My husband and I were in the car with our 7-year-old on Wednesday afternoon when we began to hear the reports about the pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol. We turned on NPR to see what was happening, but once reporters started talking about guns and bomb threats, my husband turned it off. We could barely handle listening to it — how would our son react? Today, we’re getting more insight from experts about how to speak to children about these latest disturbing events.
Filter the News
The Child Mind Institute reminds adults that younger eyes and ears are picking up on all the scary news we’re watching and listening to at home.
“With the kids home as much as they are, it’s important to limit constant media exposure,” the institute said in a press release.
Children haven’t had as much experience as we have at filtering out the disturbing information, sorting through what is an immediate danger to us, versus what’s happening out in the world. That’s why we need to be those filters, not necessarily sheltering them from everything, but limiting it to a manageable, age-appropriate amount.
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So yeah, my husband was right to turn off those descriptions of violence. We also needed to take the time to process what was happening, and not do it in front of the kid. But it was our job to pick up the conversation as soon as we could after that.
Ask & Listen First
Begin by asking your children questions, parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told Pittsburgh Today Live on Thursday.
“Say, ‘What did you hear and what did you think?’ Because that lets you enter the conversation where they are with a minimum of assumptions on your part,” she said. And while she said the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents not to speak to children under the age of 8 about scary topics unnecessarily, she said that when the issues affect them and they’re unavoidable, it’s best for children to hear about them at home. “That gives them a person who’s safe and knowledgeable, at least about them and what they need … that they can process this with.”
Be Honest, But Remind Them They’re Safe
Educational psychologist and parenting expert Reena B. Patel‘s first tip for parents of children of any age when tackling difficult topics is to be open and honest. “By doing this, we help prepare them to challenge these issues when they arise,” she said in an email to SheKnows.
Our next job is two-fold, according to the Child Mind Institute: First, we’ve got to correct any misinformation they might have, based on what they heard in the news or from friends at school. Then we should give them age-appropriate information about what is being done about the situation.
“Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe,” the institute states. Fortunately, we can say that Congress completed its business on Wednesday night, and that order has been restored.
Tackle Race & Violence in an Age-Appropriate Way
But then we have an opportunity to take this conversation further. Considering the fact that our children saw, and often participated in, protests against racial injustice in 2020, we’ve got to talk to them about the difference between those protests and the unlawful violence that took place this week. We can, in fact, discuss the symbols of white supremacy carried by the rioters, as well as the anti-democratic actions they were taking.
If we want to delve further into a civics lesson with older children, this PBS News Hour teachers guide is a good place to start. It shows the stark difference between law enforcement’s actions on Wednesday, versus the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. You can also discuss other moments in history when uprisings turned violent — including the Revolutionary War and the Civil War — and then look at how people eventually recovered from those times.
For children of any age, this can become another opportunity to talk about race and racism, as well as the difference between protest and violence.
“Talking to your child about the importance of embracing differences and treating others with respect is essential, but it’s not enough,” Patel said. “Acknowledge difference and emphasize the positive aspects of our differences. Encourage your child to talk about what makes him different, and discuss ways that may have helped or hurt him at times. Similarities become more powerful. Remember silence indicates acceptance.”
What happened in D.C. may make us want to shut down all sources of news and hide in cave with our children with access only to Disney+, but it’s our job to remember that we’re raising future citizens of the world.
“We want to know all the time: How do our kids get good values? How do we raise them to be the kind of people and citizens we want them to be?” Gilboa said. “These conversations are great places to start or continue. It’s a really great place to point out and say, ‘Hey, let’s look at this video and this video. Tell me the differences you see. Why do you think those differences exist? What does that mean for people who look this way or look that way? What does that mean about us? How do we make the world a better place? How do we influence people to behave in the way we think would be healthier or safer?’”
We can’t sugarcoat the fact that these are strange, often scary times. But as Gilboa offered this a bit of positive news for parents: Our children have the advantage of experiencing this with us by their side, to provide them comfort and guidance, which will hopefully give them the tools they’ll need throughout their lives to deal with difficult issues.
Lift your children’s spirits with these gorgeous books by Black authors and illustrators.
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