The world has again been shaken by trauma. Many children will be distressed and confused by what they are seeing, hearing, or experiencing. Our children will be an important part of the healing moving forward but first, we have to bring a sense of safety to their world. The conversations we have with them now are as important for that, as they are for helping them grow into the adults the world is yearning for.
The richness and strength of our humanity depend on our diversity. That diversity has been written with love in ancestral script on our DNA. Whether it is racial, cultural, religious, or physical, any wounding to people because of that diversity takes a collective response to restore safety, fairness, and the celebration of what is. More than ever, our children need to be part of this collective response. This will start with us.
I won’t pretend to understand what it is like to live with racism and I won’t pretend to understand the issues. I want to understand, I am listening and learning, but I have a way to go. I also won’t pretend that I can fathom the distress that comes with systemic and historic injustice. What I can do though, is connect with the primal longing to feel safe and seen, and the bone-aching loneliness that comes from feeling ‘less than’ because of who we are at heart. I am also aware that there are only two forces in this world – love and fear. One will add to the problem and one will add to the healing. To be a part of the healing then, we need to make sure fear doesn’t stop us having the conversations that matter with each other, and with our children.
This is the time to have the conversations that can build a more compassionate, kinder humanity, starting with the child that is beside you. If we want to raise children into people who won’t break other people, and who celebrate diversity, and who feel empowered to call out injustice and prejudice in all its forms, we have to talk about what’s happening. First though, we have to help them feel safe.
Why we must talk about racial injustice and prejudice.
Many children will be aware that people are heartbroken and angry. If children have been exposed to images or parts of adult conversations, they might be aware of the depth of breakage, but they will not have any context to give them a sense of hope or safety. Many older children, aware of their privilege, might feel shame. This can invite resentment or cynicism towards a world where basic human rights have become privileges that are granted to a few, and in accordance with criteria that assault our humanity.
Some children will ask questions, some will act out their distress, and some will say nothing at all. There is no right or wrong way to respond. However they are behaving, it is likely that they will be needing for us to love them a little bigger right now. We are all needing that from each other. As the important adults in their lives, it is upon us to have the conversations that will not only help them feel safe, but which will also help them feel empowered and hopeful.
For families who are themselves living with prejudice in any form, your conversation with your children will be different. You will have had these conversations many times, and all I can do is acknowledge the trauma that comes with being treated unfairly because of who you are or what you look like. I am sorry that we, as a humanity, have let it get to this.
It can be difficult to know what to say or where to start, but it is important not to let the fear of saying the wrong thing, stop you from saying something. The breakage and loss have left space for us to have the conversations that will nurture our children towards greater compassion and courage. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Language is powerful.
When the hurts and injustices are vast, words such as ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ are not enough. These words come with an assumption of indifference, or concession. Let’s leave tolerance and acceptance for headaches, deadlines, and running out of milk, and let’s celebrate and embrace diversity, and admire, respect, and value our fellow humans.
Share what you feel.
It’s okay to let your children know that you are sad for the people who have been hurt, or angry that this has happened. This will nurture their empathy and compassion, and it will open the way for their feelings to breathe. Most importantly, they need to see your strength and capacity to cope with the news. Share how you feel, but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. Let your overwhelm happen, but just not in front of them.
An age by age guide.
All children are different, and you know your child better than anyone, so think of this just as a guide.
Up to 4 years.
Very young children are not able to put scary information into context. They should be shielded from the news, images, or conversations that come with potential for fear or upset. Answer their questions in as much details as they need to feel safe, but make sure they feel your calm. End any conversation reassuring them that they are safe and that the adults are working hard to make things better.
Children can show bias towards other groups of people by the age of 5, so it is important to have conversations which celebrate diversity, nurture inclusiveness, and explain the effects of prejudice. ‘Some people are treated unfairly because of how they look or the colour of their skin. That’s not okay. Everybody deserves to feel safe and important.’ Play and stories are a way to open the door to these conversations, as well as the unfairness they see or experience in their everyday lives – who has more, who’s left out, or who’s being mean.
Younger children will be aware that people are different and that some people are treated unfairly. They will have seen this in the playground, in stories, movies, or television. They might also be aware that at the moment, people are especially hurt and angry. On the surface they might be asking what’s happened, but they will also be wanting to understand what this means for them. How did this happen? Is the world broken? Why are the adults fighting and yelling and breaking things? Will the adults around me start doing this too? Am I safe?
