Children are Watching

Like so many others in our country, I have been saddened and sickened by this Presidential election cycle and all of its vicious rhetoric. I watched at least part of each debate, even though my instincts were to flee from the room as soon as the moderator announced the candidates. I have tried to be a good, thoughtful citizen by focusing on the issues which face our nation and where each candidate stands on them. But I have found it impossible to ignore what I see as basically uncivil discourse, i.e., bad behavior. And I often have felt fortunate that I no longer have children at home to whom I must try to explain why these people are being so mean. And as an educator and counselor, I worry about the impact all of this negativity might have on all of our children.

One essay I read seems especially relevant to my own feelings. Cheryl Preheim, morning anchor for KIUSA 9NEWS in Denver, Colorado, wrote a piece about answering her children’s questions about the election. In her essay she says:

Children may not always understand, or interpret it all correctly, but they are listening. More than issues, they are listening to the tension, the negativity, and the vitriol.

They repeat things they hear at the dinner table and on TV. Sometimes they repeat it accurately and sometimes just what they think they heard.

So she pointedly asked elementary school students what they knew about the candidates. Her summary – “I did not hear one positive response about either candidate. It made me sad.”

It makes me sad, too. My first memories of Presidential elections are from 1960 when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were running. I was a first-grader at the time, and that fall was a very exciting time in my elementary school in rural Pennsylvania. At recess children were marching around the playground with homemade signs for their candidates. I was eager to join in even though I had no understanding of what the President did, what the different parties stood for, and why it mattered anyway. Grownups, including my parents and my teachers, seemed hopeful about the future. I don’t recall any nastiness that made its way into my consciousness. The only negative thing I can summon up is that Nixon was not nearly as young and good-looking as Kennedy.

Today’s children are likely to remember this Presidential campaign season with less fondness. Regardless of which candidate their parent(s) support, their memories will be tainted with anxiety and maybe even bitterness. I hate to think this way, but this election might be the start of cynicism about politics for some of them. Some of them might “drop out” completely and refuse to even vote when they come of age.

Isn’t democracy supposed to be about people with a common goal being able to discuss issues in a way which will lead to a productive outcome for all? How can we ever hope to move forward as a nation of diverse people if we can’t even speak respectfully to and about those who have dissimilar opinions?

All of this brings home to me again what I have long known – children are watching us when we are at our best . . . and our worst. Let’s hope that starting on November 9th we can start to show them the finest behavior we can muster as adults, win or lose.

You can view a video of Cheryl Preheim’s essay and read the text here.

Kathy Miller

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