Trump Is the New Insult on Playgrounds

Bizarrely Trump-themed play is popping up in schools for children as young as four years old.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

It’s a Trumpian take on the playground game “cops and robbers”: one student plays “Trump,” another is “Pence,” and the rest play “Mexicans” who must escape the threat of deportation by being tagged.

The students are as young as nine years old and this is the playground at a New York City elementary school in predominantly Latino East Harlem.

Once tagged, the “Mexicans” rely on their friends to free them from “detention” (a fenced-in play area) otherwise Trump and Pence win, one parent whose child participated in the game said. This oddly politicized game of tag has some parents wondering how students have incorporated notions of immigration and deportation into otherwise innocent play, and just how much they know—or don’t know—about the new president and his policies.

“I would say there’s a lot more political discussion happening on the playgrounds than there was in the past,” one parent at PS 206 told The Daily Beast. In order to protect the identities of PS 206 students and families, The Daily Beast is not naming the parent.

His primary concern, he said, was bullying. “I wanted to make sure, first of all, that [the game] wasn’t a negative thing. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t anti-Mexican,” he said. After his son explained that the “bad guys” in the game were Trump and Pence, they had a conversation about Trump’s policies.

“I don’t know what their level of understanding is. I don’t know if the kids know what the exact problem is, or if they’re just repeating bits of what they hear at home, but there’s some level of understanding that Trump’s presidency is bad for the people who go to that school.”

During the 2015-16 school year, 61 percent of PS 206 students were Latino, 26 percent were black, 3.9 percent were Asian, and just 3.1 percent were white, according to data from the New York City Department of Education.

For these students, many of whom have immigrant parents, “Trump tag” may be a way of “owning” their victimization, said Dr. Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“One of the things people assume, in error, is that these types of things go over the heads of young children, and that’s simply not true,” Luby told The Daily Beast. “Young children are incredibly tuned in to how the adults in their environment are feeling.”

Even kids who aren’t worrying about a parent being deported are feeling the pressure—especially those growing up in blue states whose parents voted for Clinton.

That’s certainly the case for Jessica Blankenship, who’s raising her four-year-old son, Arrow, in Brooklyn. Fielding her son’s questions about the president has become common, Blankenship said, and Arrow is decidedly anti-Trump.

“You can imagine the pervasive political leanings that have filtered down from other parents to my kid were largely not pro-Trump,” Blankenship told The Daily Beast.

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“Many children perceive [Trump] as just being really mean,” Maureen Costello, director of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project, told The Daily Beast. “Kids are absorbing that language and reflecting it back.”

At school, Arrow and his friends talk about Trump as best as they can. “Literally all they say is ‘Donald Trump is not nice,’” Blankenship said. “Actually, I think Arrow learned the word ‘asshole’ from a conversation about Trump at school.”

According to child psychiatrist Matthew Lorber, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, this political rhetoric can lead to increased anxiety in children and teenagers on both sides of the political spectrum.

In the aftermath of a Trump victory, kids with immigrant parents often worry about deportation, even if their parents are U.S. citizens. “The next thing you know, you have kids who are like, ‘My friend speaks Spanish, he’s going to get deported,’” Lorber said.

The SPLC released a report in November, which showed the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory in schools across the country. Nine out of ten teachers reported a “negative impact on students’ mood and behavior” after the election, and eight out of ten reported “heightened anxiety” from immigrant, Muslim, black, and LGBT students.

There was a spike in hate crimes after the presidential election, including one incident at a Detroit middle school where students chanted “build the wall” in the cafeteria while several Latino students cried or looked upset. At another Detroit-area middle school, white students reportedly blocked minority students from crossing a hallway by linking arms to create a human wall.

These negative impacts fell into two distinct categories, Costello, who wrote the report, told The Daily Beast. “One is the negative impact on vulnerable students: students who felt targeted by the election campaign with increased anxiety and even what some psychologists are calling racial trauma,” Costello said.

“The second impact is the fact that the political rhetoric has saturated so many parts of American life that it’s also gotten into the schools. I wouldn’t just say rhetoric—I think of it as politicized bullying.”

At one Minnesota elementary school, a student “grab[bed] a female student’s crotch and [told] her that it’s legal for him to do that to her now,” a teacher reported. At the same school, a Muslim student—one of the school’s three—stopped wearing her hijab after the election.

At an Arizona elementary school, students hid in a classroom after school and drew Pokeballs “attacking” Trump, a teacher said in the SPLC report.

More recently, a survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) published last month found that 42 percent of Muslim parents with grade-school aged children reported bullying by peers and, more troublingly, teachers. According to the report, a quarter of reported incidents involved a teacher or other school official.

Arrow is one of many kids who is worried about what a Trump presidency means for his friends and loved ones. “I know he thinks about Trump a lot,” Blankenship said. “He will randomly walk into the room and say he’s going to ‘kill Trump.’ To him, it’s not violent—it’s solutions-oriented. To be clear, I did tell my kid he can’t kill Trump.”

Many parents, including Blankenship, don’t shy away from talking to their kids about politics ways they consider constructive, a tactic Dr. Luby says is a good antidote to the increased animosity and polarization kids may be witnessing. “It’s taking that negative emotion, validating it, but then transforming it into a more productive response,” Luby explained.

Costello agrees. “I don’t believe you can shield kids,” she said “They’re hearing from other children, they’re picking it up. As parents and educators, your job is to help them navigate the world; you can’t seal them off.”

Blankenship is doing that with Arrow. “I’ve told him in the past that he’s very lucky, and have tried to contextualize his privileged existence on a global scale, but recently, our conversations have been a lot more local: ‘A lot of people are in more danger from Trump being president than you are. It's okay to be mad or upset about this, but your job is to be extra sweet to your friends on days when they are scared. Just be a good friend.’"

Among older kids in liberal cities, being a Trump supporter isn’t just unfathomable: it’s uncool.

“I remember seeing on the playground, all these kids riding around on bikes going, ‘We’re the anti-Trump league!’” an LA-area nanny for an 7-year-old boy told The Daily Beast. “They were recruiting new members—like, ‘Do you want to be a part of this?!’ but they weren’t doing anything. There was one kid who asked, ‘What if I’m not anti-Trump?’ just to be a contrarian, and the other kids said, ‘Well, that’s dumb!’ So it’s not cool to like Trump.”

Stephanie Guedalia teaches a social justice-based afterschool class to fourth and fifth graders at the Romenu school in Harlem. Her students are similarly anti-Trump.

“Every now and then, the kids will be like, ‘Oh my friend so-and-so is a Trump supporter,” Guedalia said, “and the kids are all like, ‘What? That’s so crazy! Is your friend racist?”

“During recess, they doodle on the board, and one of the things they’re always drawing is Trump,” Guedalia said. “He’s always drawn in orange. There was a doodle of Trump with his butt, and his butt was hairy, and it was like, ‘Trump, stupid butt!’”

Back at PS 206, the parent grappling with “Trump Tag” says he has tried to explain the political and cultural debate around immigration policy to his son, specifically that “while there’s a lot of rhetoric out there and a lot of talk right now, we haven’t been particularly great at allowing immigrants into the country for a long, long time.”

“What we’re learning and teaching him at church is very different than what we hear about what these Christians are doing, when we hear about the Christian right,” he said. “It seems to fly in the face of everything we’re trying to teach our children.”