PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 11: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen as former presidential candidate Ben Carson gives him his endorsement during a press conference at the Mar-A-Lago Club on March 11, 2016 in Palm Beach, Florida. Presidential candidates continue to campaign before Florida's March 15th primary day. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Word to the wise, parents. Your kids are watching you more closely than they are watching Donald Trump.
New York Times writer Sarah Lyall’s piece this week about how parents are dealing with the Trump factor with kids had made the rounds in political and parenting circles. Name calling, mentions of body parts during debates and generally discussions about bullying are popping up left and right because of the nature of the the political discourse this election cycle. During MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," journalist Cokie Roberts tried to pin down Trump on the effect that his rhetoric is reportedly having on American children:
“There have been incidents of children, white children, pointing to their darker-skinned classmates and saying, ‘You’ll be deported when Donald Trump is president.’ There have been incidents of white kids at basketball games holding up signs to teams which have Hispanic kids on them, saying, ‘We’re going to build a wall to keep you out,'” Roberts told Trump on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Are you proud of that? Is that something you’ve done in American political and social discourse that you’re proud of?”
“Well, I think your question is a very nasty question,” Trump replied. “And I’m not proud of it because I didn’t even hear of it, OK? And I don’t like it at all when I hear about it. You’re the first one who's told me about it.”
My girls are young --6 and 8. They did not watch the now infamous debate, but if they had, I suspect the reference to Trump’s anatomy would have gone way over their heads. What has not gone over their heads are the snippets on the news about Trump’s and other candidates' views on immigrants and women.
My oldest is one of those kids who knows which of her classmates parents are immigrants, she knows what the Border Patrol is and does from driving through El Paso, and yes, she’s fairly convinced that Trump would kick all her friends’ families out.
Of course there are those who argue that such “politically correct” views are exactly what Trump is railing against. But since when did public bigotry and vulgarity come back into favor? There was a time when such behavior was considered inappropriate even if children were not in earshot.
I will say that while I have no problem letting my kids watch a debate if they were interested, anyone who does so should be prepared for questions on all manner of sensitive topics: race relations, poverty, terrorism, torture, abortion. Not exactly the stuff of bedtime stories. Schoolyard innuendos about a candidate’s sexuality are frankly small potatoes.
But the important thing to remember is that kids aren’t watching Trump in a vacuum. Children’s interpretations are a reflection of their parents and those they personally respect -- they aren’t watching Trump, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio or even President Obama for how to act, as much as they looking to how we respond to the candidate’s actions or statements. They are leaning over our shoulder watching our Facebook posts, listening to whether we cheer when a candidate gets a zinger in, noting when we chuckle in agreement with a one-liner or copying our nods of approval.
That’s where children get “permission” to single other kids out on the playground. That’s where they model behavior with their friends, interpret what they see with a child’s lens of social appropriateness and see how far it gets them.
My younger daughter told me the other day that one of her classmates told her that President Obama was evil, and she wanted to know if that was true. I had to carefully explain that there are a lot of people, including at her school, who don’t agree with with his politics or his decisions, but that he is a good man doing what he believes is right.
However, I’m betting that the kindergartner who told her that didn’t get it from Trump, Ted Cruz or anyone else running for office. She is repeating what her parents have said to others or to each other at the dinner table.
The real question regarding Trump is whether one can bully, needle and insult his or her way to the presidency. We shall see.
If our children start seeing such behavior as a ticket to success, don’t blame Trump or any of the other candidates, blame ourselves.