Henry Jordan, 15, has been watching the presidential debates at home in Flagstaff with his parents. He’s also talking about the election at school with friends. And he’s formed some opinions.
“Donald Trump’s a moron,” Henry said. “He just wants to deport a ton of different people -- Muslims, Mexicans. And Hillary Clinton’s pretty chill.”
Henry’s sister Caroline is 12. She said a classmate told her all Muslims are terrorists. But Caroline’s friend looked up Muslim extremist statistics online.
“A lot of Muslims don’t even support terrorism,” Caroline said. “They just think it’s wrong. And so it’s kinda messed up to just take out one religion and say that all of them are bad.”
The presidential candidates’ behavior — the lying, the racist comments, the name calling — isn’t allowed in most classrooms. But it’s all on display on the national stage. Many parents and teachers are having a hard time explaining it to children.
Caroline said her class discussed the first debate but they weren’t allowed to discuss the second because her teacher said it was inappropriate for middle school students. That’s the debate held a couple days after a 2005 Access Hollywood interview revealed Trump bragging about assaulting women.
“This was locker room talk,” Trump said in the second debate. “I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family. I apologized to the American people.”
Caroline and Henry’s mom Judy Jordan decided to discuss it with her kids before they heard about it anywhere else.
“I certainly didn’t want Henry to think that that was just ‘locker room talk’ or something that boys just do or that it was ok,” Judy said. “And I didn’t want Caroline to feel as though it was ok or normal or something that she should expect to have to endure. It isn’t just words. It is not ok. It is not ok for a presidential candidate to dismiss it as though it was no big deal because it’s a very big deal.”
In Tucson Breana Arvin has two teenage daughters.
“As a parent I think it’s sad,” Arvin said. “Back in the olden days some people would say the president was like their hero or who they’d look up to or who they admired. And now it’s disgusting what their behavior is on both sides.”
As disgusted as she is, Arvin said she refuses to vote for Clinton.
“My youngest thinks that Hillary is a liar and that Trump is disgusting, a loud and mean person,” Arvin said.
Arvin has found the election difficult to discuss with her kids. Teachers across the country have also found it to be tricky territory.
“We have a motto in our classroom to lead through example,” said Kesava Dernovsek who teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grade at Haven Montessori School. “In the election right now that’s not really an easy idea to relate to the children.”
He’s had to stifle some of the most egregious remarks out of his classroom.
“When Mexico sends its people their not sending their best,” Trump said when he announced his run for the White House last year. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime, their rapists. And some I assume are good people.”
“The racist comment about Mexicans that was being spread around the classroom not too long ago,” Dernovsek said. “I asked the children to save political talk for family time and to be careful about the words they were using in the classroom because those are hurtful words.”
Dernovsek said he hears the kids repeating what their parents believe and tries to keep his own opinion out of the conversation.
Licensed psychologist Angela Keith said kids under 12 are like sponges.
“They will own what you say at a young enough age and then they’ll repeat it at school,” Keith said.
Keith said if you want to encourage critical thinking let kids drive the conversation.
“Instead of you getting passionate about your position being able to say ‘well Mommy thinks this way. I know other people think other ways and some day you’ll be able to make a choice for yourself on what you feel about it.’” Keith said. “Rather than going, ‘well mommy feels this way and everyone else is dumb’”
Keith said kids may be picking up on adults’ anxiety surrounding the election as well — fears of war or revolution. She said listen to them, answer their questions. It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers. Just saying ‘I don’t know but I’ll be right here with you’ helps them feel safe about the future.
Bill Jordan said every generation has its scary events to cope with.
“I still remember my parents having a meeting in our neighborhood to talk about the possibility of building a bomb shelter,” Bill said. “And the Cuban Missile Crisis where my mom said, ‘hurry home from school. Like that would’ve made a difference.”
He said sharing that perspective with his kids, that he came out on the other side, helps them feel a bit more secure.