Should you let your kids watch the final presidential debate?

Story highlights

  • 80% of kids 6 to 12 talk about the presidential campaign at home, according to new survey
  • Parents are divided over whether watching the debate is good or bad for their kids

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)This presidential campaign has been unlike any in recent memory for a whole host of reasons, including the complicated terrain parents must negotiate when it comes to discussions with their children and what to try to avoid.

The campaign minefield was already difficult to digest -- with the unprecedented name-calling, nastiness and negativity between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump -- then came the now infamous "Access Hollywood" tape that surfaced. As most now know, Trump is heard using vulgar language to talk about women and what he likes to do to them. (I am not including the language here since some kids might read this story!)
    If that issue weren't tough enough for parents to maneuver with their kids, then came a series of allegations from different women who claim that Donald Trump kissed them against their will or groped them. Trump has said the claims are not true and his wife, Melania, in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper staunchly defended him.
    She called the allegations "lies" and said they were organized by the "opposition," which she defined as the media and the Clinton campaign.
    Sexually aggressive language.
    Allegations of sexual assault.
    What is a parent to do?
    When it comes to my girls, ages 10 and almost 9, we have spent some time talking about what Trump said on the tape, what is appropriate behavior and what is never appropriate for a man or a woman.
    After those conversations, I remain firmly in the let-them-watch-the-debate-if-they-want-to-watch camp.
    But it's understandable if people feel differently, especially if their children are younger than my daughters.
    Parents were divided even before all of these salacious accounts dominated the news coverage, torn between a desire for their children to be involved in the political process and a concern about the vitriol that has been on display during the presidential campaign.
    John Furjanic, a single father of a 9-year-old, said he won't allow his daughter to watch the debate.
    "I lack the ability to control what comes out of the candidate's mouth, and my daughter lacks the emotional maturity to understand grown-ups acting like misbehaved teenagers cutting down the other candidates," said Furjanic, a financial adviser in Chicago. "I don't want to allow my child to be influenced by bad adult behavior, and I don't want to take the time to explain away the poor, pouting and mean conduct."
    Janice Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of Mazu, which builds digital spaces for young people to connect with family and friends in a safe environment around issues they care about, is also not going to let her daughters, ages 9 and 12, watch.
    Her biggest battles with her children, she says, are teaching them to be kind to each other, to let the other speak, to have manners and to always tell the truth.
    "If our own leaders spend half the time lying, (being) unkind, interrupting each other and lacking all levels of respect, what do we really teach our children?" asked Taylor, who's also a social entrepreneur, international speaker and author of the soon to be released "Wisdom. Soul. Startup." "Does the debate do more harm than good? I can hear my kids now: 'Well, Mommy, the next president can tell people to shut up, lie and call people names. Why can't I do that to my sister?' "
    Beth Engelman, a single mother in Chicago, said her 11-year-old son, Jackson, is fascinated by the election and wanted to stay up late and watch every second of the first debate. She let him watch the second debate (about halfway through he went to bed because he was exhausted) but she's not encouraging him to watch the final one.
    "What a difference a week makes," said Engelman, co-founder of the digital platform Mommy on a Shoestring. "If Jackson really wanted to watch the debate we would but since the last debate and all the allegations, my interest in the election has waned and so has Jackson's ... Between leaked emails, groping allegations and talk of rigged elections, there is very little opportunity to hear about candidates' policies or positions, which is the stuff I like discussing with Jackson."
    Diana Graber, co-founder of the digital literacy site Cyberwise.org, teaches "cyber civics" to sixth-graders in Aliso Viejo, California. Much of the focus right now in her classes is on how to be kind and respectful to each other online, which is why she really hopes her students don't watch the debate.
    "Much of the language we're sure to hear during the debate ... completely negates everything we're talking about in class," said Graber, whose kids are 18 and 20. "Unfortunately, research shows kids still look to adult role models to learn how to conduct themselves online and off."

