Talking to Children about Protests and Racism

What follows isn’t what I set out to write about today. A few days ago someone posted a screencapture of a teacher drawing a parallel between the angry protests we are seeing in the wider world and disruptive behavior she encountered in her classroom. She went on to say that she’d been taught to respond to such outbursts of trauma with love and care…to find and anchor the relationship with the child first before trying to resolve the problem.

If you know me or have read any of my recent pieces, you know this resonated with me. It really stuck with me, and I wanted to write about the challenging behaviors your toddlers might be presenting you with, and really dig deep into the importance of securing the relationship, of making your child feel heard and seen first, before you try to correct the behavior. I wanted to explain how looking Beyond [the] Behaviors can help you find the equanimity to do so. I still want to do that, and I will, but for today, this is what wanted to come out:

A week ago, I wrote to you about reaching for a state of calm in the face of tantrums and stress.

On Saturday, I looked for, and shared, my joy with you.*

And here we are again today in a place in our lives where it is all too easy to abandon equanimity and peace, all too easy to find despair and anger. We might be here for a while. But the truth is, even in the best of times, even when life is sailing along beautifully, there will darkness lurking in the corners, under the surface. If you look for it, you will find it.

Did you realize, though, that we are predisposed to look for it? In fact, we humans have a “negativity bias: a tendency to remember negative events more than positive or neutral ones” (Delahooke, 2019, p. 260). Apparently, it all goes back to our prehistoric days when it was vital to remember a close call with a saber toothed tiger…and it persists for us as caregivers because raising humans into socially and morally responsible adults is such a high stakes endeavor.

The good news is we can counteract our negativity bias…through awareness, through knowledge, and through authenticity. Just as I counseled back in March when the world (and we) were reeling with our ‘new normal’ of being cooped up at home with no end in sight, it is important to give voice to the feelings you are experiencing. Your children are real, live human lie detectors, and they know when you are feeling distressed and anxious, even when you put on a happy face and pretend. In fact, it’s confusing when you do that…your body and energy say one thing, but your words say something else.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you tell your children about the graphic and tragic violence, but when you wince when you hear sirens, anxiously look up when you hear helicopters, tremble and scowl when you scan your phone for the latest news, your child will notice.

In a recent email from Childcare Exchange, John Nimmo expressed it more clearly than I can:

Now is not the time to be silent.

Now is the time to listen carefully to the meaning children are giving to the events around. Young children are seeing and hearing the justifiable anger of people across this nation. Yes, limit children’s exposure to media that is not designed for them, but accept that they have the right and capacity to understand the reality of racism in our country.

Now is the time to respond to their questions and observations with authenticity. Find the language and words that are developmentally meaningful for your children, but don’t shy away from using words that children are seeking to understand like protest, police brutality, and White supremacy.

While we need to reassure children about their world, it is okay to express that you don’t know everything and that you want to learn more. Reflect visibly on your own social identities and values and their relationship to race and racism. As a White parent and teacher, I accept responsibility to not only be aware of who I am, but to also model the everyday and concrete ways I can confront my privilege and be an ally for social justice.

We can reassure our children that good people can feel angry and frustrated, while also emphasizing values of care, kindness and community. I need to be careful not to confuse ‘safety’ with the White privilege to not talk about racism. Attend to your child’s protection from the trauma that is racism.

We’re all processing this in different ways, but we’re all processing it. One of the things that RIE asks you to do as a parent is to pause and observe…notice what is coming up for you. This pause is the secret that allows you to change your reaction to a response. RIE also helps teach your children to be authentic, to be in community, and to have respect for themselves and others. I’m proud to say that the teens and twenty-somethings I know are some of the best people I know, who are responding to what’s happening now events with courage and clarity.

Of course, many of the families on this list have infants or toddlers, so you will likely not be talking about protests and injustices, but you can still talk about your feelings. You can model self-education and curiosity and growth. You can populate your child’s bookshelves with books that talk about racism and social justice. And maybe you will help raise a generation that can help bring about the healing and awareness our nation needs.

*PS – When it all becomes too much, take some time…some concentrated time…to really focus on the joy, the good, the beautiful in your life. When I finished writing that piece on Saturday (about my joy), I was downright giddy. My husband actually asked me if I’d been sipping a glass of wine or maybe had a shot of espresso while writing (!). Nope. It’s just true what they say: focusing on what makes you happy, what you’re grateful for, can truly change your state of mind.