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There’s an Ethical Void in the White House. Parents Can Fill that Gap.

How parents can raise their kids ethically in a challenging era.

New Yorker magazine recently published a cartoon with a mother sternly admonishing her young son saying, “You will not use presidential language in this house.” 

Perhaps the best that can be said about President Trump is that he serves as a prominent negative role model. The greatest challenge I have faced since his election in 2016 is finding any goodness in his words and actions. I continue to believe that he is capable of behaving ethically, as are all human beings, but I have found no evidence of it, and that is tragic for our nation and the world. 

Children need to be inspired by behavior they can emulate. Their parents can help them to see themselves as ethical heroes and heroines by providing age-appropriate opportunities for community service. They can also highlight messages from other leaders. For example, in response to Trump’s racist remarks, Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “The first note that I want to tell children across this country is that no matter what the president says, this country belongs to you, and it belongs to everyone.”

It continues to be important to highlight ethical heroes and heroines like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to your children but, ultimately, the most important thing a parent can do is look in the mirror. Ask yourself, “What kind of role model am I setting for my children with my behavior?” “Are there conversations I am avoiding with them?”

“Act in ways that are kind and fair,” we tell our children. It isn’t always easy but it is right. Sometimes you make a kind decision that may not seem fair. Other times it seems fair but not really kind. It has a lot to do with listening – to other people and to your own heart. It’s about empathy, a word that means imagining another person’s life and what if feels like to be in a different place with different people. “How would you like to be treated?” we ask them. 

These are conversations that my husband and I had with our children, Andrew and Emily, and were continued at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture where we were married. We all learned Ethical Culture’s philosophy of attributing worth and dignity to everyone and acting in ways to elicit everyone’s goodness. Learning about other faiths, community service, and social justice activism were included in our children’s ethical curriculum. Together we visited temples and mosques, planted trees in Prospect Park, and traveled to Washington, DC for rallies.

While the man occupying the highest office in the land may not be the ethical model we want for our children, lessons like these are critical. Here are some more “dos & don’ts” of parenting in the Trump era:

Do listen to your children and engage them in age-appropriate conversations about domestic and world affairs.

Don’t vent in front of them. Scream into your pillow instead. It’s okay for your children to know that you disagree with this administration’s policies but emphasize your values, not your anger.

Do keep lines of communication open with family and friends who disagree with you and remind your children that you love them.

Don’t obsessively check newsfeeds when you are with your children. They need your undivided attention when you are together.

Do provide opportunities for your family to learn and do more together: community service in local schools, parks and soup kitchens; participation in neighborhood events; visits to faith meeting houses and museums that highlight different cultures.

Don’t hide your feelings from your children. Find ways to express them and help your children to develop an emotional vocabulary so that they can express their feelings and needs safely. 

Raising your children in 2019 is not as much about protecting your children as it is about preparing them for life’s challenges and supporting their good impulses. Parents must model the ethical behavior they want to prevail in the world. They must bear witness to injustices and stand together with other people of goodwill to promote human rights.

You can be your child’s ethical hero and heroine.

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