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How to talk to your kids about racism and the protests

Whether you regularly talk with your child about injustice or you have struggled to find the words, how can you help your kids make sense of it all today? Here's a guide for all ages.

How do you talk to your kids about what's happening right now?
How do you talk to your kids about what's happening right now?Read moreCynthia Greer

On Saturday night, Ishmail Abdus-Saboor and his son, Musa, 8, were relaxing inside their West Philadelphia home when Abdus-Saboor’s phone started buzzing. It was an alert: a citywide curfew was about to begin. Musa glanced at Abdus-Saboor.

“I knew I had to start talking about what was going on, so I tried to explain things for an 8-year-old,” says Abdus-Saboor. “Then he says, ‘Daddy are we going back to being slaves?’ The fact that he connected those — I can’t even remember the last time we talked about slavery. It pierced right through my heart.”

What do you tell your kids when the world feels chaotic? When it erupts with frustration from the killing of yet another African American by police?

As cities across the country fill with protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis officer, children — of every background — are listening. A pandemic is already ravaging our lives, and when kids are shut indoors, eyes often are glued to the TV or smartphones. News spills in from sources near and far.

Whether you regularly talk with your child about race and injustice or you have struggled to find the words, how can you help your kids make sense of what’s happening today? It’s challenging. Many parents, including Abdus-Saboor, will tell you they truly don’t know. And there certainly isn’t a universal answer. Experts do say, however, to let your child guide the way.

“Create the space for children to ask questions, and even for the smallest child, they will guide you on what they want to know and what they’re ready for,” says Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP.

But first, you need to create the right space within your own mind. Before initiating conversations with kids of any age, experts stress making sure you’re calm.

Talking to toddlers

Little ones can’t understand what’s going on right now. But they can absorb parents’ emotions. If your stress is on display, this may cause your toddler to start acting out, or struggle in areas like potty training where progress was being made just days ago.

“I’d also add clinginess — if they have a sense that the world is dangerous, it’s most important to them to see that you’re OK,” says Ginsburg. “Give them the gift of being with them because they need it now to draw security.”

Making sure that your child feels safe is the first priority. But this is the age when you should also start conversations about race. Babies as young as six months are shown to detect race-based differences.

“By age 4, the bias starts to take root, and by age 12, that’s when the beliefs become set and it becomes harder to change them,” says Dr. Katherine Napalinga, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.

Introduce subjects surrounding diversity by highlighting our differences as a positive part of who we are and not something to be feared or shunned.

“Some kids will start the conversation without you even asking,” notes Napalinga. “I’m originally from the Philippines, so I often have young kids ask me about that, and I answer by discussing how people have different skin tones and how that’s a wonderful thing, how that adds to the strength of our country.”

» READ MORE: N.J. will overhaul its police use-of-force guidelines, AG says

Books are another great resource. Check out Uncle Bobbie’s bookstore in Germantown, often stocked with antiracist books for all ages, says Dr. Roy Wade, pediatrician at CHOP Cobbs Creek Primary Care and an African American father of two. There are plenty of online outlets, too.

Common Sense Media has a list of books with diverse, multicultural characters, and there’s Brown Bookshelf, which features books with brown and black protagonists who deal with tough issues,” says Wade.

Talking to preschool and elementary-age kids

By age 5, you can introduce conversations around empathy.

“They’re like sponges at this age, and when a sense of self is still forming,” says Napalinga. “Start to teach them about ideas like putting themselves in another person’s shoes.”

Because children at this age are so receptive, limit their screen time. Preschool and elementary age kids are not yet capable of what we call “abstract thinking.” What they see, they interpret as reality.

“Early school-age children are very concrete thinkers, so when they watch the news, which is repeating displays of the worst that’s happening out there, they believe it’s happening right outside their window,” says Ginsburg.

Kids may begin to internalize the images they see and create their own ideas about their safety.

“We had a discussion with our 7-year-old daughter about what was going on, and one of her immediate reactions was anxiety about how all police are out to get her,” says Wade. “I gave her the space to be angry, to yell and be upset, and then when things calmed down, we dove into a conversation about how not all cops are behaving badly, it’s just some cops.”

