Recently my wife Laura and I went to see the Fred Rogers documentary called Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It’s a beautiful film, and a wonderful tribute to the late Fred Rogers.
Watching the film, I was impressed by his kindness, his innovations in public television, and how he discussed difficult topics with young audiences. Whether he was addressing self-worth, racial relations, or even death, instilling a positive self-image in children was the most important mission of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. I came away thinking that the values Mr. Rogers instilled in his audiences probably shaped an entire generation of both children and adults.
On the drive home we listened to a news program (a mistake, I know). In stark contrast to the tone of the film we had just seen, the news program played clips of President Trump hurling racial and misogynistic epithets at various politicians who disagreed with him. After each clip, pundits on the left and the right yelled over each other about what they had seen. Yet not one person talked about actual issues. They goaded each other, insulted each other or Trump, and in short, did the exact opposite of engaging in an exchange of ideas.
Juxtaposed against the film, the news program made me wonder what we’re teaching our children when adults behave in this manner. If the president of the United States takes to the bully pulpit to mock women, people with disabilities, or people of color, what effect does that have on young, impressionable minds? And if we as parents raise our own swords of intolerance, in either direction, do we think that has no parenting consequences? Hardly. More than ever, the goings-on in America today raise the stakes on how we must behave as parents.
I’m not a child development specialist, and people more educated on this issue than me are likely researching these very questions. But as the father of three daughters, I do have my own personal focus group, and my own experiential observations. As a parent, I’ve learned that irrespective of what we tell our children about how they should act, what they actually emulate is what they watch us do. And that goes double if we do the opposite of what we say.
It’s a tale as old as time. Do as I say, not as I do. We’re all guilty of it every so often. It’s only human, and maybe even well-intentioned. I’m certainly not immune to it. Yet the difference between something harmless and something much more nefarious is usually lost on a young child.
I can tell my daughter to be respectful to others all day long. But if she experiences me berating others instead, not only will she learn disrespect, she’ll also learn that people are inauthentic and disingenuous.
Whatever challenges the age of Trump may pose, none is more daunting than what the Trump era means to us as parents. If we’re not careful, one of the unintended consequences of Trump’s presidency may be raising an entire generation of young people who believe only that might makes right. Are our neighbors who disagree with us really “deplorable”? Are we really peddling “fake news”? We must remain vigilant that we don’t lose sight of the effect that our personal political wars have on the young minds who are watching us, especially when we think they aren’t.
It’s natural to try and impart our views to our children. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s so much more important to teach them the core values that will move our society and the human race forward. At the end of the day, I’m not overly concerned about whether my daughters will ultimately lean left or right politically. I am concerned, though, that they grow up to be empowered young women who are good citizens and good people.
It’s up to us as parents to practice what we preach, especially in the age of Trump. What would Mr. Rogers do?
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