When President Trump Speaks, Our Children Are Listening

A youngster gives a peace sign in Pittsburgh during one of the women's marches held across the country on January 21, 2017.

It was a chilly, dreary Saturday in Washington as more than half a million people descended onto the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington on January 21. Amid the famous leaders and performers in the pre-march rally’s lineup was 6-year-old Sophie Cruz, who first gained national attention when she gave Pope Francis a letter asking for help in preventing her undocumented parents from being deported.

At the rally, Cruz called for marchers to fight with “love, faith, and courage,” and encouraged other children not to be afraid. “There are still many people that have their hearts filled with love,” she said to the crowd.

Cruz’s short but powerful speech was a stark reminder that the youngest among us are the most vulnerable to the Trump administration’s bigoted rhetoric. Racism and prejudice have always been prevalent forces in our country. But this is likely the first time in recent history that young children perceive the president as a person to fear.

In the months leading up to and following the election, there has been understandable concern about the implications of a Donald Trump presidency on children’s well-being. Over the past 18 months, President Donald Trump has made racist comments about immigrants and people of color, incited hateful rhetoric on social media and in speeches, and encouraged violent behavior at his rallies. He routinely defends his comments by denying their intent and dismissing their effect. Trump insists that he was misunderstood or shrugs his statements off as “just words.”

But words, especially when they come from the president of the United States, hold power. And Trump has already shown that he will follow up these comments with political action. Among his first actions as president-elect were the selection of Steve Bannon, a known anti-Semite and white supremacist, as chief White House strategist and the nomination of Jeff Sessions, who was deemed too racist to be appointed to a federal judgeship in the 1980s, for attorney general. Far from instilling forward-thinking policymakers, Trump’s selections are reminiscent of the Nixon administration, whose “law and order” policies sought to directly undermine the civil rights movement.

Moreover, Trump’s words have emboldened supporters to outwardly express their own bigotry, leaving some children fearful that Trump is going to deport their families or bring back slavery. The Southern Poverty Law Center also documented a “Trump Effect” in the nation’s public schools, in which teachers around the country noted an uptick in bullying, harassment, fear, and anxiety among children of color as a result of the election.

The impact on preschoolers is perhaps less visible, but there should be no doubt that young children are absorbing Trump’s rhetoric and the impact it has on communities around the country. There is a pervasive myth that young children are unaware of race. In reality, children are hardly color-blind. Infants as young as three months old can distinguish between people of different races. Preschoolers can categorize themselves and others into racial groups. This process of grouping people by observable features helps children make sense of the world. But it also means that children are particularly vulnerable to developing and internalizing prejudices.

Children use physical characteristics such as skin color to make inferences about others’ and their own social identities and intrinsic value. Ultimately, these inferences are either reinforced or challenged by their social environments. Children notice societal patterns, such as where people who look like them—and those who don’t—live, work, play, and learn. They also pick up on the beliefs and attitudes of adults and peers, whether they are stated explicitly or not.

Studies have shown that children of color begin experiencing the effects of others’ prejudices early in life. By age 5, researchers believe that children of color have already begun to internalize negative stereotypes about their racial or ethnic group. These feelings are exacerbated over time as children become increasingly aware that they are perceived and treated differently in their classrooms and communities—and that they may not have access to the same resources or benefits as their white peers—because of the color of their skin.

Given the country’s long history of racism, the impact it has on children has been proven all too well. Children who endure day-to-day discrimination are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Racism-related stress can also impact learning, as students of color begin to doubt their ability to succeed in the classroom. Research shows that students who experience high incidences of racism are more likely to feel discouraged from graduating and more uncertain about their futures.

The United States is becoming increasingly diverse: Already, the majority of today’s babies are children of color. At a time when racial justice is more important than ever, Trump is providing a platform for bigotry and sending the country backwards. Should Trump continue this behavior throughout his term, the nation’s infants and toddlers will, by 2020, have spent four formative years under a president who uses his bully pulpit to shame, ridicule, and perpetuate grossly inaccurate stereotypes about marginalized populations. Given the proven connections between racism and the stress it imparts on its targets, a leader who routinely issues prejudiced comments could have a negative effect on young children’s mental health and development.

In the months and years to come, Trump’s divisive, bigoted rhetoric will embed itself in public policy. Threats to the well-being of young children will go far beyond federal funding for child care and preschool, as millions of children are vulnerable to losing health insurance, housing security, and civil rights protections in schools. Early childhood advocates must join forces with other progressive groups to stand against public policies and actions that disproportionately harm children of color and to reject the climate of intolerance that Trump is openly enabling.

Early childhood is a pivotal period of development. Over the course of the next four years, Trump’s rhetoric and policy decisions could alter the trajectory of millions of vulnerable children. We must support our increasingly diverse population of young people—the nation’s future doctors, teachers, and policymakers—or we will undermine our country’s greatest strength.

Rebecca Ullrich is a Policy Analyst for the Early Childhood Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Leila Schochet is a Research Assistant for the Early Childhood Policy team at the Center.