Modern American politics make parenting more difficult. Over dinner tables across America, adults lay into Donald Trump with caustic vitriol or, alternatively, celebrate the perpetually embattled president’s assaults on political norms, his name-calling, truth twisting, and ceaseless dog-whistling. In front of children, parents call the leader of the free world a racist or an asshole or a creep while, in front of the nation, the leader of the free world calls journalists and federal investigators “losers” and “enemies.” For children, this acidic discourse eats at the increasingly porous foundation of not just political authority, but all authority. Should the governed trust their governors? When the answer isn’t clear — when legitimacy is in question — both constitutional and familial crises wait in the wings.
The idea that undermining the authority of elected leaders or elections might, in turn, undermine the institution of the family might sound like a reach — an attempt to pull Washington in-fighting over the threshold and into the living room. It’s not. Children have a nuanced understanding of authority from a very early age and are adept social learners. When adults engage in partisan attacks on authority figures in lieu of considered criticisms couched in prosocial values, kids quickly learn to view power with suspicion. While this can be somewhat helpful — skepticism is healthy –decades worth of research has also show that i can be deeply damaging.
Let’s consider the Bobo Doll, an inflatable toy with a weighted bottom. In a 1961 study, Albert Bandura, arguably the most influential living sociologist, found that when children observed adults behaving aggressively toward the Bobo Doll, they were likely to mimic that aggression to the point of using the same aggressive language.
Now, let’s say the Bobo Doll is Trump and he’s taking a partisan rhetorical bashing in the kitchen. He wobbles upright and is quickly jabbed again. Kids watch. This, they conclude, is how to treat a president. This, they recognize, is an adult relationship with authority. They have learned to behave abusively rather than respectfully towards authority. That’s not great news for mom and dad, who represent the clearest examples of authority in most children’s lives. And the news gets way worst when the attacks on our poor doll become personal.
In a 2010 study, psychologists exposed children aged 4 and 7-years-old to pictures of adults asserting their authority over children in ways that were either related to personal matters (you have to wear a specific outfit, you can’t play with so and so) or linked to moral and safety issues (telling kids not to steal). After seeing the pictures, kids were asked how the children would respond to the adult’s authority. “Children frequently predicted that characters would disobey rules that intruded on the personal domain and would feel positive emotions following noncompliance, especially when activities were essential to that character’s identity,” researchers wrote about their findings.
In other words, children are already suspicious of authority in regards to personal matters like clothing and friend choice despite being deferential on moral rules. So what happens when the personal and the moral blur? The problem with bashing authority figures in a partisan or personal way is that the moral winds up cloaked in the personal Substantive debates are boiled down into left versus right or democrat versus republican, which isn’t that different than clothing at the end of the day. It’s very easy to convince children that all decisions being made by authority figures are arbitrary if you’re willing to imply that authority figures might not be acting on intelligence or using their best judgment.
“Seeing a bigger picture lack of authority trickles down,” explains Psychologist Jim Taylor, author of Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You. “If a kid thinks, ‘My parents don’t even respect the president,’ then they may also think, ‘Why should I respect my principle who is the president of the school?’”
But parents who criticize Trump do have a point. He has frequently lied to the public and set an awful example, calling sitting congressman infantile names and supporting policies (notably the separation of children from their families) that do clear hard. In exercising authority in morally and even constitutionally questionable ways, he argues for his own bobo doll-dom more convincingly than his most vocal critics. Not only is questioning the president a problem, having a president that behaves in a manner that demands questioning is a problem.
This is where the idea of criticism couched in values comes in. When parents stop using personal partisan rhetoric and start parsing the moral and ethical ramifications of Trump’s decisions, children are better able to understand the criticism. Kids need moral constants given their tendency to slide down slippery slopes.
“It’s very important to not just have knee jerk emotional reaction in front of children,” Taylor says. “You can explain policies, beliefs values and behaviors so there’s justification for your criticism.”
Those explanations become a buffer and allow the kids to keep the respect of authority in general. And they can do this as young as four of five years old. They get basic ideas of fairness. Research has shown that again and again. But when kids learn to override that sense of fairness and see that authority can be questioned out of hand for no good reason, it builds distrust. The Russians attempting to influence the election through divisive partisan Facebook posts new this. They used it to their advantage. When distrust in authority is sown into children it is sown deep.
Strangely, Nixon knew this, too. “I let down our system and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but think it’s all too corrupt,” the disgraced president famously told David Frost. He understood that his actions created a deep distrust of government that would resonate for generations.
But Trump is unlikely to issue anything resembling that sort of mea culpa. He did not emerge from the American political system and has no reverence for it. He was elected by people looking to knock down the status quo. In insisting on this, they demanded that Trump wage war on social hierarchies writ large. They ask that he turn distrust of systematic authority into policy and that’s what Trump has done ever since. He may fancy himself a law and order president, but Trump is the antithesis of that. He is a disorder president. He’s not the first, but that doesn’t mean his behavior and his presence won’t have an outsized effect on a generation of children.
“It used to be that our home was non-permeable membrane except maybe for three channels through the antenna, but now, it’s an entirely permeable membrane where home is no longer safe haven,” Taylor says. “If kids develop a sense that there is no unity and that whoever’s in control is not worthy of that respect, that weakens our society because this is the glue that holds us together.”
That means that if parents want to ensure their children understand that authority is to be respected, including their own, they need to be relentless in the message. Because it’s clear that the messages children are receiving from outside the home are not meant for them. The president, for instance, clearly isn’t thinking about the message he’s sending to kids when he tweets that media is t”he enemy of the people.”
“When the president tweets or when a celebrity tweets, they’re not thinking about your kids when they’re putting that out there,” Taylor says. “They’re just thinking about their own gain. So it’s important for parents to be very consistent.”