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Nasty Campaign Rhetoric Puts Parents and Teachers in a Tough Spot

How do you talk to kids about the elections when the politics news of the day involves words that need to be bleeped?
Image: Second Presidential debate
Democrat Hillary Clinton (R) and Republican Donald Trump (L) during the second Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The third and final debate will be held 19 October in Nevada.JIM LO SCALZO / EPA

For Ron Nelsen, like many other parents this year, the presidential election has become a defensive sport.

"I literally cannot watch the news in front of my 10- and 12-year-olds without my finger on the button ready to mute, pause or change the channel at any second," said Nelsen, who owns a small business that sells garage doors in Las Vegas.

Even a party for the priest of his Catholic Church Sunday night wasn’t safe.

"Someone turned on the debate and we said, oh, no, no, no, we can't watch the debate. We can't watch the debate in front of our priests and children," he said.

Football — the New York Giants versus the Green Bay Packers — was put on instead.

"As a parent, with kids in elementary school, I did not let my kids watch the debate other night,"

It’s fair to say this election has taken an ugly, dark and virtually unprecedented turn, making the news a PG-13 minefield of lewdness that recalls the coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That's putting millions of parents and teachers in a tough situation — balancing just how much to let their children see and hear while also teaching them about civics and the world around them.

Related: Post-Debate Poll Shows Clinton Holding 9-Point Lead Over Trump

“Parents are at a loss. They don’t know how to respond to their kids” said Denise Daniels, a psychologist and child development expert.

For many, that tension came to a head with the release Friday of audiotape of Donald Trump bragging about groping women in graphic ways. Some parents said were dreading the conversation they would have to have when their kids heard the tape, while others lamented that their child had learned the slang term for female genitalia from a presidential candidate.

Russell Simon, a filmmaker and marketing professional who lives in Maryland, said that while earlier debates were “mandatory” viewing for his older kids, they were barred from watching the latest on on Sunday.

“It's just gotten too ugly,” he said. “It was as if at any moment, Donald Trump could be saying something about rape or assault.”

Parents’ feelings reflect a palpable sense of revulsion with this election shared by many Americans. According to a survey from Pew Research Center from late last month, more than half of Americans — 55 percent — said they were “disgusted” by the race, while only 10 percent said they were “excited.”

In an August focus group conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart, voters said some of the smells that best capture the 2016 race are a skunk, rotten eggs, and garbage.

“There have certainly been bitter and hateful campaigns in the history of politics, but nothing as blunt as this year, in my recollection,” said John Hale, the associate director of the Center for Civic Education, which advocates for more civics education in K-12 schools.

Related: Trump on Hot Mic: 'When You're a Star ... You Can Do Anything' to Women

It’s nearly impossible to fully shield children from this year’s “unprecedented” campaign rhetoric, said Diana Graber, an educator and co-founder of digital literary site CyberWise.

But it’s important to set boundaries. “I don’t want children to think because an adult can speak and treat other people like that, that that’s a social norm,” she said.

"Parents are at a loss. They don’t know how to respond to their kids"

That was a concern too for Josh Shapiro, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with a 7- and 9-year-old kids. He worried Trump’s comments on the audio tape could undermine “your entry-level sex-ed about ‘good touches’ and ‘bad touches.'"

Trent Ashcraft, who teaches government to seniors at a Christian high school in Louisville, Kentucky, went semi-viral when issued a only half-joking formal apology on Twitter for assigning his students to watch the debate.

“I sat there watching this the other night and wondered whether there's anything of educational value to be learned from any of this,” he said, adding that he worried he was poisoning the first real exposure to politics for many of his students. “This is the most difficult semester of my teaching career without question.”

“If what Donald Trump said were in the lyrics of a hip hop song, we would not allow that song to be played at the school dance,” he said. “We would never tolerate that kind of talk out a student. And these are teenagers.”

Teachers unions have heard anxiety from members across the country about not just teaching the election, but the behavior it seems to engender from some students outside the classroom for some.

“There are a lot of things that have been said, particularly by Trump and his surrogates, that if I, as a former social studies teacher, said in my 11th and 12 grade class, I could get fired,” said Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, which supports Hillary Clinton.

Others found a silver lining for older students in teachable moments about gender, race, and other hot-button issues.

“To get kids talking about an election on a Sunday night is a good thing,” said Dan Kelley, the president of Smithfield High School in Rhode Island. “This election has actually opened up a lot more dialog and I think we have a higher level of interest from the students than at any point in my career.”

Still, that’s high school.

“As a parent, with kids in elementary school, I did not let my kids watch the debate other night,” Kelley said.

Asa Church, who teaches history to middle schoolers at a private school in the York County, Pennsylvania, has encouraged students to think about gender by listing criticisms of each candidate, then asking how those might apply to a generic candidate of the opposite sex.

“In some ways, a controversial election is great for a teacher,” he said. “The kids are hearing about it, they're interested in it, so it's an easy plug in. In other ways, it's a really hard election.”

The election has been especially challenging for parents whose job is to cover it work in it.

John Dickerson the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, wrote a first-person account Tuesday about having “the talk” with his kids about sexual assault in light of Trump’s “locker room talk.”

And Democratic consultant Chris Fleming noted, "I'm dreading the conversation about that video."