How Do We Teach Kids To Be Good People When Our Government Leaders Are Not?

Few would advocate for cheapening integrity. Yet, the win-at-all-costs movement is doing exactly that, and it’s championed by silent supporters as much as it is by morally hollow leaders.

We want to win. We cheer our kids’ teams, compete at work, enter races, vie for prizes and champion the champions—all with good cause. It feels great to win; it sucks to lose, no question. Why, then, do we still say, “It isn’t whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game”?

My daughter, 8, says it’s because “It’s important that you have fun and learn stuff.”

“Well,” says my son, 11, “It’s important to play fair. But if you don’t play fair, you won’t win anyway.” I love his faith in the notion that good guys win in the end—I sometimes cling to this story myself.

It’s difficult, though, because kids learning to play soccer like good guys get a different message from elected leaders. Our government says, “Bullshit, boys: You play to win—only—and you do it by whatever means necessary.” The refs have been dealt in and Leonard Cohen was right: “Everybody knows the deal is rotten.”

The “everybody knows” part is, perhaps, the hardest to take. I know that many voters for Donald Trump and for Mitch McConnell’s congress made a bargain at the ballot booth: They’d stomach stylistic distastefulness for less regulation and the opportunity to shift the Supreme Court right. The ends would justify the means.

My high school English department poses just this question: Do the ends justify the means? We require students to provide evidence from texts, but they might as well turn to our national stage.

Over the past two years, D.C. has issued policies I abhor. But, even for those who cheer these ends, we all have lost much, much more in jettisoning our concern for the means of achieving them.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation is particularly galling because, in floodlighting the bargain, it confirms how little we value empathy and integrity—as means to justifiable ends and as virtues in themselves.

The integrity of the office of president and the person filling it was traded for the win against a woman. The integrity of Congress has been traded for gerrymandering-dependent reelections. The integrity of the Supreme Court as an elevated, nonpartisan bench was traded for Trumpian tally marks.

Through these processes, crowned by the most recent Trump victory, we have declared that we deem individual integrity completely worthless when it comes down to it.

What this means for our democracy will fuel debate for generations. What this means for parents raises immediate, disturbing concerns. How do you raise a child to value integrity, honesty, compassion, diversity, and critical thinking when national leaders gleefully smack these values down—and ordinary citizens applaud the whacking?

I replay Kavanaugh’s shrill, petulant, narcissistic and partisan screed and think, this is exactly the person I do not want my son to be.

What about the senators who confirmed him after such histrionics—so baldly inappropriate to a judge—not to mention alleged sexual assault and troubling inconsistencies? What about those condoning the smug privilege of those senators? Every one of them had to bury integrity to notch the win. None are examples I want for my son, my daughter, my high-school students, or any young man or woman.

Sadly, it’s a hospitable climate for bullies and those who buy their theatrics—on all points of the social and political spectrum. Optics are more important than people; sameness is more important than integrity. Surely, however, we know that party loyalty or going to church every Sunday does not an ethical person make. Neither does howling, “I got into Yale!” Nor does working for a potentially noble cause if the people working do not act with integrity.

This is a national issue, but I experience similar priority warps on community and personal levels, too. As Adam Serwer recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Once malice is embraced as a virtue, it is impossible to contain.” The theatricality of winning at all costs is necessarily malicious. It sidelines reason and empathy. It eclipses integrity. How do we parent in the face of this national gold standard?

Apologists overlook the adult tantrum and defend misconduct with “boys will be boys”: a wink, shrug, and palaver about 17-year-olds and hormones. Yeah, teenagers do dumb things. Nothing brings back youth’s stupidity like anticipating your own kids’ adolescence, let me tell you; and there’s plenty in everyone’s past that doesn’t exactly elicit pride. But Kavanaugh’s accused and weirdly documented behaviors jump the boundaries of “dumb shit I did in high school and college.”

The dearth of serious responses to these and his recent testimony further undermines the integrity we say we expect of our sons and daughters, not to mention our national leaders.

I talked recently with a friend who chairs a philanthropic organization for women and girls—and who mothers two boys. Both of us married men who attended schools on par with Georgetown Prep and then to college and university. They and most men we know maintained some modicum of integrity even when they did stupid things. We deny these men—and our sons—the value of their integrity when we overlook its absence in Trump, Kavanaugh, and others.

Most parents want their boys to have a strong sense of ethics and character. Young fathers I teach in high school and their peers desperately need male role models who consistently hold up values of integrity and empathetic masculinity. Where should they look for it? Certainly not to the leaders of our country.

From disgusting yearbook notes and plausible assault allegations to the whine of entitlement and self-aggrandizing cruelty, guys of Trump and Kavanaugh’s ilk are hardly difficult to come by; but neither are they the norm.

They only become the norm when we hold them up as examples of success and don’t consider the means by which they got there. They only become the norm when we teach our boys to emulate such men and when we teach our girls to hold their tongues in the face of such men’s ascents.

These behaviors have been inexcusably normalized for too long. Knowing the history we do, how can we keep normalizing them on intimate and national levels, repeatedly, as just part of the bargain for winning?

Few would advocate for cheapening integrity. Yet, the win-at-all-costs movement is doing exactly that, and it’s championed by silent supporters as much as it is by morally hollow leaders.

As a mother who considers it one of my most important jobs to raise a boy into a man with deep integrity and empathetic respect for himself and others, I find this maddening and heartbreaking.

Our recent political bargains do not exist in a vacuum. They’re affecting another generation with too few examples of what it means to be a man and to act with honor at 8, 18, 53, and 72. The powerful—and the institutions they occupy—strut their slack standards of goodness with “grab-them-by-the-pussy” bravado and appalling public approbation.

What, then, do we tell our 11-year-old boys who still think sportsmanship matters and the good guys win? The boys who still believe that “with great power comes great responsibility”? And what do we tell our girls?

Lauren Whitehurst lives with her family in Santa Fe, NM, where writes a blog/column for the Santa Fe Reporter and runs the Mother Tongue Project, a nonprofit organization that creates academic literary programming for teen parents.

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