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How To Talk To Your Kids About Donald Trump

By March 22, 2016 1 Comment

As we adults are talking about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, our children are undoubtedly paying attention to these conversations, either in person or through various media. No matter where your politics lie, children pick up on our subtle and not-so-subtle cues. They see our hopefulness, disgust or cynicism, and make meaning of these ideas for their own understanding of how our political system works. Teens and tweens are especially aware of these conversations as they become aware of the world outside of their own limited spheres.

This election cycle has caused confusion and uncertainty with children, particularly due to the polarizing rhetoric on the campaign trail. My tween recently asked me whether her Korean-American friend and her family would have to leave the country if Donald Trump is elected president. I was glad she felt she could ask me this question, but I hate that it was a question she felt she needed to ask. Unfortunately many parents have had to address similar questions from their kids, or address reports of bullying at school as a result of rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Our primary job as parents is to reassure our children that they can come to us with their questions, fears, and concerns. As a political scientist, educator, and mother I view the 2016 elections as a learning opportunity to talk to my own children, ages 16 and 11, about our government, the people we select to make decisions on our behalf, and our role as citizens in the process.

To be sure, the conversations I would have with my children if they were younger would be different and likely narrowly focused on more basic ideas about the purpose of an election and supporting people who want to be helpers (the word I used for politicians when they were younger.) My approach and suggestions for how to talk to kids about the 2016 elections, regardless of age, center on two main ideas.

First, I monitor my kids’ media consumption. Most of us already pay attention to and set limits on our kids’ use of electronic devices, both shared ones (such as a family computer) and those given for personal use (a cell phone), and also their participation in social media. My expectations for both my children are the same: I retain the right to know what they are watching, what sites they are visiting, to whom they are talking, and what they are posting. Some parents may disagree with this approach, but it is crucial in our family for discussions like this. For example, my teenager loves The Onion, a satirical news website, and my tween loves the Ellen DeGeneres show. Knowing their media consumption habits helps me keep pace with the images and messages they are receiving about popular culture and even elections. It also provides an opening to talk about this information and provide an understandable context of how our government actually works. I also pay closer attention to my own media consumption around my children including how much news I watch and what I share on social media, as my own reactions are a lens through which they see the candidates and their campaigns.

Trump protester Bryan Sanders, center left, is punched by a Trump supporter as he is escorted out of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's rally at the Tucson Arena in downtown Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, March 19, 2016. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Trump protester Bryan Sanders, center left, is punched by a Trump supporter as he is escorted out of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rally at the Tucson Arena in downtown Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, March 19, 2016. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star)

Second, I use the election to talk about family values – our family’s values. Respecting the right of someone to be heard, including if and when we disagree, is one such value. Our extended family is quite large and distinct enough in life experiences to prefer candidates across the political spectrum. My kids know that one aunt “feels the Bern”, their nana is “ready for Hillary”, and some of their Midwestern cousins “trust Ted.” They know that we do not have to agree with their choice of candidate to love them or want to spend time with them because they are family. We also talk about the importance of treating others with decency and kindness, and working together to solve problems. My children understand these are basic rules in our family that hold true even when these values are not always evident in the words and deeds of candidates or the voters who support them.

We have talked extensively about how labeling entire groups of people as criminals or extremists is not only false but a betrayal of a person’s sense of dignity. Again, the depth of these conversations differs with my tween and teen. With my tween we’ve talked about what stereotypes are and how untrue and negative ideas are used by some as an excuse to treat others poorly. With my teen we’ve talked about how stereotypes have been used throughout history to justify the worst of human behavior, from slavery to genocide. Both kids know our family values are all about education, tolerance, and speaking out for others who can’t always speak for themselves. I want my children to make connections between our values and candidates’ positions on the important problems facing our country.

When my tween asked me if her friend would have to leave the country if Donald Trump is elected president, the conversation was made easier (although not less disheartening) because I knew her frame of reference. I knew what she was likely to have heard through her consumption of media and because we’d already had age-appropriate conversations about stereotypes I knew what she was likely to understand from this conversation.

