What My Children Learned From the First Biden/Trump Debate
About 30 minutes into the September 29, 2020 presidential debate, I left the room to get some air. Sitting in my friend’s backyard, I looked up at an orange moon, almost full, hanging in the sky. If I hadn’t known the color was caused by wildfire smoke, I would have thought it beautiful.
Very little about life seems beautiful right now, and I knew that when I pulled myself back to the couch, all I would see is ugliness.
Last night, friends apologized to their children when putting them to bed for the chaos they were living through, for the lunacy of the spectacle. This morning, I woke up to text strings and Facebook conversations laced with powerful adjectives: nauseated, depressed, disgusted, embarrassed, mortified. My husband wondered aloud if we should have shielded our children from the show, but it was too late.
Our daughters are 9 and 11, and four years ago, they watched another debate, one where Trump skulked behind Hillary Clinton muttering “wrong” and breaking her concentration. I knew this one would be similarly disturbing, but I had no idea how bad it could get. I arranged an evening around it, preparing dinner and settling in at a friend’s house, intentionally inviting my daughters to watch.
Participation in political life is vital for a democracy, even more so in one under attack, so no, I don’t think shielding my daughters from the process is correct. However, discussion and debrief are crucial, especially after last night.
What my children took away from watching the first Biden/Trump debate
They walked away thinking that Biden was sad; they asked about this several times. In truth, they saw a man being bullied, silenced, and shut down. They know all about this, as every child does, and they felt empathy for Biden.
They formed the notion that a debate is a public spectacle where badgering, insulting, interrupting, and talking over one another are sanctioned. This morning, a friend said, “My kids think that’s what a presidential debate looks like. For them, and millions of children, that just created a baseline for the concept of politics.”
They learned nothing about the political platforms of Biden and Trump. Not only were my children unfamiliar with much of the vocabulary and people mentioned (socialism, Green New Deal, Hunter Biden), they, like all of us, had trouble gleaning anything of substance through the noise.
They distinguished between appropriate topics and personal attacks. My daughter Penelope, age 11, said,
I think that people should focus on the politics instead of focusing on people’s real life. People should stick to the political side of things instead of focusing on peoples’ sons. I hate when Trump gets into the personal stuff because it’s really mean.
What I plan on doing about it
I’ll Inform the children about debates. The piece of television we witnessed last night is not called a conversation, argument, discussion, contest, or battle for a reason. Knowing what a debate is, what it should be, is important. The moderator himself implied this wasn’t a true debate, stating that it “went off the tracks.”
I’ll show the children what a debate can look like. Last night, I watched a bit of a 2012 Obama/Romney debate and found some solace in the presentation and machinations of two respectful and respectable people. I’ll show my daughters older debate footage like this; the content doesn’t matter.
I’ll attempt to deconstruct Trump’s behavior. Calling Trump a combative liar is too simplistic. As Douglas Rushkoff wrote this morning,
Trump came to believe that the world is manifest through our thoughts. Thinking makes it so. We create our own realities, and those of others, with our thoughts and with our words. It’s all based on the hypnosis of oneself and others.
I’ll combat the negative lessons learned. Last night’s production will never create life-long participation in civic life, and the children will need to be shown positive, inspiring forms of political engagement. Also, the debate provided a terrible, harmful example of how to disagree, and within my household, we’ll work to show how conflict can foster personal growth, deepen relationships, and engender mutual understanding.
I’ll tell my children that no one should be treated the way Trump treated Biden. I’m raising girls, and while I don’t know the gender of the partner they’ll eventually choose, I do know that more women than men tend to be victims of abuse. Today, Umair Haque wrote
Trump’s interpersonal style by about halfway through debate was clear, especially to the women whom I was watching with. He was that guy. A classic abuser. Shouting, interrupting, sneering. Not letting anyone get a word in edgewise, make a point. Not listening to a thing, always on the attack.
Last night, my daughters had a clear view of abusive behavior; we’ll talk about not standing for that. Ever.
I’ll remind them of their rights and privileges. Obama, Biden, and other Democrats have been imploring people to vote with the most urgent language possible to counter Trump’s diatribe about broken postal systems and lost ballots (in creeks?). The vote is the only thing that all Americans, regardless of age, race, class, country of origin, and religion, possess that has equal worth. That’s not a small thing.
I’ll provide a long view. When we stepped through our door last night, I reminded my daughters that, at the most, Trump’s impact can persist for only another four years. Yes, his legacy can last far longer, especially in the courts. However, on a cold January day in the future, we’ll no longer be subjected to his vitriolic behavior. I’ve lived through nine presidents, and there will be many more.
I’ll offer hope. Next week, my family will watch Kamala Harris, the first Black South-Asian American nominee for vice president, engage in a debate herself. Harris represents promise, justice, and above all, progress. With Harris as an example, I can instill a bit of hope in my children that a future that’s a little more honest, a little more reasonable, and a little more equitable is right around the corner.