Trump's "S–hole" Remark: What to Say to Our Kids?

The latest controversy about the President is a teaching moment.

Posted Jan 18, 2018

 Pixabay
Source: Source: Pixabay

As much of the world now knows, on Thursday, January 11, in a bipartisan Oval Office meeting on immigration, President Trump reportedly made what have been widely regarded as the most inflammatory comments of his provocative presidency.  

When the discussion turned to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, the President allegedly said, “Why are we having all these people from s—hole countries come here?”  He reportedly then added, “Why do we need more Haitians?” and suggested that the United States should instead bring in more people from countries like Norway.

Asked later that day about the President’s reported remarks, White House spokesman Raj Shah did not deny them. But on the next day the President did deny them, tweeting that the language he used was “tough” but not the language attributed to him.   

That denial didn’t square, however, with a front-page story (“G.O.P. Senator Scolded Trump After Vile Talk”) in the Saturday, January 13 New York Times. According to that account, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was present at Thursday’s Oval Office meeting, challenged the President after he made the “s—hole” comment.  Senator Graham reportedly said that “America is an idea, not a race,” that diversity is a strength not a weakness, and that, by the way, he himself was a descendant of immigrants who came to the United States from “s—hole countries, with no skills.”

As parents, should we discuss all this with our kids? Do the President’s words and deeds merit attention in our efforts to raise kind and respectful kids—persons of character? 

I’d argue that they do, and that we should talk with our kids, taking into account their age and innocence, about the firestorm created by Mr. Trump’s comments last week.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Principle #1 in Parenting 101 is “Love matters.” The impact of our parenting depends on the quality of the relationship we have with our children. But Principle #2, close behind in importance, is “Monkey see, monkey do.” Albert Bandura’s psychology classic, Social Learning Theory, demonstrated empirically what everyday observation tells us: children, like other human beings, are influenced by the behavior of people around them. 

That includes the behavior of parents and other family members, teachers, friends, the wider peer group, the community, social media, sports and entertainment figures, and society at large—including our nation’s leaders.  We should point out to our children that these social influences shape social norms—the behaviors we expect and accept from each other.   If it seems that “everybody’s doing it” (whether or not a majority really are), people tend to think it must be all right or at least no big deal. 

After the Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s presidency, a high school student interviewed for a documentary about cheating said, “If it’s okay for the President to lie under oath, why isn’t it okay for us to cheat?”  Fans and foes of President Trump agree that he is a politician who dominates the news and has an outsize influence.  His critics say the deteriorating state of civility in our public life reflects things he has said and done—such as stirring up animosity toward immigrants, making degrading comments about women, firing off angry tweets at anyone who criticizes him, and, as in last week’s incident, making racially charged comments. 

As a matter of fairness, in considering controversial matters we should teach our kids the need to try to get both sides of the story. The President has insisted that he is not a racist. As he signed a proclamation to mark this week’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, he spoke of King’s message that “no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are created equal by God.” 

Trump’s aides have argued that in the controversial White House meeting on immigration, he was just arguing that the United States should set priorities for who it admits based on merit and skills that would benefit the country. They noted that the President said he would welcome more immigrants from Asian countries who would benefit the country economically. An African-American woman who worked in the Trump campaign says she finds him “colorblind and empowering,” but that he’s very bold and honest and says out loud the things that other people say only at their dinner table.

Food for Thought in Our Families

Questions we might consider for our own dinner table: Is President Trump really expressing the feelings that many or most people have about immigration? What comments have you heard from teachers and kids at school? We are a nation of immigrants; what is our own family’s immigration story? Regardless of a person’s politics, why is it not appropriate for a President of the United States to say what Mr. Trump is reported to have said? What bad effects might it have?  

Some commentators have observed that Mr. Trump’s inflammatory remarks reflect his long habit of stereotyping minorities and immigrants and have given permission for others to do the same. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, found the President’s controversial comments “encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration.”

Finally, talking with our kids about these events gives us a chance to raise big questions about what it means to be an American. Republican Mia Lowe of Utah, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said the President’s reported remarks were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values.” Why were they unkind and divisive? Why were they elitist? What American values did they fly in the face of?

If we want to raise kind kids—and form ethical citizens who will truly make America great—those are questions we can’t ignore.