Jillian Alder Pierson covers her ears when she hears the presidential candidates calling each other names.
Scarlet Havard runs into another room when the debates are on the television.
And Gabe Schon says the candidates are bullies.
“They talk like little kids, because they fight a lot and call each other names,” he said.
Gabe would know. He, Jillian, and Scarlet are all in kindergarten.
The presidential primaries, with their name-calling, locker room language and general lack of civility have been bewildering for many people, including these three.
If past presidential elections served as real-time lessons about civics and government and illustrations of nobility to which children might aspire, this year’s has looked more like a cafeteria food fight or recess brawl.
How do educators, after all, turn these into teachable moments: When Bernie Sanders hushed Hillary Clinton with his curt, “Excuse me, I’m talking.” When Marco Rubio insinuated that Donald Trump had wet his pants. And when Donald Trump said almost everything Donald Trump has said, including self-referential comments about his genitals.
School-aged children, parents and teachers across Capitol Hill say this year’s presidential primaries have made a particularly strong impression on younger audiences, even though the debates generally start after bedtime.
Even kids who haven’t seen the debates on television refer to specific interchanges, some invoking language or subject matter they admitted could get them sent to the principals’ office, often to the surprise of parents and teachers.
“I heard that Donald Trump lied a couple of times,” said Joseph, 8, a second grader at Capitol Hill Day School.
“He said bad things about girls, and he told his body guards to pick on black people,” said Brooke, 8, his classmate at the private school steps from the Capitol.
“My mom showed me this video of Donald Trump,” said Luke, 7. “People were protesting, and then people punched them in the face.” The school allowed Roll Call to interview students, but asked that only first names be used.
While adults said they have felt the urge to shield children from some of the raunchier exchanges, most adults and children said they had nevertheless been able to pull valuable lessons from this year’s campaigns—including conversations about civility, and effective communication strategies. News that Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted Monday that the Republican front-runner was “a loser,” demonstrated that such conversations are bound to continue.
It’s a difficult subject for parents like Jackie Havard, Scarlet’s mom. When Scarlet, who attends School-Within-School at Goding public school, saw Donald Trump on television comparing Mitt Romney to a penguin, Scarlet ran into the kitchen, saying, “I don’t want to hear that,” her mother recalled.
Jackie followed her daughter and tried to explain: “He’s saying mean things, but we don’t talk that way to each other,” she said.
Margot Greenlee said her kindergartner Nate has been intrigued by Trump, whose blond bouffant and deep tan reminds him of a cartoon character. But he is also confused by him.
“He has a sense that Donald Trump is a big bully and calls people names, and those are things they’re not supposed to do in school,” she said.
Steven Schlozman, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, said he could not remember such a vitriolic campaign season. Kids are bound to be bothered by some of what they hear, he said.
He suggested that parents warn younger children that they might see adults behaving badly. He suggests telling children: “They believe strongly in what they believe, and I’m OK with that, but I’m not OK with the way they are expressing their beliefs.”
With older kids, he said, parents can ask probing questions: Whose shoes would they want to be in during a debate? How would they feel as the targets of the more caustic exchanges?
At Capitol Hill Day School, primary season coincides with a sixth-grade unit on debating and democracy. Students did not discuss the presidential races in class — their classwork centered on ancient Egypt. But the debates gave them plenty of real-life observations, and on a recent day they were prepared to provide analyses that could put some adults to shame.
“Cruz is really good at debates,” said Lila K., 12. “He has good arguments. Trump tells people what they want to hear. He appeals to their feelings.”
Her classmates concurred, then they offered a series of basic rules almost all the candidates have broken: They make assumptions about people. They interrupt each other and the moderators. They speak in generalities and don’t provide examples. And, of course, they have called each other names.
“Making up names for the other candidates, like ‘Little Marco,’ it’s not mature,” said Elena, 11, referring to one of Trump’s favorite insults for his former rival. “If kids our age should stop calling each other names, why shouldn’t they?”
Beyond the attacks on fellow candidates, some students are disturbed by Trump’s remarks about immigrants and support from white supremacist organizations. In some communities, minority students have been bullied by students using Trump’s own words.
“As an African American and a Latina, I think it’s really hurtful to hear a lot of things he says,” said Elena, 11.
“I’m not black or Latina. I’m white, and I’m offended by what he says,” added Lila K., 12. Lila is also aware of sexist comments in the debates. “My mom pulled me aside and told me ‘You know that’s not okay,'” she recounted.
Their teacher, Katherine Bryant, said that she has pointed out that politicians don’t always follow the rules we expect from civil society, and they never have.
Indeed, both Lincoln and Douglas used the worst of racial slurs during their historic debates in 1858. Sen. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, famously called an opponent a “pimp for slavery,” inspiring the man’s cousin, a Congressman from South Carolina, to cane Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856.
Bryant said older children are capable of understanding the debates in the context of their own classwork, after years of learning what constitutes bullying and how to treat other people with respect.
“They have a great understanding of what maturity looks like,” she said.