×

How to talk to your kids about the next Trump-Clinton debate

A young girl waits in line to get a chance to have Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sign her book after Clinton addressed a packed audience in the Eagle's Nest gymnasium at Adams City High School on August 3, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado.
Helen H. Richardson | The Denver Post | Getty Images
A young girl waits in line to get a chance to have Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sign her book after Clinton addressed a packed audience in the Eagle's Nest gymnasium at Adams City High School on August 3, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado.

Fifth-grade teacher Nina Teresi spends classroom time discussing impolite behaviors — name-calling, eye-rolling and interrupting ... for the Trump-Clinton debate.

"My students say the candidates should be held to a higher standard," said Teresi, who teaches language and social studies at William Paca Elementary School in Baltimore. "I tell them I agree with them. The fact is, all adults should be modeling better behavior."

With the next and final debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton scheduled for Wednesday night, many people find themselves wondering whether kids should watch, given the unpredictability of the candidates' treatment of each other and whether salacious topics will come up.

"The kinds of things being discussed in this election pose a new issue for authority figures who are trying to teach children about the election process," said psychologist Susan Lipkins, CEO of Reel Psychology.

The debate, scheduled for 9 p.m. ET, comes on the heels of allegations from multiple women that Trump made uninvited sexual advances in the past. Trump has categorically denied the reports.

Nevertheless, the topic could be on the table, if the second debate is any indication. In that matchup on Oct. 9, Trump responded to questions related to a 2005 videotape in which he talked about using his celebrity status to grope women. He also brought up President Bill Clinton's past philandering and the accusations of sexual assault against the former president.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate DonaldTrump rally outside of the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, October 10, 2016.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate DonaldTrump rally outside of the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, October 10, 2016.

Experts say that despite the atypical nature of this election cycle, there are effective ways for parents to include children in the process.

"You get to choose how you want to use the information," Lipkins said. "How much do you want to use it as a teachable moment and have a meaningful discussion about, say, how to treat women or about a policy issue? You want to reflect your own values and teach your children what values are important to you."

For very young children — preschool and early elementary age — experts advise excluding them from watching.

"What might be said in the debate is fairly unpredictable," said Rick Ostrander, director of pediatric medical psychology and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "You just don't know where it's going to go, and it's already been tawdry."

Ostrander also said parents should be censoring themselves, not just what's on the television.

"Make sure you watch what you're saying, in your own commentary of things," he said. "Young children are very concrete thinkers and can easily misconstrue what you say."

Additionally, be cognizant of each child's capacity to understand what they could see and hear during the debate. Even as children move toward upper elementary school, some adult concepts are beyond their emotional maturity to grasp.

"If it will cause more confusion than enlightenment, parents might want to give their child a [summary] after the debate," Ostrander said.

He also advises giving no more information than requested.

"Kids typically ask a discreet question, and a parent can read too much into it," Ostrander said. "So answer the question and let the child ask for elaboration if they need it. You don't have to give a lengthy dissertation."

For older kids, experts emphasize the teaching opportunity the debate presents, whether you focus on policies, behaviors or cultural issues.

"A lot of times we ask our kids to think, but what we're really saying is, 'Think what I think, and parrot it back,'" said David Palmiter, professor of psychology at Marywood University. I think this is a great opportunity to teach them how to think independently."

For instance, Palmiter said, a parent could use many aspects of the debate as a leaping-off point for thoughtful discussion, such as what is the best way to confront past mistakes, or why there has never been a female U.S. president.

In addition to exploring the candidates' policy positions with children old enough to understand them, experts say, the vitriolic nature dominating this election is a chance to reinforce parents' own values about how to treat people.

"I think the hardest thing in this election is that it's unleashed people's ability to speak and express themselves however they want and whenever they want," Lipkins said. "That undermines a lot of what schools have been teaching about respect, bullying and treating people with dignity."

In Teresi's Baltimore classroom soon after the first debate, students talked about the amount of interrupting that occurred, and discussed why it was impolite.

"They also picked up on the body language — the eye rolling," Teresi said. "They were like, 'You tell us not to do that, but they're doing it.'"

After the second debate, Teresi found herself in the classroom discussing Trump's description of the 2005 leaked video as "locker-room talk."

The boys in her class shook their heads, telling her, "We don't talk about women like that."

A survey earlier this year by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that roughly 80 percent of Americans think that political leaders should be held to a higher standard of behavior than other people.

The poll also found that just 15 percent of people think it's OK for political candidates to not worry about upsetting people when choosing their words.

Pros agree that it really is up to parents to set the tone for acceptable behavior regardless of what kids see on TV or elsewhere.

"The younger the kids are, the more they're looking to their parents for clarification and for setting standards," Ostrander said. "Kids aren't as influenced by these people on TV as parents think they are. You just say, 'That might be how they do it, but it's not how we handle things in our family.'"