A Southern Baptist leader on Thursday urged parents to watch the presidential debate with their children, calling the event “a great civics lesson” and an opportunity for families to get together and think about the issues that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump would discuss.

“Talk about who is on the stage, talk about why this matters, and talk about the issues that are most important to you as you listen to what these candidates are going to say,” said the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on his podcast, “The Briefing.”

Mohler’s recommendation stood in contrast to articles written four and eight years ago, when some Americans were saying they wouldn’t let their children near the TV during a presidential debate. One article prior to Trump’s 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton catalogued tweets from parents saying things like “My son wants to watch the debate with us tonight. He’s 8. I can’t even explain the zillion reasons why this isn’t a good idea” and “Please have your children leave the room tonight when you watch the debate. No kid should have to see this.”

And prior to the Trump-Biden debate in 2020, Ilene Prusher published an essay entitled “A Trump-Biden debate is hardly presidential and could teach my children the wrong lessons.” Worrying that exposure to the debate was like taking her kids to a “bloody boxing match,” Prusher eventually decided to let her 10-year-old watch and sent her 8-year-old to bed.

Liam Van Rosenberg bowls during the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, during a watch party at Broadway Bowl, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in South Portland, Maine. | Robert F. Bukaty

The June 2024 version brought different anticipation and different energy. But perhaps no less concern.

Much of the debate over how family friendly the presidential debates would be in 2016 revolved around what Trump might say about the scandals that had surrounded the Clinton family, and what Clinton might say about the “Access Hollywood” tapes, released a week before the second debate. Four years later, parents were expressing concern about the candidates’ lack of civility — for example, as Prusher put it, “blaming the moderator, calling your opponent names or telling the other guy to shut up.”

We all get better with age — or we should, if we’re absorbing life’s lessons — so I was interested to see if the debate-phobic parents in 2016 were right, and every child in America should have been sent to bed before CNN turned on the mics, or if Mohler was right, and the debate was a teaching moment for families, a star-spangled primer on democracy.

In short: If the Motion Picture Association of America rated the debate in advance, what would the rating be?

As it turns out, a rating might not matter, as it would overly tax the stamina of most children to watch a 78-year-old (Trump) and an 81-year-old (Biden) talk for 90 minutes. In fact, the first 20 minutes taxed the stamina of many of the adults watching. Presidential debates shouldn’t necessarily be entertaining — they should make Americans think — but this one too often made us wince. “Elder abuse” was trending on social media for a while, and charges that conservatives have exaggerated Biden’s condition should now be set aside.

The material itself was PG — parental guidance suggested — for a fleeting reference of sex with a porn star and a sexual assault (both of which Trump vigorously denied), and mild profanity, thanks to the punctuated language of our current president. The fact that the profanity was mild, however, does not excuse it. Biden peppered his speech unnecessarily with “damns” and “hells” as people sometimes do when they’re trying to seem more powerful, instead of just choosing more forceful and elegant language.

But overall, the event gets a PG13, or “Parents Strongly Cautioned,” not for the subject matter, but for the spectacle of two supposed statesmen hurling insults at each other like mean girls.

Biden’s “You’re the sucker, you’re the loser” will get the most attention, but the two men sniped at each other throughout the event, like bickering siblings in the seventh hour of an eight-hour family trip:


“Our veterans and our soldiers can’t stand this guy. They like me more!” — “You’re a bad Palestinian!” — “This man is a criminal!” — “You have the morals of an alley cat!” — “The worst president in the history of our country!” — “You’re a whiner! You’re a complainer!”

Rosa Casares, center left, reaches down to where her daughter is laying on a blanket as she watches the presidential debate in a shelter for migrants waiting to apply for asylum, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Tijuana, Mexico. Migrants who wait to seek asylum in the U.S. at a shelter in this Mexican border city looked on via a translated broadcast as U.S. President Joe Biden and his Republican rival, Donald Trump, met Thursday for the first general election debate of the 2024 season. Casares and her family have been waiting for more than three months for their appointment to apply for asylum through the CBP One app. | Gregory Bull

In the closing minutes of the event, when Trump and Biden began to argue over who was the better golfer, Trump uttered the most important line of the night, the one that should have been plastered over their heads in bright lights: “Let’s not act like children.”

But by then it was too late.

If there was any civic lesson to be learned from this event, it was that truly anyone can grow up to be president. That used to be a promise we made to our kids. Now it seems more like a threat.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.