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What Does It Mean for a President to Be a ‘Bad Example’ for Kids?

Children absorb more than we often give them credit for. That they would absorb the President's rhetoric is no different.

On Tuesday, Republican Senator Jeff Flake set the news cycle ablaze by announcing on the Senate floor that he would not be seeking re-election in his home state of Arizona. What would have been an unremarkable, if moderately newsworthy, announcement became a vicious indictment of the Republican party and its current leader, President Donald Trump. Flake spoke about what might be best described as his disappointment: the abandonment of normal democratic and international processes, the seeming indifference of those within the executive branch to government and governance, and, at length, about the bad example the President sets for children. That last sentiment was echoed by GOP Senator Bob Corker in a similar rebuke.

“Bad example for children” is the latest pejorative thrown at the permanently and seemingly intentionally embattled president. To understand what that means and what these politicians are really saying, it’s important to think about actual kids and to, in a sense, think about politics like a child thinks about politics.

It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? — what are we going to say?” Flake said to the Senate Floor. 

Republican Senator Jeff Flake

The majority of Americans seem to agree with Flake, who claimed in his speech that Trump was undoing decades of delicate governance with 140-character tweets. In a Pew Research Center poll of 1,900 Americans, only 16 percent of those surveyed said that they agree or approve of the way that Trump conducts himself as the President. The dissatisfaction spreads across party lines: only a third of Republicans surveyed said they like the way Trump acts and almost half of them have mixed feelings about the way he carries himself. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Democrats — nearly 90 percent — don’t approve of Trump’s conduct. 

It’s not unusual for presidents to have bad polling numbers. In President George W. Bush’s final days of his presidency, his numbers, even among Republicans, were extremely low. But Trump has eroded, it seems, a sense of the permanence of our institutions of governance in the United States. And it’s not as though Americans were pumped about Washington. The majority of parents today don’t want their children to go into politics. Here’s the thing: Children’s attitudes about the presidency changed pretty starkly over the course of the 2016 election and Trump’s tenure. Some 66 percent of kids now say they don’t want to become the president when they grow up. 

This may have a lot to do with honesty. Children value honesty a lot because they are taught to value honesty a lot. Some 44 percent of those surveyed near the end of the election said they think being honest is the most important quality a president can have. The issue with that is Trump has been dishonest on a number of issues. Politifact keeps a scorecard that rates almost 70% of his statements as mostly false, false, and “pants on fire.”

There is no quicker way to alienate a kid from politics than by lying. So Trump makes a career in public service unattractive. At the same time, he does make particular types of rhetoric very appealing.

A Buzzfeed report investigating incidences of reported bullying in schools across the United States found that nearly all of the bullies were utilizing language that Trump and his surrogates had introduced to the mainstream. Kids were using posters of Donald Trump to terrorize sports rivals, shouting “Build That Wall” at Mexican-American students, and telling black students to “go back to Africa.” It’s unclear to administrators of schools how much these kids actually believe or even understand the things they are saying.  The Documenting Hate Project is used to record these instances of bullying and hate speech, especially in the wake of the 2016 election. In a single day alone, there are sometimes several dozen news stories about hate crimes. Is Trump responsible for all these crimes? Certainly not, but it’s fairly clear that he is leading a certain type of kid by example.

Children absorb more than we give them credit for. They are wired to pay close attention to language. They understand when dialogue is coarse and when it is not. What Senator Flake did in his speech is, more or less, accuse the President of not living up to the standards set for children and, to an almost greater extent, by children. And children want specific things. They want someone to imitate. They want the truth.