Perspective | Thank you, Donald Trump, for making my teenager care

By Francie Arenson Dickman
@FrancieArenson

Last Sunday, my 16-year-old daughter came into the kitchen in an outrage. “Nothing in this country works!” she told me and my husband. She’d been upstairs watching Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next, and was now ranting that the education system is better in Finland. The prison system is better in Norway. Work-life balance is better in Italy.

“I’m going to college in Finland,” she said.

We wished her well, and she moved on to her masses of homework that they apparently don’t have in Finland.

This wasn’t the first time in the past few months she’s been worked up about politics and social justice. On the afternoon of the National Walk-Out, she texted me, horrified that a friend of hers did not participate because she didn’t believe in gun control.

“Everyone is entitled to their views,” I said later that evening.

She told me that she didn’t understand how anyone would choose to not honor the lives of the kids who died at Parkland. “It’s un-American,” she spouted before she once again headed into her room to contend with her mass of homework.

My daughter might be outraged, but I’m over the moon. Whether her views are right or wrong is not the issue, I don’t think there even is a right or a wrong. The point is that she has views. Hallelujah! Who knew?

For years I’d been trying to instill in my children a political pulse and a sense of justice. This was way back when the world was a vastly different place (aka the Obama administration), when social unrest referred to nothing more than displeasure with a friend or a group at camp. Yes, school shootings occurred, but not at the pace they do today, and people in general weren’t filled with such vitriol. It was a period of relative peace in our country, during which I, foolishly unaware that times could change on a dime, worried my children would never develop an instinct for activism. Now, of course, the adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.

Although some days, when I’m feeling more optimistic, I think the cliche “every cloud has a silver lining” is equally apropos. Some lessons, no matter how heinous, are better learned by living than by lecture.

How many times over the months leading up to the presidential election did I talk to my daughters about feminism and fairness? “Get in here and take a seat,” I ordered them during the final debate. “You need to understand what misogyny is.”

And how many times did they say to me, without glancing up, “Mom, we get it,” and then go on to Snapchat a selfie?

How many mornings did they come into the kitchen to find me screaming at Mika or Matt (times do change on a dime) for not asking the tough questions, only to turn to each other and ask, “Did you understand the math?”

I felt like Joan in About Last Night:

Joan: So, worried much about western civilization?

Danny: Not really. Not tonight.

Joan: It’s collapsing, or hadn’t you noticed?

Danny: I live in a pretty good neighborhood.

So, you can imagine my joy when my daughter came downstairs to actually rant about the state of western civilization. There was a moment standing there at the bottom of my stairs when I didn’t just commend her for her interest, but I must confess, I patted my own back, too. I’d like to think that I had something to do with my daughter’s newfound sense of social justice. I’d like to think that my entire generation, the ones raising these kids—most obviously from Parkland but across the country, the kids who are organizing and articulating and fighting for their rights and safety—have had something to do with their spirit and concern for the human condition.

I don’t know if it’s my parental right to pat myself on the back. Perhaps my daughter’s activist instinct came less from my efforts than from my genes. After all, my daughter has a fraternal twin sister who does not, at this point, intend to go to college in Finland. My hunch is that my daughter’s inspiration has come, most likely, from her amazing teenage peers themselves.

Who can blame her? And, again, who knew? Who knew that when pushed out of their bedrooms and, for better or worse, into action, they’d be so full of ability and understanding. Not only are these teenagers fully-formed human beings, but the leaders I’ve been looking for so hard around me. There they are, right under the piles of laundry.

To them, to my teen and everyone else’s, I apologize. I apologize for judging and misjudging you, for assuming that faces in your iPhones meant heads in the clouds. One can Snapchat ridiculous pictures in the passenger seat and be someone to take seriously. One can have limited live communications with friends and still articulate and argue with elegance to Senators, no less. One can spend hours on end zoning out on re-runs of Friends and yet be fully conscious.

I’ve wondered, for years I’ve wondered, what the issues of my daughters’ day would be. All my lectures about bullying, vaping, trying your best, covering your ass (literally) were in effort to arm them with character and skills, in the hope of saving them from the pitfalls of my own childhood. Yet I’ve known, I’ve known the entire time, that their issues would pop up where my eyes weren’t looking. I just had no idea that their leaders would, also.

So maybe a thank you is in order, too. To Donald Trump, Congress and everything else that’s dysfunctional in America. Thank you for lighting a fire. While it depresses me to think that my teenager along with millions of others now worry that western civilization is collapsing, their worry is what gives me hope that just maybe it won’t.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s first novel, Chuckerman Makes a Movie, will be published this October—assuming western civilization lasts that long.

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