In the current political and social maelstrom, an overlooked but critically important issue with high stakes for our country’s future is how major political events affect our nation’s children. We might reasonably ask how children understand an invasion of the U.S. Capitol by an unruly and dangerous mob and how they are seeing a former president and members of Congress still not held accountable for their roles.
The same could be asked about how children understand the current divided nation and the different response to the pandemic about wearing of masks and accepting vaccines. What are children and teens seeing on social media or hearing from their parents who are experiencing and interpreting these events? These crises and debates insidiously affect children, who are highly influenced by adult behaviors and the images and sounds around them even when they are not focusing on news reporting.
When children witness authority figures, political leaders and other adults blatantly lie or dehumanize individuals or groups of people, they learn that these are acceptable ways of behaving. Rather than learning not to bully, they see that devaluing people who are different is an acceptable way to respond to differences. Further, they learn to adopt the self-deception that they will themselves somehow remain immune from the danger of devaluation and dehumanization.
When children witness adults commit these transgressions without external limits or negative consequences, they learn such behavior can be empowering. When children observe adults reflexively accepting the assertions of politicians and media pundits without applying critical thinking because it resonates with their feelings, they learn to act on their own emotions without employing reason or cognitive control.
Most parents, teachers and school administrators will not tolerate bullying, extortion, blatant lying and sore-losing behaviors in their children. Children need adult leaders who model and advocate treating others with dignity and respect. In the words of President Joe Biden’s recent inaugural address, children need leaders who can listen, hear, see and show respect even in disagreement. Within our own family contexts, we can agree that we do not want our children denigrating their siblings, dehumanizing their classmates, disregarding their teachers, and showing their parents utter disrespect when we try to help them distinguish truth from fiction and right from wrong. The future of our civilization depends on our children’s capacity for empathy, compassion, morality, accurate perceptions of reality and critical thinking.
How to help children process what they have been witnessing is a pressing question for parents, teachers and health providers and underscores the critical importance of the tools of social, emotional and moral development. Our responsibility as adults is to help children learn to identify the emotions of anger and fear in themselves and others and the conditions that drive these emotions.
We need to understand the link between intense negative emotions and dehumanizing and sometimes violent behaviors that can result. When an individual devalues and disparages a particular group of people, that attitude can inevitably generalize to any group of people. History documents that dehumanization, like a virus, starts with one group but ultimately spreads to everyone.
Crucially, children need to have the motivation and tools to understand the perspectives and basic human needs and rights of others, even when they appear very different from their own. All these skills and abilities can be learned or unlearned depending upon the modeling and guidance of caregivers, but they require explicit and ongoing attention and focus in families and in schools. Even if we can’t change the events, we can help children process them as teachable moments to mitigate the harmful effects of current events.
Just as growing children need proper nutrition, adequate sleep, safety and protection, and nurturance from caregivers to thrive, they also need a larger social environment with a basic humanitarian infrastructure and value system. A viable social fabric that is built on the ability to understand, have concern for and investment in the well-being of other human beings is a fundamental social substrate for healthy child development, which in turn is the foundation for adult participants in a civilized society. As these political and social conflicts are fought, the seeds of the next generation and therefore the future of our democracy and civil society will be inexorably influenced.
Gabrielle A. Carlson, MD, is president or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook University. Joan L. Luby, MD, is a professor of child psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program at the Washington University School of Medicine.