Today it feels like our kids’ VIRTUAL SCHOOL is a good thing: Classrooms and school playgrounds are not exposing our young children to the shocking riots that erupted across the country in response to the horrific killing of George Floyd. But our elementary school age children and older will likely hear about it. And we must address what is going on.
I certainly don’t have “the answer.” I do know that there are many complicated elements to consider, try to explain, and discuss.
Too many times in the past I have posted tips and scripts for talking with kids about the tragic events that keep happening far away and too close to home. There are 25 blogs on the topic under the category SAFETY on my website. Many of the previously written tips for talking with children about tragic events apply to this killing and these riots. Please reread some of these if you need guidance with the basic how-to’s of communicating with your children about tragedies in the news to which they have been exposed. For example, https://betsybrownbraun.com/2015/11/15/talking-to-your-child-about-the-paris-attacks/ You can also revisit Chapter 11 in my book, Just Tell Me What to Say.
While last week’s murder and today’s riots are terrifying, it is not “terrorism” that we need to address this time. These highly sensitive topics— racism, violence, and roles of law enforcement that exist in 2020—require their own consideration.
The days of Ozzie and Harriet are long gone; it’s wake up time. 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, violence, breaking the law, 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 George Floyd killing or the riots, he is not immune to what goes on around him in all the environments he inhabits. And he may have heard the news or overheard you talking about it. He needs a foundation for processing that to which he’s exposed. 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 in our country and in the world, you need to communicate your beliefs, the ones you hope your child will absorb and practice…with regard to ongoing violence, racism, law enforcement.
Be the person you want your child to be. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Whether it is about being inclusive, being law abiding, being respectful of law enforcement, talk about it. Point it out. Take every opportunity to model and/or discuss what you witness, what you hear, and what you know. When you see someone jay walking (seriously!), you can say, “That lady is actually breaking a law. We have rules about jay walking for a reason. Our rules help to keep us all safe, and we need to obey them. Jay walking is really unsafe.” And, while I’m on it, stop jay walking!
There are many attitudes and behaviors that your children learn from you. For example, parents need to model inclusion by reaching over cultural or racial lines in their own interactions and relationships. Those actions speak more loudly than any words or lectures. Your children are watching.
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. There are many wonderful children’s books that address racism, for example. Whether it is learning about the time when African American children had to attend different schools from the Caucasian children, or about the Holocaust, older elementary school need to learn our history, horrible though it might have been, in age appropriate ways.
Monitor your child’s media use. With the tremendous upsurge in internet usage in these pandemic times, more than ever your children need media supervision. 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 highly disapprove, if you do.
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. While most people are good, there are some people who are not. This time, there are deep seeded reasons for some people’s feelings that led them to join the protests and riots.
Emphasize the good in the world. During times of tragedy, it seems like the world is falling apart, that horror and decay are everywhere. 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, people who are good, 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. You can say:
“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 that make them people. They may look different or have different ideas, but people need to be treated fairly. We believe in the Golden Rule—’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
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 George Floyd’s killing, we are talking about skin color. Most people believe that the white policeman was racist himself and that likely he was not charged immediately because he was white and the man he killed was African American. This was the impetus for the initial rioting. In truth, racism can arise from any difference—the disabled or being Jewish, 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! No growing child (older child) should be sheltered from this reality in our country’s history.
All children notice difference. It does not make them prejudiced or racist. It is how young children categorize the world. Noticing is not bad.
Older children start to categorize people in more sophisticated ways. They develop an awareness of more subtle differences. And these differences are not bad at all. In fact, difference is good.
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, repeats a comment he has heard, or asks a question that is offensive or smacks of racism, calmly suggest you discuss what he has said. 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.
Take action to obliterate racial disparity. It is only through people’s attitudes and actions that the racial disparity that still exists in our country can be addressed. Let your child know how you feel about prejudice and discrimination.
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 seasoning 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. This is our world. 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 or ethnicity.
Responding to the George Floyd killing or the riots. If your child brings up the events in any way, that indicates that he is aware of it. You must find out what he has heard or knows. “Tell me what you heard about that.” Then be honest and direct in addressing his comments or answering his questions. Be careful about saying too much.
