What Does Role Modeling Mean in Today’s Pandemic World? It Means Showcasing Good and Eliminating Abuse

Being Apolitical:

I have tried, as an educator, to not get into the political fray implicated by COVID-19. Those who know me also know that this has taken considerable restraint. But and this is key: The virus and its damage are not tied to political parties. It is affecting us (more on us in a minute) as a nation: young and old, white and black (with some bad stats emerging on access to testing and care), female or male (the latter are being hit harder and yet, we are not collecting or reporting data on gender patterns apparently), rich or poor (although later data may show something here in terms of patterns), food secure or food insecure.

Families that are staying at home are struggling (and that will get worse when the “novelty” wears off if it is not off already), and I wrote recently in a piece prompted by a head of school who wrote (and later deleted) a piece about the glories of confinement for him and the families he serves at a private school; privilege does NOT grant immunity. The rich can be abusive to their mates and children. For real. Cases of domestic abuse are on the rise today with the pandemic and that is not isolated to the poor or minorities.

Privilege Does Not Confer Immunity:

Don’t I know from personal experience with two educated parents and yet there was physical and psychological abuse within our fancy home. Yes, hitting with a belt, throwing objects, emptying drawers, screaming. My most recent memory includes my mother saying years ago: “Just bury me in a shopping cart as I am spending my days buying food in a grocery store for all of you.” Image how that makes you feel as a child every time you take a bite of food.

She’s still living at 93.

Mind you, the shelves in our home and in our refrigerator were sparse — not because of money but because of parental mental illness. And for the record, our kitchen floor was so clean one could have performed neurosurgery there — for real. No jokes here.

And, as trauma experts know well, similar behavior years later (say by a spouse) retriggers the old abuse. The spouse who shouts and throws and is narcissistic and threatening: that’s a trigger. And how about the spouse who withholds speaking for days? For formerly abused children, now abused adults, they often so want to protect their own child or children that they make sure they go away on weekends with the children for trips without the spouse or they create buffers by having other people around or they tolerate behavior that is absolutely intolerable by any measure as if it were water flowing off a duck. They want to save those children even if the price is their own happiness and health.

And a pandemic is another trigger with its isolation. And, the lack of touch and contact is hard. So is the aberrant and cranky nature of the world at large. It is especially hard for the person who was abused — in childhood and adulthood — to navigate forward in a healthy way.

The President’s behavior is a trauma trigger for many instead of being role modeling. That’s seriously dangerous to children and adults. Here’s why.

Role Modeling: Do What I Say Not What I do — Really?????

The CDC is recommending masks for us all. Yes, masks. Now, they clearly don’t want us to take the masks that are needed for healthcare workers. (Where are the fashion designers making glorious masks — wonderful fabric and materials??? Think of red noses that people wear with glee. Give away masks we can wear with glee and profits for those donating can go to Covid-19 charities.)

Now, at the news briefing tonight, the President said he is not wearing a mask. Period. When asked why, he said that it didn’t seem to go with his desk in the Oval Office. Let me say it again: it did not match the desk’s ambiance. But, he added, wear one if you want.

Now, I get that masks may not be needed in your own home, even in the big White House down the street from me. It is when one is around people. I assume the President is around people all the time (OK, not with Melania and his son). But he is near Secret Service. He is near people during his press briefings — and they are not even social distancing and they are all touching a podium. The same podium. No gloves either.

What is wrong with this picture? What bad role modeling. The President’s own words and tone defy description.

What is Leadership in a Time of Crisis?

We say of leaders: right or wrong, ones fault or not, the buck stops at their desk. So it is. Leadership is tough. And, owning the errors of others is critical. Take no credit; accept all blame is the motto of good leadership. When I was a college president, I swallowed hard apologizing many many times for outcomes and behavior not of my making (and for things I did too).

Our leader seems to think the buck stops anywhere except at him. It stops elsewhere. And when his son-in-law (such an expert on pandemics?) said the federal stockpile is for us, the President said us is us, all of us. As in everyone in every state. Now, he bristled when pressed on this point and kept saying basically, we are one; we work together.

So put on a Mask Please:

Mr. President: put on a mask. Role model for us — by your words and deeds. And if you don’t wear it in your office, we will never know. But, for the sake of our nation, for the sake of our children, for the sake of stopping the pandemic, for the sake of healthcare workers across the nations, I beg of you: WEAR A MASK.

In my humble view, the President needs to show up at the next briefing with a mask. And, all those on the task force need to wear one too. OK, that didn’t happen but there is another briefing each day; I hold out hope. Wearing a mask would be spectacular leadership. Think of it like a cheer leading outfit (I understand the show Cheer is worth seeing).

We Message By What We Do:

We message by what we do, not just what we say. And when we say one thing and do another, that is confusing to people and children get the wrong message. Think about parents who say to their children: don’t drink and drive and yet, they all go out to dinner (well, not now) and the parent drinks and drives the family. And in some families, the parents return home from a party inebriated (hopefully not now).

On this point I am serious: we are desperately in need of leaders at this time. So, Mr. President: wear a red white and blue mask. Wear it proudly. Wear it on TV. Wear it in meetings. Wear it during briefings. Wear it any time you can be seen. It might help the nation. It might go viral. It might help your popularity. Laugh at how you are wearing the flag — in your heart and on your face. It will help children who can and should see only the best behavior.

The Broader Message for All:

And by the by, messaging through action — do as I do — applies not just to masks. It applies to decency and respect and humility. Parents who are abusive: you are failing as role models.

Sadly, our president is depriving all of us of role models when we need them most. We need a leader who understands that we need to speak the truth, we need to do as we say, and we need to exhibit profound respect for others. We need to treat people well. No shouting. No nasty barbs in public. No meanness. No politics. No narcissism.

MIA: A Leader with a Mask. Where is one? Lone Ranger? The next president? Dr. Fauci? Where?????????

Post Script

Lest you find this all distressing and depressing, there are positives that can come from trauma for some victims: creativity, problem solving, hypervigilance (when used for good) and appreciation for the feelings of others, even sad feelings and a overabundance of willingness to care.

So, it is in that spirit that I wrote this story for children dealing with social distancing and school closures. Read it, use it, share it. Help kids even if our leader is not. And, you can write to the story’s central character, Wrinkles the Dog, by emailing him a letter offering him hope and suggestions. Helping others is an antidote to trauma. His email is WrinklesGetsIt@yahoo.com.

Here’s his story:


Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor