Watch the presidential debates with your kids and teens. Sharing the experience will inspire them to take an interest in the presidential election. A follow-up family conversation can also introduce the topic of responsible and active citizen participation, and why being an informed citizen is essential to a healthy democracy. If we want young people to be as excited about their right to vote as they are about obtaining their driver’s licenses, we need to enthusiastically share our own interest in the election process with them. Watching the presidential debates together as a family is a great place to start.
Make an event of the presidential debates. In the pre-digital world, American families would bring hampers of food to munch on while they listened to presidential candidates argue and pontificate in public parks and forums. Sharing a bowl of popcorn and soft drinks would go a long way in making the current presidential debates palatable for all generations.
• Show your kids and teens that you value their concerns about the state of our nation and the upcoming elections. Let them know you are eager to hear their opinions. Challenge them to support their opinions with facts and reasons. Try to refrain from voicing your own opinions concerning presidential candidates and issues before the debates; let young people know you want them to think for themselves and form their own opinions.
• Informally discuss the concept of the presidential debates with young people before you watch them, especially if this will be the first time your kids or teens have watched a presidential debate. Let them know why presidential candidates debate. Explain why it’s important for everyone in the country to listen to and/or watch the debates. From the Annenberg Foundation: Every four years since the mid-20th century, the major U.S. presidential candidates have faced off in a series of televised debates leading up to the general election. While not an explicit requirement for candidates, debates have been viewed as a way for the public to get to know the candidates and their positions, as well as highlight the differences in their proposed policies. Debates give the candidates a chance to deliver their message on a massive public stage while providing an opportunity for committed and undecided voters to get to know the candidates on an in depth level - both their personalities and their stances on the issues - helping to determine their vote.
• If you need to inform yourself about presidential debates, read and share pertinent newspaper and news magazine articles with your kids and teens in the days before the debate. Never be afraid to admit to your kids that you need to seek information to educate yourself—in doing so you become a fantastic role model. Besides, kids love it when adults admit they don’t know everything. When seeking and sharing objective news sources, make sure those sources represent multiple perspectives.
• On the day of the debate, try to sit down for a minute with your kids and teens and make a list of things, or issues, that are important to them and you. Is a healthy environment a big issue to your kids? Are they concerned about global warming? What do they think of their school, their educational opportunities? What are their thoughts and concerns related to war and terrorism? Make sure one of your kids shares your family’s “things we care about” list right before you watch the debate so you can all listen to hear if the candidates address issues important to you and your kids. (One of your younger kids will love the opportunity to be the family spokesperson.)
• Don’t watch the debate “pre-game.” Listen and/or watch the presidential debates free of pundits and so-called political experts. Then your teens and kids, and you, can decide for yourselves what you think about the candidates and their policies. You may want to watch the debates on C-Span or listen to them on a public radio station, to free yourself and your kids from the slanted opinions of the pundits and political spin doctors.
• During the debate, keep a pencil and paper nearby to jot down questions that are not answered by the candidates, as well as questions that occur to you and your kids as the debate progresses. Ask your kids what questions and follow-ups they would ask the candidates if they had the opportunity to quiz them on air. After the debate you may want to check on objective fact checker websites to ascertain which candidates gave factual and truthful responses.
• Ask your kids and teens if they think the debate moderators are respectful. Are the moderators well informed themselves? Are they fair in giving each candidate a chance to respond? Do they confront candidates who avoid answering pointed questions? Are they asking questions across a broad range of important topics?
• When the debate is over, turn the television or radio off. Ask your kids and teens what they thought about the debate. Which candidate cared about issues important to them? Which candidate best communicated his or her ideas? Which candidate offered viable pragmatic solutions to important problems? Which candidate personified leadership qualities in action, tone, and bearing? Which candidate responded to questions with insight, wisdom, grace, and strength? Which candidate demonstrated compassion and empathy for those in our society who are poor or have special challenges? Which candidate best articulated his or her vision for our nature’s future?
• Let your kids and teens voice their thoughts and opinions before you voice your own. They can then think for themselves and feel free to express those thoughts with confidence. If you disagree, do not disparage or disrespect them. Yes, you may be more experienced, but they have their own unique experiences and ideas on which they base their decisions. Do challenge them to make decisions based on matters of sound reason, not on surface personality issues.
• Ask your kids and teens if they have questions for the candidates that went unanswered. If yes, they can go to the candidates’ websites, read each candidate’s platform, and see if they can find the answers to their questions. If they still have questions, encourage your kids and teens to email the candidates their questions and concerns. Each candidate’s website has contact information with suggestions on how to contact the candidates.
Have a great family conversation surrounding the debates and continue the conversation throughout the election. A great family follow-up would be to attend a political presidential event if one of the candidates visits your town or county during the campaign. And be sure to take your kids with you when you vote so they can see how it’s done and experience the excitement at the polls. Taking the time to bring them along with you to the polls will show them how vitally important it is to vote.
For other suggestions on the best way to watch the presidential debates, read Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s guest blog on the Bill Moyers Journal website at:
Dr. Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She also suggests that you fact check candidates’ debate statements at the following fact check sites:
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which Jamieson directs, that aims to monitor the accuracy of major national candidates' statements and rhetoric.
Politifact and Truth-0-Meter
Politifact is an extensively cross-referenced fact-checking resource run as a joint project by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly.
For current debate rules, times, and locations, go to the official nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates website at: www.debates.org/
Following are educational sites for more information about presidential debate history. Some of the sites were originated during past presidential elections but do contain pertinent information about presidential debates in general.