Talking to Kids about Racism, Law Enforcement, and Violence (in light of the Dallas Shootings)
by Betsy Brown Braun on Jul.13, 2016, under Behavior, Character traits, Communication, Elementary School Children, Environmental influences, Learning, Parent modeling, Parenting, Public Behavior, Safety, Sensitive Topics
How I wish I weren’t writing this particular blog…again. How I wish you didn’t need this blog…again. How I wish I actually had an explanation for this madness. I don’t. There is no explanation. So how in the world do we explain it to our children?
Too many times in the past I have posted scripts and caveats for talking with kids about the tragic events that keep happening far away and too close to home. There are 23 blogs on the topic under the category SAFETY on my website. All of the previously written tips for talking with children about tragic events hold true for Dallas Shootings. Please reread some of these if you need guidance with the basic how-tos of communicating with your children about tragedies in the news to which they have been exposed. (http://betsybrownbraun.com/2015/11/15/talking-to-your-child-about-the-paris-attacks/ )
While last week’s shooting in Dallas was terrifying, it is not terrorism that we need to address this time. The inconceivable Dallas tragedy demands scripts and suggestions for explaining to our children additional highly sensitive topics— racism, violence, and roles of law enforcement that exist in 2016. Now that the days of Ozzie and Harriet are gone, here are some guidelines for that chore.
- You are your child’s most powerful model. Now is the time to reinforce and communicate your own beliefs. Whether it is racism, gun use, violence, or attitudes about the police, your child will absorb your attitude and beliefs. You are your child’s moral barometer. He hears your side comments, sees your rolling eyes, copies the derogatory labels you let fly, taking his moral cues from you. This one is on you.
- Still waters run deep. While your child may not be talking about the Dallas shootings, about racism, about the police, he is not immune to what goes on around him, in all the environments he inhabits. He needs a foundation for processing what he experiences. You will need to build that foundation through your words and more importantly, your actions.
- Let your beliefs be known. Without referencing any of the myriad tragedies that have occurred, you need to communicate your beliefs, the ones you hope your child will absorb and practice…with regard to violence, racism, law enforcement.
- Be the person you want your child to be. Parents need to model inclusion by reaching over cultural or racial lines in their own interactions and relationships. Doing so encourages their children to do the same.
- Use the literature and media that portrays your beliefs. If your particular environment lacks opportunities for exposure to racial and cultural diversity, fill your child’s life with books, movies, theater, programs that demonstrate inclusion and portray kindness.
- Monitor your child’s media use. Of course you know the need for media supervision. But this time I remind you that you need to help your child process and digest some of what he is taking in. If what he sees demonstrates racism, unkindness, lack of respect for law enforcement, or unacceptable behavior, let him know what you think, that you disapprove.
- Separate your values, morals, and beliefs from some of life’s realities. Let your child know that while you believe that people should be good, kind, and fair—that you believe in the Golden Rule—sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. There are people who are not treated fairly. And while most people are good, there are some people who are not.
- Emphasize the good in the world. During times of tragedy, it seems like the world is falling apart, that horror and now moral decay abound. Children (and we) need to be reminded of my favorite quote from Mr. Rogers. “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would remind me to ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Knowing how many good helpers there are in this world is reassuring to all people, children and adults.
- Help your child to be positive and pro-active. Every day and especially in trying times, practicing kindness and goodness helps children to focus on the positive side of things. Help your child to find ways to be a helper himself and to be kind. Whether you bake cookies for your local firefighters or bring in a neighbor’s newspaper, practice random acts of kindness every day.
How to Teach about Racism
- For the young child, learning about racism is learning about equality and inclusion of all people.
While people may be different sizes and shapes, have different hair, have different color skin—they may look different—we are all the same on the inside. All people have all the same parts and feelings that make them people. All people need to be treated fairly.
This is the foundation of anti-discrimination.
Some people are not treated fairly—not kindly, not nicely—just because they look different. That is called racism.
In the case of Dallas we are talking about skin color. But in truth, it includes any difference—the disabled, for example.
- The older child will be ready to hear about the history of racism in our country. While shameful for certain, the facts are the facts and are part of the much needed lesson of never again.
