Opinion: Parents Can — And Must — Talk About Ugly 2016 Politics With Kids

Donald Trump gestures Thursday as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., listens to Trump's response during a Republican presidential primary debate in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Donald Trump gestures Thursday as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., listens to Trump’s response during a Republican presidential primary debate in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

By Dr. Steve Schlozman

I’m not that old, but I’m old enough to remember when it was routine to hear in grade school that if you worked hard, you might get to be president of the United States someday.

Never once did I hear any of my teachers tell me what kind of hard work I’d have to do as a parent when, about 40 seconds into a presidential debate, one party’s leading candidate references the size of his…um….hands.

Are you kidding me?

How did we get to a place where you have to explain to your 10-year-old daughter that the Republican front-runner is bragging on national television about the size of his penis? Seriously. Tell me how we make that sound OK in any arena?

That was my task Friday morning when my 10-year-old daughter saw me watching clips of the debate. You might say that a 10-year-old is too young to watch the presidential debates, because it can include references to things like wars and lives lost. I think there are ways we can talk about those unfortunate aspects of a complex world to children of all ages.

But I (and I’m a child shrink) don’t have a great template to help my daughter understand the reasons a presidential candidate might refer to his penis. Not just anyone said this, mind you. It was the front-runner! What a mess. And it’s not like the debate got more admirable after all that.

People are, of course, allowed to argue for their beliefs. We even encourage these kinds of arguments. In fact, the entire fabric of our society is based on our ability to engage in these kinds of arguments in a thoughtful and civilized manner.

We’ll have to admit to our children that, developmentally, our politicians just can’t play nice in their sandboxes.

The problem, therefore, is how we reconcile the basic human desire to disagree with the values of civility and truth that we all pretty much agree save us from anarchy. It feels to me like right now, we’re only really accomplishing half of our goals. We have no problems disagreeing. We do, however, have all sorts of problems disagreeing in ways that we can later be proud of.

This is when we parents need to step in. Even if you don’t agree with the government, think the country is heading nowhere good, and really dislike the current leadership’s platform, you must (and I’m begging you) make the case to your kids for a reasoned and thoughtful process of objections.

As parents, we have an obligation, an absolute duty, to be crystal clear with our kids right now. When someone running for office says that certain religions are unquestionably and across the board more dangerous than others; that he should “rough someone up” because he doesn’t like the way that person behaved, or what he believes in; that he tends to respect the soldiers who don’t get caught and become POWs — you can’t just shake your head, chuckle, and explain that politics is a contact sport.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Say little Timmy, age 10, gets a paper back from his teacher, and the teacher’s written comments make him very unhappy. Let’s say he wads up his paper, and with a dramatic and disgusted flourish, throws it into the trash in front of his teacher and peers.

We’d all agree that little Timmy will find himself in the principal’s office pretty quickly. If the school is good at what they do, and his parents are thoughtful in the lessons they impart to their son, then Timmy will come to learn that while he is allowed to disagree, even with his teacher, he must be able to organize his reasons for disagreeing into a coherent argument.

But what if you’re a U.S. senator, and you and your constituents disagree with the president of the United States? What if, instead of doing what you just encouraged little Timmy to do, you use your bully pulpit to wad up the president’s most recent document, and throw it in the trash in a dramatic video that you broadcast via social media? Can a U.S. senator be sent to the principal’s office?

Not really.

That’s why you get sent to the principal’s office when you’re 10 — to (hopefully) learn when to avoid doing things that would get you sent to the metaphorical principal’s office when you become a U.S. senator.

Still, this is exactly what Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas did last week. Instead of saying something like, “I disagree with the president on Guantanamo for the following reasons,” Roberts tossed the Guantanamo plan in the trash.

I grew up in Kansas, and still follow my home state’s politics. My children saw this video as I was reading the paper online. Try explaining the actions of a U.S. senator who is dramatically and disrespectfully throwing away a document from the president of the United States to your 10-year-old.

This, in a nutshell, is what we’re dealing with this year.

You can’t shake your head, chuckle, and explain that politics is a contact sport.

I think that as we look back on the current political rancor, we’ll come to see these surreal months as watershed moments: We’ll have to admit to our children that, developmentally, our politicians just can’t play nice in their sandboxes, even though we want our children to be able to play nice in theirs.

Civility within politics does not negate the heated rhetoric of politics. Civility is the cornerstone of our system, and is a far cry from the nasty, exclusionary and downright frightening behavior that we’re witnessing. Believe me: Kids are picking up on the violent overtones to the current rancor. One child I know compared it to pro-wrestling. Another slightly older kid noted that his peers at school are refusing to talk to anyone who fails to be 100 percent like-minded.

Now that’s scary.

I heard a conversation today in which a father explained that he wasn’t going to back down within the current political climate because “a real man” and “a true father” shows his kids how to be strong, and how to stand up without compromise for what he believes in.

I strongly disagree.

A real parent, a strong parent, a principled parent realizes that you don’t and can’t get everything you want, and that you will, inevitably, have to compromise. You slow yourself down and teach your kids to slow themselves down. You cool down the rhetoric and the vitriol. You ponder and you construct a healthy debate. Why? Because healthy debates are healthy.

Hatred, on the other hand, is like a dirty bomb. There’s nasty and unpredictable collateral. It might feel good to the inner baboon within us to trash one another; but it’ll catch up with us. We will reap what we sow.

Let’s protect our children from all that this new-found political barbarism engenders. Let’s play nice in the sandbox. After all, it’s what we ask our children to do. It’s the least we can do as well.

Dr. Steve Schlozman is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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