So much for parenting in a post-racial era, as idealistic as that notion may have been. The same children you raised under values of equity and inclusion that dominated thinking just a few years ago now confront a toxic soup of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny—and the verbal violence travels to the playground from the president’s office.
Yet, gone are the days when adults could protect children from disturbing events or deliver piecemeal doses of tough topics. With news breaking at the speed of a tweet, your kids are likely to hear hateful speech or see bigotry as quickly as you do. So how do you talk to your young people about all the hatred, racism, and violence that now pervade the public conversation? In the wake of tragedy and violence, most of all make sure your kids feel safe, supported, and comforted and give them the space to talk about their feelings.
Take a deep breath, then follow these tips, whether your young ones have marginalized identities or not.
1. Put your own oxygen mask on first.
Take self-reflective time to prepare yourself. Consider your own experiences, including when you have felt hateful or violent, and whether you acted upon those feelings or not. Anger and hate are secondary emotions that cover fear, so remember: What were you truly afraid of? What triggered that fear? Did you find your voice? If so, what did you say? If not, why? Deconstruct your experiences so you can both teach your children how to understand their feelings and to imagine the motivations of others. Prepare to speak to the fear that underlies violence and hate, so you can teach children of all ages more effective and affirming ways to address their or others’ emotional distress.
2. Read up.
Be sure to educate yourself about hate crimes and hate speech. Learn about alt-right, pro-white, white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-Nazi and new-Confederate groups, including the recruitment of young adults, on college campuses. Learn the iconography of white supremacy, and about various racial and social justice issues and organizations, including Black Lives Matter, the Council on Islamic Relations, the Human Rights Campaign, the Immigrant Defense Project, and the Indigenous Environmental Network.
3. Be okay with being uncomfortable.
Regardless of our background, many of us are more practiced in the art of not talking about difficult issues like race, religion, and gender identity rather than having those conversations. But growth and learning occurs outside of comfort zones. If you are unfamiliar with issues of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or sexual identity, use Google to bone up and gain confidence. Also, participate in diverse activities and friendship circles so you have contexts in which to learn and practice. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, even if people get upset with you; just learn from the situation and dive in again. These issues aren’t going away.
4. Get in the game.
Children learn about violence and hate whether their parents are talking to them about it or not—and often before their parents are aware of it. So, don’t leave kids to their own childlike devices to interpret bigotry. Schedule time, whether at dinner or family meetings, when you can discuss such events. Listen carefully to young people’s experiences and perspectives. Acknowledge and help them process their fear, distress, and other emotions, and let them know you will help keep them safe. If your friends or family members say bigoted things, tell them that you do not agree and that you want them to stop. If they don’t stop, protect your children by speaking up and/or removing them from the situation. Let your kids know that people they love can also do and say harmful things but that it’s not acceptable. Be clear about how you expect your young ones to treat and speak to other human beings.
5. See color.
Many people take pride in the ideal that they are colorblind or don’t notice other dimensions of human difference, but it’s as impossible not to see skin color or race as it is not to see gender. Instead, notice—and encourage your child to notice—the richness and vibrancy of people whose race, ethnicity, religion, culture, and/or gender identity differ from yours. Teach them that diversity has value and invite them to get curious about and value diverse experiences and people. Encourage your children to mix it up at lunch. Also, emphasize and help them see the intrinsic wants and needs that connect every human being. If you are parenting a child with a marginalized identity, help them value that uniqueness and know that you love and cherish them no matter what others may think. Expose them to people like them who are successful in various areas.
6. Do a bias cleanse.
Most human beings harbor unconscious, or implicit, bias of one sort or another. Becoming aware of our biases helps to reduce them—and it’s the most effective way to protect a younger child from any hate or violence you may unwittingly convey. Take the Implicit Association Test so you learn which biases you carry. Also, visit MTV’s Look Different website with your adolescent so you can learn about different biases and participate in a bias cleanse, together.
7. Challenge zero-sum thinking.
One group’s progress need not occur at another’s expense. Another group’s fight for equality need not threaten your well-being. Help your child identify “either/or” or “dog-eat-dog” thinking. Replace it with the language of “yes and”. That is: “Yes, people from different countries move to the United States, and each wave of immigrants brings gifts that make our nation unique and all of us do better.” As in, “Yes, they are protesting inequity, and we must all get involved so we can create a more equitable world."
8. Tell the truth, but don’t promote mistrust.
Be honest with your children as you discuss world events. Help all children understand that the world isn’t fair, and that people who are afraid sometimes behave in ways that hurt others. Teach them appropriate ways to understand and manage fear. With younger children promote family, community, group pride, and spirituality. Speak more openly with adolescents, being careful not to reinforce a worldview that might make them feel defeated or undermine their optimism or agency. Ask your college-age kids about how so-called alt-right or other groups impact their campus and personal life. Provide children whose identity might be targeted with a framework to understand negative messages but not internalize them. Let them know that there’s room to thrive despite—and even in the midst of and because of—hatred and bigotry.
9. Sharpen your tools.
Teach young people who could be targeted a toolkit of strategies to maintain their dignity if insulted. Also help them develop their self-defense skills, from smart verbal comebacks to asking adults for help. Role-play ways kids can defend themselves and help protect others, such as telling the bully to stop, enlisting the help of other children, or using their cell phone to call for help. Practice, practice, practice.
10. Dial 911.
If bigotry and violence hit home, act immediately by contacting school officials, national resources like the Southern Poverty Law Center where you can #ReportHate, or the police (be sure to get the officer’s badge number). Know where to turn if your child experiences racist bullying, Islamophobic discrimination, anti-Semitism, or anti-LGBTQ violence. Help young people identify ways that they can effect change. For instance, reach out to targeted people to let them know that you support them and ask how you can help. Then join with your child to make calls, write letters, show solidarity with local activists, or make signs for and participate in a protest, rally, or other direct action. This will help teach agency and power. If your child is engaged in bigotry, let them know that you love them but do not share their beliefs. Try to understand and dissect their underlying fears and help them reach more life affirming conclusions. If you fear that they may become violent, you must call law enforcement.
Hilary Beard is an award-winning writer, editor, and book collaborator, specializing in education, health and wellness, self-help, parenting, psychology, and transformational memoir. She is the coauthor of eight books, including Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First!: The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, for which she won her first NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter @HilaryBeard.