By: Alexandra Murray Harrison, M.D.
Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels.
After the election, I was moved to write a blog post to parents and other child caregivers to support them in talking to their children about the election. Many parents at the preschool where I consult were angered or weeping at the election results, and there was a natural concern that their children would feel frightened and insecure and wonder what the world was coming to. Immediately I found a number of excellent essays and blogs that stressed what I agreed were the primary points for child caregivers to consider: first, regulate yourself, and then reassure your children that they are safe and that the world will go on.
A week later, I have had other thoughts, largely in response to the efforts of President Obama and many other liberals to reach out to Trump in a constructive way and to extend themselves to his supporters. In some respects, I thought this was a good thing. Yet, I also felt there was something not quite right about this, that there was something missing or being lost, and I reflected on it.
I realized that in addition to helping child caregivers reassure their children about their safety, there was something else I wanted to say, and it referred to one of the familiar subjects in my blog – “family values”. The election provides parents with a unique opportunity to teach their children about their values and reinforce the values they want their children to carry into adulthood. I will suggest only 4 here – truth, responsibility, respect, and protest, or the constructive use of anger.
Truth – There is value in telling the truth. Many of us stress this with our children. Sometimes people stretch the truth or even occasionally deny the truth when they are frightened or ashamed. We teach our children to try not to do those things, because honesty is an important value. However, stretching the truth or occasionally denying it is very different from having no regard for the truth, for saying whatever you think will serve your purposes without any evidence of conflict or shame. This is what Trump did during his campaign. That is not what we want to teach our children.
There is another aspect of truth that has to do with what is true. People are often quick to accept simple answers that make them feel good or that affirm their beliefs. That is understandable, but it is not the best we can do. It is hard for all of us to push beyond our cherished beliefs, to challenge ourselves by exploring what is foreign to us. Extreme elements of the press tell their audience half-truths or falsehoods in order to promote a set of beliefs. That is not only bad journalism; it undermines the value of honesty. It is important to teach our children that we must always search for truth, no matter how unpleasant, frightening, or confusing the search, and no matter that we can never actually reach “truth”.
Responsibility – one must take responsibility for one’s actions. That includes the words one speaks. It is not OK to say hurtful, insulting, or false things at one time and later say, “I didn’t say that,” when you did, or “That was then and this is now.” It is insulting to hear Donald Trump’s cruel remarks and lies be referred to as “campaign rhetoric” or “distortions of the liberal press”. Videotape evidence exists to show that he did say these things. The people who maintain that Trump did not say them either avoid that evidence or knowingly deny it. If we accepted it when a child said, “I lied and said hurtful things to get what I wanted. Now that I have what I want, I ‘take it back’,” we would not be teaching our child good values. Actions must be accounted for, and speech is action.
Respect – The belief that all people were created equal is an important part of who we are as Americans. Attacking groups of people and devaluing them or mocking them – Muslims, women, African Americans, the disabled – is wrong. Again, it is not something you can “take back”. To say, as we have heard some Trump supporters say, “That is not the Donald Trump I know” is hardly reassuring. Do we want to teach our children that we will ignore their bad behavior if sometimes they behave well? Do we want to teach them that if they are bullies sometimes it is OK if other times they are not? No. We want to teach our children respect for all human beings.
Protest – anger is not in itself a bad thing. It is what you do with your anger that counts. If in response to your anger at feeling like a loser you attack someone weaker, then that is being a bully and that is wrong. If you use your anger to motivate constructive action – peaceful protest, searching for answers, fighting for rights of others – then that is what the civil rights workers, the suffragettes, and reformers across the ages have done – and that is good. That is what we want to teach our children.
It is distressing to hear the claim that it is “unpatriotic” to wish Donald Trump’s presidency will fail (Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, p. 10, Nov. 16). I agree that we should respect the electoral process, something that Donald Trump did not do when he refused to say that he would accept the results of the election if he did not win. I agree that it is good to hope our country grows in a healthy direction for all its people; I do have that hope. However, to celebrate a government that won by insulting the values of honesty, responsibility, respect, and constructive protest – not to mention generosity, humility, and compassion – would to my mind be essentially unpatriotic. That is not what we want to teach our children. The values that guide our behavior towards others and that help us know ourselves – these are precious. If the country we belong to elects a leader who scorns these values, we lose something. Many of us feel that loss. We must now grieve the loss and try to learn from it. That will be something good we can do for our children.
Alexandra Murray Harrison, M.D. is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in Adult and Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and on the Faculty of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate Program at University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Harrison has a private practice in both adult and child psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In the context of visits to orphanages in Central America and India, Dr. Harrison has developed a model for mental health professionals in developed countries to volunteer their consultation services to caregivers of children in care in developing countries in the context of a long term relationship with episodic visits and regular skype and video contact.