Ask them what they know or what they’ve heard, and how they feel about it. They might not have the words to tell you how they feel, but if you listen and watch they will show you through their behaviour, their feelings and their bodies. They might be more restless, they might want to be closer to you, or they might show big tears or anger at seemingly benign things.
Don’t lie to them or avoid their direct questions. They’ll know when you’re not being upfront and this will make it harder for them to take comfort from your answers. Answer their questions as frankly as you can without scaring them. If you don’t know the answers to their questions, that’s okay – you weren’t meant to know everything. Let them know that you don’t know but you want to, and take the opportunity to learn more together.
It’s important to be specific: ‘Black people are being treated differently by white people and that’s not okay. The world is coming together to make sure it changes.’ If we aren’t specific, the risk is that they will fill in the blanks with misinformation. For example, if we tell them that the riots started because Black people were angry about the way they were being treated, they might assume that Black people have caused the riots. We have to put this in context for them. Here is a guide:
[Give them the facts, but be calm while you do that.] ‘This happened because something terrible happened to a black man named George Floyd. George didn’t deserve to have anything bad happen but he died while police were arresting him. The police thought he might have used fake money to buy cigarettes but they didn’t know for certain. Even if he did do the wrong thing, he should have been kept safe and treated respectfully. Instead of keeping him safe and talking to him nicely about it, one of the police put his knee on George’s neck and he couldn’t breathe. It’s very likely that the policeman treated George this way because of the colour of his skin, not because of what he did. That’s called racism.’
[Reassure them that not all police are like this. We want them to feel safe and not scared of the police. This conversation might be different for some families.] Most police are kind and want to look after us and keep us safe. I trust the police and I’m pleased they are around to take care of us.’
[Share how you feel.] I’m so sad and so angry that George was treated like this. Most police use their power to protect us, but the man that killed George used his power to hurt him. We can’t let that happen any more.
[Give them the context. Explain why the death of George Floyd has sparked protests and riots.] A lot of Black people in America feel unsafe because things like this have happened before. Black people haven’t have the same opportunities for education, health care, and safety. They’ve deserved them, they just haven’t had them. They have been treated unfairly just because of the colour of their skin. This has been happening for hundreds of years, but it can’t happen any more. We need things to change. People have come together and they are protesting about the way Black people have been treated so unfairly. They are demanding for things to change, and they are right. I think it’s really important that this is happening. Some of the protestors are really angry and they are damaging buildings and property. This isn’t the right way to go about it and most people are doing the right thing. The problem is that the unfairness has been happening for such a long time, what happened to George has made some people so angry that they aren’t able to think clearly. I understand why they are so angry. I would be angry too, but the people who are damaging property are wrong to do that. The protests are important. Lots of important things have happened throughout history because people came together to protest and make sure change happened. This protest is because we want people to know that everyone deserves to feel safe and loved and important. We want the people who think Black people should be treated differently because of the colour of their skin to know that we won’t let that happen anymore.’
[Then, widen the space for them to talk. Point out that prejudice and discrimination happen in many forms.] ‘Talk to me about how you’re feeling. Have you seen people being treated unfairly? Maybe because of how they look or what they believe? Maybe because they can’t run as fast as everyone else, or because they speak differently?’
[Now, expand their empathy.] ‘What do you think that would be like for them? What do you think they need? What would you say or do if you saw it happening again? What can you do to make things better?’
[Let them know that there are things they can do to put things right.] There is so much you can do to make a difference. You can help by being kind, and helping people around you feel safe and cared about, or noticing when kids aren’t being treated fairly and helping to put things right. I love that we’re talking about this. ‘
An important part of any conversation about race or any diversity is pointing out to children the similarities between them and other children. Children tend to have more positive perceptions of people they perceive as being ‘the same’ as them, even if the similarities are meaningless. Research has shown that they tend to prefer a group just because they are a part of it. In a study involving 6-year-olds, children were placed in a green group or an orange group. Later, the children were more likely to remember positive things about the children in their own group and negative things about the children in the other group.
11 and up.
For older children and teens, a lot of their lives happen when we aren’t there – through social media, friends, at school. This can make it difficult to know how much they understand or how they’re making sense of what’s happened. Check-in with them about what they know and how they feel. Ask them if they have any questions, and expand the conversation when you can, but let them take the lead.
The emotional centres of the brain develop at a heightened rate during adolescence, so they might show a greater intensity of fear, anger or sadness. Whatever they are feeling is valid and they need to know this. This doesn’t mean you agree, although you might wholeheartedly.
