I had a surreal parenting moment the other day. My children and I sat at the kitchen table, idly listening to the news on the radio and munching on graham crackers, when my preschooler and toddler began to hit each other. This isn’t the surreal part, of course. Being the mom of two young boys, I break up fights all the time. “Hey, no hitting,” I chided from across the table. “We don’t hit our brothers.”
At the same moment, the voice of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, came over the radio. “I was gonna hit this guy so hard, his head would spin,” he said of a Democratic National Convention speaker. I quickly turned off the radio, not wanting my pleas for brotherly love to be overridden by what was coming out of the speaker.
This is parenting in the age of Donald Trump — teaching our children their words and actions matter, while simultaneously watching a prominent public figure — a candidate for president, no less — act in the opposite manner. It’s not the first time we have had this issue arise. I tell my children not to call each other names, even though one of the two candidates vying for the top office in the land has given every opponent of his an offensive nickname, from Lyin’ Ted to Little Marco to Crooked Hillary. While I am reminding them we treat everyone with respect, Trump is on the TV behind me, mocking a reporter who is disabled.
A major party presidential candidate isn’t adhering to the same standards of decency that I set for my 2- and 3-year-olds — be kind, use nice words, don’t hit — and this behavior does more than create outlandish headlines. We might like to think that we are capable of shielding our children from the world’s uglier realities, but the truth is they absorb more of what is going on around them than we care to admit. They listen to the radio on in the background, catch glimpses of press conferences on TV, and overhear us discussing the election with our friends.
While adults may be able to parse Trump’s words and tune out the theatrics in order to get to the meat of what he is saying, children are going to take his incendiary rhetoric at face value, meaning his theatrics have grave consequences. Earlier this year in Fairfax County, a mother reported that her third-grade son was taunted by classmates who said he will be deported once Trump becomes president. The more anger our kids overhear, the more they will repeat.
Even if Trump does not become president, the effect of his inflammatory rhetoric is unlikely to end on November 8, which concerns me even more as a parent than it does as a citizen. Already he is suggesting that the election may be rigged, and giving a “wink wink nudge nudge” to fans of the Second Amendment that they may be able to do something about it if he loses. This attitude will continue to trickle down from the podium to the playground long after ballots are cast.
We can’t ignore that Donald Trump is responding to a large part of the country who are hurting, people who have been left behind as the economy has shifted from manufacturing to technology. They need a voice, and in Trump, they have found a megaphone. But we have also seen how he treats those who are hurting yet don’t agree with him, as when he insulted the mother of a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan.
If this is his response to a grieving mother, I wonder where he would find enough empathy to champion the needs of Americans who he can relate to even less. What would he really think of the unemployed factory worker, the working parent who can’t afford safe childcare, the student who struggles to pay for college, or the lives of the enlisted men and women who would serve under him? Even when I have heard him address the concerns of minority groups, I find myself turning down the radio, afraid my children might parrot some of his heated language on the playground.
For now, my children are still fairly oblivious to the political world, preferring to spend their free time wrestling each other. I don’t mind a bit of roughhousing, but nevertheless, we have some ground rules. No horse collaring, no hits to the face, no wrestling unless both parties agree, and definitely no kicking someone when they are down. Day after day this election, however, we have seen Trump ignore this basic commandment of engagement, ruthlessly mocking anyone who dares to cross his path.
Whoever becomes president this fall will oversee my children’s transition from home to preschool and from preschool to elementary school, where they will begin to hear the legends of our country. They will be taught that our country was founded on principles of freedom, justice, and equality of opportunity. I’m not sure if the lessons they learn in school will mirror what they see around them, or if contempt will become commonplace, making stories about tolerance and acceptance sound like old-fashioned fairy tales.
This election, we will decide more than who we want to be our next president. We are choosing what type of discourse we expect our leaders to engage in. We must decide if the character qualities we are teaching our children — to treat each other kindly, know that your words and actions have consequences — are simply lessons to induce compliant behavior, or if we expect our children to act this way so that they can become upright members of a well-functioning society. If it is the latter, we cannot tolerate the behavior of Donald Trump.