Having difficult conversations with your children

This is the version of a letter I wrote this past Monday night for my school community as I thought about this last week’s events and particularly our students and children and how we speak with them. As a teacher, and now as an administrator with the role of supporting students socially and emotionally, these thoughts are based on my experiences in our school and classrooms.

Dear Friends,

I imagined that many of you, like me, have had a heavy heart over the last week. For those of us with children of any age, we think about what the future holds for them and how we might leave the world a better place for them. We hope when an important moment arises, we have the words to help them understand a very confusing world. This past week was one of those times for me as conversations about what was happening on the news felt more closer than ever before. Sadly, most of us have watched events like these on television and read about them in the news before, yet they persist. Watching it with your children, especially as they grow older, even if they are just asleep in the next room, brings a completely different beat to your heart and urgency to your mind.

Our words will never be perfect, but they may be the most important thing our child hears at a moment full of confusing emotions. While I never look forward to these conversations, I hold dear the place that our school has built into our classrooms for such difficult moments. Class meetings and Meeting for Worship are practiced routines that allow us to sit, sometimes in silence, sometimes in meaningful discussions to share feelings and, maybe even more importantly, listen. We don’t walk away with solutions, but our children walk away with a sense of comfort, safety, and understand that was missing prior. To be honest, those three things are not enough for us as adults right now, but that is what our children need. I am saddened that we can’t have the classroom available for such a conversation with our students this week.

I know as parents we often look to teachers for guidance about how to talk to our children. I thought it might help to share some thoughts about how we work through these conversations at school so that you might use them at home. My goals in these conversations are to make sure that children feel safe (that they are taken care of physically and emotionally); that they better understand a situation (as much as they can at their age and in that moment); and that they can take action that might help in the future.

Here are the elements I think are most important when approaching of these difficult conversations:

Listen

Let your child guide the conversation – there are probably a lot of things you want to say. They are only ready to hear some of them. Remember your goals – safety, understanding, and action. If hugs provide comfort and safety, that is what your child needs. For younger children that may be the case. For older kids, or those with more pressing questions, talking will be more important. Helping them determine actions will probably come at the end.

Be Curious

Children are guided by their emotions and they often ask questions with a limited understanding or vocabulary. The question they ask might not be the one they really need answered.

  • If your child doesn’t have words – ask them how they’re feeling, why are they feeling that way, What could I do that would help you?
  • If your child says/asks something, but it doesn’t sound like they really know what they’re saying – What do you mean ______? Tell me more about …, It sounds like you’re saying/asking…

Keep it simple

Answer the questions your child asks – often as adults we want to share more than a child needs. Take a second to think about what your child asked and focus on it. For example:

Child: Why are there buildings burning on TV? What’s happening?
Parent: (Thinking about oppression, politics, news cycles, police brutality…) There are protests and people causing chaos in a bunch of cities right now. Some people are protesting peacefully and other people have become violent, some people are just joining in because they saw someone else do it.
Child: Could they burn down buildings near us?
Parent: Our house is safe and we are safe right now.

Be Honest

If you don’t know an answer, tell your child you don’t know; if you’re not ready to answer that question, tell them you’re not ready to answer that question, but you will try to think of a way to answer it for them later; you should also recognize that these places of difficulty for you are places you may need to work on, reading books or articles, watching videos, asking experts. Children find a way to magnify gaps in our understanding. It may frustrate you, but you can also use it as inspiration to learn more, which will help you down the road.

Guide them away from either/or thinking

Children will often jump to platitudes like “All ___ are good/bad”, “_____ is wrong/right”, “I never want to talk about this.” Unfortunately these conversations are difficult because it is never all good or bad and rarely as simple as wrong or right. Avoiding the conversations is also counterproductive. Responding with a statement like, “____ are not all bad”, or “I understand why you feel that way but it’s not that simple.” This is also a great place to ask “What if…” questions. Pose a real life scenario (maybe with their sibling, on the playground) that connects to the issue you are discussing. This can lead to thinking about actions.

Find and use stories

Don’t pull a book out if your kid is struggling to control their emotions, but think about books you might read later that might tie back into these conversations. You may need to read up on your own to develop and solidify your own understanding first. Some books are more for you and others more for your kids. As I read and think more about these topics, I tend to find connections in many more places. Here are a few lists that you might find useful right now:

Books, as well as sharing our own stories can be incredibly powerful. They give us a chance to ask children how they would respond in a given situation. It can also lead to the actions we are really seeking. “If ____ happens at school, what could you do?” “What should people do in this situation?” “Could you do that?”

Below are a few more resources that you might want to view as you figure out what to say. I would encourage you, despite any discomfort you may have or your strong desire to ‘say the right thing’, it is important that you say something. Shying away from these conversations will not help our children. A great place to start is asking a child about their feelings and what question they might have.

Resources:

They’re not too young to talk about race This describes the developmental stages of children’s awareness and thinking about race.

Talking Race with Young Children  – A 20 minute podcast about how to address the difficult questions and misconceptions our children share with us.  

CNN and Sesame Street Town Hall – Saturday, June 6 at 10 am – This link goes to the article that describes the town hall and links to a previous one on Covid-19. I am hoping this will be especially valuable for parents of our youngest children.

Talking to Kids about Racism: Parts 1 & 2 – Both events are on Dr. Kira Banks’ Facebook page. A group of parents who work in the field of social justice share their experience, mostly as parents. It was helpful to hear the different approaches they took with children of different ages in their household.

Talking to children after racial incidents | Penn GSE – An interview with Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist at Penn GSE, studies racial literacy and racial trauma. He works with educators and families to help them understand the emotions that racial incidents can bring about, and how to reduce their negative effects on health and well being

Kidlit Rally for Black Lives – A group of children’s authors are hosting an event for both parents and children. The authors mostly write for older children, so it maybe geared more toward upper elementary.

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