There has been so much social upheaval and pain over the last ten days. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the news has been full of images of the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd, peaceful protest, and violent uprising. It’s difficult for adults to process and can be overwhelming for children. How do we talk to our children about such painful events, especially when we are struggling too?
Although it can feel awkward and uncomfortable to talk about racism and violence with our children, it is important to do so. Our children will form their own ideas about the world and the people in it, and our input is the most valuable ingredient as they develop their opinions the world. Research shows that talking to children about racism and discrimination is one of our very best tools to decrease racial bias and prejudice. Specifically, talking about race improves racial attitudes across all groups and teaching about the country’s history of discrimination is the most effective technique for decreasing bias.
So how young is too young? By age five, children see race as a point of difference, so it’s never too young to start talking. If you haven’t had these conversations yet, start now and approach your children with curiosity to understand what they are thinking. Without input from us, children will make their own assumptions about what is and is not okay. This can result in children picking up as their own all kinds of beliefs that are not in line with your family’s values.
When it comes to the news this week specifically, very young children ages three and under, are likely too young to understand violence and underlying issues. If possible, shield toddlers from images and conversations about the events. Try to keep them away from the television and filter what you are saying around them. If they do have questions, answer them honestly and simply.
Older children will be looking to you to conceptualize and understand what is going on. Let your children drive these conversations so that you can understand their specific concerns and subsequently address them. Your kids may be worried about or thinking about very different things than you are! Meet them at their age level, just like when you teach them about anything else. Ask them specific questions that focus on their emotional experience and learn more about their thoughts.
To start, begin with a general discussion of what they are seeing and feeling. Reflect their thoughts back to them to build the context of what they are experiencing: “Yes, there was a police car on fire. Was that scary for you? I am a little scared when I see that, too.” It can be very challenging to make sense out of protest, racism, violence, and vandalism and threat.
To discuss the protest specifically, having a framework before you go into the conversation can be very helpful. One framework could be that people are really upset about what happened and are trying to change things. It is appropriate to talk about the history of America treating people of color unfairly and cruelly. Your child probably had some kind of curriculum about Dr. Martin Luther King in February; this is a time to tie those lessons to now, and to through the future.
When your children ask about things you cannot explain, it is okay to simply validate and feel uncertainty and confusion along with them. You could say you don’t understand why people would steal from stores and that is not something that you would do. Or perhaps you say that you don’t know why a police officer would kill someone. Joining in that uncertain emotional experience is a powerful model and can create safety in ongoing conversations, about all kinds of hard topics, into the future.
There is no exact blueprint for these conversations. Every family is a little different, but talking about race and differences, and racism and its history, can help your children navigate these complex issues, understand future incidents, and, help improve the future.