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Finding Teachable Moments for Your Kids When Leaders Model Bad Behavior

President Trump Announces His Supreme Court Nominee To Replace Justice Ginsburg

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Key Takeaways

  • Disregard for health and safety measures in the White House led to an outbreak among government officials, including the President.
  • Kids likely have lots of questions about President Trump's behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Parents can turn the situation into an opportunity to teach kids how to understand conflicting information, especially coming from authority figures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has divided people into two groups: those who strive to follow health and safety guidelines and those who aren't taking the necessary precautions to prevent the further spread of the virus. In the wake of his own diagnosis with COVID-19, President Trump has demonstrated behavior that seems to place him in the latter group.

In a 24-hour news cycle where kids often have easy access to see or at least hear about every moment that adults are privy to, this creates a situation where kids may be presented with information or behavior that may be contrary to what you have taught them or how you might want them to act. It can be difficult, but there are ways to turn situations like this into a lesson that will stick with your kids.

President Trump Shrugs Off Virus

As parents and kids across the country looked on, a COVID-positive Trump rode in an unventilated vehicle alongside his security detail. Shortly after his arrival home, he removed his mask, gave the reporters a thumbs up, and walked into the White House.

This followed the event that seems to have been central to the White House coronavirus outbreak—a largely unmasked, non-socially distanced, sizable gathering in honor of Amy Coney Barrett, the latest Supreme Court nominee. On October 12, he resumed holding rallies at which many people have gathered in close quarters, often without masks.

Leaders Behaving Badly: How to Talk to Your Kids

When kids see the President behaving this way, how can parents expect them to continue to follow the rules? Laura Froyen, a parenting expert with a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, says, “Kids emulate adults and learn unspoken social norms from them. This of course applies to the new social rules that are developing right now, like social distancing and mask wearing. When kids see adults not doing those things, it tells them that maybe they don't need to do them either. This is especially true of public figures who children are supposed to be able to look up to and emulate.”

As parents, though, it’s our job to see to it that our kids follow the rules we set for them, regardless of what others are doing. That’s a pretty tall order, and it becomes even more so when the ones behaving badly are authority figures. But it’s all about turning situations like these into teachable moments.

“Parents absolutely can and should use these moments to convey their family's values and expectations,” says Froyen. “These moments are a chance to help our children be critical thinkers and evaluate what they see and decide consciously how they feel about it and what they plan to do moving forward.”

3 Steps for Effective Communication

Highlight the Consequences

In the case of President Trump and the ensuing COVID outbreak among government officials, it’s pretty straightforward. Contact tracing efforts suggest that at least 11 people, including Trump and his wife, were infected at the Rose Garden event. They continued to mingle and travel with others in the days after the event. As a result, many more in Trump's inner circle became infected.

Anytime an authority figure uses questionable behavior, you can use it as a teachable moment by first talking with your kids about any negative consequences that occur as a result of that behavior.

Allow Your Kids to Make Observations

When talking with your kids about authority figures making poor or harmful decisions, allow your kids to make observations on their own about the behavior in question and why it’s bad.

This allows you to gain insight into your kids’ true feelings on a topic and whether they fully—and accurately—understand the issue at hand.

Laura Froyen, PhD

These moments are a chance to help our children be critical thinkers and evaluate what they see and decide consciously how they feel about it and what they plan to do moving forward.

— Laura Froyen, PhD

Share Opinions Without Judgement

It’s incredibly important that we raise children who are able to think for themselves and not follow authority figures unconsciously or without question,” says Froyen.

But in doing so, it’s equally important that we don’t come across as judgmental or superior to others. “Adults are human and by nature, imperfect, which means that they will make mistakes. So teaching your kids to question behavior and decipher whether they feel it’s right or wrong (and act accordingly!) is important, while reserving judgement toward others as well.”

What This Means For You

It’s cringe-worthy when someone in a position of power does something wrong when your kids are watching. But when you use these opportunities to open up discussions with your kids, it becomes a chance not only to teach but also to learn from your kids. As Froyen says, “it's key to ask kids what they think about a subject, as opposed to just giving your opinion.”

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  1. Simmons-Duffin S. The many, maddening hurdles to contact tracing the White House outbreak. NPR. Published October 9, 2020.