Sarah Smiley: GOP debates, crossroads in parenthood

As we sat down to watch the first GOP debates between candidates vying to be the Republican presidential nominee, my 8-year-old son, Lindell, asked, "So, who are the bad people?"

As we sat down to watch the first GOP debates between candidates vying to be the Republican presidential nominee, my 8-year-old son, Lindell, asked, “So, who are the bad people?”

“There are no bad people on the stage,” I told him.

“Are the bad people on the Democratic side, then?” another son asked.

“No, there are no bad people there, either.”

“Then how do we know who we want to win?” Lindell said.

There are many crossroads in the journey that is parenthood, and we have countless opportunities to answer questions for our children. It’s fair to say that all of our children’s questions are good ones. But it’s also fair to say that we don’t always have the correct answer. Luckily, many of these flubbed attempts at guiding our children won’t mean much in the big scheme of things. For example:

Great question = How do farmers take the fat out of our milk?

Inadequate answer = Probably magic.

Sometimes, however, our children ask a question, and we know that the answer we give them could possibly alter the tides, part the seas, or, you know, otherwise change the course of their worldview.

This was one of those crossroads.

Much of Lindell’s naiveté stems from the fact that he is 8. When you’re 8, the world is separated into “what’s good” and “what’s bad.” When you’re 8, broccoli is bad, ice cream is good, the Wicked Witch was evil, and the Tooth Fairy is life-changing. When you’re 8, movies always have a clearly defined evil character with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and a host of “good guys,” who can do no wrong.

This is why, when you’re a kid and you see Star Wars for the first time, you are riveted. For possibly the first time in your life, you have to wrap your mind around the fact that the person you thought was evil (Darth Vader) actually has some good inside him. In fact, you might shed a tear for him in the end.

It’s a shame we don’t teach kids this lesson earlier, or through something outside of Hollywood. Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems. Everyone has some good and some bad inside of them. People – even the very best ones – are flawed. And just like Vader, the reasons for our flaws are complicated.

There are far less purely evil people in the world than Disney would have us believe. There is, instead, humanity—people who usually have the best of intentions, even when they make enormous mistakes. What’s good and what’s bad is not so clearly defined as a princess in white and a hunched-back ogre with a cackling laugh. Sometimes, what’s good and what’s bad coexist together in a gigantic grey area of morality. And making matters worse, what’s “bad” through the lens of one person’s experience and moral compass might not be “bad” to someone else.

Unfortunately, today’s political climate isn’t much better than a simple Disney plot. Issues are separated into everyone’s own opinion of what’s good and what’s bad. People on either side of the aisle sling insults and all-or-nothing labels, as if taking a stand on one particular issue necessarily colors the entirety of a person’s moral make-up.

Society does this, too, when someone ends up in the middle of a public scandal. Reading people’s comments about Walter Palmer, the American dentist who shot Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last month, actually made me feel sick. People – most of whom know nothing else about Palmer – called him garbage, likened him to Satan, and even called for him to commit suicide.

Is this really what we’ve become? I never want to hear my kids speak that way about another human being.

So I was at one of these crossroads with Lindell as we prepared to watch the GOP debates. If I had ever wanted to sway my children to one political party or the other, here was my chance. With one response, I could color an entire group of people as “bad” and another as “good.”

Or I could instill in them a sense of balance and humanity.

When Lindell asked, “How do we know who we want to win [if we don’t know who’s good or bad]?” I thought for a long time. And then I said: “You’ll have to decide for yourself who you think should win. But I don’t know any of them as a full human being – who they are as a parent, a husband, a friend, a neighbor – and therefore, I cannot tell you if they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are probably a little of both.”

Lindell looked confused. He wanted a clearer answer than that. It’s good for him to learn now that life is a little more complicated.