President Donald Trump has proclaimed this week National Character Counts Week. So, until at least Sunday, Americans are meant to reaffirm their commitment to “developing and demonstrating admirable qualities” and working to “positively influence the next generation of our nation’s leaders and inspire them to lead lives of virtue and integrity.” As far as calls to arms go, this is fairly unobjectionable stuff. But the unobjectionable nature of the proclamation — pretty standard fair for Commanders-in-Chief — makes it all the more galling in the context of today’s political turmoil. And that’s doubly true if you know anything about parenting.
If one were deeply stupid, one could be forgiven for assuming that on this week of all weeks, the President would be able to show his commitment to demonstrating admirable qualities by not calling people names on Twitter, openly mocking opponents with recently deceased relatives, comparing legal actions to hate crimes, or treating immigrant children and foreign allies as expendable. But, as of today, President Trump has done all of those things. During National Character Counts Week. And it’s only Tuesday.
To be scandalized by Trump is, at this point, to be pulled into a spin cycle of disappointment. But the cognitive dissonance here is actually problematic because Trump is making it harder for me, as a father, to help my children build character. Yes, I can and do give them opportunities to practice gratitude, bravery, compassion and kindness. Yes, I do my damnedest to exemplify those qualities in my own life. Yes, I give examples of other adults doing the same. But will it work? Hard to say.
Kids are finely tuned bullshit detectors with an innate sense of fairness. Every parent knows this is a fact. A kid’s basic assumptions of justice and injustice are tied into balance and reciprocity — who gets more and who gets less, who is given privileges and who is restricted. Unfairness sticks with them. Hypocrisy does too.
So what do they make of a President who urges others to demonstrate character but can’t pull the trick off himself? What do they make of the culture of impunity that he has sought to cultivate? What do they make of the ultimate “do as I say not as I do” nonsense? I’m not asking rhetorically.
Fortunately, there are answers thanks to scholars who have studied authoritarian parenting, notably psychologist Diana Baumrind who spent the 1960s looking at the drug use issues, mental health problems, and general unease experienced by children of demanding hypocrites. Baumrind hypothesized that when parents behave one way while telling children to behave the exact opposite way, children felt insecure and unmoored. Nothing undermines a foundation quite like the specific unfairness of a supposed guardian exercising power and not self-control.
With President Trump, we see that problem projected on all 50 states. And it’s not as if kids don’t get it. Why is the president calling that lady Pocahontas? Why are those brown kids in cages? What’s lynching? There are answers to those questions that circle the issue, but fundamentally the answer is this: Because that’s his character. And kids get that too. And they can draw their own conclusions from the fact that the world’s most powerful man (not named Vladimir) is emotionally incontinent and cruel.
“Let us set an example for others of the timeless values of respect, compassion, justice, tolerance, fairness, and integrity,” Trump’s proclamation for National Character Counts Week concludes. “May we never forget that our nation is only as strong as the virtue and character of our citizenry.”
But the character of the most powerful citizen in America — and the myriad supporters who cheer him on — seems to be completely bereft of respect, compassion, and kindness. And the authoritarian hypocrisy at the core of his one-man show hurts the country by hurting children. Trump’s proclamation is right: character matters. That’s why parents should be so worried.