How to Talk to Your Children about Racism and Social Injustice, Part 1
Like other Americans, I was disheartened and moved to tears on August 12, 2017 after awaking to images of hate groups carrying torches in Charlottesville, Virginia as a part of a “Unite the Right” rally, which was comprised of white nationalists and other right-wing groups. They were gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s plan to remove symbols and statues linked to its Confederate past.
As the day waged on, the protesters clashed with counter-protestors and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, and 19 others were injured, when a car deliberately crashed into a group of peaceful counter-protestors.
Since that day in August, all of America has been dealing with the trauma of that violent weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. We know that these events left adults dazed and perplexed — so imagine how our children feel. It’s moments like those that children need their parents to have a crucial conversation with them about an uncomfortable topic: racial tension and violence in America.
As an African American man and father of a nine-month-old boy, I was relieved to know that I didn’t have to facilitate this crucial conversation with him just yet, but I know that one day I will. Research shows that kids as young as two-years old are keenly aware of racial injustice, so that day is quickly approaching for me.
What about parents with school-aged children, though? They don’t have the luxury of putting these types of discussions off. How do they explain to their children that we live in an imperfect world, where tragedies like this happen quite frequently? How do they protect their children’s innocence and sense of safety while empowering them to stay safe?
Though I’m new to parenting, I’m not new to working with children. At this point, I realized that my background in child development and PreK-12 education was needed. I decided to pen a 2-part series that guides parents through the steps of helping their children to process traumatic events that involve the themes of race and social justice. In Part 1, I will discuss how to prep for and have the conservation.
Prepping for the Conversation
Before you talk to your kids about traumatic events involving race and social justice, make sure that you have conversations with people of different races and perspectives to gain a fuller understanding of the issue. By doing this, you will gain greater insight into the big picture of it all, and as a result, frame the discussion appropriately. There is no way that you can educate your children about something that you don’t fully understand yourself. Trust me, your kids will have plenty of questions, and they are expecting you to provide the answers.
If your own circle of friends includes people who are like you, look online for resources. Read a few articles from a different perspective or visit the Twitter feeds of people who represent a different background than you and see what things they share.
If you are initiating the conversation in response to a situation that your child may have faced directly, you need to be prepared. Make sure that you are ready to share resources that they can use for support when they are in a crisis. This includes providing them with strategies that they can use to navigate their environment safely. This is an especially poignant point for parents of color.
Having the Conversation
Make sure that you initiate the conversation in an environment that is free from distractions. When having crucial conversations about controversial topics with kids, you want to start off by finding out what they already know. A simple question such as, “What have you heard about what happened?” should suffice. Based on what they say, you can correct any misinformation, and supplement what they already know with additional details.
Help them activate their higher-order thinking skills by asking them questions like, “Do you have any idea why this occurred?” and “What are your thoughts on the matter?” Don’t forget to allow them to ask their own questions, as they are sure to have plenty. Allow them to express their thoughts openly and validate their feelings. It’s also acceptable to tell them how you feel and what your reaction is to an event or issue. However, when doing so, remain calm. Children are less likely to overact if you convey a mood of tranquility and security.
Well, that’s it for Part 1. In Part 2, I will discuss specific strategies that you can use to discuss racism and social justice with your children.