I wish I could say that this post is late because the bad news is over. Unfortunately the bad news has started to get worse as hate crimes go up and hateful people are invited one-by-one to lead the country from the White House. Many of us are flailing between despair and plans for action and will be in and out of these feelings for days or years. I will be tending to my children and suddenly start crying realizing again that children are inherently loving and accepting and the world that we have built for them is largely not.
Every parent does not have a child development degree and even those who do are still at a loss for what to say. My wife and our two kids took a mental health day to grieve; in fact I took almost a week and now I get back to work for families. I may lose some parents with what I am about to suggest, but I am hoping to help you talk about your feelings in a child-appropriate way that is also socially responsible and honest – because every news article or family member may trigger these feelings again and again. I keep hearing about people “putting on a happy face” for the kids, or they “had success at keeping the news away from them.” I do not agree.
If you are white heterosexual parents, I implore you to talk about the actual issues with your very young children. It is a huge privilege to not have early conversations about racism and homophobia. Think about it. Only white able-bodied kids of heterosexual folks get to have their “innocence preserved.”
First, let’s talk about crying.
It is in our culture to keep our feelings from our children or to lie about what we are feeling. This is part of what has gotten us where we are as a nation – we don’t talk about our feelings with our very young children and so they do not learn empathy and they don’t learn how to sit with and get all the way through an emotion without stuffing it or lashing out in retribution for it.
Let your children see you cry. You are your child’s emotional literacy teacher.
0-2 Babies and toddlers who aren’t very verbal yet:
A look of concern on your baby’s face? A toddler who says “Why mama cry?” Explain in small words. Use feeling words. Show the feeling on your face non-verbally as well. Predict that it will be over. Let your tot know you will be OK even if you don’t feel OK now, feelings are impermanent and you will have breaks. Predict a specific time of day that you hope to feel better. Eat and keep your blood sugar up.
Talk about basic feelings and make physical connection/reassurance. Hug or touch your child’s sweet face:
“I am crying because I am sad and scared and angry. Its OK to be sad and scared and angry. Mommy will be OK. I am crying now but I hope I will feel better after lunch. And then I may cry again. Your sweet face always makes me smile.” (ASL signs for the feelings are linked.)
No matter what aspect of this horrific situation is triggering your crying, you can come back to the simple explanation and prediction that things will feel better. (If you have a child under 2 years and you have excessive crying to the point where you cannot parent or feel depressed with no hope for your child’s future, call the PSI Support Line, leave a message and let someone wonderful call you back. You don’t need to identify with postpartum mood disorders or ever have had one before to talk to someone about feelings.)
3-6 years. Storytelling / Pretend Play / Kindness / Respect
Our 3-year-old son wanted to know WHY WHY WHY were we crying and WHY WHY WHY didn’t we like the new president? At this age it is easiest to liken it to the imaginative world. Bigotry and bullying are very challenging to talk about. Help them see it like stories they know. You can personalize this to literally any favorite saga your child likes by reminding them of the time the protagonist felt discouraged or worried. Remind them (and yourself) that there is no ending yet.
Once we name our feeling, we explain why we feel that way. Ask how they feel.
Child: “Why don’t you like the new president? / Why are you scared?”
“Do you know how when you watch a movie or a we read a story and there is an unkind person doing mean things and some good people trying to stop the mean person? Well, there are some mean people in our country who are doing and saying unkind things. We are sad when people are hurt we want to stop the meanness. What if at the end of the story everything wasn’t happy and it seemed like this unkind person was going to be a mean king. I would be worried and sad if that happened and that is what I am feeling now. I hope the story will get some better new pages and things will change. I am worried about how and when things will get better. How do you feel?”
What if we are sad and worried about racism / hate crime / government changes / laws?
Ask Questions. Open Dialogue. Let them help you strategize. Give them agency:
Child “What did that man say? Why do you keep crying?” (Be honest. Talk about the basics of equality. State what you believe. Ask how they feel. Help them feel agency in participating to make things better.)
“I am worried about our family / friends / people with brown skin. The new president / some people [in our government] don’t believe that all people are equal (not as good as) and should all be treated fairly and respectfully and kindly. I am worried that they won’t be taken care of and that people won’t be kind to them. How do you feel about mama crying? What could we do to help make a kinder world?
Now you can use pretending with your child as play therapy to act out the ideas of kindness, unkindness, prejudice and equality and even standing up for others. Maybe the princesses have told the teddy bears that they cannot join the tea party because they are fuzzy. Why is fuzzy not OK? Who says? Maybe a robot can stand up for her friends? Haven’t talked about skin color yet? Now’s the time.
Most of this is really about setting up the premise of the situation and opening dialogue so that we are careful not to overwhelm. We can answer only the questions that come organically. I tend to say “some people” so that it does not convey that it is most of the country who believe like this. I also say “some people” instead of DT or “the new President” because bigotry is not unique to one person and it surely isn’t new.
