It’s a universal rite of passage that mostly goes unmarked: There comes a point in every kid’s life when they realize that, contrary to everything they’ve been told, adults aren’t actually infallible.
There’s a Reddit thread titled, “When did you realize your parents aren’t perfect?” The answers run the gamut from mundane (“When I asked what this word was, they didn’t know it either”) to the traumatic (“When I saw my dad’s fist go through our bathroom door”), but one user, in the preface to his answer, summed up just how far the fall can be: “Until I was about ten years old,” he wrote, “I believed that once you became an adult you were basically perfect, you could never do any wrong.”
Granted, there are inklings of this from the start. We tell kids not to talk to strangers, we show them movies with clear delineations between good guys and bad guys. But the more pervasive message is the one that negates those other things: that the grown-ups know what’s best. It’s a message that kids absorb out of necessity — after all, listening to adults is what gets them through the day.
Which is why so many families have spent the past year wrestling with an uncomfortable challenge: how to reconcile that idea with the alarming rhetoric that characterized this election — how, in other words, to teach their children a lesson that they otherwise may have learned on their own later on. For kids in Clinton-supporting families, who are taking in their parents’ emotional reactions to the nastiness of the campaign, 2016 has been a mass toppling of adults from atop the pedestal.
“A friend of mine has a 6-year-old, and when her parents told her that Trump won the election, she said, ‘But he’s so mean, how can he move into Obama’s house?’” says Onnie Rogers, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. “Kids do understand, in this very basic way, goodness and badness, kindness and meanness, being inclusive versus exclusive. They understand that these are not acceptable things to do — they are not allowed to do them, the school doesn’t let them do them, but now a man who has done and said these things gets to move into Obama’s house.”
“We live in a society where we tell kids to listen to adults all the time and the adults are right, but I do think this is a situation where parents and educators are having to be a bit more explicit in teaching kids that’s not always true,” she adds. “In thinking about conversations I’ve had with other moms, they’ve been more explicit about saying, ‘He’s making bad choices, and those are not the kinds of things we want to do, and just because he’s an adult doesn’t mean he’s right. I’m not sure the extent to which that will be generalized — the extent to which they’ll now question all adults and think of all adults as more fallible, the extent to which they question all adults.”
Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. Erica Miller, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia Teachers College, says that kids are better off, and more comfortable with their own mess-ups, once they understand that even the adults closest to them aren’t perfect. “We are all fallible, we can all make mistakes. So I think it’s important for parents or teachers to model making an error in front of a child and to recover, so that kids don’t feel that if they made a mistake that it’s the end of the world,” she says.
For parents whose kids are now starting to question the halo of infallibility that adulthood once conferred, that’s the sweet spot: the idea that imperfection doesn’t preclude an ability to protect, because values transcend age.