Written by Julia Haskins
Photo by Suzanne Tennant
As much as we like to shield our kids from hatred in all its forms — from homophobia to sexism and racism to Islamophobia — there’s no getting around the fact that injustice is all around us. And the last year has been particularly tough for many people. We’ve seen spikes in hate crimes and have watched dangerous bigots take to the streets, inciting violence and destroying our sense of peace and security.
These are scary times, no doubt. But we can resist, starting within our own families. We can teach our children how to respond to hatred and help them stand against injustice. Here’s how you can make that a reality:
You probably mean well if you claim that you “don’t see color,” but it does no good to deny the differences that make up our humanity. It’s also not realistic.
Wife-husband duo Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas created the group EmbraceRace with the underlying principle that race matters. Kids are forming opinions about race earlier than you may think, so give them the tools to talk openly about race and racism.
“The research bears out that if you’re trying to protect your kids by not talking about something, you’re not acknowledging that they’re actually talking about it every day,” Giraud says. “The lessons they’re learning are not very nuanced and are not necessarily the ones you want them to be learning about race.”
Whether you’re addressing race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other identity that makes people unique, don’t be afraid to recognize that we aren’t all the same. And that’s a good thing.
Recognizing your own privilege is no easy task. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge your advantages in relation to others, be it education level, citizenship status, income, or the countless other ways that we may be comparably better or worse off.
Consider how your and your family’s privilege will influence discussions of oppression and injustice. Just be careful not to conflate privilege with guilt. Remember that privilege is neutral in and of itself — it’s how you wield your privilege that matters.
“Guilt is not productive, and parents need to work through that on their own,” says Phyllis Fagell, licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor, and journalist. “Don’t put your guilt on people who are marginalized, because that makes it all about you.”
Create a safe space for communication
Even if they don’t show it, your kids may be struggling to understand the bigotry they see on TV and the internet or encounter in school. Make yourself open to whatever fears or concerns your children may have so that they’re comfortable coming to you for guidance.
“Gentle probing questions such as, ‘What have you heard or seen about this?’ or ‘Who told you about it? What did they say?’ provide an opportunity to clear up misinformation and dispel rumors they may have heard from friends or social media,” says Jinnie Spiegler, director of communication at the Anti-Defamation League.
Every child is different, but you can take your kids’ ages and maturity levels into account when having conversations about bigotry, Fagell says.
“With older kids, parents can focus on both the individual and systemic ramifications of hate and what to do when they observe it in their community,” she says. “With younger kids, it makes more sense to keep the focus on the individual or perhaps on the classroom culture. Ask, ‘What does it do to your community when someone is made to feel they don’t belong?’”
People of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, Jews, and other historically marginalized groups are no strangers to bigotry. But with increases in physical violence and hate speech toward the people who have long suffered under the weight of oppression, many families may be feeling especially drained right now.
“For many years, families of color have been talking about events like Charlottesville with their children,” says Dennis Chin, communications director at Race Forward. “This is a matter of survival for some of these families.”
Janine Gomez, leadership coach and middle school assistant principal at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., saw “terrified” kids crying in the hallways after the 2016 presidential election. While some students didn’t understand the larger implications of the new administration, they did know that the adults in their lives were also hurting. That pain trickles down to the kids, Gomez says, which is why self-care is a necessity for all family members.
“This is a time where people really need to have human contact and human connection, so get off the phone, get off of all of that, and spend time with your children,” Gomez says. “Laugh with them, play outside. That’s what everybody needs right now.”
While you can’t control the hateful actions of others, you can help your family members feel loved and worthy.
“One crucial point parents can and should emphasize is that being a target is not about them, it’s about a greater unfairness in the world,” Chin says.
Don’t stop at one discussion
Discussions about hatred can’t begin and end with high-profile crises such as the terrorism over the summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. These aren’t just singular events; we need to talk about the greater historical, political, and social contexts in which hatred festers. We also need to approach each conversation as a starting point to unpack more complex topics, such as the intersections of oppression. This is more than just a talk.
“The talk is life,” says Jaime Grant, executive director of PFLAG National. “The talk is every day, depending on what [your kids] bring to you.”
A one-and-done chat about the latest demonstration of hatred isn’t sufficient, especially when there’s no shortage of examples to draw upon. We can’t ignore the manifold ways that hatred plagues our communities, as well as its deep roots in society. If we don’t address these problems, we inadvertently normalize them, Grant says.
Move from talking to action
Make it a point to go beyond talking about injustice and do something about it. Help your children channel their empathy, sadness, or frustration into constructive everyday activism and show them that they are never too young to take a stand.
“While it’s important to talk about issues in the news with young people, it can also make them feel disempowered and hopeless, especially when complicated situations involving hate and social injustice occur,” Spiegler says. “Adults can play a vital role in instilling a sense of power and hope in young people — a belief that one person or a group of people can make a positive difference.”
There is no limit to the number of ways that you can help the young people in your life become active in social justice. Here are just a few ideas to get started:
- Write letters to your elected officials about bigotry and hatred in your community
- Attend a social justice-oriented protest or rally
- Write letters of support to victims of hate crimes
- Hold a fundraiser for a social justice-focused organization, especially one that has been a target of bigoted attacks
- Talk to your local library about stocking shelves with stories by and about marginalized peoples or donate some of your own
- Talk to the leaders in your place of worship about interfaith collaboration within your community
- Invite classmates from different families for playdates or meals. You can even get the whole class involved in cross-cultural activities.
Of course, acts of virtue don’t have to be large in scale. Remind your kids that every day presents opportunities to show courage in the face of injustice.
Show that progress is possible
In the midst of a volatile sociopolitical climate, children need to see that there are, and always have been, victories on the side of righteousness. Every chance you can, point out the successes in the name of diversity, inclusion, and love. Be sure to highlight the achievements carried out by regular people, especially kids.
While there are people who do stand for hate and seek to cause harm, there are plenty of people who are doing good, even if that’s hard to see right now, says Grant-Thomas.
“This is an ongoing struggle,” he says. “People who are hated have survived this before.”
Tell your children the stories of people who, faced with every obstacle, have risen to the challenge and worked to create a more just world. Show them that they can also be part of that history.
“Every story of oppression is also a story of resistance,” Grant-Thomas says. “Be sure kids know that too.”
For more information, check out these resources:
Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice
How to Talk to Kids About Race: Books and Resources That Can Help
Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry
The Dos and Dont’s of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy
Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice
The Conversation You Must Have With Your Kids Today
Talking to Children About Racial Bias
Julia Haskins is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She is a reporter for The Nation’s Health newspaper at the American Public Health Association and a communications fellow at the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Her writing has appeared in ReadersDigest.com, People.com, Parents.com, Healthline and more.
Suzanne Tennant is a freelance editorial, commercial and family photographer based in the Chicago area. She was a staff photographer with Sun-Times Media Company from 2006 to 2011. During that time she won awards in the Illinois Press Photographers Association “Best of Photojournalism.” She has also been a freelance photographer in the Seattle area.
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