- All children notice difference. It does not make them prejudice or racist. It is how young children categorize the world. Older children start to categorize people in more sophisticated ways. They develop an awareness of more subtle differences.
- Do not overreact. The way in which you respond to your child’s comments will influence his acceptance of difference. Silence in response to a bigoted remark, intentional or not, implies your approval.
- If your child, inadvertently or intentionally, makes a comment or asks a question that is offensive or smacks of racism, calmly suggest you discuss what he has said. But do not let it go. Not only can you take advantage of the opportunity for a morality lesson, but it also lets him know that no topic is off limits.
- Applaud, promote, and encourage difference. Our world is comprised of difference. You can spin differences in people as being welcome and necessary. It is the spice of life.
- Do not practice colorblindness or color-muteness. Rather, think about color fairness. Differences must be acknowledged to be accepted. We live in a multi ethnic society. Colorblindness denies that reality.
- Beware of labeling. Take pains not to label, referring to people by race, saying for example.—that black lady, that Chinese man. Call people by their names. They should be distinguished for who they are, not for their appearance, race, or culture.
- Responding to the Dallas Shooting. If your child brings up the event, asks you questions, indicates that he knows that something came down, first find out what he knows. Then be honest and direct.
- Explain to your preschool age child as little as possible, emphasizing … a person who was very angry did not know how to deal with his angry feelings, and he shot some policemen. It was a horrible, terrible event.
- Explain to your elementary school age child the facts of what happened in Dallas, answering just his questions.
- Talk with, rather than explain to your teen. Children this age need an opportunity to talk while you listen
How to Teach about the Police
- Teach what police officers do. From an early age, help your young child to learn that police officers are helpers. They help to keep things peaceful. They help to keep people safe. They remind us to follow all the rules so everyone will be safe.
- Portray the police in a positive light. Teach your child that we like and appreciate the police. Do not portray them as the enemy.
- Demonstrate respect for the police. For example, avoid derogatory names for police, like “cop” or “pig,” not even in passing or in jest.
- Do not use the police as part of your discipline. Never, but never, threaten to call the police when a child is misbehaving. Need I say never to say the child will be put in jail?
- Do not create fear of the police. When you see a policeman and you slow down your speed, do not announce it was because you were afraid you would get a ticket. The police are helping us to follow the rules of the road so we will all be safe. You obey the rules because they are the rules, not because you don’t want to get in trouble.
- Families with children of color may require a different conversation. How children of color are taught to safely interact with the police is not an area of expertise for me. There are resources aplenty on the internet. It does sadden me to acknowledge that this need is a reality.
This reality would be the basis for an eye opening conversation with teenage children of all races.
Beginning Lessons about Adults Who are Violent
- Children know that violence is unacceptable. Any child who has attended any kind of school already knows this reality.
- Why do grown-ups use violence? This is the question that is so hard for children to understand, as they expect grown people to behave, play fair, and follow the rules.
- For the young child,
- The man who hurt so many people was really really angry. He did not know how to get his angry feelings out. Instead he did a terrible, horrible thing, he used violence and hurt (and killed) people with a gun.
- Older children are able to have a discussion about appropriate ways to express really big feelings, about the horror of violence, and even about gun laws. Each family has different ideas about gun control. This is a perfect opportunity to share yours with your child.
- Children need to see the acceptable expression of big feelings by the adults in their life. It is not reasonable to expect a child manage his big feelings if he hasn’t seen that behavior modeled by his parents. Hopefully, you never model violence for or with your child. Instead, let him hear that you are angry and see what you do to get your feelings out.
…I am so angry right now, I need to go for a run.
…I am so frustrated, I need to go outside and scream.
…I am so mad, I just need to be by myself and blow off some steam.
…I am really disappointed and sad, I need to call Uncle Billy and talk about it.
- Be sure to let your child know when you have recovered. Children need to see that all feelings come and go, that no one stays angry forever if the feeling is processed.
- Seeing you experience and process big feelings helps the child to normalize his. It also sets him on the road for learning anger management skills he will need throughout his life.
Having a model for how healthy adults process their anger enables the child to see how extremely unacceptable and just plain wrong violence is.