You’d think telling kids the truth would be a reflex for the adults in this world. Then again, you’d think it would be a reflex to make sure all kids have food, clothing, and a place to call home. But no.
Unlike food, clothing, and housing, the truth doesn’t cost a thing. Even so, we will tell kids they’re too young to learn where babies come from. We tell them that their dead pets have gone to the farm or crossed the rainbow bridge. And we tell ourselves that they’re too young to understand politics — or that the current political scene is too nasty for children to know about.
When I told my mother I was writing a biography of Trump for young adults, she clasped her hands together and said, “Oh. There aren’t going to be swears in it, are there?”
“Mom,” I said, “’Pussy’ is on the first page.”
That was an exaggeration.
The word doesn’t come until a couple of pages in — but of course it belongs in a biography of the nation’s 45th president. The moment video footage of him saying the word and admitting to grabbing women’s privates without their consent was a pivotal one for his campaign. The Republican Party almost dumped him as a candidate. There was significant doubt whether he could come back from such an appalling admission. Then operatives from the Russian government released thousands of emails, some embarrassing, stolen from Democrats. Trump’s campaign stayed alive. Ultimately, he was elected.
All of this happened. All of this is fact. And all of this is important: How the president views women. What the Russian government did to tilt the scales in favor of Trump. How the American media responded.
The resulting presidency affects children now and will continue to do so.
It’s not hard to make a case that kids need to know this stuff. They need to know how to read, how to do math, how science works, and how their bodies work. They also need a clear understanding of the history of the United States and how the various institutions are meant to work. They need to be prepared to vote when they turn 18.
So why don’t we reflexively tell kids the truth about things in age-appropriate ways?
It’s because we’re uncomfortable and we’re afraid, and we’d rather lie to kids than manage the feelings we don’t like having.
You can see this in so many ways. When parents don’t talk to their children about death, they’re only deferring the inevitable suffering and depriving their children of a chance to be comforted and practice resilience before they first encounter death. When parents don’t talk regularly with their kids about sexuality and human reproduction, they are reinforcing the idea that these things are shameful and taboo, rather than straightforward facts of life.
So we come up with euphemisms, or we pretend that denying the truth is in some way a service to children. We see this with parents who bristle at same-sex couples in picture books, arguing that sort of thing should be introduced when kids are older. Here’s the thing: Many kids are growing up with same-sex parents. They’ve known nothing else. Who is being protected here except bigoted parents who can’t seem to understand that there are multiple sexual orientations, a fact rooted in biology? The actual harm done to children is when these books don’t exist or are hidden away. It’s not our job to protect or shield kids from reality. It’s our job to help them see it, navigate it, and remain standing despite life’s inevitable challenges.
When Trump got elected, I got a sick feeling about the types of books about him that might be written for young readers. Ones that focused on him as a successful businessman, shying away from his bankruptcies, his questionable partnerships, his racist attitudes and actions, and the litany of astonishing things that came out of his mouth on the campaign trail. It wasn’t just the “pussy” tape.
There was the launch of his campaign, where he claimed Mexico was sending drug lords, criminals, and rapists across the border. The time he imitated a disabled New York Times reporter. He picked a fight with the Muslim parents of an immigrant soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He demeaned Sen. John McCain’s military service, saying, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” He called his competitors names. And he lied. He lied so frequently during his campaign that he won Lie of the Year from Politifact, a nonprofit, nonpartisan website run by the Poynter Institute for journalists.
I could see books for kids focusing on the perceived positives — and the thought sickened me. As much as it might make us feel good to sugarcoat things for kids, sugar isn’t what anybody needs.
And yet we have made such a habit of it that adults are increasingly bad at telling a fact from an opinion, truth from slant. A Pew Research report found that only about 26 percent of adults could identify facts in a collection of statements. They did a little better picking out the opinions—but even so, only 35 percent of adults got all of them. And the older people got, the worse they were at telling what’s a fact and what’s an opinion.
Could it be the longer we excuse lying to children, the worse we get at recognizing true things ourselves?
We need to knock this off. Looking away from truths doesn’t ultimately serve anyone. Euphemisms like “Tiger went to the farm” don’t make up for the pain of loss. They only create more questions and demand more lies. No matter how we rationalize it, the underlying truth doesn’t change or go away.
There’s another factor: the conceit that the truth is always in the middle, so we should choose the middle of the road. It’s a reasonable thing, this reflexive centrism, except in one case: When you’re dealing with someone who has no regard for the truth. Trump is that someone. He always has been. In 1987, he told readers of “The Art of the Deal” that his family was Swedish. He’s consistently exaggerated his wealth. He’s pretended he doesn’t know people he’s done business with. He’s lied about things he’s said on video.
This flow of falsehoods is decidedly unpresidential. When I wrote my book, I compared Trump’s rate of falsehoods to Obama’s. For every lie Obama told during his presidency, Trump told 1,230. And it’s only gotten worse since I did that math.
The president of the United States is untrustworthy. This is a truth we need to tell ourselves — that Trump is purposely shattering the most basic and necessary bond between people, the thing all of society rests on. The truth is not a nicety. It is why we are able to borrow money. To trade fairly. To trust that the food we’re eating isn’t tainted.
When there isn’t truth, there is only power, and that prospect should terrify us. Even more than the sometimes scary act of telling the kids the truth about life, death, and this sometimes broken world.