We try so hard to protect our children from danger, but that's not always possible. This sad truth hit home Saturday night when my 6-year-old daughter came running down the stairs in her Peanuts pajamas, sobbing hysterically and shivering with terror. “Daddy, Daddy, I'm frightened!” she cried, throwing herself into my arms. Somehow she'd seen the Republican debate.
“It's OK, honey,” I told her, hugging her close.
“Those men, those mean mean men.”
“Sweetie,” I said gently, “I think you're talking about Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. And yes, sometimes they can be very mean.”
“But why, Daddy, why?”
“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.”
She didn't understand, and I think I only confused the poor thing more when I explained the importance of momentum coming out of New Hampshire before the pivot to the Southern states.
I put my little girl back to bed, feeling I'd let her down. Then, in an amazing stroke of luck, I turned on the TV to find Charlie Rose interviewing Dr. Patricia Muldowney, child psychologist and author of “How to Talk to Your Children After a Republican Debate.” It turns out my daughter's experience was all too common.
“It's the same story after every debate,” she told Rose. “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. It's a sort of PTSD. We saw children similarly traumatized after the Bill Cosby revelations.”
“Because they'd thought of Cosby as this beloved father figure,” Rose said.
“That, too,” Dr. Muldowney replied. “But I was mostly referring to the constant television appearances by Gloria Allred.”
Dr. Muldowney then explained that the problem was more than just the Republican 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?” a now very depressed 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 inquired gravely.
“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 daughter, who was sleeping peacefully. As I kissed her on the cheek, I realized we'd gotten off easy. It could have been so much worse. Carly Fiorina could have made the debate.
Gary Jacobs is a former television comedy writer and producer.