How we can give young people an antidote to Donald Trump

Paul Ennals
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Looking around at my friends and colleagues, I see a group of people stunned and unsettled by recent political events.

For all of us working in the service of children, it is hard not to react to Donald Trump's inauguration as US President with anything other than sadness and hurt. Children's issues were not at stake in his election, or indeed in the Brexit vote of last June. But the US election will still have an impact on children and young people, and on our work. Put aside the potential impact of changed US policies on climate, trade or peace; it could change how people react to everything around them. How can we move our mood from resentment into something more constructive? First, we need to be clear-headed about the threats we face.

There is the threat to good behaviour. For many young people, they have seen that rudeness, anger, retaliation, sexism and racism can be respected and very well rewarded. We have the ultimate role model, the so-called leader of the free world, whose personal example appears to legitimise behaviour that most people find unacceptable. We will need to work on identifying better role models, and make a point of endorsing behaviours in others that we value. This has always been important, but now it is vital. These events also provide a new justification to have personal, social, health and economic education in all schools.

There is the threat to truth: to young people knowing what information they can trust, knowing what and who can be believed. When role models transparently lie in public, and our leaders cannot be trusted to tell the truth, then trust can be threatened more locally. If a President can brazenly lie, then maybe our parents are lying. Teachers, social workers, doctors - why should we believe any of them, especially if they are saying something we prefer not to hear? Social media and the internet can be indiscriminate in their approach to truth. We need to focus on helping young people know how to find reliable information, how to know who to trust, how to question assertions that might be misleading. In a world where almost half of today's crimes now are versions of internet fraud, this has already been an emerging priority - but now it is vital not just to help young people to retain their money, but to retain their sanity.

There is the threat to realistic ambition. For some years now we have worried that many young people's ambitions have been "to be famous", "to be a celebrity", rather than actually to do something worthwhile in itself. Our response has been perhaps to point to how short-lived such celebrity is, and how shallow. This is a difficult line to maintain now, when celebrity has catapulted a man into a position of ultimate power. It is not the first time a TV star has achieved public office, but it is perhaps the most obvious example of where an artificial persona, designed for TV ratings, has crossed the boundary into achieving political success.

Inclusion within communities may be threatened by the events. In the US, children of colour may feel less valued - in the UK, the Brexit vote has manifestly increased the anxiety of immigrant communities. It may become seen as more acceptable to say cruel things about people who look or speak differently to you. Today more than ever before we need to seek out positive examples that encourage different people to live together peacefully. We need to be vigilant in responding openly to inappropriate behaviour.

What about respect for politics and democracy? In the UK, politics has never featured near the top of the list of respected professions. There might be some positive lessons around democracy though. The bizarre situation where the winner secured nearly three million fewer votes than the loser Hillary Clinton - and parties in the UK have also won elections in the past without gaining the most votes - gives a real spur to look again at proportional representation and how our democratic structures work. On the positive side too, both Trump and Brexit must give encouragement to the idea that voting really can make a difference for good or ill, and that if you do not engage, then it is hard to blame others for the result. Can we use the US result as a trigger to engage young people in our own democratic system?

For those of us on the side of good behaviour, truth and inclusiveness, we need to use the election to spur us into greater efforts. We have seen that things can change for the worse so quickly. Surely there is a possibility that things can shift back swiftly too if the will is there? Some people worked very hard for some time to achieve these changes - to build a consensus against Europe here and against immigrants in the US. Similar hard work will be needed, for sure, but tides do turn, rapid changes can be reversed, good can triumph over bad. It can happen.

Sir Paul Ennals is chair of the Local Safeguarding Children Boards in Gateshead, Haringey, and South Tyneside

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