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. Given that we are an interfaith and interracial family, I’ve made a particular point of verbally condemning every racist, stereotyped, anti-Muslim, anti-minority, misogynistic, anti-gay, neo-Nazi, white supremacist comment I’ve heard in this race—especially in the presence of my kids. (I confess it is hard to keep up.) I talk to my kids as these comments are tossed out to the populace like so much shark bait, but my daughter continues to think about them for days, or months. She’s putting pieces together on her own now, asking me just this past weekend why she sees so many people of color in low-wage jobs whenever we go into big cities. And so we’ve delved into history and current racial division, poverty and inequality in America.
As the white mother of an Asian child, I have to prepare my daughter not only to live in a racially divided America, but also for some inevitable personal racism she will encounter in her life. And so, with the atmosphere of racism and the national conversation surrounding us, I’ve gently begun to slip into the discussions a point here, a point there. As I have done this, she’s inserted into the conversation a revelation about something ignorant someone said to her at school about her Asian looks, a comment she hadn’t mentioned before. A new discussion opened, and education for both of us has been the result.
But mother-daughter conversation doesn’t make up for the long-sown seeds of divisiveness bearing fruit across our nation now. Trump’s campaign events have now sunk to actual violence, egged on by the candidate himself. I’ve made sure that my kids know that people are getting hurt and that Trump is actually, horribly, promoting this violence, although I’ve made an effort to keep certain images away from my daughter that I believed would upset her too much. I’ve explained to both my kids not only what I’ve seen, but the greater violence to which I believe it will lead if no one stops Trump going forward.
The scariest, most disturbing aspect of what’s happening in this campaign is that the appalling conduct is working. Donald Trump is speaking the language of hate, targeting minorities, promising to commit war crimes, lying, dismissing all notions of substance and skill, distorting fundamental American values like the First Amendment and a free press, inciting violence, bullying, mocking individuals and groups like a first-grader and promoting his personal ambition above every other value. The vast majority of parents would condemn this behavior in any of our children and would discipline a child if she exhibited it. But for Trump, it’s working. He’s getting votes. He’s winning.
What does that teach our children?
This is why we must educate our kids about what’s happening. It’s not just that Trump is acting like a despicable ass. He is, and frankly, my kids and I used to laugh at his antics during debates. But I’m not laughing anymore. It’s serious now because so many Americans are buying what Trump is selling—Trump—and that makes him dangerous. That’s why we need to sit with our kids and explain to them, step by step, comment by comment, exactly why he’s a proto-fascist demagogue who cares nothing for anyone in this country except himself. He’s the Donald Trump Show in a country that, even given all its problems, continues to be a unique experiment in democracy that requires careful, constant cultivation and improvement from citizens and leaders alike.