By Kelly Wallace
St. Louis (CNN) — Days before Sunday’s pivotal debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I reached out to see whether parents were going to let their children watch.
That was before a tape surfaced of Trump using vulgar language to talk about women and what he likes to do to them. (I am not including the language here since some kids might read this story!)
Now, the question gets even more complicated for parents of young children: Will they let their kids watch the debate when the tape will no doubt be discussed? There is also the possibility that Trump might bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities and other allegations of untoward behavior by the former president with women.
What is a parent to do?
When it comes to my girls, ages 8 and 10, we spent some time this weekend talking about what Trump said on the tape, what is appropriate behavior and what is never appropriate for a man or a woman.
After those conversations, I remain firmly in the most-definitely-want-them-to-watch camp.
But it’s understandable if people feel differently.
Parents were divided even before the latest news, torn between a desire for their children to be involved in the political process and a concern about the nastiness, vitriol and name-calling that has been on display during the presidential campaign.
Here’s what I heard from parents — again, before they took the Trump tape and its contents into consideration.
John Furjanic, the single father of a 9-year-old, said he won’t allow her to watch the debate.
“I lack the ability to control what comes out of the candidate’s mouth, and my daughter lacks the emotional maturity to understand grown-ups acting like misbehaved teenagers cutting down the other candidates,” said Furjanic, a financial adviser in Chicago. “I don’t want to allow my child to be influenced by bad adult behavior, and I don’t want to take the time to explain away the poor, pouting and mean conduct.”
Janice Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of Mazu, which builds digital spaces for young people to connect with family and friends in a safe environment around issues they care about, is also not going to let her daughters, ages 9 and 12, watch.
Her biggest battles with her children, she says, are teaching them to be kind to each other, to let the other speak, to have manners and to always tell the truth.
“If our own leaders spend half the time lying, (being) unkind, interrupting each other and lacking all levels of respect, what do we really teach our children?” asked Taylor, who’s also a social entrepreneur, international speaker and author of the soon to be released “Wisdom. Soul. Startup.” “Does the debate do more harm than good? I can hear my kids now: ‘Well, Mommy, the next president can tell people to shut up, lie and call people names. Why can’t I do that to my sister?’ ”
Diana Graber, co-founder of the digital literacy site Cyberwise.org, teaches “cybercivics” to sixth-graders in Aliso Viejo, California. Much of the focus right now in her classes is on how to be kind and respectful to each other online, which is why she really hopes her students don’t watch the debate.
“Much of the language we’re sure to hear during the debate and after, judging from the last debate, completely negates everything we’re talking about in class,” said Graber, whose kids are 18 and 20. “Unfortunately, research shows kid still look to adult role models to learn how to conduct themselves online and off.”
Seeing the debate as a teachable moment
Monica Sakala, a mother of two in Washington, said she was surprised when her 7-year-old asked whether she could watch the next debate because she thinks it will be interesting.
“I am inclined to watch it live, DVR it and then decide if I can let her watch the next day,” Sakala said, adding that she is comfortable letting her 10-year-old daughter watch.
“If we had a less erratic candidate (Trump), I would have no reservations letting our 7-year-old watch live,” Sakala, who owns the social media consulting business SOMA Strategies, wrote in an email.
Beth Engelman, a single mother in Chicago, said her 11-year-old son, Jackson, is fascinated by the election and wanted to stay up late and watch every second of the first debate. She plans to let him watch the next one.
“I use Trump’s ‘deplorable’ behavior, name-calling, bullying, lying, his treatment of minorities and women, etc., as teachable moments to talk to Jackson about what not to do and how not to act,” said Engleman, co-founder of the digital platform Mommy on a Shoestring. “I’m looking at the debate as a character-building exercise and trying to teach my son what matters in life is how we treat others, which means doing the opposite of what he sees on TV when he listens to Donald Trump.”
Marie Stroughter, co-founder and host of African-American Conservatives, said the debates are always on in their home, and her youngest children, ages 13 and 15, are always invited to watch if they desire. She also has an 18-year-old who, before turning 18, was required to watch as part of their home-school class on American government, knowing that he would turn 18 by Election Day.
“I think it’s incredibly important to understand the electoral process,” she said. “Also, as a family of color, I think it’s essential we participate in a process we fought so hard to get. And, particularly for my daughter and I, as women, since we are part of two demographics that didn’t always have the right to vote.”
Some parents said they’re happy and encouraged that their young kids are so invested in the political process that they want to watch the debates, even though there may be the “accident on the side of the road” appeal with one of the candidates being a former reality television star, said Avital Norman Nathman, whose son is 9 years old.
“If it has (my son) asking questions about how our economy works, seeing what the candidates say about racial injustice, learning about the US’s role on a global scale, then I am happy to allow him to watch and, of course, watch with him,” she said. Her son was a bit jealous when he learned, during carpool after the first debate, that his friend had watched and he didn’t.
“Anything that encourages and promotes a child’s investment and interest on a civic level is A-OK with me,” said Nathman, founder of The Mamafesto blog and editor of the anthology on motherhood “The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality.”
Nearly two-thirds of kids wouldn’t run for president
There is no question our kids are paying attention to the presidential election. In a survey of 2,000 kids ages 6 to 12 for Highlights for Children, 80% said they talk about the presidential election at home.
When asked about the first thing the president should do when she or he takes office, 50% said keeping our country safe. That was ahead of saving the environment (15%), making sure all people can get health care (13%), helping more people find jobs (11%) and helping kids do well in school (11%).
Perhaps the finding that should make us most concerned is how few kids are interested in running for president. Sixty-five percent said they don’t want to run for president someday, versus 35% who said they would run for the highest office in the land.
“Certainly, we’re kidding ourselves if we think kids haven’t heard the shaming and blaming that’s been so central to the national conversation about this election cycle, and many of the kids did say that the stress and the difficulty of the job were turn-offs for them,” said Christine Cully, editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children. “Perhaps some kids are getting the impression that being president is a thankless endeavor.”
But Cully said there may be something else behind the findings: Many kids may simply want to do something else.
“What we’re not hearing kids say is that they are afraid of hard work or responsibility,” she said. “Many of them said they aspired to other professional careers that are also challenging. Therefore, some answers were not necessarily driven by the desire not to be president but rather by an aspiration to be something else.”
When the children were asked what is the most important quality a president should have, 44% said honesty, followed by 19% who said kindness, very similar to the results from Highlights’ 2012 survey.
Cully said it’s encouraging that children continue to value honesty and kindness. She said parents can use what their kids are hearing and seeing in the presidential campaign as a way to open up conversations about morals and values and reinforce positive behavior.
“Kids who may not understand much about campaigning might find it helpful to hear that politicians don’t always play nicely together in their sandbox — and that, unfortunately, during a campaign, winning sometimes becomes more important to them than truth-telling,” she said. “Parents could take this opportunity to turn the campaign rhetoric into a teaching opportunity.”
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