Even with the TV turned off, children can pick up on conversations. The good news: Young children tend to be very inquisitive, which invites you to address misinformation and concerns.

When answering kids’ questions, experts say honesty is crucial. You don’t want to lose kids’ trust. However, not every single detail needs to be included.

“If they ask, ‘Why is the car burning?’ you can say people are very angry because a man got killed and they feel it wasn’t fair, but you don’t need to show them a video of the actual killing because they’ll be traumatized and have nightmares,” says Napalinga. “Relate it to their own lives by asking questions like, ‘How do you feel when things aren’t fair?’"

What happens if your kids accidentally come across the disturbing video of Floyd’s arrest? While challenging, you need to address it, says Napalinga. Start by listening. It’s important that their feelings be validated. Acknowledge not only that you’re there to protect them but that you also understand they’re scared. After you listen, try to generally correct for accuracy.

Ginsburg also points out that you needn’t be afraid to cry with your children.

“If you see such human agony, you should allow yourself to weep, to express frustration and the inhumanity of that moment, and it’s OK to do so with your child — that’s what I’d do with my kids if they saw the video,” says Ginsburg. “Let them know how wrong this is, and that this was an inexcusable situation, and that’s why people are angry, and that we hope and pray that from the sacrifices of his life, we build a better world.”

If your children aren’t asking questions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about what’s going on. It’s important to create a space where they feel comfortable voicing what’s on their mind. Start in an open-ended way: “There’s a lot going on right now. What are your thoughts and feelings, and would you like to talk about anything?”

All children, regardless of their race, should be aware of the situation, says Napalinga.

“If parents don’t approach their kids to have conversations about this, one could arguably say it’s just as troubling as being out there inflicting the injustice. Education is the protective factor against injustice,” she says.

Talking to preteens and teenagers

As kids move beyond grade school, they develop into more complex and abstract thinkers. This is often around the time that black families have “the talk”: a discussion passed on for generations about how to engage white people and law enforcement to remain safe.

“Part of the myth around ‘the talk’ is that it’s considered to be one talk — but really it’s a series of conversations, and when things like this happen, it brings an opportunity to open those back up,” says Wade of the protests. “You reaffirm that it’s not fair, that these rules might not apply to your white friends, but this is how you have to behave to stay safe. Always create space for your kids to ask questions.”

By middle school, if not a year or two before, parents of every race should be addressing systemic racism. White families should address the unfortunate realities of what “the talk” looks like for a black family vs. their own.

“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,” says Ginsburg. “Racism is a subject that hurts people of color, but it hurts all of us because we can’t build the best world until everyone can become their best selves — this is a solution that involves all of us.”

As for the protests, teenagers are more likely to have feelings of unrest. Many may want to get involved. Experts say you should encourage them to talk. If they’re outraged, they need to let it out.

“Teenagers are idealists, and this is an amazing opportunity for them to envision a better world,” says Ginsburg. “We have to let them know that their anger is justified, and they should work hard to create a better reality, while also emphasizing the need to express frustrations in a way that keeps their community and themselves safe."

Leverage their idealism by inviting them to create solutions that are outside the box. Make it about what they can do, versus what you don’t want them to do.

“Too many adults think it’s about controlling teenagers, and yet teenagers absolutely reject messages of control as they’re striving towards independence,” says Ginsburg. “If you don’t want them to leave the house, frame it around safety. Let them know you care about them, and talk about other ways they can express their frustrations.”

“Ideas include protesting through social media, or creating art to post around the neighborhood. If they’re considering engaging in risky behavior, talk about it. Navigate these conversations by asking them what they think will happen in a situation.

“Rather than lecturing them, if you help them come to their own conclusion about say, what will happen if they start looting, they’ll internalize it better,” says Napalinga.

It’s never too late to get started on these conversations, assures Dr. Joseph Wright, chair of the Task Force on Addressing Bias and Discrimination of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s challenging to be empathetic if you don’t have a frame of reference. To really have compassion for folks who’ve been victimized, families need to have honest discussions. Just look outside — this impacts everyone,” says Wright. “We cannot put our kids in a bubble, and if you’re not already embedding this dialogue on a regular basis, there’s no better time than now to start.”