What I Learned From Explaining the Government Shutdown to a 2 and 4 year old
Deep conversations with kids begin one of two ways. With a direct question leading to an indirect answer, or an indirect question leading to a direct one. In either case there’s a point in the middle where you feel confused about the forming sequence. At least you do once the sequence becomes clearer.
This direct conversation began with deciding how to spend the day, and a request to go to the zoo. Without hesitating I said casually, “the zoo is closed today because of the government shutdown”. You can imagine how this went a little sideways from here.
I had in that moment a choice: see this through or abort partially or completely, or immediately or in the soonish vicinity. I chose to keep going, being intentional to answer what was asked, and to use words we all understood in my responses.
“What’s a government shutdown?
Note that this is what, not why. It would be easy to miss that distinction.
A government shutdown is when things that the government is in charge of are closed.
Why is the government shutdown?
When the government can’t agree on a decision before a deadline the shutdown is kind of like a pause button. It means everything has to stop.
What’s the government in charge of?
Laws, rules, jobs, places like the zoo…
Who decides what the government is in charge of?
It depends on where and what. Some of those decisions involve a lot of people, or only one, or one specific person or place. Some are decided all at once or over time. Sometimes new decisions are based on old decisions. There’s a lot of pieces to that question.
When will the zoo be open?
When the government shutdown ends and all the things closed are told they can open.”
I go through the motions of describing this conversation as it developed, because it highlights the ways children are experiencing and making sense of decisions that affect them. Over breakfast, before coffee, when their plans are disrupted, on the bus, on the radio, from their peers, by adults they do and don’t know. The casualness in our answers are mismatched with the stress they see and absorb from us, and the escalating changes to their day to day norms.
Their questions signal that they perceive more than we have explained, and they infer connections beyond the example being discussed.
I would offer for all of us that we are partaking in huge consent lessons through this dialogue, and it is hugely relevant how we script that and when and where we are silent.
For many kids at this age, two big transitions are central to their lives. The start of school, and increasing bodily autonomy. Both are conduits for comparison to larger questions of control and decision making, and what happens when decisions that affect you aren’t made by you. It’s also a discussion about what happens when there isn’t agreement about how decisions are made, even more than what is decided or who decided it.
There is a running commentary they are attempting to reconcile that is contradictory in nature and full of notable gaps. And the stress they can sense in us tells them that these decisions are important. Negative emotions in adults are a signal that something is unsafe developmentally, and that human sensor is seeking to involve adults in providing missing context.
With this shutdown we see consent constructed as one sided, where the reaction to not agreeing to something asked for causes direct harm, where that harm continues until what someone wants is given to them. We see that saying no isn’t available to all parties, and we learn interrelated decisions amidst that backdrop.
We see that adults do not agree on what is considered harm, or who is wrong and who is wronged, and that what is angering isn’t the same source or related rationale. We see that the contradictory lessons are feeling more casual the longer they persist instead of more.
At a time where sexual violence and accountability are becoming household terms, it is observable where and for whom they are not applied. It is observed where consent is expected and where it’s not. It is observed whose acts of harm are considered justified, and whose ongoing harm is made casual. It is planted that the answers to your questions feel insufficient, and it is recorded who is in charge and who that benefits.
This conversation didn’t end. It will surface again from a direct question or a direct answer or a direct incident. And each explanation and lack of explanation will we again perceived. Most especially against the other lessons and values we hope that we’ve been teaching, and the ones we’re sure weren’t affecting them.