I reassured her that her friend and family are safe because our Constitution protects its citizens. I explained that our government is a democracy which means that different people have different jobs and that no one person, even a president, gets the final say. I referred to that same example with my teen to talk about U.S. citizenship, immigration, and civil liberties.

Being a political science professor can sometimes put me in an uncomfortable space at social functions or with extended family. I’m often asked what I really think about a politician or policy and I generally try to remain neutral. As strange as it may sound, I try to be an apolitical political scientist. It has been hard to remain apolitical about Donald Trump, especially when faced with questions as heavy as those being asked by my daughter.

Our current political environment is one that is highly polarized and unduly negative, and one that history has shown can lead down a dark path. Donald Trump, in particular, has relied on fear, half-truths, and ridiculous decrees to raise his profile and draw support from a faction of angry and alienated voters. His inflammatory rhetoric and the increasingly violent protests against it have not escaped our children’s attention.

But Donald Trump is one part of an election with many moving parts.   In spite, or perhaps because of Trump, the election provides an important opportunity for us as parents to talk to our children about what we value and how our political system works. Even if we do not have control over campaigns and what candidates say and do, we can make an important difference in how our children understand these matters and in our own willingness to be informed, speak up, and vote our preferences this November.

Categories: Ages + Stages, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Tweens + Teens

Big-Ticket Political Debates Avoid Key Health Science Topics. Here’s Why.

By October 14, 2015 1 Comment


CNN’s first Democratic Presidential Debate aired on Tuesday night, reminding us here at The Scientific Parent that scientific issues that affect our health aren’t a priority in big-ticket politics.

If you caught our coverage of CNN’s Republican Presidential Debate last month, you might have seen my *ahem* slightly irate post about how Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson sidestepped acknowledging that vaccines and autism are in fact, not connected. While it was disappointing, it wasn’t surprising.

Regardless of which side of the mythical party line you stand on, there’s one thing that’s pretty obvious…politics, particularly political campaigns, aren’t heavily driven by scientific or quantitative topics (as this science literacy drinking game reminds us). Driven by the behavioral science of voting and viewing patterns, yes. But political scientific topics like vaccines and vaccine legislation, a healthcare system that focuses on maintaining good health rather than our current system that focuses on care for chronic illness, or maternity leave legislation, to name a few?


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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Despite Carson and Trump’s Sidestepping, No, Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism

By September 17, 2015 4 Comments

There were major face-palms happening during one of the early GOP Debates here at The Scientific Parent’s headquarters when former presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson massively sidestepped a pretty simple question about vaccines and autism.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the debate or comment on the politics, just the piece that concerns us here on our blog, which is all about science-based parenting.

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Dr. Carson if he thought Donald Trump should “stop saying that vaccines cause autism,” Carson avoided challenging Donald Trump’s stance directly, (which has been highly public and scientifically incorrect) and said:

ben_carson“Well let me put it this way…there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism. This was something that was spread widely 15 or 20 years go and it has not been adequately… revealed to the public what is actually going on.”

-Dr. Ben Carson, GOP Debate 9/16/2015

Carson, an incredibly educated physician, went on to redirect the conversation before being interrupted by Tapper, who once again pushed him to disagree with Trump. Which Carson would not do.

While that’s in essence not a problem (challenging someone’s opinion when you would prefer not to engage in a battle), language and presence is persuasive, particularly when you’re an expert in front of tens of millions of viewers. It’s what these debates are all about. You put potential leaders in a room with cameras and you listen to how they command power, expertise, and thoughts on issues that are relevant to the public. And then viewers at home are left with new information, some correct, some not-so-correct, and to make the best judgment call they can about the candidates and the issues from what they know, and what they heard.

