Talk about what happened. Bring racism into the conversation.
What you say could keep your kid from becoming the asshole.
This week, my newsletter is taking a break from the usual question-and-answer format. I imagine many of you want to know whether and how to talk to your kids about what happened this week, so that’s what I’m going to address.
If you’re anything like me, you’re still reeling from everything that’s taken place, barely able to keep up and process it. Still, I believe it’s important for parents to try to talk to their kids about what has been going on.
We often, understandably, want to shield our children from the harsh realities of life. We don’t want to scare them or steal their innocence. But the truth is that they may be hearing unsettling things from their friends or overhearing parts of your conversations (and if you’ve had the TV or radio on, you can bet they’ve been listening). Your kids might be confused or misinformed, so a conversation could clear things up and make them less anxious. As Fantasy Lozada, a developmental psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, explained to me for a piece I wrote for Slate soon after Trump was elected, “you absolutely want to be a part of this conversation with your children. They need your help in making sense of this very confusing and possibly scary time.”
If you’re not sure where to start, begin with a question. “Say, ‘What did you hear?’” suggested Tovah Klein, a child psychologist at Barnard College, when I talked to her for Slate. “Hear what they’re saying before you come in with information — and really think about how much information you want them to have.”
Even if they haven’t heard anything yet, it’s still a good idea to share some of what happened. This is a big moment in history, and your kids deserve to know about it as well as to learn from it. Of course, you’ll want tailor the information to their age, maturity level and temperament. Maybe you start by explaining a bit about what Trump has been saying and doing since the election. Perhaps you tell them that a group of Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol because they felt angry and entitled, and that they made bad choices and people got hurt and killed.
Whenever possible, try to work in references to your values. Maybe say something like, Trump told his supporters that the election wasn’t fair, but he was lying, and what happened this week shows just how dangerous lies can be. If your kids ask follow-up questions that stump you, that’s fine — tell them you aren’t sure how to answer yet and you’d like to come back to the conversation later. That communicates values, too: That you think it’s OK to be uncertain and to take time to get things right.
If your kids seem scared, try to appease their concerns and make them feel safe. As Amy Joyce wrote in a Washington Post piece, “explain that this happened at the Capitol, and that’s where the mob intended to go. The people who did these things have no reason to come to your neighborhood or your house.” You might want to limit kids’ exposure to the news media for now, too, suggested developmental psychologist Lindsay Malloy in an informative Twitter thread.
If you’re a white parent, I also encourage you to communicate that the storm on the Capitol was rooted in racism and anti-Semitism. The mob smashed windows while waving Confederate and swastika flags and swinging nooses — make no mistake, they were white supremacists, and their behavior presents an obvious opportunity for us to talk with our kids about race and racism. (I’m going to spend the rest of this newsletter talking mainly to white parents, because I think they have the most to learn on this issue — and also because I’m white, and I don’t have the lived experience to advise parents of color on how to navigate these issues.)
Look, I know. Race is hard to talk about if you’re white. (Parents of color, of course, have to talk about race and racism all the time.) It feels too hard; we think our kids can’t handle it. Or we worry that talking about race will make our kids racist. But science tells us that the opposite is true. When white parents avoid talking about race with their kids, they actually fuel their children’s prejudice.
In a 2010 study, Texas researchers asked white parents to discuss race with their five-to-seven-year-old kids as part of an experimental intervention. The parents were asked to have in-depth conversations about racial labels, skin color, stereotypes, and discrimination. Ninety percent of the parents didn’t comply — and their kids ended up more racist after the study than the kids whose parents did talk about race. Comparing the kids’ levels of prejudice at the beginning and end of the study, it became clear that talking with children about race reduces their racial prejudice.
One reason that kids become racist when adults avoid discussing race is because children observe the racial hierarchies that exist in society and try to make sense of them. They see, for instance, that the most powerful jobs in our nation are held by white people. Conversely, they notice that low-status jobs are more often held by people of color. If adults don’t step in to explain that racism is responsible for these discrepancies, kids come to biased conclusions, explained developmental psychologist Rebecca Bigler, now a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, when I talked with her for my book. They assume that white people have more power and privilege simply because they’re smarter or better.
Certainly, how you talk about race matters. You could begin by explaining why skin colors vary: because of how much melanin people have in their skin. Emphasize across-race similarities and between-race differences; point out that your child and her friend are both white but are different in various ways, and that although she and her Black friend have different skin colors, they have plenty in common.
Explain, too, that some people in our country think white people are better and deserve more than Black and brown people do, that this is called racism, and that it’s baked into the structure of our society in ways that are extremely unfair and hurtful. For more ideas on how to have these conversations, check out The White Families’ Guide For Talking About Racism, by educators Lanesha Tabb and Naomi O’Brien.
This week’s events were horrific, but as parents, we can transform them into something at least a little bit positive: an opportunity to try to ensure, through our children, that history doesn’t continue to repeat itself. By helping our kids recognize the heartbreaking problems that plague the world today, we inspire them to build a better and more compassionate world tomorrow.
On a housekeeping note, how often would you like to receive my newsletter? I’ve been publishing one approximately every two weeks, but I’m open to (trying to) publish once a week. Please comment below to let me know which you prefer!
Got a question you want answered? Email me at melindawmoyer at gmail dot com with the subject line “Is my kid the asshole?” I’ll keep you anonymous, promise.