As a developmental pediatrician for the past seven years, I see far too many parallels between the challenging behaviors of children in my practice and the complicated behaviors of the current roster of presidential candidates. These behaviors challenge our notion of civilized public discourse.
Minding the latest shifts in candidate status, and looking ahead to the Democratic and Republican debates later this month as well as the 2016 primaries, now is the time for candidates on both sides to restart their approaches. I offer these simple reminders of what I advise the families of my young patients as well as some fundamentals I have learned in my practice dealing with children - both personally and professionally.
1. Tell the truth. It is the right thing to do, even and especially if you did something wrong. A recent article describes various stories called into question about the Republican candidates, from details of Senator Ted Cruz's stories of his father as a rebel leader in Cuba to Carly Fiorina's track record at Hewlett-Packard. This lesson is not limited to Republican candidates, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's track record was also called into question at the hearings about Benghazi.
As a doctor, I am often asked about the cause of children's developmental differences as well as what the future will bring. I want to be able to tell families definitive answers. Unfortunately, we do not have them right now. So it is incumbent upon me to tell the truth about what we know and what we don't know about potential causes.
2. Do not call people names. Many of the presidential candidates seem more interested in personal attacks and name calling rather than addressing the issues. Republican candidate Donald Trump's recent call for the exclusion of all Muslims from entering the United States has drawn international condemnation, though it is only the latest in a string of less outrageous taunts. When name calling and mocking are demonstrated by a potential leader of our country, it is even more harmful, as was demonstrated by Trump's recent mocking of a journalist with a disability.
Children and families impacted by autism, mental illness, and other developmental differences know too well the hurt of such name calling and ridicule. Approximately 13 percent of children ages 13 to 18 experiences a severe mental illness at some point in their lives. It is unacceptable in any arena.
3. Admit when you are wrong. For many reasons, it seems to be more difficult for our world leaders to admit when they are wrong. Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson came close to admitting that he was wrong when describing his faulty memory of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11. He now remembers watching this in the Middle East. To be sure, this is not easy when media reporters are dissecting everything you say and do and the stakes are so high. It just increases your credibility if you say you made a mistake.
In pediatrics, physicians are becoming more comfortable with disclosure of mistakes to families. I would argue that disclosure of mistakes, as difficult as it is, is an essential element of establishing trust in the doctor-patient relationship.
4. Listen, listen, listen. This goes beyond not interrupting a competitor on a debate panel. This applies to hearing and understanding the voices of those who are not in power. In her new book, My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem describes it this way: "One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak."
As a physician, I have learned to ask fewer questions and to listen more. I can always be better at listening. Of course I have to ask clarifying questions, but I find the story that families tell about their own experiences with their children is of the utmost importance. They are the experts on their children, and my role is to help them understand how their children are learning so they can support them to the best of their abilities with the limited resources that are available to us.
5. Be yourself. Building on advice I have received from my own parents as well as my mentors, I suggest we all be open to our own and others' vulnerabilities. Social scientist and researcher Brené Brown discusses the power of vulnerability in her TED Talk that has received more than 22 million views. In her new book, Rising Strong, Brown says that by dealing with our own vulnerabilities, we are able to make unpopular decisions, to deal with uncertainty, and to live with difficult emotions. I wonder what our political landscape would look like if we dealt with our own vulnerabilities and did not allow them to manifest as rants on social media and personal attacks of others.
Particularly as we consider and define what our society defines as "normal," it is noteworthy to observe that we often categorize others by their differences or "deficits," particularly in the areas of medicine and disability. If we define individuals by their strengths instead of their differences, it would change our country's perspective into one that is more inclusive.
6. Embrace uncertainty. Throughout my medical training, I always thought of reaching a destination as the goal - graduating from medical school, completing residency and fellowship - and then I would feel like a doctor. It never happened. I realized that being a physician is more about sitting with others in times of uncertainty - about their health, their children, and the future in their unchosen journeys. We are reminded of this uncertainty with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and throughout the world.
We face an important decision in the upcoming year on whom to elect as our new president. With these lessons in mind, let's aim for a more civilized public discourse.