We’ve all seen it: Some Small Kid absolutely adores Some Athlete. Worships Some Athlete. Wears Some Athlete’s jersey while he reads about Some Athlete while watching Some Athlete on television. And then Some Small Kid finds out that Some Athlete is in trouble for cheating and lying and is thus revealed to not be the superhero Some Small Kid thought he was—thus Some Small Kid is super confused and wounded and crying. And, we are certain, forever scarred by Some Athlete.
A least, that’s always a part of the discussion that surrounds things like what happened last week, with the suspension of Ryan Braun, the star baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers who vehemently denied allegations of PED use and then got totally busted for said PED use. How very Lance Armstrong of him. (It looks like Alex Rodriguez is next, but let’s be real, even the smallest kids know better by now.)
On top of how will it affect Braun and how will it affect the game and how does it affect us, there’s always: How does this affect the kids?
A million columns and essays get published that go on and on about how these athletes are failing their fans and how these are important teaching moments for our nation’s youth—that we grown-ups should use such travesties to shine the light upon the negative consequences of cheating and lying and all-around malfeasance. It’s all so much oversimplified outrage and soapbox moralizing, all in the name of, “What about the kids?”
But really—what about the kids? Does seeing a National League MVP lie about using steroids and then admit to using steroids actually have any effect on children? Or does it ultimately not really mean a thing?
As it turns out, when Some Small Kid’s hero falls, Some Small Kid suffers far less from that than from Some Adults’ reactions to it.
That, and so much more, is what I learned from Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale and director of the Yale Parenting Center. He made me very glad that I don’t yet have small children of my own, because I surely would have traumatized them.
"Children just have no reaction to the falling of heroes. Just disappointment, but that’s the extent of the impact."
Here are the more interesting parts of our conversation, edited slightly for clarity.
I wanted to find out what the impact of kids realizing their heroes have totally lied to them has on those kids—developmentally, behaviorally, in any way you’ve seen in your professional experience. What can you tell me?
It’s perhaps disappointing to realize, but a child won’t have endless nightmares over this. A six-year-old in 10 years will hardly remember who A-Rod is. Some psychologists pontificate on beliefs and what have you—I’m grounding the things I’m telling you in what the research shows. And that is, children just have no reaction to the falling of heroes. Just disappointment, but that’s the extent of the impact. Because a minute later they replace the fallen hero with a new hero, and it’s all over. Like, “Who was A-Rod, again?” That’s how we work as people.
So these things—they don’t have some sort of long-lasting, scarring effect on kids who idolize these people?
It’s dramatic in the news, but even then, if you look at this journalistic behavior, you’ll be off this story and off to something new pretty soon. It’s exactly the same for a child. These fallen role models—they’re disappointing, but they’re really not cultural models. It’s all over the place. Look at Aaron Hernandez [the former New England Patriots NFL player suspected for murder]. If he’s guilty, it’s a travesty—but a kid isn’t going to remember that. It’s not going to have some long-lasting psychological scarring effect on them. It’s not enduring for children.”
So does it work when parents use this as a chance to sit a kid down and teach him something important about life?
No. These are not teachable moments.
But I’ve read in other articles that that’s exactly what we—as grown-ups and parents—should do with kids in situations like this.
It’s simply not true. The impact from any of these types of events is, sure, disappointing, but it’s not something that changes the trajectory of child development. A child’s development doesn’t work by teachable moments. It’s much the same way that the skill of being, say, a writer, is not found in a teachable moment. Learning the piano doesn’t come from a teachable moment. And pointing out right and wrong and thinking it’ll have some special impact is not a teachable moment.
So as an adult, it doesn’t really help the kid if I get all outraged about something like this—am I understanding you there?
These one-shot things just don’t make much of a difference. That child has probably seen that outrage a thousand times anyway. Oh, the income tax, the neighbor never turns off their music—parents often don’t realize the potency they have as role models. It’s so much more than any athlete or celebrity. They change the brain of the child. Parents and adults should act how they want children to act. It’s like sex in the following way: If your child raises this, you answer it in kind. You don’t sit your child down and have some in-depth, intense talk about it. You can actually, by doing that, cause trauma to children. So you answer them nicely, and you move on. Don’t sit them down and try to teach them a lesson.
What do you mean, you can cause trauma?
This is a separate sort of issue, this example I’m about to give you, but it’s a bit interesting in passing: When 9/11 happened, a lot of children watched TV. And many had no connection at all to 9/11. They didn’t have parents hurt in the attacks, they didn’t live in the city. But they still experienced terrors, secondary terrors, and they developed a traumatic reaction. From exposure to the events on TV, they developed post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
You have to be gentle. Some say, “Well, I believe in tough love.” That’s a move in the wrong direction.
If someone’s drowning, you don’t try to give them a swimming lesson. You just get them back to shore and teach them how to swim later.
Would it be best, then, to simply ignore the event and kids’ questions about it—sort of a “because I said so” situation?
Absolutely not. One of the worst things parents do is tell a child, “Because I said so,” and give no reason. Again, you don’t want to traumatize them with some enraged lecture. But answer the questions a child wants answered. Even if you say, “I can tell you much more when you’re older.” That’s better than stonewalling.
OK, now that everything I thought we should do is obviously horribly wrong, help me. What should we do?
There’s nothing you can necessarily do, other than gently answer their questions, in these moments. What your kids really learn from—it’s in everyday enduring features. The character of a child, honesty and lying and the like—the real impact on those traits comes from what the parents do and how they act in everyday life. How they instill their values in their child. What are you like as a parent? As an adult? What are the values you want to teach them? Live according to them, and those will overwhelm and override all this other stuff.