Your Children are Watching

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall came down?

I was only 12, but I remember lying on my stomach on our living room floor, watching it on TV. My parents let me stay up late for the images and the commentary, or maybe they just weren’t paying attention. I remember so vividly the joy–the young people leaping up on top of the wall, bringing hammers down, hugging their East German neighbors! I don’t exactly remember this, but I like to imagine my dad or mom saying, “wow” in an awed voice. What I do remember, clearly, is the feeling that the world could be an inspiring place. Shit. Even today I can’t listen to the Scorpion’s schlocky Wind of Change without tearing up a little.

That hope has been a hard feeling to hold on to lately. Of course, I cried with joy and frank astonishment when Barack Obama became the first African-American president. And I felt a cautious sort of happiness as I followed the brief Arab Spring. However, I also witnessed 9/11, the wars in Iraq, and police brutality in my own backyard.

Do you know, after 9/11, I imagined for weeks what I would do if anything happened in my office, in my school? Did we all do that?

I wonder what particularly-imaginative young people today will remember when they think back on the ubiquitous images of their childhood. I wonder how much the constant exposure to screens will affect the way kids perceive this presidential election, or the protests flaring up in nearly every big city. I mean, you don’t have to be a media specialist to understand the power of images. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that our earliest memories shape us in ways we can’t always predict.

I was an 80s kid who “was born in a house with the television always on.” From age 3 to puberty I absorbed the Reagan years. While my family was religious, it was also liberal. (I know that seems rare among the white middle-class of the Midwest, but it’s the truth.) I must have overheard comments from my parents as I watched the evening news. And I must have somehow processed them! As a grammar school kiddo, I voted Dukakis in our mock election! So I was surprised one night when I was scolded for badmouthing Republicans.

Reagan was on TV giving some speech and I, trying out a new word I’d overheard, said, “What a jerk-off!” My dad immediately scolded me. “I don’t care whether you agree with him or not – he’s still our president!” His words surprised me then, and they surprise me even more now. Especially when I hear from other, younger Midwestern friends who talk about the hateful things fired, nonstop, at the Clintons in their households.

I don’t think I have to remind you of the hateful things shouted across America’s Great Ideological Divide today. It’s hard for me to imagine a right-leaning parent admonishing a child to respect a candidate on the other team. It makes me admire my father even more, and it makes me listen even more closely to what my students are saying about politics …

My students, like most teenagers, are master hypocrisy spotters. They also thrive on images and sarcasm. Maybe that’s the reason we live, increasingly, in a meme society, in which snarky sound-and-picture bites take the place of thoughtful, well-researched news. Some of our more discerning journalists have identified the problem: In a Trump era, feelings are the same as truth; facts change depending on the source; insults and vague insinuations equal sound political strategy; reality is nothing more than solipsism.

What a time to be alive.

I teach in St. Louis, and before the Michael Brown verdict came out, we gathered the kids in the cafeteria to talk to them. These 8th and 9th graders were allowed to ask questions or make comments. Among them:

Why do white cops hate us?

Why does it always have to be a black and white thing?

I feel like I live in a war zone.  

I turned away from the kids to hide my emotion, and I thought to myself: What else are they seeing and hearing? How will they process and remember these things? What will they be like when they grow up?

I don’t intend for this to be a defeatist piece. I’m a firm believer that “the kids are alright.” My students, at least, are observant and savvy, and they have more of a voice than I ever did at age 14. I do, however, want to echo what Hillary Clinton has already stated in a pretty sharp ad: “your children are watching.”

Anyone who’s ever been around kids knows that’s true.

I believe they’re watching, and I believe they’re listening to us as we watch. And as we react.

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