Last week, a headline from an NPR story caught my eye: “Should Kids Watch the GOP Debates?” I consider this one of the easiest questions asked throughout our electoral process. Actually, I don’t even think NPR asked the right question. The question should have been phrased, “How should you watch the GOP debates with your kids?”
One caveat before we go any further: most of what I’m about to write applies to children who are old enough to take at least a minor interest in the election. By the age of nine or ten, a good number of kids might express an interest in the purpose of the seemingly uncountable number of debates popping up on their household television screens. They may also wonder who the people featured in the debates are, why they’re on TV every night and why they seem so angry and prone to insults. Most debates are broadcast past the bedtimes of most younger children, on the other hand, and in the event they are awake, potentially offensive remarks will likely sail past their comprehension. Questions about grownups who yell at each other are easily managed at this younger age; parents can say, “they ought to behave better” and most kids will move on.
It’s a different story with older kids. Their understanding of the world around them is more complex. They will get more of the references. They will put together the facts of base behavior, rabble-rousing and vote-getting and come up with success. In a way, it can be dangerous to permit these more mature minds to watch these debates and the media coverage of the election.
That’s exactly why we have to let our kids watch—and we have to watch this election with them, as well as engage them in continuous discussion about it.
Parenting is teaching. It’s shaping a human being, equipping a girl or a boy with all of the tools necessary to go out into the world and function as a productive, responsible adult. One of those tools is judgment—including the ability to exercise good civic judgment in whatever society to which one belongs. Like so many other skills, this judgment doesn’t appear magically at age eighteen; it has to be taught, and practiced. Parents, this election provides the time and place to impart some key lessons.
I’ve watched as many debates as possible with my kids (until their bedtimes, which are usually extended a little on debate nights). On the numerous occasions I’ve been stunned by the language and immaturity of the rhetoric, my kids have witnessed my vocal reactions, and then they’ve heard my explanations for those reactions. They’ve asked questions, and I’ve answered them. My fourteen-year-old son gets the inappropriate references, and I was less uncomfortable with his hearing the allusion to Trump’s penis size than I was about the fact that such a thing occurred in a presidential debate in the first place. As for offensive comments, that one didn’t bother me nearly as much as Trump’s call for keeping Muslims out of the country or the one to commit war crimes by killing the innocent families of terrorists. Those called for immediate, serious explanations and denunciations to my son rather than mere glib, disgusted dismissals.
My ten-year-old daughter wasn’t in the room for the private-parts low point, but she’s heard plenty of race and religion-based jibes.