My executive friend, Marcus Johnson, recently asked me to help him have a discussion with his eight year old daughter about what’s going on! Here are some thoughts we agreed I would share with the compassionate, caring parents of school-aged children, from all races, and ethnicities, who recognize the critical importance of talking to their children frankly, yet appropriately, about the state of affairs we are in… I believe that if a child is old enough to read, they know something is happening in our world. And they have questions.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related major changes in their lives, it is wise that you prepare yourself to respond to your child spontaneously, while considering their view of the world. Some principles I recommend when engaging young children about race, hatred, violence, death, protest, calls for improved relations between the races, and equity, address the need to:
- Recognize and accept that each child is unique within their developmental age range, and their intellectual status may not parallel their socio-emotional needs. They are stimulated differently, and attach to distinctive images. Everything is not notable to them, and that on which they focus, you may find surprising. There is no standard approach to addressing the topic of racial brutality and immorality, or to fully anticipating what they will be curious about or what may be most disturbing, in their reality.
- Remember, your child SEES you because his or her life depends almost completely on you, even if it is only during the time that they are in your physical care. Reflect on what they have seen or heard from you. You can model the most important formative skills which must begin to emerge in childhood. i.e., developing an ability to manage anger and tolerate frustration.
- Take the time to SEE your child without being driven to teach, train, socialize, or answer all of their questions, especially when you have not taken the time to understand what is really underlying the words. Take the questions where they are and when THEY are available to talk, not on YOUR schedule. Make sure your child has emotional access to you, so they will come to you when they are frightened, or confused.
- Reinforce what children naturally understand, what fairness, not discrimination is. Adults teach discrimination based on differences and stereotypes. Black is bad. White is good. Consciously teach your child to be compassionate and kind, and respect differences. Demonstrate this on every opportunity you can, pointing out the pleasure and the benefits to others.
- Acknowledge that your child cannot grasp, big, complex adult ideas that they may hear. They cannot understand the Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter. But they can understand though, as Maressa Brown (June 8, 2020), noted, that while we value everyone’s house, we have to help the houses that are burning. We need to all come together to put out the fire and save the people who live inside. Keep it simple and to the point, using concrete, familiar imagery.
- Never overwhelm your child with a need to vent, explain or share with them as a peer might, no matter how appealing. Openly seek those occasions when they are curious or have questions about: what’s happening, why you are upset, why you want to protest, why you are angry, or suddenly want to turn off the news? If their questions do not occur spontaneously, you may wish to ask what they think is happening, what they understand. This is the best place to start, even when they do have a question. You DO NOT need to rush to having an answer or feel bad when you are trying to formulate a response. You may need to breathe deeply first or seek consultation for yourself. But know that the most important thing is that you do what a parent should always do, be reassuring and make your child feel safe with you.
- Let your child feel ok about being worried, scared, or sad. Let them know that you feel those ways sometimes too, and why. This is normal. They need to know that, too.
- Remind them that you are clear that we will get past this. It is not abnormal to be upset, but we can get over bad times. We can manage what’s going on. We have in the past, e.g., death of a pet or a beloved grandparent, a bullying episode, rejection by a friend, and we will now.
- Show them respect for others with whom you disagree, but also point out that people who say hateful things that hurt others just because they are different, are angry. Remind your child that these individuals should learn to use their voices better and respect differences. This is fair.
- Help them sort out the unacceptable, biased messages and stereotypes that people whom they love and trust may give out also. We cannot protect them fully from the unfettered exposure to social media and its impact, or the opinions of others. Let them know that they can ALWAYS talk to you about anything that disturbs or frightens them, in any way. That is what a parent is for.
- Do not protect them from the transatlantic slave trade, the roots of this society’s anguish, which we still experience, but balance this cultural orientation with knowledge of Black accomplishments, at the 8 year old level. Make this a part of family conversations, excursions, historical museum tours, book readings, performing arts, etc. This is the foundation for positive Black esteem and helps you engage your child before adolescence goes full throttle and they push off from their family for their peer relationships, which they have to do to grow up. Yet they can integrate their search for identity, for values, and for identifying what THEY believe in, with all of these earlier “talks” about hatred, racism, and Black lives.
- In every exchange, reinforce your child’s value and worth as a human being and tell him or her, that you love them. Inspire them to envision the world as a better place, because they can and will make it so.
Ultimately, as parents, we must stay present for our children though these volatile, dramatic times, and social upheavals, and not be intimidated. We must humbly pursue our mission to grow our children into positive, healthy adults, while seeking a just, and peaceful society to embrace them. Marcus, your daughter is so fortunate.