The Election: Boys Are Watching, But Are Parents Saying Anything Meaningful?

There are so many aspects of what’s going on that parents should talk to children about that it is hard to know where to stop.

“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?” – Donald Trump, 3rd Presidential Election, October 19, 2016

Studies show that more than 75% of parents never talk to their children about intimate partner violence and sexual assault. What are they doing during this election season, when one of the presidential candidates exhibits the verbal and physical characteristics of an abuser?

There is no doubt that children are listening to and mimicking Donald Trump’s behavior. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a study of children’s playground interactions. The report found that “students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment, and intimidation of students whose races, religions, or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” In the case of Trump’s racial and ethnic rhetoric, primarily expressed in language, the impact is evident to teachers who described the campaign as “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.”

Gender is a little different, however, because Trump does not only use denigrating language, but, because he is running against a woman, has exhibited abusive verbal and physical behaviors that parents probably are not discussing with their children. It makes sense, given the culture we live in, that most people might be responding to what is going on by referring to Trump’s language as “mean” or “obscene,” or as his using “dirty words.” But this is not the problem. The problem is that his words, his linguistic patterns, and his physical behavior are associated with a particular kind of masculinity and it’s toxic, bad for both boys and girls.

Teaching boys to dominate—and specifically to dominate girls and women—is how we grow boys into “real men” in this country. The Representation Project, makers of the film The Mask You Live In, for example, released an excellent short video asking people to think about what this means. They highlight the everyday gender policing that boys are subjected to using Trump’s own words. By now many people have been made to understand the impact of his language on children, or on how children are interacting, but it is jarring to see them in relation to little boys and their sense of self.

The routine use of dehumanizing descriptions of people who Trump “others” has caused anxiety, despair, and anger in many people. In terms of women—many of whom are already affected by his xenophobic and racist rhetoric—his language is not only denigrating, but, because he is directly competing with a woman, often mimics the linguistic patterns of verbal abuse that so many women are familiar with. Name-calling, telling people what do to, playing “word games” (i.e. interrupting, mimicking, mocking, changing the subject), asserting superiority, threatening, and intimidating. He doesn’t only do this in terms of women, but also in terms of how he talks to and responds to people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and the disabled.

Learning to interrupt, mimic, mock, and change the subject are, for boys, often seen as markers of masculinity. They display these patterns in classrooms, dinner tables, and in other social settings, such as playgrounds, and when they do, they are often assisted by adults. That doesn’t mean that all boys are abusers or will grow up to be, but it does mean that by the time girls become women, they often experience these behaviors as tolerated expressions of dominance.

Words and their use are one thing that parents can talk to children about, but actions are another. Examples of the ways that abusive men dominate physical space and normalize subtly threatening and controlling behavior have been profuse in the two weeks since the now infamous Trump Tape was released. Not only, during the second presidential debate, did Trump pace around and lurk in ways that thousands of women recognized as physically menacing, but he has subsequently put on display textbook examples of how abusive people act when revealed. In the past two weeks, at least 10 women have come forward to share stories of Trump’s harassing and assaultive behaviors and his response has been Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender, a tactic that has its own acronym, DARVO.

University of Oregon professor and psychologist Jennifer Freyd, who created this framework to describe the pattern of perpetrators’ responses to being accused of wrongdoing, listed examples, drawn from a recent New York Times article, also shared in a series of tweets: “None of this ever took place”—the Deny of #DARVO (1 of 3), “You are a disgusting human being,” the Attack of #DARVO (2 of 3), “making up the allegations to hurt him” the Reverse Victim and Offender of #DARVO (3 of 3) And strikingly: “Trump on sex assault allegations: ‘I am a victim'” (CNN reports). There is absolutely nothing about what she describes that cannot be discussed with children, even if the examples that a parent uses have to do with, for instance, sibling rivalry or fighting.

There are so many aspects of what’s going on that parents should talk to children about that it is hard to know where to stop. For example, bullies and abusers tend to blame others for their failings (“Everything is rigged”) and to have unrealistic expectations (“I am the most qualified, and should be president”) that they believe the people they are abusing should fulfill. Hypersensitivity, cruelty, manipulation, making threats of violence, and minimizing violence are all on ample display.

The degree to which Trump is a creature of our culture can’t be overstated. It is disturbing to think that parents are not talking to children about what they are seeing and hearing beyond, perhaps, warning them not to use “dirty words” like “pussy.” The very serious problem we have, however, is that too many adults see nothing wrong with sexist jokes, denigrating language, and domineering men, who are thought of as funny and strong.

But, what is human-made, can be human-remade.

There are many resources that parents can turn to when they recognize the need to talk to children about complicated and difficult issues in age-appropriate ways. In reality, however, conversations and topics don’t have to be that complicated and difficult if children are taught from the start to think of people who are not like them as human beings with dignity and rights, and to treat them with empathy, respect, and compassion.

When it comes to gender—an intimate inequality that shapes almost every other—those lessons have to start in people’s own families. Men like Trump have always been able to count on cultural support for ideas that give men the right to dominate women, not only privately and personally, but socially and politically. That means not only widespread tolerance for sexual harassment and abuse, but also the perpetuation of sex-role specific and traditional frameworks for how we think about family responsibilities (i.e. “head of household,” “wait until your father comes home”), and religious authority. These traditions and ways of thinking are not considered inherently abusive, even though they are implicated in the kind of behaviors we are talking about. In the end, he is employing commonly tolerated and cultivated male privilege, the most salient of which, is that of being thought of, and thinking of oneself as a “natural” decision-maker. That’s male privilege, which parents could also be talking about.

During the last debate, when Trump refused to agree to respect the outcome of the vote, he did so by saying, “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.” This is a statement of power and control, which reside at the heart of abuse. But it is also an assertion of “making all the big decisions” and acting like the “master of the castle,” which boys are taught to believe is their right as men. If this isn’t male privilege, I don’t know what is.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism, and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media, and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded the school’s first feminist undergraduate journal, and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

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