Is Donald Trump a good role model for children? Quinnipiac University has a new poll out showing that two-thirds of Americans don’t think so. Where does that leave American parents, considering that 90 percent of respondents said it matters to them whether the president is a role model?
I’ve repeatedly heard people remark that parents and grandparents should be kids’ role models. That always gets me thinking about the kids who aren’t fortunate enough to grow up knowing all those relatives. I also find the notion artificially limiting when it comes to thinking about role models.
When I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. By the time I was a teenager, my goal was to be like Peggy Noonan. It’s no knock on my parents or extended family, but had I limited myself to role models who were blood relatives, I would never have pursued speechwriting. Similarly, when my oldest daughter was a toddler, the first job she ever dreamed of doing was driving a bus. I understood, because our neighborhood bus driver was a really fine person. I’d want to grow up to be like him too.
Beyond my own experiences, I’m highly aware that we’re all touched by the larger culture. I wasn’t hit particularly hard by baseball’s doping scandals, because I never cared much about sports and never considered athletes role models. I was horrified by the Catholic church scandal, but as a Jew, I watched it all as an outsider. I also wrote off Hollywood long ago, having realized that celebrities’ real lives were nothing like their lovable rom-coms. But the presidency? That was always different.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a home where my parents told me that if I worked hard, I could be anything I wanted, including president of the United States. And when my parents wanted us to practice our table manners, my father’s reasoning was always the same; if we were ever lucky enough to be invited to the White House, we should know how to behave properly. I wasn’t sure how likely that was, but the thought inspired me to practice politesse. Growing up in the 1980s, the White House was a source of aspiration. It was the height of grace and sophistication.
We knew that elected officials were a mixed bag. In fact, my family regularly differentiated between pols “we’d vote for” and those “we’d invite for dinner.” The two groups overlapped but were far from identical.
The presidency always seemed above that, though. Perhaps it’s my growing up in the Reagan era, but from a young age, I thought of the president as someone impressive who represented us all.
We’ve elected some men of impressive character in my lifetime. Reagan started out as the son of the town drunk but became the legendary communicator who took on the Soviet Union and won. Barack Obama emerged from a challenging upbringing to become a dedicated family man. George W. Bush had a cushier start, but he vanquished an addiction to alcohol. These men were disciplined. They were (and are) devoted to their wives. While I don’t share Obama’s political views, I’d still group him with Reagan and Bush as role model material on a human level.
However, like two-thirds of American adults, I wouldn’t say the same about President Trump. There have been some wonderful surprises during Trump’s first year in office — hey, I’m looking at you, Ambassador Haley and Justice Gorsuch — but Trump’s behavior isn’t among them.
For me, Trump has become something like a real-life R-rated movie. I manage my intake of his latest goings-on by sorting the good from the bad, the policy implications from his personal behavior. As much as possible, I do it away from my young children, because I have no interest in encouraging them to speak cruelly, publicly humiliate peers, or use vulgarities.
Of course, the challenge is that as much as I try to shield my daughters from the news, that wall is permeable. Even if I don’t turn on cable news, listen to talk radio, or discuss politics in their presence, other adults aren’t necessarily so reticent when my girls are within earshot. I can’t really blame them either. After all, Trump is a public figure, and not just any public figure. One tweet from him can drive the national conversation for days.
Obama enjoyed palling around with celebrities, but Trump has given the celebrity-presidency a whole new meaning. His official role means he monopolizes the part of our brains that focuses on current events. But since Trump often acts like a shock jock or reality TV star, he occupies the entertainment section of our brains too. It’s like a TV show that plays on every channel, at all times, making it hard to miss, especially if you live in the D.C. area (as we do).
This is all to say, I can tell my daughters to mimic behavior they see from their parents and grandparents all day long, but the reality is they don’t live in a bubble. Kids parrot what they see and hear, especially from authority figures, and the presidency remains a source of significant authority. This gets back to my parenting challenge, because I want to inspire my daughters’ better angels.
The good news, I suppose, is that there are role model-worthy adults throughout our family and community. My daughters are also already used to hearing that while other people may do X in various situations, our family does Y, as with eating pork products, which is verboten in our kosher home. So, it may be three more years of The Pork Rule. The president behaves as such, but a Braunstein never does.