It's That CAMPAIGNful Time of Year – Do You Know Where Your Kids Are Emotionally?
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
With less than a month to go until the mid-term elections, the intensity and the nastiness of the advertisements for and against the candidates are ever increasing. We are again in the midst of “CAMPAIGNful” times!
The term “mudslinging” feels like a benign understatement during these times when mere meanness would feel like a relief. As I get set to cast my votes in my 31st consecutive state and national election, I find myself echoing what I’ve noted during the last few elections: Each new election becomes meaner reflecting the “Polarized States of America.”
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, she’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 8th 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.
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.
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 increase in young voter (18- to 29-year-olds) turnout in recent elections. Fifty percent of this age group voted in 2020, a dramatic 11% increase from 2016. 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 and the courage to stand up to autocratic bullies and regimes around the world.
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, those newly elected at national, state, and local levels 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.
In 2020, the first un-presidential debate, was accurately referred to by CNN’s Dana Bash as a "sh*t show." After watching it 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 their states and/or 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 camPAINful.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. 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 was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he 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 Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. In 2022, Allan founded and co-directed the inaugural Daddying Film Festival to enable students, dads, and other indie filmmakers to use film as a vehicle to communicate the importance of fathers or father figures in each others' lives. Allan 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 and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.