Sunday, March 13, 2016

Should parents let their kids watch politicians in action?

Seven years ago, I started a column by recounting how I had written the words "hard work," "honesty," "courage," "fair play," "tolerance," "curiosity," "loyalty" and "patriotism" on the blackboard before I started teaching an evening class on professional ethics on Jan. 20, 2009. I then asked the students what these words were.

"Values," a few of them responded.

"Where have you heard them before?" I asked.

"In Barack Obama's inaugural address this afternoon," one of the students responded, correctly.

"These things are old," Obama had said. "These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history."

In teaching ethics, I typically tell the students that while I might be able to help give them the tools to think through ethical decisions, I can't change the values they bring with them into the class.

At the time, I observed how people with wildly different political views could share values. Obama and his opponent in that election, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), displayed this during the 2008 U.S. presidential election -- McCain when he took a talk-radio host to task for questioning Obama's religion and Obama when he refuted supporters' who attempted to capitalize on the pregnancy of the then unmarried, teenage daughter of McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin (R.-Alaska).

I was reminded of these observations after receiving questions from some readers about whether, given the tenor of the current presidential campaign, they should allow their children to watch the Republican candidates' televised debates, or whether it was appropriate for school teachers to discuss the debates. There was concern that seeing presidential candidates call one another names, accusing one another of being liars, or attempting to poke fun at the size of one another's hands might set a bad example for their kids.

"Is it right to let my kids see adults interrupt one another and bully one another on the public stage?"

While the tenor of the debates may be unsettling, I'm not sure the lessons about values is any less tangible. Just as voters could grasp a sense of McCain's and Obama's values by how they behaved and responded to comments and events, those watching the current candidates can do the same.

When Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) responds, "I'm notbiting," to a question from a debate moderator trying to pit him against one of his competitors, it tells viewers something about him. During the Conservative Political Action Conference, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) responds to a CNN reporter's question by saying, "where I grew up, if someone keeps punching someone in the face, eventually someone has to stand up and punch them back," that tells viewers something about his values, as well.

The right thing is for every parent to decide what's appropriate for their children to view on television in their own homes. It would seem a lost opportunity for teachers not to use the current political campaign as grist for lessons in civics and values.

Even if a candidate shares our values, he or she might not get our vote if his or her political views do not match our own. But regardless of their political views, voting for someone whose values voters clearly find abhorrent -- someone to whom they'd be reluctant to expose their kids -- is going to prove a much more difficult lever to pull. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

Jeff, your point is well taken. But how easy is it to achieve???

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Anonymous said...

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