With your preschool age child it is highly unlikely that he knows anything of what has happened. Keep it that way! If by some impossible way he wonders about the riots (and hopefully, he has not been exposed as a result of where you live), answer only his questions and offer reassurance. “Yes, there were some really angry people who did terrible things like breaking into stores and stealing things that did not belong to them. They even started fires. The firefighters put the fires out. We are all safe.”
With your elementary school age child you may have to go further. Find out what he has heard and explain the facts of what happened in Minneapolis. Continue and explain why people started rioting.
“An African American man tried to use some pretend (counterfeit) money to buy something at a store. The police were called, and when they came they did a terrible thing to the man. One officer kneeled down on his neck. The man could not breathe, and he died. And to make it worse, none of the other officers who were there stopped him. While the policeman was fired, he wasn’t charged with the crime of killing the man right away. People all over our country are really really angry about this whole incident. They believe George Floyd was treated that way because he was African American. They believe that had he been Caucasian the police officers would have treated him differently. So, all over the country, people began to protest. They came together peacefully to show their anger. But these protests got out of control, and some people began to riot—breaking into stores and starting fires.”
With your tween or teen your conversation can be much more candid and powerful. At this age, you can share not only the sordid details but also your authentic feelings.
You can share how some people who were neither African American nor angry, joined in the destructive, angry parts of the riots. Their goal was to make the riots worse and more extensive, trying to make the African Americans look bad. These were people who are racist.
You can discuss the opportunism by some looters. You can explain that there were people who joined in the action because it was an opportunity, a chance to get free stuff. Others were doing it, so, they felt, why not they? It was not a result of their anger about the George Floyd killing
Finally, it is important to discuss with this age child that people in power need to follow their rules, especially to be fair to all people. The officer who killed George Floyd did not follow the rules of law enforcement, nor did he do what was right. Sometimes even the police do the wrong things and should be held accountable and punished.
Remember, children this age need an opportunity to talk. It is critical that you a lot of listening. Bringing up all of these topics will happen over time.
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. Many even refer to the police as peace officers. 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 appreciate and respect 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,” Do not use them 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. THAT is the reason to follow the law and not because you will get a ticket.
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 my expertise. There are resources aplenty on the internet. It does sadden me to acknowledge this reality.
HOW TO TEACH ABOUT LAWFULNESS AND BEING LAW ABIDING
Life is filled with rules. From the earliest age, children begin to learn this lesson. Young children hear us exclaim “NO!” or redirect behaviors before they can even crawl or walk. Beyond the rules for actions and behaviors that are personal to him, the child learns that rules apply to everyone, to bigger groups, communities of people, and to society at large.
Rules enable groups to work together. It is this reality that children begin to understand as soon as they start preschool. Rules are the way that all things work. They are the operating instructions. This idea can be seen in young children’s play. The children decide together on their rules; it’s how their play can work, keeping everything fair and everyone happy. In order to play, they agree to an unwritten kind of a contract. “This is what we’re going to do” and “That’s not how you do it” or “That’s not fair.” Without rules, there would be no play.
Rules become laws. Children need to learn that there have to be rules when we live with other people in a community. If we don’t have rules, it is impossible to live all together, there will be so many problems. “When we live together, our rules become laws. We all agree to obey the laws. It is a deal that we make. Our laws make sure that everyone is doing the right things, the things that bring order and organization and keep us safe. If you break the law, there is a consequence. For example, when you go through a red light, it is unsafe. We need our laws and everyone needs to agree to follow them or there will be a consequence.”
People in Power Follow Rules, too. As previously stated, children need to know that everyone has to abide by the laws. It is not okay for anyone to break the law, not even the President.
These tips and scripts cover many facts, concepts, and ideas. Only you know what your child is developed enough to discuss. But practicing the “ostrich school of parenting” (keeping your head in the sand) by saying nothing at all when your child is aware of the George Floyd killing or the rioting all around us, is a grave mistake.