By Anne Holland Brown, Ph.D.
Presidential elections are often viewed as major teaching moments by parents and teachers alike, for example, they provide real world lessons about our government – how the election process works and the roles and functions of the presidency. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us an opportunity to discuss and share values with our children and help them learn to evaluate and defend their beliefs and choices based on their emerging value systems, which is a very important and a skill they will use throughout their lives.
For me personally, I have found the current election to be a challenge – hard to believe it could be good for children – young, innocent, impressionable children to observe with all its ugliness. Yes, it has been ugly, more ugly than any election I can remember in my lifetime with the level of anger, accusations, name calling, personal attacks, and hate speak. Not enough discussion and debate about the issues, and instead hateful slurs being hurled at one another. And this is not just from the candidates themselves, it happens daily with the candidates and their campaigns, of course, but also with their pundits, news media, and even our friends and colleagues daily on our Facebook feeds. We really cannot escape it. But, does it have any value; are there important lessons for our children in all the hate and negativity?
Most parents with whom I have worked professionally and who I have known personally state their desire for their children to learn and internalize many of the same qualities and values, and these seem to be stated fairly universally regardless of the family’s race/ethnicity, religion, geographic location, or socioeconomic level. Most parents state, when asked, that they want their children to grow up learning to be honest, kind, curious/open to learning new things, motivated, generous/sharing with those in need or less fortunate, as well as able to get along and interact positively and productively with others and to lead authentic/genuine happy lives. So have these ideals been modeled during the current election cycle by the presidential candidates and beyond? I think most would say “no way. ” Instead, it seems as if people have adopted and engaged in behaviors that would disappoint and maybe even disgrace their former kindergarten teachers and parents alike with the lies , manipulations, name calling, and the wealth of unkindness shown to individuals and entire groups of people. So, what good will come out of this election? What can our children learn from this? Perhaps, it’s that even grown-ups do not know everything and have all the answers, and sometimes make mistakes, big mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process and growth, and nations, like individuals, make mistakes, and need to continually work on self-improvement if they are to succeed and thrive over time. This election has also certainly given educators and parents alike the ability to model for children how to respond when one does not like what is being said and done by others, when it does not fit with our beliefs and values. And, what is modeled will show children what to do and how to act and react when faced with those who do hold the same values and beliefs that they do in the future. So, instead of responding with apathy and inaction, respond in ways that model those beliefs we say are important to us – this is critical during these ugly times. We may not be able to change the current political climate and the behaviors of the politicians, but we can still show our children how to behave when faced with others’ beliefs and behaviors that are not consonant with our own value system. Therein, lies hope for positive change in the future!