    Wanted kids to understand the electoral process

    Monica Sakala, a mother of two in Washington, said she ultimately decided not to let her two girls, ages 7 and 10, watch the second debate based on the tone and the headlines following the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape and Trump's threats to use former President Clinton's infidelities against Hillary Clinton.
    "I don't yet know if we will DVR and let them watch the final one. At this point, I regret not having them watch the first debate,' said Sakala, who owns the social media consulting business SOMA Strategies. "We want our kids to be part of this incredible democratic process but the way it's been overshadowed is really unprecedented."
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    Marie Stroughter, co-founder and host of African-American Conservatives, said the debates are always on in their home, and her youngest children, ages 13 and 15, are always invited to watch if they desire.
    As for any concerns about the subject matter that could be discussed, Stroughter says she has the news on much of the time in their home. When her 15-year-old daughter, who loves politics, walks into the room and hears the coverage, she'll say, "Oh all that stuff. I know all about it," she said.
    Stroughter also has an 18-year-old who, before turning 18, was required to watch the debates as part of their home-school class on American government, knowing that he would turn 18 by Election Day.
    "I think it's incredibly important to understand the electoral process," she said. "Also, as a family of color, I think it's essential we participate in a process we fought so hard to get. And, particularly for my daughter and I, as women, since we are part of two demographics that didn't always have the right to vote."
    Describing herself as a reluctant Trump supporter, she said, "If you are looking to elect a perfect person, that is never going to happen."
    Some parents said they're encouraged that their young kids are so invested in the political process that they want to watch the debates, even though there may be the "accident on the side of the road" appeal with one of the candidates being a former reality television star, said Avital Norman Nathman, whose son is 9 years old.
    "If it has [my son] asking questions about how our economy works, seeing what the candidates say about racial injustice, learning about the US's role on a global scale, then I am happy to allow him to watch and, of course, watch with him," Nathman said. Her son was a bit jealous when he learned, during carpool after the first debate, that his friend had watched and he didn't. He went to bed before the second debate started.
    "I would still be okay with him watching the last debate (most likely from video clips the next day since it's at 9pm on a school night again) as long as we watched together and I could help answer any questions or clear up any confusion he may have," said Nathman, founder of The Mamafesto blog and editor of the anthology on motherhood "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."
    Nathman said her son is aware of some of the words Trump used on that tape and asked her what some of them mean. "I'd rather he get an explanation from me than from a fellow 9-year-old."

    Nearly two-thirds of kids wouldn't run for president

    There is no question our kids are paying attention to the presidential election. In a survey of 2,000 kids ages 6 to 12 for Highlights for Children, 80% said they talk about the presidential election at home.
    When asked about the first thing the president should do when she or he takes office, 50% said keeping our country safe. That was ahead of saving the environment (15%), making sure all people can get health care (13%), helping more people find jobs (11%) and helping kids do well in school (11%).
    Perhaps the finding that should make us most concerned is how few kids are interested in running for president. Sixty-five percent said they don't want to run for president someday, versus 35% who said they would run for the highest office in the land.
    "Certainly, we're kidding ourselves if we think kids haven't heard the shaming and blaming that's been so central to the national conversation about this election cycle, and many of the kids did say that the stress and the difficulty of the job were turn-offs for them," said Christine Cully, editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children. "Perhaps some kids are getting the impression that being president is a thankless endeavor."
    But Cully said there may be something else behind the findings: Many kids may simply want to do something else.
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    "What we're not hearing kids say is that they are afraid of hard work or responsibility," she said. "Many of them said they aspired to other professional careers that are also challenging. Therefore, some answers were not necessarily driven by the desire not to be president but rather by an aspiration to be something else."
    When the children were asked what is the most important quality a president should have, 44% said honesty, followed by 19% who said kindness, very similar to the results from Highlights' 2012 survey.
    Cully said it's encouraging that children continue to value honesty and kindness. She said parents can use what their kids are hearing and seeing in the presidential campaign as a way to open up conversations about morals and values and reinforce positive behavior.
    "Kids who may not understand much about campaigning might find it helpful to hear that politicians don't always play nicely together in their sandbox -- and that, unfortunately, during a campaign, winning sometimes becomes more important to them than truth-telling," she said. "Parents could take this opportunity to turn the campaign rhetoric into a teaching opportunity."