How to talk to kids about racism, racial violence
Should we tell the children? How?
Those are among the many questions parents are asking after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Many white parents wonder whether to talk with their kids at all, while parents of color swallow their grief and fear to have "the talk" once again.
These deaths are part of a more complex story, one some parents have been telling for generations, and others have long felt they've had the luxury to ignore. Experts in child psychology and race-based stress say these conversations are essential for all parents to have, and they underscore that there are developmentally appropriate ways to talk to children of all ages about racism and police brutality.
"Silence will not protect you or them," said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and author of "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race." "Avoiding the topic is not a solution."
Racism persists, experts say, because many parents avoid difficult conversations.
"One of the most important things to remember is that you may not have all the answers, and that is OK," said Erlanger Turner, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who studies mental health among racial communities.
USA TODAY spoke with Tatum andTurner about how to talk with children about racial violence:
Why is it important to talk with children about what happened to George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality or racism in the news?
Beverly Daniel Tatum: Even young children may see or hear about highly publicized incidents like the George Floyd case – perhaps overhearing the TV or the radio – and may ask questions. Or if parents are upset by the news, the child may perceive the parent’s distress and ask why Mom or Dad is upset. In either case, an age-appropriate explanation is better than silence. Older children with Internet access may see online images on their own. Initiating an age-appropriate conversation can give children a helpful frame for understanding difficult realities. If parents are silent, children will draw their own often faulty conclusions about what is happening and why.
Erlanger Turner: Many adults are hurt and angered by these events, and their children may notice changes in their mood. It is helpful to have a healthy conversation around what happened and also talk about ways to cope when you witness social injustice.
Does COVID-19 warrant avoiding these conversations, given many children are already struggling with fear, anxiety and uncertainty?
BDT: No. Not talking about upsetting events only fuels fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Being able to talk about something with a supportive adult can reduce fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Parents may avoid the conversation because they don’t know what to say, but it is a mistake to think that their silence is helpful.
ET: I don't think that anxiety and fear about COVID-19 should stop a parent from talking about police brutality. This issue has been increasing in concern over the last few years as the number of black and brown people killed by police continue to rise. I think if you do talk with your child don't leave them in a high state of worry. Make sure to end the conversation by engaging in a pleasant activity after the difficult discussion so they won't stay worried or afraid.
How do parents start these conversations and how does that change depending on the age of their children?
ET: I think the first place to start a conversation around racism and police brutality is with honesty. Take ownership of your feelings and be comfortable sharing those feelings with your child. Then you can begin to allow them to share what they may already know about racial differences. I think that it is always good to allow children to share their opinion and understanding before you offer information.
For younger children conversations about racism should be limited to basic facts about how people are treated differently due to the color of their skin but also acknowledge that not everyone treats people differently based on race. For older teens, parents can consider exposure to news or social media posts as discussion points about this issue.
BDT: Regardless of the age of the child, it is important to balance acknowledging the reality of racism, or unfairness, with messages about the possibility of change, and the community of allies who are working together to make things better.
If a child of color asks if a police officer is going to kill them, what do you say?
BDT: The answer will depend on the age of the child. If it is a young child, a parent can be reassuring. “No, honey, you don’t have to worry about that. Police officers don’t want to hurt you.”
In response to an older child, it can be reassuring to say something like: "I know that it is scary to think that something like that might happen, and I really don’t want you to worry about anything like that. I know that most police officers want to help people, and most police officers never fire their guns. But sometimes they do get nervous and make mistakes. So it is important for you to know what to do if a police officer ever stops you…”
Black parents often refer to this as “the talk” they have to have with their adolescent sons to increase the odds they will survive an encounter with a police officer if and when they are stopped.
ET: That is a tough question. Depending on the age of the child, they may have some awareness of youth that have been killed by police. Obviously you don't want to respond in a way that is going to make children be more fearful for their safety. In my opinion, I think that you should let children know that most police officers work to protect them and their community.
If a child says they are afraid or angry, what do you say?
BDT: Acknowledge the child’s feelings. The parent may have similar feelings. “I know it’s upsetting to hear about and see these things happening. It upsets me too when bad things like this happen. Racism is very unfair. But it makes me feel better to know there are lots of people who want to change things." Being able to offer specific examples of community change agents would be useful. Being able to talk about what family members are doing to speak up against unfairness is especially useful. Actions always speak louder than words.
ET: If a child tells you that they are angry, that is appropriate. Don't force them to hide their emotional expression. However, be sure to help them identify ways to express their anger in a healthy manner which may include journaling or exercising to release the energy from their body.
If a child is afraid for one of their friends, what do you say?
BDT: “I can see that you are worried about your friend. What do you think we could do that might help him or her?” Depending on the situation, this could be an opportunity to talk about what it means to be an ally, and how to stand in solidarity with another person.
ET: If a child is afraid for one of their friends, talk with them about those emotions. Allow the child to express why they may be afraid and help them identify how they can check on their friend's safety to ease their anxiety or fear. Part of what increases anxiety is the fear of the unknown. If you have a plan of action it will reduce some of those fears.
How can parents talk about law enforcement in a way that is honest but also doesn’t discourage children from seeking help from law enforcement when appropriate?
BDT: Most police officers become police officers because they want to help people. And there are times when we would really want a police officer to help us – give some examples – if there’s been a car accident, or if someone took something that belonged to us, etc. But sometimes a police officer does something bad, like today. When that happens, we might start to think that all police officers are like that. But it’s important to remember that that is not true.