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A Trump-Biden debate is hardly presidential and could teach my children the wrong lessons

For all that I want to see my son and daughter engaged in the democratic process, the political environment of the past four years has damaged kids across the nation.
Image: A mother covers her child's eyes while sitting on a couch under a spotlight; large figures of Donald Trump and Joe Biden debate.
I worry that the toxicity of our public discourse will affect how my children treat their peers and their teachers.Christina S. Zhu / for NBC News

I had no intention of getting my kids deeply interested in politics before they hit adolescence. Then Donald Trump happened. That morning nearly four years ago when my son woke up to learn that Trump had been elected president, he asked whether he, his sister and his dad — none of whom were born in America — would now be forced to leave the country. My son was then a kindergartner but already knew that Trump, from everything he had heard and overheard throughout the campaign, didn't like immigrants.

As we look forward to Thursday night's final presidential debate, I wonder whether letting my children watch is tantamount to taking them to a bloody boxing match.

My son was even more troubled when, later that day at school, some of the children menacingly chanted Trump's name while others like him, stunned, stood and watched. He knew that we at home found the prospect of a Trump victory disturbing, and it was difficult for him to process how other kids could be celebrating.

Four years on, my son has just turned 10, and he is more interested than ever in understanding this circus we call American politics. Shortly after I let him and his 8-year-old sister stay up late to watch that civility crusher of a debate on Sept. 29, I had this sinking feeling that I'd made a mistake. My kids were going to be forever damaged: confusing hectoring for the reasoned exchange of ideas, thinking it's OK to insult your rival's intelligence or to ridicule them and — when all else fails — blaming the moderator, calling your opponent names or telling the other guy to shut up.

Now, as we look forward to Thursday night's final presidential debate, I wonder whether letting my children watch is tantamount to taking them to a bloody boxing match. On one hand, I'm a journalist and a journalism professor, and I can't entirely divorce my professional values from my parenting. While I'd love to keep my kids young and innocent a little longer, I don't think hiding the realities of the world from them will help them grow into good citizens. On the other hand, I've come to the realization that I can't let my kids have unfettered access to the political events that are determining their futures. I worry that the toxicity of our public discourse can't but affect how they treat their peers and their teachers.

For all that I want to see my children engaged in the world and active in the democratic process, it's clear that the political environment of these past four years has done damage to kids around the nation. There is ample evidence that Trump's rhetoric has had a negative impact on children and that Trump's agenda — even his name — has been used in school bullying.

A Washington Post study published this year showed that Trump's name is often used to bully children who are Black or Hispanic, while Trump-supporting children sometimes get bullied, as well. As the story put it, "Although many hateful episodes garnered coverage just after the election, The Post found that Trump-connected persecution of children has never stopped."

After the 2016 election, there was an increase in middle school bullying in areas where Trump won a majority of votes, according to a study published last year by the American Educational Research Association. While the study was limited to Virginia, it included a sample of more than 155,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students across the state's school districts. It found that "student reports of peers being teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity were 9 percent higher in localities favoring the Republican candidate."

In another survey about bullying, this one focused on 9- to 11-year-olds in 2017, 70 percent of kids said it would help children to be kinder if adults in charge of the country set a better example. And you'd be fooling yourself if you think that it's still possible or even desirable to raise kids in some kind of bubble of innocence where they're not exposed to what those adults are doing.

For most of my adult life, I hid behind a pseudo-neutrality that journalists are trained to adopt: Reporters aren't supposed to publicly express political opinions; they don't attend rallies unless they're covering them. But I also wanted my kids to feel a part of this country, to know their history and to learn that where they see injustice, they have a duty to make it right. Instead of focusing on Trump after the 2016 election, I read them children's books about American heroes like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Martin Luther King Jr.

Then the Parkland massacre happened in February 2018, virtually down the road from us in Boca Raton, Florida. It wasn't possible to keep the horrific news of the mass shooting at a nearby high school from our children, though initially I tried; some of their classmates had lost cousins, babysitters, family friends. We decided to take our kids to a large March for Our Lives rally in West Palm Beach, not far from Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence, to support gun rights reform to stop further school shootings.

It was an eye-opening experience for them. Toting their homemade posters, they walked for miles, they led chants, they felt empowered. It seemed right because they understood that this issue is about them. Only six years earlier, 20 children their age had been killed in their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, but in terms of gun control, virtually nothing had changed.

I remember some pro-Trump protesters we had to pass on the walk back to our car at the end of the rally. They flew Trump 2020 flags and shouted at people who had come to call for changing the gun laws. An aggressive Trump supporter started up with me.

"You're politicizing your kids, lady!" he yelled from his lawn chair. "You should be ashamed!"

That was 2½ years ago, but the charge stuck with me. Was I? Was I any different from the parents who drag their children to Trump rallies?

Probably yes, because participating in a demonstration today isn't the same as attending what may be a super-spreader event, but I'm sure that those parents also feel that they're exposing their children to what it means to fight for what you believe in.

The same impulse that led me to take my children to a rally against gun violence is the one that makes me see the pluses in letting them watch Thursday's debate: For a kid with a growing interest in the state of the nation, it's a moment in American history worth witnessing, though perhaps not as inspiring as the night my parents woke up my older brother, then 6, to watch the moon landing.

But I don't have the luxury my parents did then in turning on the TV and letting my children watch an unfiltered display. The debate will need to be put into context — turned into a teaching moment about how not to behave and a chance to tell my kids about what civil discourse used to look like and might again be in the future.

There is ample evidence that Trump’s rhetoric has had a negative impact on children and that Trump’s agenda — even his name — has been used in school bullying.

So I made a split decision: The 10-year-old, who is fascinated with politics, can stay up to watch the 9 p.m. debate with me. The 8-year-old, who prefers fantasy fiction and magical creatures, will read her book and go to bed closer to normal time — normal for 2020, anyway.

As a reality check that I'm letting my son miss sleep for the right reasons, I asked him to state his case. Why should I let him stay up late on a school night? "I really want to know what's happening in the country," he said. "But this time, I want to see each candidate speak about something positive they would do, rather than just say negative things about the other guy."

It was a good answer that reaffirmed my decision. But I'll have to add to our post-debate conversation a bit of wisdom about what to expect from one of our favorite "Hamilton" songs, given in the form of advice from a fictionalized George Washington: "Winning was easy, young man. Governing's harder."