The analogy is pervasive among his critics: Donald Trump is like a child. Making him the president was like making a 4-year-old the leader of the free world.
But the analogy is profoundly wrong, and it’s unfair to children. The scientific developmental research of the past 30 years shows that Mr. Trump is utterly unlike a 4-year-old.
Four-year-olds care deeply about the truth. They constantly try to seek out information and to figure out how the world works. Of course, 4-year-olds, as well as adults, occasionally lie. But Mr. Trump doesn’t just lie; he seems not even to care whether his statements are true.
Four-year-olds are insatiably curious. One study found that the average preschooler asks hundreds of questions per day. Just watch a toddler “getting into everything” — endangering his own safety to investigate interesting new objects like knives and toasters. Mr. Trump refuses to read and is bored by anything that doesn’t involve him personally.
Four-year-olds can pay attention. They do have difficulty changing the focus of their attention in response to arbitrary commands. But recent studies show that even babies systematically direct their focus to the events and objects that will teach them the most. They pay special attention to events that contradict what they already believe. Mr. Trump refuses to pay attention to anything that clashes with his preconceptions.
Four-year-olds understand the difference between fantasy and reality. They certainly enjoy pretend play, imagining that the world is full of villains and that they are all-powerful heroes. But studies show that they know they are pretending and understand that their imaginary companions are just that: imaginary. Mr. Trump seems to have no sense of the boundary between his self-aggrandizing fantasies and reality.
Four-year-olds have a “theory of mind,” an understanding of their own minds and those of others. In my lab we have found that 4-year-olds recognize that their own past beliefs might have been wrong. Mr. Trump contradicts himself without hesitation and doesn’t seem to recognize any conflict between his past and present beliefs.
Four-year-olds, contrary to popular belief, are not egocentric or self-centered. They understand and care about how other people feel and think, and recognize that other people can feel and think differently from them. In my lab, which studies the cognitive development of children, we have found that even 1½-year-olds can understand that someone else might want something different from what they want. They understand that someone else might like broccoli, even though they themselves prefer crackers, and they will help that person get what he wants.
In fact, children as young as 1½ demonstrate both empathy and altruism: They will rush to comfort someone who is hurt, and they will spontaneously go out of their way to help someone. In one study, if 1-year-olds saw a stranger drop a pen and strain to reach for it, they would crawl over obstacles to find the pen and give it to him. Mr. Trump displays neither empathy nor altruism, and his egocentrism is staggering.
Four-year-olds have a strong moral sense. Children as young as 2½ say that hurting another child is always wrong, even if an authority figure were to say otherwise. Babies will avoid a puppet that has been mean to another puppet. Mr. Trump admires authoritarian leaders who have no compunctions about harming their own people.
Four-year-olds are sensitive to social norms and think that they and other people should obey them. In one recent study, seeing a puppet play a game involving particular rules led children to follow the rules themselves and to expect other people to do so. Even 2- and 3-year-olds protested when they saw someone break the rules. Mr. Trump has time and again shown his contempt for norms of behavior in every community he has belonged to.
Now, all this is not to say that a 4-year-old would make a good chief executive. Being president is certainly a grown-up job. Still, most adults, even most presidents, and certainly the best presidents, manage to retain some of their childlike traits — curiosity, openness to experience, intuitive sensitivity to others.
We’d all be better off if Mr. Trump were more like that.
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