The day after: Explaining bad guys to my 4-year-old, and moving forward

My 4-year-old son is fascinated by bad guys. Bullies and pirates are bad guys, Nate has learned from books we read him at night. So is Haman, the villain of the Purim story, who has become lodged in Nate’s mind — possibly because his father has played him in our community’s Purim spiel for the last two years. And this fall, a new bad guy was added to the lineup: Donald Trump.

“I wouldn’t vote for him,” Nate declared a few weeks before the election. “Haman would.”

We were amused to see Nate instinctively adopt his parents’ partisan leanings, and without thinking much about it, we encouraged him in labeling Trump a “bad guy.” One night, Nate told his dad he wanted to make Haman and Donald Trump out of Legos. When the figures were complete, Nate held Haman in one hand and Donald Trump in the other and brought them down with destructive wrath upon a defenseless Lego house. They knocked it to pieces.

We assumed Nate would forget about Donald Trump after the election. When we put him to bed on Election Day, as returns were starting to come in, we told him excitedly that we hoped that when he woke up the next morning, we would be able to tell him that the United States had elected its first woman president. And then history unfolded.

During that first sleepless night knowing Donald Trump had been elected, I worried about the world that Nate and his baby brother would grow up in, the climate, the economy, war and peace, immigrants and refugees, hatred and bigotry and the likely possibility that the most vulnerable among us will pay a brutal price for this election. As dawn came, I asked my husband with disbelief, “How are we going to tell Nate that a bad guy has been elected president?”

When Nate woke up, we didn’t waste any time. Cuddled together in our bed in the gray morning light, we told him we had some news that we were very sad about. Donald Trump had won the election.

“Why is he a bad guy?” Nate asked.

I could have said any number of things, but I told him that one reason was because Trump wanted to keep people out of our country just because of what they believe. “You know how we’re Jewish?” I said. “He says that Muslims, people who are another religion, shouldn’t be allowed to come into America. And that’s not fair.”

Haman is an archetypal villain: In the Book of Esther, he was determined to kill all the Jews in Persia and nearly succeeded. Yet because we observe Purim with raucous celebration and shout and boo when we hear Haman’s name, and because Haman’s downfall was so complete, his name doesn’t evoke fear. He’s cartoonishly evil, not chilling. We’re not scared because we know how the story ends.

As a bigot who expresses contempt for individual rights and democratic norms prepares to assume the presidency, we don’t know how the story will end, and I’m frightened.

When I was a child, I used to imagine what it would be like to live during exciting times in history. I fantasized about fighting against injustice during the civil rights or women’s suffrage movements, or hiding slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. I infused these movements with romance and drama; their victory was inevitable, I thought, because they were on the right side. I never thought much about the fact that before the civil rights movement, people fought lynchings and Jim Crow in the South for decades with little progress and lots of pain, loss and defeat. I never thought about what it would be like to live in a dark time with no idea whether your fight would be successful and whether redemption would come in your lifetime.

Now a dark time is upon us, and I will tell my children that we must muster the bravery of the heroes who came before us. We must stand up for what’s right even though a happy ending isn’t assured. I told Nate on that gray morning that just because Donald Trump wants to do something doesn’t mean that he can, and that it’s our duty as Americans to participate in our society and push for what we believe in.

The next night at bedtime, Nate asked his dad why he played Haman at Purim.

“I don’t want you to be Haman,” Nate said. “I want you to be a good guy.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.