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“What Do We Tell our Kids When the World Feels Chaotic?”

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

By Teresa D. Goins

I recently read an online Inquirer article that piqued my interest: “How to Talk to Your Kids about Racism and the Protests,” by Grace Dickinson, June 2, 2020. The information was so pertinent that I decided to share it with the American Baptist community. Already frightened by a looming health pandemic, the news of civil unrest is almost too much to bear; and you can bet that, no matter their ages, our kids are listening! Their exposure to social media and television newsflashes is unrelenting. As parents, church leaders, and Christian mentors, we must find a way to educate our kids, while also reminding them from Whom our ultimate security comes.

Black woman talking with her daughter
Photo by rmarmion Canstockphoto

Talking to our kids about racism and injustice is not easy. Children who come from good families have a hard time understanding that people can be so evil. Dr. Ken Ginsburg is co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Center, a worldwide leader in pediatric research. He believes that we should allow our kids to guide us as to “what they want to know and what they’re ready for.” They need space to ask questions, and we need to answer their questions in a calm and composed manner. When kids recognize stress in our demeanor, they are much more likely to become stressed themselves.

During painful times, toddlers may become more clingy than usual and may ‘act out’ because they don’t understand what is happening around them. When we are sickened by the injustice that we see around us, our toddlers can hear it in our voices; they recognize our melancholy moods and can feel sorrow, even from our nonverbal behavior. It is paramount that we hold our toddlers close, make them feel safe, and assure them that everything is going to be okay.

According to Ginsburg, “[Preschool- and elementary-age kids] are very concrete thinkers, so when they watch the news, which is repeating the worst that’s happening out there, they believe it’s happening right outside their window.” They are not capable of thinking abstractly but are information sponges who internalize everything. To keep their trust, honesty is paramount; but we should refrain from including all the disturbing details. Doing so will only facilitate nightmares and unnecessary fears. Again, making them feel safe is vital.

Beyond elementary school, kids develop more complex thinking strategies. Preteens and teens are old enough to understand, for example, why protests are breaking out all over the U.S. Still yet, teenagers are precipitous idealists, which can get them into trouble if not guided in the right direction. They can easily envision a better, more just world and should be allowed the freedom of opinion, no matter how idyllic. Ginsburg states that we must listen attentively to our teenagers, let them know their anger is justified, but ensure that they express their frustrations in a safe and careful way. Let them work toward their own solutions by doing something, such as creating artful messages on posters to plant around their neighborhoods or discussing with their peers on social media (always in a respectful manner) their ideas for change.

Though, most importantly, we must talk to our kids, white and black, about systemic racism. Research shows that babies as young as six months old can detect racial differences. According to Dr. Katherine Napalinga (adolescent psychiatrist at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia), bias can begin as early as four years old; and by 12 years old, kids have already formed their personal beliefs about race. We must start early by introducing conversations about diversity, replacing any fear with the thought that our differences are something to celebrate. Napalinga says that if we don’t educate our children about racial injustice, it is “just as troubling as being out there inflicting the violence, [for] education is the protective factor against injustice.”

At least by middle school, black families have to have “the talk,” which is “a discussion passed on for generations about how to engage white people and law enforcement to remain safe.” Still, white families (and families of all races) must also address systemic racism. Ginsburg says, “Children of color have to have ‘the talk’ as a matter of safety, but white children need to have ‘the talk’ as a matter of justice.” Racism is an injustice that hurts all of us and ultimately prevents us from becoming our “best selves.” As Christians (black and white), might we “learn to live together as brothers,” or else, we may “perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).


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