For two California parents, it was mortifying enough when last week’s Republican debate introduced the question of whether it was appropriate for one presidential candidate to accuse another of wetting his pants.
But the final straw for Gary Goyette and Andrea Todd, who were watching at home in Sacramento with their 10-year-old son, was Donald Trump’s jarring, out-of-left-field boast about his sexual endowment.
“We were just incredulous,” Todd said, recalling when Trump declared that there was “no problem” with that part of his anatomy. She and her husband looked at each other, she recalled, and then looked at their son.
“Gary said, ‘Tommy, you’ve got to leave — you’ve got to get out of here.’ And Tommy actually got up and ran out of the room.”
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Many unforeseeable things have happened so far in the raucous Republican presidential race. But the 2016 election — with its rudeness, crudeness, bluster and bullying — has also presented adults with an unexpected, unpleasant dilemma: How on earth do they explain Donald Trump to children?
“Quite frankly, it’s been quite embarrassing when I have an 11-year-old who is better behaved and more polite than some people who are the potential next leaders of our country,” said Maury Peterson, who runs Parenting Journey, a nonprofit group in Somerville, Mass., that provides support for families. “This name-calling and making fun of people is basically the opposite of what he’s been taught at home and at school.”
Kathy Maher, a sixth-grade teacher in Newton, Mass., said that election years usually present an excellent opportunity for students to observe the virtues of the American democratic process. But this year, she said, she worries about the school’s mock debate season, when someone will have to play Trump — a candidate who, if he were a student, would be sent straight to the principal’s office.
Her school has a program encouraging students to speak up if they see someone being mistreated, Maher said, and for that reason she has felt obliged to address the subject of Trump.
“I try really hard, when we discuss politics, to take a balanced view,” she said. “But I felt I had to say something this time, because the things Donald Trump says wouldn’t be tolerated in our schools. He bullies people, he name-calls, he makes fun of people because of their race, their ethnicity and the way they look.”
What about students whose parents are Trump supporters?
“I say, ‘People might like some of the things that Donald Trump stands for, but there are better ways of saying it,’” Maher said. “I did say that some people like that he says things for shock value, like the crazy old uncle who just says whatever he wants. But as an educator, I can’t support that. It’s not funny — it’s mean.”
For some children, Trump’s message has filtered down in extremely upsetting, possibly dangerous, ways. Social media have buzzed with parents relaying their children’s fears that they or their friends would be deported, walled in or walled out if Trump were to become president.
Jon Michaud of Maplewood, N.J., who is white and whose wife is Dominican, wrote on Facebook about a conversation he had with one of his two sons: “So if Donald Trump becomes president, he’s going to bring racism back,” he said his 8-year-old had told him. “That means Marcus, Mommy and I will be separated from you because we have darker skin than you do, right?”
Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday, Cokie Roberts put the question to the candidate himself.
“There’ve been incidents of white children pointing to their darker-skinned classmates and saying, ‘You'll be deported when Donald Trump is president,’” she said. “There’ve been incidents of white kids at basketball games holding up signs to teams which have Hispanic kids on them, saying, ‘We’re going to build a wall to keep you out.’ ”
“Are you proud of that?” Roberts asked. “Is that something you’ve done in American political and social discourse that you’re proud of?”
Trump replied that he had no knowledge of such reports.
“I think your question is a very nasty question,” he said, “and I’m not proud of it because I didn’t even hear of it, OK?”
As much as they might want to, parents and educators cannot keep their children insulated from news about Trump.
“He’s omnipresent. It’s going to come up, so you better be prepared,” said Carolyn Lee, a substitute kindergarten teacher in the Hawaii public school system.
With very young children, she advised parents to remain calm and refrain from retaliatory anti-Trump name-calling.
“Let’s say the family’s watching the news and they see this man on TV tossing water bottles and making fun of people,” Lee said. “I would say something like, ‘We try to treat people the way we would like to be treated, and somehow he’s showing the exact opposite of that.’ ”
Richard Klin of Stone Ridge, N.Y., said he saw little point in trying to shield his 11-year-old daughter from the campaign.
“I had this impulse to lock her away in an enchanted land where Donald Trump doesn’t exist, but you can’t,” he said.
Klin said he had traumatic memories of watching his own father erupt into “paroxysms of rage” whenever he saw President Richard Nixon on television. “I didn’t want to be that guy yelling at the TV, so I’m trying to cool it,” he said.
In Los Angeles, Andy Behrman, a single parent of two girls, 8 and 10, said that his daughters continually accused Trump of violating “the double v’s,” a reference to their school’s “virtues and values” program.
“They’re not picking up on the innuendos of his hands. They’re not catching on to the genital issue,” Behrman said. “But they’re catching on to the fact that Trump, (Marco) Rubio and (Ted) Cruz are all talking at the same time, which they’ve learned doesn’t make sense. It’s not polite, and it doesn’t allow anyone to voice their own opinion.”
Parents who support Trump disagree, of course. They say that his authenticity and his refusal to pander to his critics are more important than the words he uses. And they ask why America’s children are so sensitive that they cannot be exposed to robust views, forcefully expressed.
“This is not about him being rude to people randomly,” said Jeremy Diamond, a New York marketing executive with a son, 12, and a daughter, 15. “He shows passion and aggression and that he’s going to fight for his point of view.”
He said he is “confident in the integrity and behavior and values” of his children, both of whom have been impressed by Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach, which Diamond called “strategic aggression.”
”My son said, ‘Daddy, he just wants to show that he is stronger than the other candidates and that he’s not going to get pushed around,’ ” he said.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, who has a 15-year-old daughter and has written about Trump for CNN.com, said that for older children, it helps to place Trump in the context of a society driven by celebrity and social media.
“My daughter asks, ‘Why are you so obsessed with Trump? So what if he did a retweet?’ ” Ben-Ghiat said. “But we can tell our children that he’s a product of our branding culture and our selfie culture and our attraction to reality show television, where the behavior is so brutal.”
The ubiquity of Trump, she said, provides a useful opportunity for children to examine their own preoccupations.
“They can learn to look beyond flash and glamour, to be skeptical of the power of messaging and branding, but also to learn that it’s important that each one of us speak out and use our right to vote,” Ben-Ghiat said. “And to listen to the other side even if you don’t agree with them.”
In Sacramento, though, Goyette and Todd have still been unable to bring themselves to fully explain last week’s debate to 10-year-old Tommy.
“He asked us later, ‘What does it mean about the hands thing?’ ” Todd related. “But none of us wanted to tell him.”