Donald Trump, Fonzie, and the Responsibility Imperative
Ok, by a show of hands, how many of you saw Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood video? You know, the one in which he expounds upon the joys of sexual assault and adultery, and celebrates freedom, uniquely held by celebrities, from any burdens of self-restraint? Most of you, right? Ok, how many of you caught the late night apology video he released in response? A lot of you saw that too, huh? Ok, last question… how many of you found yourself getting a little tingly inside and misty-eyed at the pure, unbridled contrition he expressed during that video? Were you moved by the heartfelt sincerity in his voice? By the way he owned his behavior and took responsibility for his actions? Did you say to yourself “There’s a man of character who made a mistake and is going to make it right for the people he wronged?” No?
Some of you perceptive readers may have detected a subtle whiff of sarcasm in that paragraph. In addition, you may also suspect that my skepticism about the degree of authenticity in The Donald’s apology is the prelude to a political rant. Rest assured, it is (mostly) not. It’s really a prelude to some ideas about ADHD and the importance of taking real responsibility for one’s actions. I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump has ADHD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the conventional wisdom concerning his diagnosis and it seems about right to me – but the way he responded to behavior he purported to regret is an exquisite example of what we at Academy MetroWest teach kids with ADHD not to do after they’ve made a mistake.
For years, I’ve tried to heed the words of the Serenity Prayer when I think about working with kids who have ADHD. Despite my best efforts, there are aspects of behavior found among children with ADHD that I can’t really influence. The extent to which I recognize the difference between the behaviors I can sway and those I can’t can greatly affect a child’s ability to respond with the serenity, courage, and wisdom the prayer so powerfully longs for. Parents and professionals can strive to create environments and relationships with children in which the core symptoms of ADHD are, to some degree, contained and mitigated. However, there’s a big difference between behaviors that are managed and behaviors that are eliminated. Even the most thoughtfully designed medication regimen and the most ADHD-centric environments are going to fall short of completely reining in impulsiveness, distractibility, hyperactivity, and emotional reactivity. In short, kids with a disorder characterized by impulsive behavior are sometimes going to act impulsively. They’re going to say and do things they shouldn’t say and do. That’s one of the things they can’t change.
What they can and often do change is the way they respond once they’ve said or done that impulsive thing. And the way they respond can make all the difference in how others in their social world feel about them and interact with them. Let’s look at an example that we see here fairly often.
“When you look up “sorry” in the dictionary, it’s not defined as “The word that makes grownups leave me alone when I screw up.”
Suppose we’ve just finished an activity with a group of kids. We tell them that once we’ve cleaned up, they can get a drink from the water cooler and move into a different activity area for the next activity. It’s not uncommon for children with ADHD to go dashing up to the water cooler and, in their excitement, crash into another kid, spilling water all over his or her shirt.
There are many potential responses for the child with ADHD but none of them are any good unless it involves taking responsibility for those actions. That goes beyond just saying “Sorry” or “Oops – my bad.” When you look up “sorry” in the dictionary, it’s not defined as “The word that makes grownups leave me alone when I screw up.” Saying sorry works only as a first step. It has to be said in a way that communicates regret for the behavior and usually has to be accompanied by a willingness to make things right. The kid who spills water on someone’s shirt and responds flippantly, blames someone else, blows it off entirely, or minimizes his or her actions makes it very likely that others are going to have a hard time maintaining their trust and affection. On the other hand, the kid who apologizes sincerely and takes the initiative to get some paper towels to help dry out the wet shirt improve the chances of good will being maintained. Peers are likely to see him or her as being a little hyper but, overall, a good kid.
So let’s take another look at Donald Trump’s apology. It’s a stretch but if you give him a big benefit of the doubt, it starts out okay. He says “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more-than-a-decade-old video are one of them…I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
So far, so good, right? But what happened immediately after that? He tries to minimize his mistake by, in effect, saying “I’m still not as bad as Bill Clinton.” Sure, he expressed regret but did it come across as sincere? Did he express a willingness to make things right? Not so much.
Taking responsibility is easier said than done. No one likes to admit mistakes or go the extra mile to make amends. Even Fonzie, that paragon of all things cool from the 1970’s sitcom Happy Days, struggled to say he was wrong. And let’s face it, if Fonzie had a hard time with it, no one’s going to find it easy.
Many times, a child’s ability to take responsibility for his or her actions are a reflection of that child’s self-image. Children with ADHD spend a lot of time listening to adults and peers tell them how they screwed up. At some point, they start to view taking responsibility as someone else’s job, not theirs. Why should they do the work to help other people get them in trouble?
Through any frame of reference other than the most short-term, this is obviously a counterproductive way of operating. When kids avoid taking responsibility for their actions, they usually just dig a deeper hole for themselves. Of course, when you don’t see the potential for climbing out of that hole, it doesn’t make much of a difference anyway. Our work as adults needs to focus on helping kids develop a self-image that enables them to envision things differently. That’s something you can change.