You've got four chances to watch the presidential and vice-presidential debates. President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney square off on October 3, October 16, and October 22, and Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan take on foreign and domestic policy on October 11.
Even if you and your family rarely watch TV together, should you tune in? For advice, FamilyGoesStrong turns to child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. Excerpts:
What do you think? Should families huddle around the TV for the debates?
Watching the presidential debates as a family can be a very constructive thing. It's important that parents themselves feel a commitment to the democratic process and that they encourage their children to become knowledgeable and involved as young citizens. Now setting the stage for a successful "presidential debates family night" might mean finding some alternative activities for offspring who are just too little or too restless to listen patiently to an interminable expanse of grownup talking heads. It may also help smooth the road if whoever is in charge — the parents or grandparents — lays out a few ground rules about boisterous outbursts or squabbling.
What about groaning or commenting?
Most important is the parents' leadership in encouraging their offspring to encounter a variety of ideas in a respectful way. It's a tremendously important lesson to have mastered the skill to say in a cheerful and friendly fashion, "I understand your position. How interesting. I completely disagree with you." A large number of adults have not really achieved this milestone. Now naturally, parents may not want to or need to commit themselves to an artificial level of politeness regarding the candidates themselves, who, after all, cannot hear the boos and groans that many TV watchers may spontaneously utter as the debate proceeds. However, parents should be mindful that not everyone will share their own political views. Relatives and friends sooner or later will come to represent other positions on the political spectrum. Each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own viewpoints. It's not enough to articulate this principle in a vacuum. Verbal bullying, interrupting, contemptuousness, and sarcasm are ever present in many homes but are destructive habits. If family members do not feel respected and listened to, then trust and intimacy are undermined.
What if parents and teens disagree about the candidates?
If the parents are making fun of the teenager's point of view on Monday and then on Tuesday complains that the youngster doesn't trust them and doesn't communicate with them, whose fault is that? The point of family discussions is to identify where each person stands and to note where there's a consensus and where there is disagreement about facts or values. The point is not for the victor to silence the victim. The point is for each individual to have an authentic voice and to be heard. It is possible for family members to have strong views and to express them vividly while still maintaining respect for others.
Should parents "prep" their kids for the debate?
No. It's not school. It's home.
What about bringing up famous old debates – say, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon?
I observe a trend in the blogosphere of parents feeling that they are responsible for curriculum. And I think that is not a helpful mission. This is not a class.
What if the child seems interested?
That's called a spontaneous conversation.
Is watching the debates as a family like watching a sports event together?
It's like a football game, and the same rules of being polite apply. Switching the channel because there's a movie you want to see displeases people. The children might be less interested in the presidential debate, in which case they have to tolerate the sad news that their parents are dedicating this Wednesday night to something of interest to the parents that may not interest the kids.
How should parents break the news that they plan to watch not just one but four debates?
Personally, I think parents are in sorry shape if they can't announce, "We're watching the presidential debates. That's what the grownups are doing here, so the TV is unavailable. Go sit in the backyard and watch the stars."
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