By Allan Shedlin
Dad, Granddad, and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
The spectacle of our local, state, and national elections plays out for the entire world to see across myriad media outlets. That spectacle increasingly reminds me of the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, only renamed for our recent campaign seasons to Whac-A-Pol. I find myself wishing I had a virtual mallet to hit the candidates back into holes until they can behave in a manner worthy of a modicum of respect. Having become familiar with Zoom and other such platforms, I long to mute each candidate unless they focus on issues rather than personal attacks.
As a former teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and later an elementary school principal, each time I watch or listen to a “debate” or political advertisement, I’m reminded of so many incidents I dealt with while working with young children, and the times I was called upon to calm kids down.
Typical campaign behavior and the worst schoolyard behavior have become virtually indistinguishable: “But he started it!” “No, I won’t apologize!” “He’s lying!” “No, he’s lying!” This immature back-and-forth can be heard from candidates during campaign rallies and debates as well as kids in playgrounds across America. It’s the kind of behavior that usually triggers the adult admonition: “Grow up!” Yet political trash-talking abounds and is likely to intensify as the days dwindle to the official November 3rd election showdown.
The uncivil wars being waged by political candidates are dangerous to the psychological, emotional, moral, and democratic development and wellbeing of our Nation’s children and youth. As a lifelong educator, parenting consultant, parent, and grandparent, I am extremely concerned about lessons that impressionable youth are learning from candidates and pundits alike.
Unless we quarantine ourselves from all news sources, it is all but impossible for any of us to escape the increasingly mean-spirited, malicious, and sarcastic portrayal of the candidates seeking to lead us. There is virtually no respite from assaultive politics. As the bi-annual campaigns meld together into what feels like one never-ending campaign, there is little time to regain our civil equilibrium.
To children and youth – and many adults – it may seem as if our choice is to vote for the least bad candidate because there is not a best one. If one listens to the propaganda spewing from certain candidates and their handlers, it is easy to feel that our choice has been limited to which dishonest scoundrel to elect. There must be guidance from adults on how to spot such misinformation in real-time so that our children gain the whole, truthful picture.
That said, one of the few bright spots for me in this process has been the recent young voter (18- to 29-year-olds) turnout. For example, youth turnout in the 2018 midterm election was at a 100-year high. As voting is the cornerstone of our democratic process, this is a hopeful sign – and this mirrors the similarly encouraging signs of youth engagement in other issues directly affecting our and our planet’s survival.
We need to stop deluding ourselves that once an election is over, the accusations and name-calling will be forgotten. Although specific allegations may be forgotten, the overall impact of assaultive politics on acutely impressionable minds – and developed minds, as well – is insidiously corrosive. With the offending candidates thoroughly impugned, the newly elected President and any other national, state, and local level official will take office with his or her character and credibility severely compromised. At the very least, the damage caused by these pernicious campaigns leads to a cynicism that affects character development and reflects poorly on our democratic process and moral stature throughout the world.
After watching the first un-presidential debate, accurately referred to by CNN’s Dana Bash as a "sh*t show," I felt like I needed a shower and mental enema. And I wondered if it was acceptable fare for kids.
After consideration of their maturity and emotional development, I think children and youth should be able to watch regular campaign spectacles…but only if accompanied by a trusted adult willing and able to do these four simple things to restore our civil senses and to encourage a new generation of voters:
Acknowledge and validate kids’ perceptions that the negative rhetoric from the candidates is often undignified, inappropriate, hurtful, and increasingly dishonest – especially when displayed by adults seeking to represent and lead our country.
Encourage discussion about the meaning of “public service” and the specific qualities required for humane leadership. Identify individuals, including peers, teachers, and others in our daily lives, who possess those qualities.
List specific behaviors and actions each of us can take to demonstrate respect for others, even if we do not agree with all their views and ideas.
Be mindful of and vigilant about our own behaviors around children and youth as our passions intensify during the remaining days of this election season.
To bring some dignity back to our democratic process, perhaps we should allow the innate optimism and fairness traditionally associated with childhood to influence our attitudes and behaviors as we countdown to Election Day and beyond. Then, maybe we will feel more confident about once again holding ourselves up before the world as a moral and democratic beacon for others to follow. We also will be able to better honor the founding ideals of our nation and future elections can be less campaignful.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, and now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.