Parenting in An Age of “Alternative Facts”

Do as I say, not as they do? How to craft a positive message that tackles the day’s headlines

My three children are plugged in. My son, age 13, is especially fond of reviewing the latest memes and tweets. He jokes about his ongoing grief over Harambe, the gorilla shot at the Cincinnati Zoo last year. He’s also got an up to date grasp of the latest political news, for better or worse. As a parent, I want him to be well informed. But when the popular discourse highlights policymakers who seem to get away with saying whatever they want, true or not, my appreciation dims.

Recently I caught my son in a few lies. Here’s where I narrow my eyes and glare at this kid. Child, I’ve been your age, and I remember. I was a rather accomplished liar in my day. In sixth grade, I convinced my healthcare providers that I had tendinitis in an ankle and needed crutches. Oh yes I did. So when my son looks at me and claims to be innocent, he’s in the presence of Middle School Lying Prowess. Fear me.

Current events make me feel that my children do not quake in fear at the idea of being caught in a lie. Consider a possible contributing factor: the nation’s top justice official is explaining away his own sworn testimony. For weeks, my son has seen images and made jokes about the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre. Numerous similar examples have garnered attention in recent months. Our children are experiencing an environment where the public discourse takes liberties, at best, with the truth.

So what is a parent to do? Are kids getting the message that a lie isn’t a lie? Or a lie is an acceptable means to an end? Here are four ideas for how parents may cultivate honesty in an age of “alternative facts”:

Image courtesy of Unsplash

1. Focus on role models in everyday life. Although you can’t expect to shield your child from the behaviors of powerful public figures, try shifting the lens toward commendable behavior in adults with whom they interact. So while a politician might dance around the truth, Coach Dave sure doesn’t. Point out where lack of honesty can have profound consequences for ordinary people living ordinary lives: in the workplace or within a marriage, for example.

2. Seize opportunities to do the right thing. It’s the old-fashioned principle that our kids are watching and will model our behavior. When it comes to honesty, we’ve got to live it ourselves if we want to see it in our children. Admit when you were wrong, for example. I recently thought Coretta Scott King was still alive (oops!). Although I was embarrassed and hoped that she had only just died months ago, I made a point of telling my kids I was wrong. She’s been dead for over a decade, I was ignorant on this issue, and I have no excuse.

3. Talk it out. When your kids do catch wind of dubious behavior among well-known adults, consider how you can turn it into a “teachable moment.” Why did that person say that? What do you think they’re hoping to accomplish? How should we in the public react? How could this have played out differently?

4. Unplug together. I know I’m guilty of over-consumption of the day’s headlines. It can be draining for all of us to exist in this age of mega-information. Make an effort to go screen-free with your kids on a regular basis. My kids will stare at their phones (more memes! more jokes! more silly photos!) while I’m driving them to their weekly activities, but if I make an effort to engage them in conversation, the phones tilt downward and fade off. Plan a screen-free morning together and try something new. Take your crew to a swimming pool — and jump in yourself. I find those experiences fortify our relationships and are restorative, for me as much for them.

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