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Explaining 'Small Hands,' Wet Pants To Your Kids This Presidential Campaign

Janice Wright's sixth-grader loves politics. The family lives in Crosby, Texas, and they're big supporters of Ted Cruz. Last week they were late pulling up the Republican debate on their laptop when Janice saw a social media reference to Marco Rubio's "small hands" comment. It was a veiled reference to Donald Trump's private parts. Wright nixed the debate, telling her disappointed son the candidates "weren't acting like adults."

As parents like Wright are tuning in to this year's presidential campaign — and the mudslinging, racial comments and sexual innuendo that come with it — they are struggling with how much to show their kids, and how to explain it all.

If you've missed the debates, here's a taste (courtesy of All Things Considered):

Though indecent language seems to have reached a fever pitch on the Republican side, the Democrats have had their share of shouting and interrupting too.

"They should have ratings at the front of the debates," Wright laughed. "You know: 'Contains language, and violence, and sexual content.' That might be helpful for parents."

For the next debate, Wright says, she might pre-screen it so she can fast-forward through any inappropriate parts. When she does let her four children watch, Wright tries to find lessons where she can.

"We say, 'Hey, look how he's mean or bullying to this person. That's not how you talk to someone.' Or, 'See how he doesn't really answer the person's question, he just picks on him instead? That's not how you debate.' "

"I just feel as though it's real childish, and I don't think grown adults should be acting like us," said Durham, N.C., eighth-grader Samori Reed-Bandele.
Reema Khrais / WUNC
"I just feel as though it's real childish, and I don't think grown adults should be acting like us," said Durham, N.C., eighth-grader Samori Reed-Bandele.

Her 10-year-old son, Houston, wasn't sure whether he should be surprised by the language in these debates.

"It's hard to say," he said. "I knew there would be a lot of yelling and shouting. I guess I'm kind of used to it now."

'Not A Good Example For Bystanding'

In Louisville, Ky., Laura Hall's 13-year-old son takes part in mock government at school, and is also paying close attention to the campaign.

Normally Hall would welcome this real-time civics education, but this year she's not so sure.

"In a way, it makes me sad that, at this pivotal point in his development, this is what he's seeing," Hall said. "To see some of the candidates moving ahead and gaining support through bad behavior and hateful speech."

She's a Democrat but wants to teach her son respect for all candidates. The seventh-grader will be old enough to vote in the next presidential election, and she wonders if this season will affect his long-term view of the parties.

Hall felt the need for a teachable moment last week, after a Trump rally in Louisville. A video that got a lot of local coverage, and went viral online, shows an older white man helping to expel an African-American woman who was protesting.

"Pushing her and shoving her, and they were screaming at her," Hall said, "and it was really horrible to see. It's important that the kids understand that that happens, and it's not acceptable."

Hall's son, Benjamin, had noticed the crowds at debates as well.

"The people are kind of egging them on," he said. "Because I've seen clips where they'll say something rude to one another, and you'll hear everybody cheer and laugh. And that's not a good example for bystanding."

Studying The Campaign

At Sherwood Githens Middle School in Durham, N.C., eighth-grader Samori Reed-Bandele follows the campaign on social media. He says all the candidates' name-calling doesn't seem very presidential.

"I just feel as though it's real childish," he said, "and I don't think grown adults should be acting like us."

He and some classmates say they're studying the campaign in school, writing papers on heated topics that have come up, like immigration. Eighth-grader Michelle Terron Azamar's parents are from Mexico. She says her family felt hurt when Trump compared Mexican immigrants to rapists and criminals.

"I've been really offended," she said. "That's his opinion if he wants to not like Hispanics, or whatever he doesn't like. But I just think he shouldn't take it out on us."

Terron Azamar said her dad, who has not discussed politics with her much in the past, has been talking to her a lot about this year's campaign, and telling her that Trump will not win in a general election.

Other parents said they're more worried about how children are hearing and relaying Trump's discussion of mass deportation and building a border wall.

"Last week, my kindergartner son told me that a class friend of his expressed to him with tears in her eyes, 'If Trump becomes president, we'll have to move. He doesn't like our family,' " said Brent Seavers of Northern California, in a Facebook posting. "That, to me, is a bigger concern than the name-calling. That is doing real psychological damage to innocent children."

Lincoln-Douglas Style

Alejandra Abella, who teaches middle school debate in Ventura County, Calif., said she's using the debates as an example — but not usually a good one.

"Unfortunately, I have been able to pull more examples of what should not be done in debating than examples of what should be done," she said.

At first, when Abella showed the class video clips from Republican debates, she was horrified. She teaches Lincoln-Douglas style, in which debaters base their arguments on ethical values.

"Honestly, these moments in the debates, in which they're hearing lots of words and absolutely no substance, are helping them understand, 'Why do we look for value in Lincoln-Douglas debates?' " she said. "And it's helping them focus on that."

She sees it as a silver lining, showing kids they can learn from even a negative example.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.