I'm Giving My Little Girl a Crash Course in Standing Up for What She Believes

Diane Clehane


Diane Clehane

My daughter thinks I'm a revolutionary.

In the wake of the head-spinning presidential election, I have devoted much of my free time to calling congressional offices, writing to senators, and imploring friends via social media to do the same. All this activism comes as a great surprise to my 11-year-old daughter, who, like most children her age, has grown up in a pretty coddled environment insulated from the slings and arrows of politics and political protests.

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"Why are you so mad, Mommy?" she's said on more than one occasion as she looked over my shoulder while I typed my latest call to action on Facebook.

It's clear from talking to her and her friends that girls her age -- and older -- don't realize (and why would they, since it's never discussed in schools?) how much women a mere generation before us have fought so hard for the issues that seem deeply perplexing to them. They've seen a woman run for president of the United States, but really have no idea what it took for that to happen.

Like many women, this election led to the rediscovery of my inner activist, much to the embarrassment of my daughter and the consternation of my husband, who isn't crazy about my "filling [our daughter's] head with politics."

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Throughout the presidential election, I struggled with how to talk to my daughter about the hateful rhetoric and downright scary promises Trump made as they filtered their way from people's dinner tables to her fifth grade classroom and, later, her summer camp. There was no way of ignoring it even if I wanted to -- and I didn't.

She'd come home with stories of kids making comments like, "Foreigners are all being sent back." This was problematic and deeply personal at our house because my daughter is an adoptee from China. After one particular hurtful exchange at summer camp, I had to reassure her that she was, in fact, a citizen and could not be sent back. I explained that the United States was her home and she was safe. I know she believed me, but after that, I sensed wariness in her to engage in any conversations with other kids when the discussion turned to the election.

One afternoon a few weeks before the election, she got off the bus and told me, "Mommy, everyone's parents are voting for Trump except you. I don't want to tell them we're voting for Hillary; they'll hold it against me."

I could believe what I was hearing. I tried to encourage her not to be fearful, but there was no convincing her. Later that night, my thoughts turned to my much younger middle school self who, whenever assigned a term paper, would choose to write about women's rights and issues like the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Title IX. I even won a seventh grade public speaking contest arguing for the passage of the ERA.

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My daughter was afraid of talking about anything remotely political to her friends for fear of being ostracized. It felt more important than ever to show her how important it is to stand up and speak out for what you believe is right. That's when I knew I needed to more fully explain my commitment to defending women's rights.

What I also know is that I've never seen this degree of ugliness in my lifetime, and I hope never to again. But I am heartened by the surge of goodness I've seen from the thousands and thousands -- coast to coast and around the world -- who refuse to let this ugliness stand and dominate and bring this country down. I had not participated in a protest march in decades, but when I heard about the Women's March, I was all in -- and I took my daughter with me.

When we set off to New York City that Saturday, she thought it was some kind of grand adventure. The train platform was full of women in pink hats and clusters of families holding handmade signs. "Wow, Mommy," she said. "Are all these people protesting against Donald Trump?"

"All of these people are concerned and upset that the rights of many people -- women, minorities, and immigrants -- are in danger of being taken away," I explained as we settled into our seats for the ride.

"So it's not just about him?" she asked.

"No," I told her. "It is much bigger than that."

In New York City, as we fell in line at the march, she was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd but reassured by the presence of plenty of other children of all ages, and families. We kept to the edges of the crowd and I had to shield her eyes from some un-PC signs, but as the afternoon wore on, I saw that understanding of what was happening around her beginning to emerge.

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"These people are mad, but not at each other," she said. "Everyone here is being nice to each other. People are saying 'excuse me' if they bump into you. I was a little scared at the beginning, but I'm glad I came with you."

As I mentioned earlier, I have never seen such ugliness in our country during my lifetime, but because millions of people here and around the world are willing to fight against it, I am hopeful that goodness, civility, and basic human decency will triumph in the end. It has to.

I'm prepared to march again, and I believe sharing my commitment to these principles is my responsibility as a parent. A basic understanding of our democracy and the principles upon which this country was founded -- like free speech and religious freedom -- will help make my daughter a more informed citizen. I'm leaving issues like birth control and abortion out of the discussion because I think she's too young for that, but it's never too early to start teaching our children that all people everywhere deserve the same rights. 

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