Tonight’s Debate: Before you Send Your Kids out of the Room, Try This

Many parents feel this election is not healthy for kids: the tone is too angry, too lewd, or, as my two-year-old says, “it’s inappropriate.”

But, the reality is that any kid with a smart phone has heard that hot-mic bus recording, has seen the SNL sketches or watched clips of the candidates on YouTube. And even those too young to surf the web most likely are bearing witness to our reactions or distress. Clearly, the question isn’t ‘will they see it?’ but ‘how can we help them make sense of it?’

Before the final debate starts, lets pause to collectively ask ourselves, “What do we want our kids to learn from this experience?” John Dewey tells us that “we don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” This is our opportunity to help our kids shape their understanding of what they are hearing from the candidates, from the media, and from us.

Here are five conversation starters that can be adapted for kids of any gender or age to help them navigate today’s unprecedented climate of anger and fear:

1. How do you know if an apology is real?

There has been lots of talk of apologies in this election, with conflicting opinions about which ones count and which ones don’t. At Girls Leadership we put apologies at the core of our programming, we talk about the fear many of us feel of possibly “messing up,” and the power dynamics that often get in the way of admitting mistakes. With the pressure on girls to be academically, physically, and socially perfect, it is no wonder that girls often struggle to “mess up and own it,” a basic leadership skill.

Here are the basics of giving an apology. You can practice this with any three-year-old:

  • make eye contact
  • be aware of your tone voice — be careful of sarcasm
  • make sure your body language doesn’t seem defensive (like crossing arms)
  • and, most important, don’t make excuses

2. What is the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive?

In our workshops we repeatedly see girls practicing assertive communication, and then wincing in discomfort because it feels aggressive to them. Bottom line: If you’ve been socialized to be passive, taking the baby step to tell someone how you truly feel can be uncomfortable. During this debate we’ve seen the candidates walk a fine line between assertive and aggressive behavior. This is worth pointing out to our kids.

  • Strong, clear tone of voice? Assertive.
  • Interrupting? Aggressive.
  • Gesturing? Assertive.
  • Jabbing? Hard to say. What does this mean? Physically jabbing someone with a finger or jabbing the air?
  • Getting in someone’s personal space? Aggressive for sure.

If we want our girls to be able to speak up for themselves in a classroom, a relationship, or workplace, the nuanced understanding of where assertive meets aggressive is important for them to understand and practice.

3. For those unfortunate enough to have heard the hot mic recording: How could Billy Bush have handled himself differently?

Let’s be real with our kids: it’s hard to be the person who hears inappropriate language, and even harder to speak up about it. How many of us wish we’d done better with this? Helping our kids be brave, while also socially aware, takes building confidence, practicing clear values, and honing skills. Even a third grader understands the cost of doing this badly.

Here are a few steps toward building these social skills at home:

  • Role-model it. Speaking up without shaming others.
  • Role play. Come up with the in-school version of the hot-mic tape: real, offensive things said by powerful kids.
  • Brainstorm responses, bad ones as well as graceful ones, and practice, practice, practice! Together you can discover habits that can be used in real life.
  • In high-pressure social situations, when kids feel they have no options, teach a few short cuts: humor, deflection, or re-direct conversation.

4. Is there ever such a thing as “just words?”

No. When a candidate defended past explicit bragging as “just words,” the excuse appeared to work. In the days that followed the second debate, the campaigns moved on to business as usual. For too many kids this is a reinforcement of a familiar pattern played out in school.

The faulty logic of the “just words/just kidding” excuse is that words can’t do real damage, and that people who are hurt by them are overreacting, or too sensitive (the ultimate insult for boys in particular). If we want our kids to be aware of, and to respect their feelings, then we must:

  • Share our own hurt feelings and outrage.
  • Tell them that powerful people can get it wrong — words DO have impact.

5. Does my voice matter?

Even the most politically-savvy kids won’t get that satisfying feeling of filling out a ballot this year. So what do we do with their feelings of anger, injustice, or hurt? We can help our kids turn their thoughts and feelings into words and action. You could try:

  • Order and put up a yard sign together
  • Select and place your bumper sticker collection
  • Write an email or letter to a candidate
  • Plan an election night gathering

By sitting next to our kids during the debates, by making sense of it all together, even if it is uncomfortable, we might emerge more aware of how campaigns for power and status play out around us every day. These reflective conversations belong both in the national debates about who is worthy to be our next President as well as the daily debate around how we help our kids become the people they are meant to be.

By Simone Marean, Girls Leadership Co-Founder and Executive Director

This piece originally appeared on Girls Leadership.Org

Read more on Leadership by Simone Marean on Media