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September 7th, 2010
I’ve become quite an authority on pre-schoolers these days. My eldest daughter just finished pre-school and my youngest daughter is in her second year. Plus, I’m writing my third parenting book tentatively titled, Parenting on Message: The 9 Essential Messages to Give Your Child a Great Start to Life (The Experiment Publishing, Spring, 2011), which is about the messages we send our young children that shape who they become and how they behave. So, both personally and professionally, I know a thing or two about the behavior of pre-schoolers.
But I didn’t see the parallels until I read George Packer’s typically incisive and disturbing portrayal of the functioning (or should I say dysfunctioning) of the U.S. Senate in recent years. His description of the appalling behavior of our Senators brought the connection home in a big way: the Senate has turned into a pre- school. And how the mighty have fallen. As far back as 1832, as noted in Packer’s article, Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of the Senate, “They present only the lofty thoughts [of the nation] and the generous instincts animating it, not the petty passions.” And, as recently as the 1970s, mutual respect, civility, cooperation, and, dare I say, collaboration were the rules rather than the exceptions (though, admittedly, prior to then, the Senate had its share of pathology).
How this devolution has occurred is eloquently described by Packer, though, in my view, to call what has happened in the Senate a devolution is an insult to all the good and decent apes from which humankind has evolved. Perhaps a better descriptor would be regression, as grown men and a few women who sit under the august mantle of the Senate have morphed from what has historically been referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” into 100 small children (Freud would have a field day with this bunch). Behaviors that might be considered childlike (and developmentally expected) in pre-schoolers are decidedly childish (and entirely developmentally inappropriate) in these so-called adults.
The litany of pre-school behaviors that we all see in our Senators is a veritable laundry list of everything that makes pre-schoolers annoying, frustrating, and downright infuriating, even to their parents: egocentric, stubborn, whiny, tantrum-prone, uncooperative, rude, petty, disrespectful, and uncompromising. And, unfortunately, we don’t see in our Senators the cute, sweet, and endearing behavior that balances out pre-schoolers’ bad behavior and encourages parents to want to continue to love and care for them (no desire here to cuddle Reid or McConnell).
It’s not supposed to be that way. The Senate was created to balance out the more histrionic, bipolar, and less forgiving lower House. You expect our Representatives to act like pre-schoolers; they must cater to a smaller, more homogenous, and generally more ideological constituency. The Senate, by contrast, is supposed to be the voice of reason and compromise on the Hill. Longer terms and the need to represent a larger and more diverse constituency has, historically, created less ideology and more collegiality and pragmatism in the Senate. But no longer.
What has caused this mass regression to pre-school age behavior among our Senators? Packer asserts that the descent into toddlerhood began with the election of neophytic, hard-line Republicans in 1978, with the accompanying loss of experienced and consummate statesmen on both sides of the aisle. More recently, he argues that the 24/7 news cycle, the rise of K Street, regional segregation of political ideologies, and the need to fund raise and campaign from day one of each term has reduced Senators to an almost infantile state of functioning.
Now, for anyone who, regardless of their political stripes, believes that pre-school behavior in the Senate is unbecoming of their stature and screaming for change (and I hope that is everyone!), the question becomes: How can we their constituents help “encourage” our Senators to, as the saying goes (sort of), act their age and not a third of their shoe size?
Because we are, for all intents and purposes, talking about pre-schoolers here and I am in the middle of writing a book on how to teach young children how to “straighten up and fly right,” perhaps some of my ideas from the book might be useful. In the book, I urge parents to understand what messages they want to convey to their children and send those messages loudly and clearly, whether the messages are, for example, of respect, responsibility, compassion, or gratitude. I recommend to parents that they must be firm and consistent especially when their pre-schoolers are misbehaving. And that they have to be persistent because the messages often take years to sink in. Pre-schoolers are still largely “tabula rasa,” so there is a good chance that, given the right messages, they can develop into mature, reasonable, and responsible adults.
Perhaps the same approach would work for our Senators. Though I am less confident of the same maturation happening in our Senators, even if they heard our messages. Unlike pre-schoolers, they have been who they are for many decades and, as a result, their personalities are less malleable. On the positive side, we the people would only need to send our Senators one simple, two-word message (firmly, consistently, and very loudly): “GROW UP!”
(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)
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