Americans struggle to explain X-rated election to kids

A little boy shows his excitement holding up his campaign sign before Donald Trump speaks at US Bank Arena on Oct 13, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A little boy shows his excitement holding up his campaign sign before Donald Trump speaks at US Bank Arena on Oct 13, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - How should parents and teachers talk - or not - to children about the 2016 White House race, in an X-rated election season dominated by brutal insults, sex scandal and sleaze?

It's a minefield for educators as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton face off in a vicious contest whose recent weeks have been marred by sensational allegations of sexual misconduct.

"Have you had 'the talk' with your kids yet?" John Dickerson, host of the Face the Nation talkshow and parent to a teen son and daughter, wrote in a recent column.

Dickerson recounts the scene in his family kitchen, as his children asked about the second presidential debate - dominated by Trump's boast, caught on video, that fame lets him grope women without consent, which he later dismissed as "locker room talk."

What started as a conversation about politics, quickly morphed into something else: A frank and serious talk about gender roles, and basic morality.

"My audience: A boy becoming a man listening for clues what men are supposed to be like. A girl becoming a woman hearing about how women are viewed in the world she will join," Dickerson said.

Trump's claims blurred the line between the "oafish" and the criminal, he said.

"It's the line I was trying to draw as sharp as possible in my kitchen."

Since the 2005 video emerged, almost a dozen women have come forward to accuse Trump of unwanted sexual advances - allegations he insisted were drummed up by his Democratic rival during their final debate Wednesday night (Oct 20).

With his campaign in chaos Trump has meanwhile stepped up attacks on his rival's husband, former president Bill Clinton - whose White House tenure was marred by sex scandals - inviting his accusers to share the campaign spotlight.

Teachers were already struggling in a season marked by crass personal attacks during the Republican primaries - which saw Trump defend the size of his penis during a prime-time debate.

Since the Trump video came out, they have hit a wall.

"Many teachers (have) said we are not going to talk about that, we are going to talk about other things in this campaign," said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading rights group.

In a typical election year, Costello - herself a former teacher - would have encouraged students to engage with the campaign, comparing the candidates platforms and staging mock debates, a tradition in American schools.

This year she suggests schools avoid holding such debates altogether - echoing a #blockthemock social media movement that has caught on around the country.

"For older students in high school, I would recommend to talk about the larger issues," she said. "I would talk about sexual harassment... as a social issue, and not as a political issue."

Parents of younger children have to tread even more carefully.

Marsa, a 38 year-old Washington area consultant who asked to be identified by first name only, says she broaches the topic with her children, ages eight and six, but avoids the specifics.

"We talk about politics, more about ideals and not specifically about the candidates," she said. "We talk about the media tactics. We talk about what each party believes in."

Sleaze is far from the only source of controversy in a campaign marked by the Republican nominee's incendiary rhetoric - with Latino immigrants and Muslims among his most frequent targets.

Many teachers are distraught over his proposals to raise a wall on the Mexican border, deport all undocumented migrants, and ban entry to Muslims - that would directly affect their minority students.

In March, some 40 per cent of the 2,000 teachers who answered a Teaching Tolerance questionnaire said they were hesitant to talk about the campaign because it "is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of colour and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom."

"Many students worry about being deported," the survey found.

Costello sees a fundamental challenge for educators: "How can we maintain the standards of our profession without normalising the behavior and language on display in this presidential campaign?"

But she does see another kind of learning opportunity: Teaching students to question blanket assertions in a race where fact-checking the candidates has become a national sport.

"I'd focus on a key critical-thinking and media-literacy skill: the ability to test claims," she said.