It’s not always possible to protect our children from danger. This sad truth hit home Saturday night when my 6-year old daughter came running down the stairs in her Peanuts pajamas. “Daddy, Daddy, I’m frightened!” she cried. Somehow she’d seen the Republican debate.
“Those men, those mean mean men.”
“Sweetie,” I said, “I think you’re talking about Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. And they can be mean.”
“But why, Daddy, why?”
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“Sweetheart, have you ever heard of something called ‘the Republican base'?” She hadn’t. “Well, they’re very, very angry and some of the candidates are trying to exploit that anger.”
I put her back to bed. Then, I turned on the TV to find Charlie Rose interviewing Dr. Patricia Muldowney, child psychologist. It turns out my daughter’s experience was common.
“It’s the same story after every debate,” she said. “My office gets inundated with calls from concerned parents. Their children can’t sleep, some have nightmares, many imagine they’re being chased by monsters with funny hair. The symptoms usually disappear after a couple of days, though there have been a few cases of children who simply can’t get the image of a smirking Ted Cruz out of their heads.”
Muldowney said the problem was more than just the candidates’ meanness. “If it was just that, we could simply have the kids shift their focus to Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson. They’re not nearly so strident, and, in fact, studies have shown that Bush and Carson actually have a sedating effect. But when you combine the meanness with the nonstop fear-mongering and endless doom and gloom … Well, think of it this way: Put yourself in the shoes of a young child watching the debate. What do you hear? Danger lurks around every corner, countless enemies are determined to kill us, the president is a feckless fool or worse, war appears imminent with any number of countries, our nation is in its death throes, and so on. Now imagine that message drummed into your little head over and over for two straight hours. To a child, the effect of all this is what psychologists call ‘a downer.’”
“So what are concerned parents to do?” Rose asked.
“If at all possible, don’t let your kids watch any more debates. This is especially true of the one preceding Super Tuesday.”
“But what if, despite your best efforts, they do see one?” Rose asked.
“In that case, I tell parents, when the kids have calmed down – and it’s OK to let them cry and scream and get it out of their systems – sit with them, take their hands in yours and tell them in a soothing voice, ‘They usually move to the middle after the nomination.’”
“And that helps?”
“No. But it’s all we’ve got.”
I went upstairs to look in on my sleeping daughter. I realized we’d gotten off easy. Carly Fiorina could have made the debate.
Gary Jacobs is a former television comedy writer and producer.