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When Candidates Behave As Children, Moderators Should Act Like Parents

Debate moderators should take a que from child development experts to keep the petty squabbling to a minimum

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A relentless squabble was broadcast to the nation last night from Cleveland, Ohio. Early reviews of the first presidential debate included adjectives like “juvenile” (Yahoo News), depraved (Chicago Times), and tawdry (The Financial Times). But parents raising multiple children in one home would likely use another word for the spectacle: familiar.

For me, a father raising two young boys in a Cleveland suburb, the whole shit-show fired a painful sense of recognition. From the relentless cross-talk, wild accusations, petty boasts, and insults, this was an argument I’d officiated time and time again on the “get-along” steps where play-room grudge-matches come to be resolved. And that worried, exasperated, out of control look on Chris Wallace’s face? I knew that too. I have worn that expression myself in the midst of moderating conflicts between my two small boys — one of whom is an over-emotional, easily frustrated, ego-centric 7-year old prone to yelling at his 9-year old brother who is wry, ironic, underwhelmed, and occasionally confused. I’ve heard the latter tell the former to “Shut up, man” in the course of their arguments more times than I could probably count.

It’s very likely that any parent of siblings would recognize what was happening on last night’s debate stage. This was a contest between two competitive, highly opinionated foes, dead set on being right and unwilling to cede a point to the other. The only difference is that most pre-adolescent sibling fights don’t include unapologetic sympathetic words for white supremacists. I mean, if they do, those parents clearly have bigger problems to sort out.

Some parents made the connection explicit on Twitter:

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The point is that parents have struggled with these kinds of conflicts between loud and obnoxious children for literal millennia. And because every problem is in search of a solution, a small cottage industry of experts has been built to help mothers and fathers resolve conflicts between chaotic and tenacious foes. This advice could be a boon to Wallace, yes, but more importantly for those individuals who will be moderating future debates between president Trump and former vice president Biden.

Start with De-escalation

A regular Fatherly source and founder of A-Ha parenting, Dr. Laura Markham is clear that there can be no resolution between combatants when they are agitated. In order for any debate to be successful, there needs to be a pervading sense of calm so communication can occur. The first step in resolving petty squabbles is de-escalation. Markham has some fine suggestions for ways moderators can encourage constructive ways for angry arguers to cool down. They include:

  • “Play the drums.”
  • “Write in your journal about how angry you are.”
  • “Dig a hole in the back yard and bury your angries.”
  • “Breathe and count backward from 10.”
  • “Get a grownup.”
  • “Put on headphones and dance to loud music.”
  • “Kick the soccer ball outside.”

Of course, it might be a bit awkward to stop in the middle of a presidential debate and suggest Joe take a moment to blast Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” on his ear-pods. And although Trump is incredibly proud that he can count backward on cognitive tests, it probably isn’t the best way to spend the nation’s air-time. So it might be better for the duo to de-escalate prior to hitting the stage. Biden could bang the drums to Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and Donald could dig a hole in the White House rose garden to bury his angries.

Set the Ground-rules

Unlike my kids, candidates haggle over debate rules for months prior to hitting the stage. I for instance have never heard one of my boys demand of the other that they submit to a drug test or a pat-down for wires. Still, candidates may be focusing on the wrong rules, which gives moderators a chance to establish them publicly and perhaps bring some calm to the proceedings.

I know this because I’ve often spoken with family counselor Melanie Malone, who helps children manage their emotions. She’s explained to me that parents need to have consistent and well-understood ground rules when it comes to conflicts. They need to be explicit and explicitly agreed to. These rules should include:

  • Respectful, calm dialogue
  • No name-calling
  • No interrupting
  • No personal attacks
  • Consistently applied consequences when the rules are broken

How much more effective (and tolerable) would last night’s debate have been if Wallace had laid these rules out at the beginning and forced both candidates to agree to them prior to proceeding? And how great would it have been if the consequence were a mic cut until calm was renewed?

Help Name Emotions and Model Decency and Reason

One of my favorite people to talk to about my kids is Dr. Robert Zeitlin, a positive psychologist and author of Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids. Zeitlin has taught me that more than anything parents are responsible for modeling the behavior we want to see from our kids. If you are calm, cool, and collected while confronting emotional kids they will often meet you at your (calmer) level.

But kids, much like certain candidates, also don’t necessarily have the tools to name and deal with their big emotions. Moderators could help by:

  • Listening
  • Decoding
  • Naming emotions
  • Repeating back what they have heard
  • Asking for clarity or comment

For example, in last night’s debate, Wallace might have helped things run smoother by saying:

“Joe, what I’m hearing is that you are feeling disappointed that Donald didn’t do more keep over 200,000 people from dying of COVID-19. Donald, have you ever felt disappointed?”

Or

“Donald, you look frustrated. It’s okay to feel frustrated when we have failed. Joe, can you talk with Donald about a time you felt frustrated?”

But above all, like a good parent, it’s super important, going forward, for moderators to remain cool and collected in the face of anger and disdain. In the end, it’s up to us to lead by example and show that we can disagree without becoming petty assholes or indeed, starting a second civil war.