A journalist friend of mine asked for my thoughts about an article published on Philly.com. The article was about whether parents should allow their children to watch the third and final presidential debate. I agree with most of the comments from the various experts contained in the article, but the article really got me thinking.
I feel fortunate that my own kids are 16 and 18 at this particular moment in history. They are deep-thinking young people who are engaged in current events and care about the political process. I am certain it would be much more difficult to parent during this election season if my children were younger.
It would be disingenuous for me to write this post as if I were neutral about this election, and my readers wouldn’t buy that anyway. I’m with her. Not just because I think her opponent is a dangerous man sorely lacking in even the most basic leadership skills, but because I support most (not all) of her policies. Still, I think that it is way too simple to view the presidential candidates as good and evil. Further, I believe it does an injustice to young people to couch this election in those terms.
For children in elementary or middle school, Clinton vs. Trump may well be the first presidential contest that they will really remember. These kids are in training for the time when they will get to cast the ballots. In the not-too-distant future, they will be the ones determining the direction this country moves. Even if you are among the many Americans who fall firmly into one camp or the other and you see the opponent as a terrible person/an idiot/a liar/a sexist/a racist/a xenophobe/a Washington insider/a bitch, or any of a very long list of derogatory labels, it is still essential to keep the conversation with your children complex. Hopefully, in future elections, the country will revert back to a time when candidates were not so polarized or disliked and the distinctions between them were much more nuanced and policy-driven. We need to be modeling for future generations how to dig deeply into the issues and the policies, and yes, even the characters of the presidential hopefuls. We need to show children how to transcend Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, left-wing vs. right-wing. I think we can all agree that the stakes are very high. We want the voters of the future to know how to engage in constructive political discourse, even or especially with people whose opinions differ, and to think about the complicated issues of the day in complex, nuanced ways.
For high-schoolers, some of whom will vote on November 8th, the 2016 presidential election may be a formative experience. They are being influenced by the behavior of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It is naive to assume that, just because your family strongly supports one candidate, your adolescents are not watching and listening closely to both. It is not good enough to say to a teenager “Donald Trump is a dangerous hater” or “Hillary Clinton is a lying insider.” The conversation needs to go much deeper. What makes you call Trump a “hater”? Is it his policies on immigration? The claims against him of misogyny? What do you know about those policies? Those accusations? How do you know it? Are you sure your sources are trustworthy? What makes you think Clinton is dishonest? What do we really know about the email scandal or the Clinton Foundation? Can you trust NPR/CNN/MSNBC/Fox News? How do you make sense of all the conflicting news reports?
These are very difficult questions, even during an election in which the candidates seem like polar opposites. Let’s use this election as an opportunity to model for our children how to be engaged, informed, discerning citizens. Talk to them about the candidates, and don’t let them get away with superficial support or disdain. Ask them the tough questions. Show them how to have respectful discussions with those who think differently. This election may seem like a no-brainer in terms of choosing a candidate, but I think we are all hoping that 2016 is an anomaly. Let’s prepare the next generation of voters to think deeply, question carefully, and vote wisely!