Daddy, What is deportation?
“When people come to this country, they get a paper to say that they legally, truly live here for good. Maybe they came from Mexico, maybe they came from Syria. Many people move to our country because it is often easier to make money and raise a family here. Some people think that if people haven’t gotten that paper yet, they should be sent back to the place they were born and stop working and living here. I am very sad that some people are saying that parents might get sent away from their kids or that if the kids go with them, the kids will have to leave school and friends. What do you think about this?”
(Wouldn’t it be nice to leave out the most devastating part – about the children? It would be nice to try and avoid our children inferring and worrying about their own family togetherness, but I will not do this because immigrant families do not have this privilege. You can reassure your children that they won’t be separated from you, but here is the open door to talk about privilege.
“How wonderful is it to know that you can always stay with your family? Children in immigrant families might not feel as safe as you right now – what could we do about that?”
Why are the people on your phone talking about people who wear a head scarf? Explaining prejudice against Muslims:
“Religion is what people believe about why humans are on the planet, and rules for how we should live here. Islam is the Muslim religion and there are people in this country who don’t like people who follow the Muslim rules. People are sometimes mean because they are scared of a religion they don’t know very much about, or they are mean because they have never met someone who believes in the Muslim religion. Do we know someone who is Muslim? (If not) How can we meet some of them / How could we find out more about the Muslim religion?”
Sexism and Reproductive Rights
Mommy, why did you want so badly for it to be a woman president? (My daughter asked me this).
“Some people think that a woman shouldn’t have the job of President, that a woman wouldn’t be good at it. It used to be that lots of jobs like firefighter were jobs only men were allowed to do. What do you think?”
What does that word abortion mean? (Make it about all health decisions.)
“Some people think that women ( / people who have a uterus inside them) should not be allowed to make choices about which doctors to get help from. Some people also think that they have a right to tell women how to take care of their bodies, but I don’t think anyone has a right to my body accept me. What do you think?”
LGBT Rights / Sadness / Hate Crimes
If you are worried about LGBT rights in general:
“Some people think that only one man and one woman should be allowed to be in love. We know that adults can love whoever they feel love for but these people who don’t believe that are trying to stop people from loving who they want to love. And they sometimes feel like they are so right that they say mean things to people or hurt people who are lesbians or gay. Did you ever think the way you do something is right and somebody else is wrong?”
Hopefully this leads to a conversation about tolerance. What do we do and not do when we think someone is wrong?
If you are an LGBT family like mine, I think it is OK to talk about the possibility that marriage licenses can get taken away; but that we should reassure kids that we will always be a family. (Friends of LGBT families can change the words if you are worried about friends.)
“The new people who will lead our country might want to take away the license that says mom and I are married. The paper is important to us so we are going to work to try and stop this change. Even if we can’t change it, In our hearts we will still be married and will still always be together and a family.”
It puts much more burden on our children to hide our feelings and refuse to give them real information while hoping to protect them. Children see right through this. It is comforting for children to be included in the family in a way that says “We are all in this together. Let’s be strong together.” It is much more respectful to our children to let them in on what is going on and to see that we are processing our feelings in a healthy way and that we have plans to make things better. I want my children to grow up knowing that I have always spoken out against Bigotry.
My daughter found me crying about the first 5 transgender youth suicides after the election results.
“We always talk about how there are girls who are more like boys and boys who want to be girls and how anyone gets to be whoever they want to be no matter if they have a penis or a vulva, right? We call that transgender or gender-fluid, right? Well, some people who think that people with a penis can only be men and people with a vulva can only be women now have some extra power in our country. Some of us are worried that those people will make decisions that are bad for transgender people. And some transgender people are more worried and scared than I have ever been and it makes me so sad! How do you feel about this? What might we do to help transgender people feel safe?
I am not going to talk about suicide unless the word or idea comes our of my child’s mouth or I know they have overseen or overheard it, in which case I will tell the truth.
I hope we will include our children in our direct actions against sexism and prejudice and bigotry and hate. I worry that so many of us will stay home because of things we don’t want our children to see and hear, of the danger we don’t want our white children to face. One of my next articles will be about how we will find a way to activism WITH our children. I am still working this out for myself.
And sometimes verbalizing this much doesn’t work for where your child is at, or where you are at. Maybe both of you can do some art therapy. I highly encourage this way of processing together. Peace for All People was the theme in our house:
I support you for having dealt with this in what ever way you have so far. What conversations have you had with your children on these themes so far? Will you please share them in the comments?
Any kind of art helps us process – like songs and here is one for you!
(*This piece is for white ally families from the perspective of a lesbian mom as I do not purport to know the black or brown experience or have experience talking to black and brown children about bigotry. I will add resources from folks of color as I find them.)
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