With my more direct hat on, I’d call this post: ‘How to be a good parent when the world is turning to sh*t.’
My girls are still small, so I didn’t face the immediate challenge many parents did on November 9. I didn’t have to explain to them what the hell had just happened or why Daddy and I were using quite so many bad words. Nor did I have to tell them why we and a group of fellow parents were drinking too much and boycotting all media last Friday night. (On June 24, I did try to tell Little A – in three-year-old-friendly terms – why I wasn’t at my best. However, her only response was to demand a snack, so it seems safe to assume she didn’t grasp my real opinion of Brexit.)
But as I ask myself how I’m going to bring my daughters up – as I stare into the gulf between the world they look set to inherit and the one I want them to live in – I figure I have challenges enough. We all do.
I want my girls to believe in human equality regardless of race or religion: to believe in it at so deep a level that they don’t even have think about believing it. I want them to empathise with refugees as desperate fellow human beings, not fear them as a rabid alien force hell-bent on stealing jobs and bombing cities. Yes, Theresa, I want my daughters to be citizens of the world and proud of it.
How do I teach them these things when it seems to have become OK to be openly racist? When being anti-Muslim can get you, oh, all the way to the White House. When there are violent attacks on Poles living in the UK? When some of my own friends and colleagues have been verbally abused for not being British? I want to bring up compassionate, loving human beings, but there is so much that will teach them to hate.
I also want to bring up confident women. I want it never even to occur to my girls that they aren’t as good as boys. I want them to value themselves for themselves. I want them to grasp the future with ambition and confidence. How can I do that when the newly appointed ‘leader of the free world’ has been caught on video boasting of serial groping? (FFS: his idea of a compliment to his own daughter is to say that if she weren’t his daughter, he might be dating her.) How can they not see this as a man’s world when that same self-proclaimed ‘grabber of pussies’ has just signed a bill to jeopardise women’s reproductive rights and put their lives at risk across the globe?
How can I look forward to the future for my children – let alone their children – when the life that people like me have been living for generations has comprehensively screwed up the planet? When for one major step forward (Paris climate deal), we have another lurch back into the fossil fuel dark ages. (Yep, him again. That man with the terrifying politics.) How do I – how can I – explain that to them?
Of course, I’m writing this from a position of massive advantage: even having time and scope to ponder these dilemmas, in itself, a kind of luxury. I know parents across the world are struggling to bring up their children in war zones or in famine. I cannot imagine the terror they face. Even in this country, there are mothers and fathers struggling to put meals on the table. When I kiss my girls goodnight, I’m not worrying about whether I can feed them tomorrow or whether our home will be taken out by a bomb. I know how lucky that makes me. But these concerns of mine are real, for all that.
So this is what I think I should do. Since this is one of the rare occasions when my professional life (as a climate ethicist) gives me some kind of claim to know what I’m taking about in this blog, I’ll go further: this is what I think we, as parents, should do.
We shouldn’t accept this bleak future. We had our children, so we owe it to them to leave them a decent society and a planet which hasn’t been totally trashed. Start with climate change. We can fight for our children by acting together. Marching, lobbying, petitioning, giving to environmental causes, supporting renewables, joining global movements for action. Locally, nationally, globally. We can show our own commitment to that change by changing what we do ourselves. (Drive less, fly less, use renewable energy, eat less meat and dairy. Etc.) Yes, many parents are short on spare cash – let alone spare time – but there’s almost always going to be something you can do.
And think about it this way: there are an awful lot of parents out there. That’s a lot of voters, a lot of consumers, a lot of potential givers to charity, or signers-up to living sustainably. If we used the voice we have together (Mumsnet, any takers?) maybe someone would listen.
If we think we should bring up our children to care about other people and the world they live in, that doesn’t change just because the ‘bad guys’ are in charge. It makes it more urgent. If society will tell our children that it’s acceptable – even patriotic – to be racist, or that women shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to want control over their own bodies, we have to keep on telling them otherwise, louder. And showing them. If we want them to grow up as strong women or as men who respect women, we have to be the strong female role model they need, or the male feminist. If we want them to be compassionate, we should make sure they see us having the courage of our convictions: supporting the victims of violence or discrimination, helping refugees, donating to food banks, campaigning for change.
And of course, we have to do all this without scaring them with too many of the dismal facts, too early. They need space to be children, too, and to grow up at their own pace.
So it’s a tall order. But it’s not all bleak, the picture we have to show our children. Yes, those who are old enough to understand will have to know about Trump, about UKIP, about institutionalised climate change denial, xenophobia, and sexism. But we can point them to the Earth2Trump movement, to the ‘Bridges not Walls’ and ‘Love Trumps Hope’ banners all over the world last Friday, to those who have opened their homes to refugees, to the Women’s Rights Marches and their vocal, visible support from women and men. Yes, too many mothers had to explain to their daughters how a man with no experience and horrifying opinions won the presidency over a much better qualified woman. But they could also have reminded them of the many great female role models and success stories out there, from politicians to activists, sportswomen to scientists.
We should also remember that we have a huge resource in our hands, as parents. Our children are not only the people who will live in this un-brave new world: they are the ones who will, in a generation’s time, be reshaping it. We are bringing up the citizens of the future: the ones who will hopefully do a better job than we have. As well as being scared, maybe we should be a bit excited by that.