Election 2016: What does your child think?

Original Blog Post by SMU DRCM Prof. Angela Mitakidis

In the current election climate filled with presidential debates, related talk shows and political commentaries flooding our TV screens, what are our children picking up from our reactions, our language, our expressions?

angela-mitakidiswebAt the age of 4, my daughter was role playing on my cellphone, pretending to call her best friend. She proceeded to tell her: “I’m so sorry, Demi, but I’m going to have to cancel our coffee date for tomorrow… I have to take the kids to the doctor… I’ll call you to arrange another time. Ok, great, thanks for understanding. Chat soon, bye”. It was like I was hearing myself speak! (My son did the same with both me and my husband).  As cute as that was, it also served to confirm the abundance of research showing that children observe parents from a very young age to the extent that they can mimic their language and behaviors with astounding precision.

In an article published in Parents Magazine[1], it is suggested that children imitate parents from as young as toddler age as a bonding mechanism, because children draw their parents’ attention and praise when they mimic them. In order to draw more attention and praise, children will continue to imitate. Furthermore, imitation is also regarded as a “stepping-stone to independence”. As children learn to imitate, they become empowered with the discovery of newfound abilities – to mimic what they see, and garner a response. Eventually, over time and with repetition, imitations become self- motivated role modeling behaviors.

Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist, says that our experiences during infancy influence how the brain develops, how we learn to calm our emotions, and how we relate to others. He explains that the relationships we have with our caregivers at a young age directly shape who we become.”[2]

My children are now 16 and 19, and they still watch my husband and I closely. In the current election climate filled with presidential debates, related talk shows and political commentaries flooding our TV screens, what are our children picking up from our reactions, our language, our expressions? We notice that our children regularly glance at us, gauging our reactions. Research shows that role modeling continues well into adolescence, and even though teens are becoming more independent, they still require and seek out their parents, more so for role modeling and mentoring. How are we doing as mentors?

I had the privilege of working in Singapore with Dr. John Ng (author, mediator, leadership consultant)[3] and am reminded of his work on this subject. He says children do what they see, not what we say – raising great children starts with an understanding of ourselves first. He emphasizes the importance of examining our own values and managing our own ‘hot buttons’ first.[4]

Some of the values we hold dear, and wish to effectively impart to our children could be, for example, our moral compass, our sense of patriotism, equality, faith, the importance of human dignity, mutual respect, tolerance in diversity, charity and the list goes on. Are the values we are telling our children to follow congruent with the values we are displaying for them? If we are saying one thing and displaying another, are we confusing our children? A good question for a parent to ask is “how is my behavior right now reinforcing the values I’m teaching my children to imitate?”.

To clarify, I am not suggesting we should be hypocritical about our views in front of our children and pretend that everything is fine if it is not. However, when we express our views, we want to be more mindful of how we express them in their presence. We may want to frame our opinions, views and comments in a way that will give our children a constructive experience of the subject matter. In this context, I define a ‘constructive experience’ as a presentation of opinion in a manner that reinforces our family values, even if those views are negative, or in opposition to the speaker. We can disagree on any subject matter and with any person, but how we express that is what our children will model after.

For example, consider how your child will receive the following?

  • Sneering at a candidate versus explaining why you disagree.
  • Mocking the candidate versus explaining why you feel frustration at what you are hearing.
  • Hurling comments at the candidate in anger or hatred versus explaining that you are feeling angry, sad or disappointed at the comments made about an important subject.

In all of the above examples of sneering, mocking and hateful comments, your child will probably associate your strong negative emotion with the person causing that emotion: mom and dad hate Mr. X or Mrs. Y. In contrast, when you offer an explanation to your child that what the candidate has said has caused you to feel upset/angry/frustrated/saddened, because you feel it goes against the values you hold dear, your child will associate your negative emotion less with the person causing that emotion, and more with the value expressed in opposition to your family’s values.

What has your child not learned? Your child has not learned to hate people. What has your child learned? Your child has learned that their values are the focus of their life choices, and hating people is not only counter-intuitive, but will dilute and eventually pollute the very values they are defending.

In the final days of this election season, an array of emotions will be experienced. In order to retain the integrity of my personal values, I find it helpful to remind myself that we are all human, imperfect and flawed. Mindful of this, I react less harshly, extend compassion less begrudgingly and bring my own biases and judgments into check more frequently.

At the end of the day, when the new President has been appointed, and the dust of our reactions has settled, we will go back to our homes, lives and neighborhoods, and it is there that we will have to live with how we have reacted, behaved and expressed ourselves in this time. Managing intense emotions effectively is not easy, but when we acknowledge the need to learn to do so, we will begin to see the impact we can have building a climate of peace for ourselves, our children and for this great nation we are blessed to be able to call home.

[1] Retrieved from http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/behavioral/learning-by-imitating-you/, Chana Stiefel, Parents Magazine (Accessed October 10/4/16).

[2] Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.: Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin (2015): 140.

[3] Dr. John Ng is the President of Meta Consulting, providing consultation services to top international corporations, is Honorary Chair of Eagles Leadership Institute (ELI), Eagles CEO Forum, Founder of EMCC (Eagles Mediation & Counseling Centre, Singapore), author and speaker. Dr. Ng received his Ph.D. in Interpersonal Communication from Northwestern University, USA, and is an appointed mediator with the Singapore Mediation Centre, as well as the Singapore Ministry of Law.  With Permission.

[4] Dr. John Ng: Dim Sum For The Family, Armour Publishing Pte. Ltd. (2009): 108-110.

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