You're a liar; No, you're a liar!

A Toronto psychologist offers pointers on how to explain the behaviour of our politicians to children.

How kids perceive the behaviour of our political leaders

Melanie Barwick
Melanie Barwick is a registered psychologist with a primary role as a health systems scientist in the Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Brace yourselves. They're here — the ugly and mean television commercials pitting political leaders against one another, that shameful public bickering and name-calling that we have seen time and again. And then there are the debates, where the leaders go all out to make each other look bad.

And, your kids are being exposed to it. What will they think? How do we explain this juvenile behaviour to our kids when it's adults they are watching - you know, those big people who should know better and who don't let them get away with picking on others?

Sadly, much of our leaders' campaign behaviour has its roots in the schoolyard. Were they all schoolyard bullies? Aren't they the least bit embarrassed about looking like eight-year-olds? Calling your adversary a liar, for instance, or saying that the other guy is lacking good leadership potential isn't too far off from saying "You're a wuss." 

Drawing pictures of your enemies being pooped on by a puffin would send any kid to the principal's office. Clearly, our politicians have been told at some point during their formative years that such language was hurtful and unproductive. Yet, here it is again, spouting from the mouths of our leaders. 

Bullying is not only alive and well in the workplace; it's rampant in our political system as well. While most of the larger companies in Canada have identified bullying as a potential problem and have brought in regulations to ensure it does not happen, our political leaders are paying lots of money to pick on each other in public. Should we have anti-bullying regulations in our political system? 

Consider that bullying among adults is far more prevalent than other destructive behaviour covered by legislation, such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination.  Over 80 per cent of bullies are bosses, some are co-workers and a minority bully higher-ups. A bully is equally likely to be a man or a woman. (Click here for a more details on bullying research — paid article.)

I wonder how many of these bullies become political leaders around the world? Some names come to mind, but I'll let you conjure your own. Perhaps we need to institute an anti-bullying policy for our political leaders. The Canadian Human Rights Commission could give them a few pointers here.

Follow the bully

In a world where we teach our kids to accept one another's differences, kids are exposed to attack ads, many of which pit men against women. I had a look around to see whether anyone had studied how negative political campaigns affect kids, and one 1994 study on university students caught my eye. Researchers Deborah Dinzes, Michael D. Cozzens and George G. Manross found that undergrads who listened to a radio spot in which one candidate picked on the other of the opposite sex tended to vote for the bully candidate.

So, when male candidates pick on female candidates, we tend to support their behaviour and vote for them. While presumably the same is true when women pick on men, this part of human nature sheds some light on the plight of Hilary Clinton. Sarah Palin better watch out, too. 

What does this behaviour say about us? That we gravitate to the bully, especially if the bully picks on a member of the opposite sex? How do we explain that one to our kids? Is politics the grown-up version of the schoolyard popularity game?

Commenting on natural human political behavior, Donald Watson warned that "Contrary to popular opinion, popular opinion does not constitute truth. Nevertheless, when humans gather in large herds, they think with one mind, and this mind assures them that their numbers secure them from predators.

"The irony is, many leaders are themselves predators, leisurely feasting on the minds, bodies and property of their followers. Many other leaders are simply compelled to lead, regardless of their mental fitness to do so. Thus, as pods of whales beach themselves by following their surrogate thinkers, humans obliviously, but fashionably, flock to their deaths."

I suppose there isn't much we can do about how others behave in public. Can you imagine sending Stéphane Dion and Stephen Harper to the office for a scolding, and whose office might that be? I suppose we can use political campaigns as a way to educate our kids about the media and about politics more generally. 

Teach kids to train a critical eye on campaign ads

It's not hard to find general suggestions about how we might help kids be more media savvy when watching political advertising. Ask your kids how a particular commercial makes them feel. What impression do they get of the candidate? What message do they get from the camera shots, setting, music and people in the ad? 

Encourage your kids to notice the race and ethnicity of people in the commercial. If they're all of one race, talk about why the people making the ad chose to do that. You can also talk about the age and gender of the people.

Discuss the advertisement's message and how it may compare to what a candidate has actually done — there's a concept! If a candidate is engaging in bullying behaviour, share how that makes you feel with your kids. Tell them whether you believe the information in the ad is true.

Talk to your kids about the power of charisma. Help them realize that just because candidates have a nice smile or are attractive doesn't mean they're the right people to lead the country.

Lastly, discuss the issues you and your kids care about most. Do the candidates' opinions on these issues match yours, and have they even communicated their point of view or only derogated their opponent's views? Perhaps Robert Fulghum's words in the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten are truly a guide to global leadership and something our political leaders should take to heart:

  • Play fair. 
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. 
  • Put things back where you found them. 
  • Clean up your own mess.

I wonder whether all of our efforts to combat bullying in school and at the office will change our collective behaviour. I'm hopeful, but as with all things, only time will tell.