With the current social unrest over police brutality related to the death of George Floyd and others, your children may ask questions about the protests that are happening nationwide. Here are some tips on how to respond to kids on what can be a divisive topic.
State the facts
I recommend that parents respond to tough questions from their kids with a simple statement of facts, followed by questions of their own. If a child asks, “What are these protests all about?” you might respond: “Many people are protesting the deaths of unarmed black women and men by police and others.” You might follow up by asking questions about what your child thinks about the protests, what they have heard (from friends, media, etc.) and what parts are confusing to them.
Asking questions first will likely lead to a better conversation with your child. As you respond, try to help your child understand the topic better or correct misconceptions by offering facts. Use the simplest explanation you can for your child’s level of development. You might find it helpful to prepare for your conversation by reading articles and books about race, racism, or the history of civil rights in America before starting these conversations.
Be Honest and Share Your Values
Suppose your child asks if you agree or disagree with the protests. Your job is not only to answer honestly but to seize the opportunity to talk about your own personal values and to clearly explain why you hold those values. For example, you could say (whether or not you agree with the protesters) that one of the wonderful aspects of living in a democracy is that we all have the right to freely express our beliefs. If we feel strongly about something, our constitution guarantees us the right to express ourselves and to protest peacefully.
Answer the Tough Questions
Your child might ask about looting or destruction of property. This may be a difficult topic for many parents to navigate. Again, the simplest answer that is factually accurate should guide your response. For example, you might say, “Most people are protesting peacefully; however, other people have joined the protests for different reasons, like destroying property or looting businesses. Sadly, this can take away from the point of the protests, which is to call attention to injustices like racism and police mistreatment of people of color.”
Children may ask about public figures’ and the media’s views and comments as well. They, of course, have the right to express themselves, too. Before you answer, use this as another opportunity to counter with questions: You might ask, “What did you think about what [the public figure] said?” You might also put things in perspective from a power imbalance standpoint: “If you saw a fifth-grader teasing and threatening a first grader, how would you feel about that?” Be sure to emphasize your family’s values about how you talk to and treat people. Children are naturally empathetic, use this as an opportunity to build their empathy and passion to speak out against unfairness or injustice.
Others May Disagree
Older children may come to you about friends and schoolmates who disagree with their point of view on this issue – or any issue. Again, the key is to ask as well as answer. Ask the child how she managed a disagreement with a peer. Did she respond and, if so, how did she feel about the exchange? Before providing a response to your teenager, you might ask, “Would you like to know what I think?”
Parents may try to reduce their own anxiety about tough issues by giving canned advice. I recommend they resist the urge to immediately dole out advice. It’s much better to ask questions first and then have a conversation guided by your personal and family values.
Outline the facts as they are, your value system and how you demonstrate it, without being judgmental with regard to “the other side.”
To encourage healthy discourse about difficult topics such as race, racism, and injustice in our country, it’s important to have conversations with our children, early and often. Even if your children don’t raise the subject of race-related protesting, it might be beneficial to bring it up anyway. Parents tend to practice avoidance as a way of managing their discomfort with tough topics. Your silence on the topic might communicate a powerful message to your children (e.g., this is not our problem, we shouldn’t talk about these things). If these issues are important enough to your family, start the conversation!