One of the pained questions bandied about on social media over the past two weeks since the election has been the soul-wrenching…But what do we tell the children?
The issue, being, I suppose, how do we explain to children and young people that a person of questionable character is now their president?
You got me!
Which is apparently just one more instance of my absolute lack of empathy for that particular bubble (since we’re also talking a lot about bubbles nowadays).
Because…well, I mean….what have you been telling your children? About politics? About leaders? About the history of these United States? About the history of the world?
That Dear Leader loves them will take care of them and that they should seek to emulate Dear Leader in all of life?
Or, if you haven’t reached those fascist lengths, have you actually been presenting political leaders to your children as first-tier, go-to role models?
For most families, however, the “conversation” needn’t be so fraught with angst. It might even be the occasion for a valuable lesson: Tell your kids the truth: the president can be a bad person, even a terrible one. You don’t have to admire him if he doesn’t deserve it. And just because he’s a creep doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to be one too.
Up to a certain age, belief in Santa Claus is charming, and entirely harmless. Blind faith in presidential benevolence is neither. If you’re teaching your kids that the president reliably tells the truth and does the right thing, then the future citizens you’re raising may turn out gullible and easily led.
Why lie to them? After all, in living memory, presidents have conducted themselves abominably in their personal relationships, lied us into war, and, in former Nixon aide John Dean’s memorable phrase, “use[d] the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies.” Trump, who seems positively gleeful about the prospect of turning the federal machinery against his enemies, seems unlikely to set a higher standard of presidential character.
In a more innocent time, Americans raised their children to look up to the president—and they did. The political scientist Fred Greenstein interviewed hundreds of grade-schoolers for a 1960 article in the American Political Science Review, “The Benevolent Leader: Children’s Images of Political Authority.” The children evinced “strikingly favorable” attitudes toward political leaders, especially the president.
In fact, Greenstein found it almost impossible to elicit any skepticism from the children he interviewed, despite “a variety of attempts to evoke such responses.” Far more typical were statements like “[the president] gives us freedom” and “he has the right to stop bad things before they start.”
That pattern of “juvenile idealization of the President” persisted in subsequent studies of children throughout the 1960s. Nor was it limited to juveniles: writing in 1970, presidential scholar Thomas Cronin observed that even college students’ textbooks of the era offered a comic-book vision of presidential “omnipotence” and “moralistic-benevolence.” “The student learns that the presidency is ‘the great engine of democracy,’ the ‘American people’s one authentic trumpet’”; moreover, “if, and only if, the right man is placed in the White House, all will be well, and, somehow, whoever is in the White House is the right man.”
Americans grew up fast in the years that followed, however. Throughout the early 1970s, the public learned that presidents had lied about Vietnam, turned intelligence agencies against U.S. citizens, and abused their powers for political gain. Americans came to grips with the revelation that their president, our national father figure, could be a foul-mouthed, [expletive deleted] crook.
We hope political leaders are of good character, just as we hope this for all people. But there is no reason to plant the expectation that they will be saints, and in fact, as Healy points out, there is a danger in doing so. Perhaps it is not the best path to encourage little citizens to be complete cynics since…
Yes, as the daughter of a political scientist and one raised in a highly politically aware household during the 1960’s and 70’s no less, I’d say we as a citizenry are better off with more cynicism rather than less.
And I do wonder, for those who are stressing out about the exquisite agony of the present teachable moment…what have you been teaching your children? What have you been telling your kids about the ebb and flow of American history anyway? That’s it’s been nothing but a divinely-ordained glorious stream of…glory?
I don’t. My formal and informal conversations with my kids about American history and society over the past 30 + years have been conducted over the following lines, which, I might add, are a bit more skeptical than those my parents conducted with me and in my presence…but not much.
- The American experiment in human liberty has been radical, breathtaking and important.
- At the same time, the relationship between American civic ideals and Catholic social and political philosophy are fraught, evolving and frankly, sometimes in conflict, as uncomfortable as it makes us feel to say it.
- The history of the United States that they will be taught, even in Catholic schools, was written, first by Protestants of English origin and then by secularists. The actual history of the Western hemisphere, of which the United States is only a part, is far richer, complex and less linear when you include the stories of indigenous people who were here first and then the Catholics who were here second.
- Ideals are one thing, but the reality of American history courses with injustice: against Native Americans, Africans and now the unborn most of all.
- Abortion. This nation declares its dedication to the equality of all persons, but not only allows but celebrates, funds and exports legalized killing of the most vulnerable and voiceless. Abortion.
Walker Percy’s novels, especially Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome are precise and telling satires informed by an honest, pained assessment of This American Life:
What a bad joke: God saying: here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye, because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers.
But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you had already passed the big one.
One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you had to do is not violate him. That’s all. You flunked!
So….you are distressed and conflicted about what to tell the children about these United States, its ideals, reality and leaders?
Welcome to my world.
I’ll go a bit a further, play on a previous post, and suggest that if you want to inoculate your children against future crushing disappointments about the shape of American civic life, you might consider doing this:
Get yourselves back to church.
Sorry. I know you thought it was a prison, and maybe you truly experienced it that way, and maybe the people in charge fed that by acting like they were the prison guards, but maybe now you see the Big Picture consequences, and that raising kids God- and transcendent-free isn’t raising them to be free at all.
No guarantees, but it might help.
So why not try engaging with the Real instead of constantly trying to recreate it. Worship the Ultimate instead of the idols your yearning has constructed in trying to fill the gap you’ve created as you’ve pushed the Transcendent away, leaving only cracked clay idols crumbling in its place.
What to tell your children?
Tell them about God. It makes explaining human non-godlike behavior a lot easier.
Offer them some good news that frees them from enslavement to worldly powers as they seek life’s meaning and purpose.
Tell them that the yearning and hope they feel has a source and an object that won’t crumble or die and, even better, really, really loves them.
Tell them that they were put here on earth because God wants them to be, loved them into existence so they can love Him back and love and serve all other beings that God also loved into being, and that because all of us are creatures and none of us are God, we can do much, but we can only do so much, and what we can do when agape is at work is good and holy and enough.
In other words, God is God so…big relief…you don’t have to be, and neither do I, neither does the president, so let’s smash those idols.
Tell them that it is good that we are all here, now, and that this present moment glistens but briefly as past flows into the future in an amazing, complex, dense, beautiful universe, and this moment is not forever, but it is real, and it is mystery, it is glory and it is Cross.