?”
Recently, as we sat in a half-circle, knitting scarves as birthday or holiday gifts, the discussion turned to identity politics and the presidential election. Perhaps it was the classroom bulletin board, which is decorated with life-size campaign headshots of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that prompted one boy to ask, “How is Trump able to say such inappropriate things?”
Another student then asked, “What if voters made decisions based on Trump’s looks alone?”
A third boy offered his astute opinion that Trump would not be able to get anything done in Washington if he were elected because so many people dislike him.
Though we did not repeat or explore exact or specific statements by Trump, it was clear from their remarks that both my male and female students had heard at least some of the candidate’s crude statements about various women’s physical appearances, as well as his remarks about kissing and groping women without their consent.
Implicit in these young people’s statements is the question: How is an adult male able to get away with unforgivable language about women while teen and preteen male students at MCDS are being held to a much higher standard?
It is important to stress the distinction between the individual candidate and his or her political agenda. Unfortunately, most adults have difficulty making such a distinction.
In the Oct. 16 episode of Steff Chisholm and Cathy Tran’s “The MomVent” podcast, Alison Park, a respected diversity and inclusion consultant, addressed the problem of how to talk to kids about politics. On the show, Park advised that adults should tell young people at every age that “we have never before had 100 percent saintly candidates.” Political figures from Richard Nixon to former President Bill Clinton have behaved in immoral and illegal ways that violated the rights of others and brought shame upon the presidency.
“What we can do for kids is help them focus on behavior,” Park continued, “and we have to be mindful that this is not the first time that people we respect and look up to have demonstrated they are human.”
Many adults have needed to focus much of their attention on protecting targeted groups — students who are not White and who do not identify as male. But, as boys develop their own political consciousness and a sense of what it means to be an empathetic and unbiased adult male, adults should not deny them the chance to explore their adolescent perspective.
In seeking further answers, I often find myself speaking to young boys about the importance of character. H. Jackson Brown Jr. famously said, “Our character is defined by what we choose to do when we think no one is looking.” And thus, character can also be defined as what kids do when adults are not present to model ideal behavior.
While Trump is being given such a large media platform, we need to remind young boys that there will come a time when what you say and how you treat girls, and ultimately the women of your lives, will define who you are as citizens.
New York Times writer Peggy Orenstein’s Oct. 15 column “How to Be a Man in the Age of Trump” outlines a series of interviews that she conducted with young men and their thoughts on gender.
“One 19-year-old in Northern California, for instance, told me he’d spent the summer working at a bicycle shop,” Orenstein wrote. “The all-guy staff whiled away their days talking in what he described as ‘incredibly degrading ways’ ” about girls.
While many adults work to deter young boys from having such conversations, there are times when young men driven by bravado will make poor choices when discussing people who are not like themselves. Knowing this, we should give boys permission to intervene with one another, speak up against misogynistic language, and to express confidence in their ability to make good choices when adults are not present.
This election cycle will end on Tuesday, Nov. 8, but the next morning, one nominee will become the next leader of the free world. If we do not speak to our boys now, we will miss a teachable moment to help them become trusted and willing allies for all women and girls.
Vincent W. Rowe Jr. is the director of equity, affinity, and diversity at Marin Country Day School. He has worked in education for the last 21 years. Follow him on Twitter at @evinced_ones.