Trump, political leaders undermine collective responsibility message

  • During the pandemic, I’ve been trying to be a good role models for my children. Telling them to social distance, limit contact with others, and wear masks.
  • But many of our leaders have been terrible role models and our fellow Americans have been flouting the rules. This makes it harder to teach collective responsbility to kids.
  • People need to realize that our actions affect not just us, but the population at large.
  • Kathi Valeii is a writer living in Southwest Michigan.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I can overhear my third-grader on a video chat with her friend: “What?! A party? You know you’re only allowed to gather with 10 people…. Did you all wear masks?…. Did you stay six feet apart?” 

For an 8-year-old, the pandemic restrictions are unpleasant but make sense. She feels it’s her job to not only adhere to the rules but to encourage others to, as well. If I were only parenting a rule-following third-grader, my job would be pretty straight-forward. But, I’m also parenting a teen, and with the conflicting messages from health authorities and national leadership, it sometimes feels impossible to teach my kids about collective responsibility during a pandemic.

When health experts say one thing and the president, some governors, and sheriffs, contradict that information and downplay the impact of the virus, who is a kid supposed to believe? Aren’t the people running the country supposed to protect us?

Spot the lie 

As my kids have come of age during the Trump presidency, I’ve been talking with them about propaganda and how to recognize it. Never, in my wildest dreams, though, could I have imagined how I’d have to use those talking points during a global pandemic. I would never previously have considered how a virus could be politicized. But, here we are.

Since local, state, and national leaders aren’t consistently interpreting data through a lens that relies on science, I can’t, as a parent, simply point to the mandates and say, “Here’s why we’re following this rule: it’s because everyone is, and it’s for the collective good.” Instead, when I talk to my kids, I have to lay out the information from all sides and discuss with them what influences one or the other.

In Michigan, Governor Whitmer has been harshly criticized by Trump and his supporters for her strict protocols. Even so, as the state began to slowly re-open, more than two months after the stay-home order was issued, I dreaded the renewed conversations with my kids. I quickly learned that to some of their friends’ families, the re-opening, as many worried it would, signaled the worst was over.

My son’s friends were soon playing video games in each other’s basements, shoulder-to-shoulder. We had to start all over again discussing how, while the virus might not be deadly to him, it could be to others. We had to rehash how long a person can remain infected without symptoms, and why that made it particularly dangerous to everyone they interacted with.

We stopped eating at the dinner table in March. The table, transformed to an impromptu school station, was constantly covered with school books, papers, markers, crayons, tablets, and laptops.

But, the real reason we took our dinners to the living room and turned the TV on to “Community,” is because we needed a distraction to keep us from arguing with each other. We needed moments of levity and belly laughing. What was there to talk about at the dinner table besides the things we couldn’t do, the friends we couldn’t see? And ultimately, it often circled around to being our fault. After all, their friends were still hanging out, why couldn’t they?

While we try not to make the pandemic a focal point in all of our conversations, we do point out how things are trending and what health officials are saying, and compare them to how they stack up against Trump’s delusional picture of the state of things. Trump’s repeated, illogical assertions that the US has more cases because we have more testing and his bizarre Axios interview, where he claimed the US is containing the virus well and shrugged off the hundreds of thousands of deaths with, “They are dying. That’s true. And it is what it is,” offer examples of how the president lacks compassion and bends and twists information to shrug off responsibility and  deny reality.

These pieces of information offer my 15-year-old valuable context for the parameters that we’re establishing in our household. Our kids have mostly moved away from anger, lashing out, and blame, to resignation and understanding. I suppose it’s somewhat like stages of grief, considering the immense loss teens must feel in terms of their social activities being taken away.

It’s ridiculous that families have to have this added stress at all. Instead of being able to simply rely on accurate, consistent information from federal leaders, families like mine have to weed through outright lies and conspiracy theories. Because the government doesn’t share a message of collective unity and responsibility, it’s up to me to teach these lessons to my children against a backdrop of misinformation and the assertion that those of us taking precautions seriously are nuts.

The collective burden

When Governor Whitmer released her Safe Start Plan, I printed out the chart of the phases and hung it on the fridge. When my son asks when he’ll be able to hang out with friends in the ways they’re accustomed to, I pull the chart down and look at it with him. We look at what phase we’re currently in, talk about what’s happening with cases and whether it seems like we’ll soon be sliding up or down the scale.

Ultimately, the chart is just one tool, and in the end, none of us knows for sure when our lives will return to some semblance of normal. Instead of wondering as we all did back in March if it would be weeks, or, god-forbid, months, we’re now looking at a year from now with hopeful optimism.

It’s maddening for kids, whose social networks are their lifelines, to make these kinds of sacrifices and watch so many grown adults throw temper tantrums about putting on a simple mask to get groceries. As an American, I can’t even fathom what it must be like to have a society that collectively agrees to sacrifice for the greater good. 

Americans are whole-heartedly committed to rugged individualism and the so-called “rights” that accompany it. Wearing masks, staying home, and social distancing aren’t fun; but, it’s frustrating that we can’t see how those collective behaviors get us to an end goal more quickly. If we’d have had the same aggressive mandates across the entire country from the very beginning, maybe it could have been safer to open schools this month.

While a portion of the population goes on trips, plans “social distancing” parties, or just goes about life as usual, for the past five months, only some of us have been holed up at home, carrying what should be a collective burden. The discrepancy between our adherence to mandates and others’ complete disregard for them makes the job I’m trying to do to protect my family seem futile and never-ending, and it undermines the collective work we all should be doing to protect each other.

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