Give them space to talk if they want to. Let them know their feelings make sense. If they don’t make sense to you, be curious about why they make sense to them, without trying to change them. If they sense you are trying to talk them out of how they are feeling, they’ll just stop talking to you and that’s when we lose our capacity to influence them. Rather than telling them that they are wrong, try to understand why they think they are right. Their capacity for abstract thinking is growing and they may have wisdom that hasn’t been obvious to you.
Share your thoughts, but validate theirs and let them know that you respect their opinions, even if you might not agree with them. Correct any misinformation.
Emotion is important and is there to activate us to change the things that don’t feel right for us. Invite them to explore how they might direct their energy into facilitating the change they want to see. It might be by educating themselves more in the issues at heart, joining a peaceful protest, donating money to the cause, reflecting on how they can do better in their own part of the world.
They might not want to talk, and that’s okay. People respond to things in different ways. They might be talking to friends, doing their own research, quietly reflecting, or they might be so confused about what’s happening that the words are lost for now. They don’t have to talk if they don’t want to. What’s more important is that they listen and reflect on injustice, and realise there are things they can do in their own circles to make the world safer and kinder.
Many teens might also be feeling shame about their privilege. Shame can too easily bring resentment and cynicism to claw at their door. Listen and validate what they are saying, and remind them that these feelings are there for a reason – to move them into action. The problem isn’t that they are privileged, the problem is that the things that bind together to make them privileged, are actually rights that should be available to everyone. The problem is also that some people, because of their privilege, believe others aren’t as entitled. Let them know their shame makes sense, but encourage them to hear it as a call to action rather than feeling stifled by it. This can start by calling out any behaviour that belittles others. There are many things that will lead to change – self-reflection, learning, speaking out against wrong. Shame isn’t one of them
For all kids
Preserve their hope.
Whatever their age, show them images or tell them the stories that speak to the good in humanity. We also need to preserve their sense of hope to protect them from becoming cynical. We want our children feeling empowered and with a felt sense that they can be a vital part of the healing. Talk to them about the books they can read to educate themselves on the issue, their power to speak out against injustice, or any opportunities in their own circle to make sure people feel valued, celebrated, and safe.
Changing the world starts with the person beside you. Here’s how to explain it.
Changing the world starts with making the world better for the people around us. We are all carrying a load. We can’t tell just by looking at someone how heavy the load is that they’re carrying. For some people, their load is too much – weighted by generations of discrimination and systemic injustice. Some people might seem to have no load at all, but it might actually be unbearable – heavied by what’s happening at home, or inside their bodies, or the things they tell themselves, or the things that have been said or done to them. We can never know. What we can be certain of though, is that with everyone we meet, we have two choices, and only two. We can either heavy their load or lighten it. We heavy it directly by the things we say or do to them. We heavy it indirectly by ignoring the size of their load or the things that others might be doing to add to it. We can lighten their load by being kind, by noticing, by celebrating them, by thinking about what they might need and acting on it. The question for our children to ask themselves is, are they a load-lightener or a load-heavier?
And finally …
When the world breaks apart, we have the opportunity to bring it back together in a way that will be better than before – with more love, understanding, wisdom, and fierce intolerance of the wrongs that lead to the breakage. There is a Japanese art form called Kintsukuroi. It involves putting broken pottery back together with lacquer mixed with gold. It means the pottery shines gold at the seams of the breakage. The breakages aren’t hidden or forgotten. Instead, they speak boldly of a trauma. The healing of the trauma will never erase what happened, but it creates something more powerful and more beautiful than before. This is our opportunity to heal our humanity, and make the world stronger, safer, and kinder than before.
It will be tempting to protect our children from knowing about what has happened, but if we are to raise compassionate, kind children who are not blind to injustice, we must have the conversations. As long as we preserve their sense of hope and their feelings of safety, these conversations will grow them. Children are not born with hate in their hearts, but they will quickly become aware that people are different. If we are to make sure that these differences don’t cause division or breakage, we have to gently start the conversations when they are young enough to make kindness, compassion, and the celebration of diversity as much a part of them as their beating hearts.
The truth is that we belong to a humanity that is good and kind, with the deepest capacity to outlove the hate. This is what our children need to know. They also need to know that we can do better, and that they are an important part of this. Their voice, their thoughts, their willingness to listen and learn, and to speak up when things don’t feel right matter now more than ever. The conversations we have with our children now will grow them into the adults the world is longing for. The world will always be more beautiful for the kindness, strength, and courage each child puts into it, than it would be without it.