The recent presidential debate confused Owen Machingo, 8, who was watching it with his mom at home in Warwick, New York. The two adults center stage — presidential contenders Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — kept interrupting each other and making mean faces and angry accusations.
"Mommy, they're not following the rules," the boy said, 20 minutes into the debate, noting that his third-grade teacher wouldn't allow him and other kids in the class to talk over each other. "How come they can?"
As they tried to best each other, the two candidates were likely not worried about being role models for kids who were watching. But parents should think about it, experts agree.
They say this election cycle is a perfect time to talk to kids about behaviors, values and the fact adults don't always get it right. The campaigns have already provided teachable moments that can hardly be avoided, said Owen's mom, clinical psychologist Stephanie O'Leary, because this election is "everywhere" in the media and in conversations. "You have no choice but to talk to kids about politics and about what they're seeing."
The bright spot is parents have an opportunity to help kids develop critical thinking skills to form their own opinions and understand the benefits and costs of behavior.
"The interesting thing I'm seeing with my kids at home and in my therapy practice is the kids are having a hard time understanding it when they see adults who are supposed to be leaders treat each other poorly," O'Leary said. "I think it might be more complicated because there's a huge, living double standard."
At her son's school, interrupting isn't allowed, people raise their hands to talk and laughing at other people is against the rules, she said. "Millions of kids in America see politicians behaving pretty poorly compared to the kindergarten standards they've learned in school."
"What did you hear"
This is a familiar problem to Brian Kaylor, a former instructor at James Madison University who quit to be a stay-at-home dad and to write journal articles and books, including "Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics." His son, 4, is "a sponge soaking in news and political talk." Recently, at a restaurant, the child interrupted his grandfather "to loudly blurt, 'Why is Donald Trump a bad guy?'
"Whether we want to or not we need to talk about the election with our children because they're hearing about it anyway," said Kaylor, of Jefferson City, Missouri. "My goal is to use it to spark teaching moments about how to treat others with civility and respect. When candidates resort to name-calling, we talk about how that's not the way to treat people. When candidates interrupt and yell at each other, we talk about how to listen. I'm not concerned with teaching issues to him at this point. I'm trying to teach him how to treat others with respect and dignity."
For older kids, goals may be different. But all conversations with kids require adults to listen. Ask children what they think they know, said Thomas Gagliano, a parenting and relationship expert from North Brunswick, New Jersey. Then help kids with age-appropriate context.
"Whenever we talk to our children about the tough stuff, whether it's what's going on in politics or in the world, whether it's terrorism or about sex, the first thing all parents need to do is create a safe place for children where they can say what they think," said Gagliano, author of parenting and relationship books, including co-writing "The Problem Was Me."
Helping children express and sort through feelings provides lifelong benefits, he said. That means validating feelings so they know they've been heard, then helping separate fact from fiction, and destructive from constructive talk. Because Trump and Clinton are both roundly disliked by some, children will hear many negative things. Parents can help them realize not everything adults say is true, said Gagliano.
How deep a conversation about politics goes depends both on a child's age and what he's heard and understood — or misunderstood, said Alice Sterling Honig, child psychologist and professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. Her books include "Experiencing Nature with Young Children."
Honig said parents should consider how their family deals with disagreements. Kids can be affected by the anger and divisiveness of political discussion.The goal is to provide clarity and safety and answer a child's questions, not to convert a kid to one's political view. That doesn't mean one's opinion can't be shared.
After parents ask what kids have heard and think,, they can discuss it. "I'm not surprised that you are confused. A lot of grownups are confused about this, too. We may never know the whole story, but these are the facts we have," is the example O'Leary uses. "This is what Mommy thinks about it," said O'Leary, whose book, "Parenting in the Real World," comes out in January.
Honig said children may process conversations differently. A girl may take to heart conversations about how attractive or overweight a woman is or children might internalize conversations about race based on their own race.
Keep it human
Parents should consider their own words, not just candidates', Honig said. Hearing adults call candidates rude names or parrot violent ideas can cause great distress to children who lack context or maturity to process it.
"We have forgotten the power of parental modeling," said Honig. "It's very strong. If you have kind, good feelings about other people, so will your kids."
Experts say respect is non-negotiable.
"It's a family rule. It's a rule in politics. It's a rule when you play soccer. It's a rule in the band," said O'Leary, who said people more readily dismiss as a foible bad behavior by a politician they support than one they don't.
"Children take everything at face value. They are developing a moral compass at this age. When they hear things like lying, cheating, stealing and it's the presidential candidates, it really shakes them," O'Leary said.
"The way I think parents can address it," she added, "is be honest and say that sometimes even very well-educated or prominent grownups make very unwise decisions when speaking to other people. It does not make it okay."
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