Carson is a former pediatric neurosurgeon who has dealt with some of the most medically fragile patients around during his tenure at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He knows the science surrounding the safety of vaccines as he touched on it in his initial response, referencing studies which you can read about in this quick crash course compiled by the CDC. He’s an expert, so one would assume that what he says is accurate.

Posed with the same question, Donald Trump, whose command of authority is essential to his business image, did not stand down from the question:

trumpface“Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close [to what it is now]…I am totally in favor of vaccines but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.”

–  Donald Trump, GOP Debate 9/16/2015

And, after alluding to a baby being “pumped” with vaccines in the amount “meant for a horse,” he pointed to evidence of an employee of his, whose child “…went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Trump concluded by pointing to vaccine spacing as what will reduce autism in America. Since vaccines aren’t linked to autism, and science backs that, how does spacing non-autism-causing shots reduce autism? It’s a mystery to us. But it does have an undercurrent of the conspiracy theory about pediatricians we’ve addressed before on The Scientific Parent. And I’m not even going to touch the epidemic and anti-autistic language here. That’s for another time, and another post.

Where I nearly flipped a table over is when Carson followed up to Trump’s comments by agreeing with Trump about vaccine spacing, and then reiterating his stance that vaccines don’t cause autism. The doctor said WHAT?

Though children get nearly two dozen vaccination shots by the time they are two years old (for a series of deadly, preventable diseases), there’s no general belief in the medical community that this nationally applied schedule of vaccines is a problem for healthy children. In fact, the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend the current vaccine schedule based on what is considered safe and prudent according to a wide array of factors, most important being what a child’s immune system is able to tolerate at different points in their growth and development, and what’s absolutely essential to protect them against at the earliest possible age.

Vaccines from 0-6

Example vaccine schedule from CDC, ages 0-6:

Not convinced yet? Take a look at this document, which explains what the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is. It’s a panel of experts who are rigorously vetted and have a range of expertise, and they have multiple public meetings a year where they review a range of information, research, and clinical data to determine what’s safest for children. They’re the ones who provides the CDC with schedule recommendations. And I’m pretty sure they know a lot more than either Mr. Trump or Dr. Carson could dream about vaccine science and safety.

So again, challenging someone you don’t want to challenge is in essence, not a problem. What is a problem however, is for a nation that’s worked hard to eradicate so many tragic infectious diseases, to have Dr. Carson publicly representing pediatric medicine and not correcting something that is a matter of life, death, and severe disability through disease injury for millions of Americans and their children. We’ve covered that elsewhere on this blog, which you can read here, here, here, and here. We really, really hope he moves to correct this in upcoming public statements, and we’re not alone.

Misinformation of this nature spreads quickly and keeps its hold for a long time, because oftentimes it’s rooted in fear. Trump’s vaccination stance has been highly visible and what he says, if it were true, is scary to even consider. A few snapshots of his comments on Twitter, for example:

Trump Twitter 3


Trump Twitter 1

When you’re an expert in medicine and you allow misinformation to linger as Dr. Carson did, particularly misinformation that can be fatal if in the wrong hands, it can have massive impacts. It can lead to malpractice if you’re an actively practicing or teaching physician. And in front of a nation of attentive TV viewers, it can lead to a whooooole lot of people listening to the more bold candidate and believing that he or she is speaking the truth. It’s what terrifies the masses that leads to situations such as what happened with Tara Hills, the formerly anti-vaccination advocate mother of 7 children who ended up with whooping cough, who was misinformed and fearful by messages similar to what Trump said on stage last night.

The damage is done, though many, many websites and blogs such as our own took to the interwebs that night, as we do often, to argue in favor of science and safety.

Ask anyone who works or has worked in broadcast and we’ll tell you the same thing. People (myself included) tune out after the first few seconds of a soundbites, and they surely did given how circular political-speak can get during those debates.  Lets just hope that for a nation dependent on vaccinations for so much of its basic health protection, we can keep the facts straight from the opinions. Cast your vote where you may, but protect your kids, please, they’re our most precious candidates for this nation’s future.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health