Commentary: Parents should talk about Jan. 6 with their kids. But how?

Police try to hold the line against supporters of then-President Trump outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
(Olivier Douliery / AFP/Getty Images)

“Nuclear war.”

In the early 1990s, it was my honest answer to a teacher’s question to the whole class: What is your greatest fear? Most of the students discussed death, darkness or the devil (this was a Bible class), but when the teacher looked for a quiet kid to take his turn after all the usual hand-raisers, he found me. And I shared the scenes of mass death and destruction that played in my mind every night as I lay in bed, scared that the flickering light of a police helicopter streaking across my bedroom window was actually a warhead sent from Russia.

The teacher let out a nervous laugh and graciously shushed the cooler kids who couldn’t pass up an opportunity to embarrass an awkward classmate.

I think about that moment now that I have 10-year-old twins and a 6-year-old of my own. For me in the 1980s and early ’90s, my “grown-up” fear was about a post-Cold War world full of explosives that could incinerate humanity at the push of a few buttons; it didn’t help that most adults at the time were too timid (or impatient) to explain news and politics to children, leaving a young brain to draw its own conclusions.


For my children today, their nagging “grown-up” fear is the Jan. 6 insurrection, especially as riveting testimony and new information offered at the House hearings show what former President Trump wanted to do to overthrow an election.

What matters to them isn’t the arcane details of how election results are ratified in this country, but much more basic concerns: If a president tried to overturn an election, will they be able to vote when they become adults? And since Donald Trump has been the dominant political figure in their lives, will he always loom so large and, in their minds, be in charge?

These basic questions deserve an honest answer — without causing panic. But I’m not sure I’ve done right by my children in this regard.

They were with me on Jan. 6, 2021, running around our home as C-SPAN showed Trump’s rioters interrupt Congress’ largely ceremonial task of certifying Joe Biden’s election to the presidency. Surely seeing the ineptly concealed fear on their father’s face and hearing mutters of “Oh, no” and “This needs to stop now,” one of them made the most fundamental queries a child can make: “Daddy, what’s going on?”

In a scattershot way, I tried as best I could to explain something I had never seen before: The president lost the election, and now he’s lying and trying to get some of his friends to keep him in power. I’ll never forget what they said that day, and in the weeks and months since: “Will Donald Trump ever get in trouble for what he did?”

I’ve answered that question in different ways since Jan. 6, starting with some variation of “Yes,” to “We’ll see,” and now to “If he doesn’t get in trouble, then we’re in trouble.” I can only imagine the wheels spinning in their heads as they detect my equivocation over the last 18 months.


Explaining history to children as it’s happening wasn’t covered in any of the child-rearing books I read 10 years ago. Still, there is some help. Last month, Kitty Felde, a retired public radio journalist who covered Capitol Hill, wrote to The Times to say she was deeply shaken by Jan. 6 and shared with me a children’s mystery book she wrote to explain the insurrection to young readers.

But as any parent knows, children have more questions immediately after they’re done reading, and the temptation is to respond as most of the adults around me did 30 years ago: “This stuff is too complicated for kids” or “This isn’t the stuff of children’s conversations.”

But I think children learn what matters to adults pretty early in life. That’s why I believe my kids should understand why racial discrimination is wrong or that climate change is a serious problem.

We don’t — or at least shouldn’t — equivocate about Jim Crow or fascism in Europe when children know enough to start asking about those issues. The only question is how we convey the magnitude of those atrocities in ways that young brains might absorb. So it is, in my view, with Jan. 6 and much of the Trump presidency.

Trump’s conduct in the 2016 campaign easily transgressed the rules you’d find at any preschool, making the awfulness of his behavior — the bullying, the lying, the name calling — apparent to any well-adjusted toddler. Even my young kids had gathered enough just listening to the news.

Back then, Trump was a candidate. Now, he’s a former and potential future president, with an authoritarian political movement inflicting long-term harm on a democracy to be inherited by the next generation. Children, like mine, deserve to know what’s happening — and whether their votes, when they are old enough to vote, will count.

Frankly, I’m winging it with my children on this, but I refuse to give up explaining. If anyone has ideas, I’m all ears.