Racial injustice and inequity
As children witness and experience the outpouring of pain in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, they need adults to help them make sense of the unrest, says Baruti Kafele, a social justice educator, former principal and author of “The Assistant Principal 50.”
That conversation is going to look different in black and white households, says Kafele, who is black. When he trains educators, he’ll say: “Raise your hand if you feel the need to have ongoing conversations with your children about what to do if stopped by a police officer.” Invariably, “the black hands go up, or the white ones with black children.” He then explains that parents of black kids can’t opt out of these conversations. “I don’t want my son to get pulled over and lose his life over a broken taillight.”
When he was a teen, Kafele moved with his family to a white town where he felt invisible. “I started to read African American history and discovered who I was, the shoulders I stood on.” If parents don’t have that expansive knowledge base, they need to educate themselves before talking to their child, he says. Otherwise, a parent might not be able to truly help a child understand the impetus and intentions of the protests. “Because of my macro lens, I understand the rage, the anger, the frustration.”
These conversations should happen all the time, Kafele adds, “but now parents have to step up their game and help kids see that these deaths are not isolated aberrations; it’s a continuum from lynchings that have been occurring since African Americans got here 400 years ago.” Assess what your children know, and make space for them to share feelings. He recommends asking: “Do you think everyone is treated equally?”
“As a white parent and educator, I find that white parents often feel ill-equipped to have these conversations because of their lack of experience talking about race, and therefore may avoid them altogether,” says Jen Cort, an educational consultant who focuses on equity, diversity, inclusion and justice. “What white people need to do instead in order to raise anti-racists is examine their racial identity and do their own work through reading, listening, talking to other white people and resisting taxing black people to be their educators or to affirm them as good people.”
Parents need to confront skewed images that show “violent, reductive images of people of color,” and make sure they expose kids to a more positive narrative, says Dena Simmons, an education practitioner-scholar and author of the forthcoming “White Rules for Black People.”
“What I learned growing up as a black girl — in school, on TV, in magazines and books — was my erasure,” she says. “My excellence wasn’t there, and neither was my beauty, scholarship or ingenuity.”
Parents, particularly white parents, “need to pop the bubble and teach, live and act in a way that ensures their children grow up knowing the world outside themselves,” Simmons adds. “Expand their experiences in the world through the activities they do, the conversations you have, the people you interact with, and what they read and watch.”
Money and privilege
“What’s unique about this [pandemic] is that just about everybody is having things that used to be normal stripped away from their day-to-day existence,” says journalist Ron Lieber, author of “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money.”
So this is an important time to talk about the difference between wants and needs, and to prompt your child to consider how much is enough. “The conversation will feel more real than before the pandemic, particularly for affluent kids who have everything they need and nearly everything they want,” he says. “There are things we can’t have now at any price.” Prompt your child to think about items or experiences they miss, and then ask: “Is there anything that surprises you? What does that tell you? What do those things cost?”
Families who are struggling financially are probably having this conversation already. If you’re not, your child probably knows more than you think. “There’s a decent chance they’re eavesdropping, listening hard, sensing your mood,” Lieber says. If they have questions, ask them what’s on their mind. “Quite often, all they’re asking is, ‘Are we going to be okay?’ ” he explains.
If your child is concerned about a friend’s financial status, “don’t shame them for asking questions that come from curiosity and waking up to the fact that things are not always equal or fair,” Lieber says. Share that many people are having financial difficulties caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, then talk about how the novel coronavirus has exposed or worsened inequities. Look at various indicators, from health care to the homework gap. As Kafele notes: “Your child may not realize that 30 to 35 percent of students — particularly children of color and economically disadvantaged students — lack access to WiFi hotspots and computers and are getting zero education, or that there’s a disproportionate number of covid deaths in African American and Latino communities. Ask your child: ‘Why do you think these disparities exist?’ ”
“Explain that, throughout life, we sometimes need help and sometimes are in a position to give help,” Cort says. “We want kids to see themselves as helpers and feel comfortable when they need to ask for help.”
Grief and loss
“The right time to teach children about loss is when loss occurs, and there’s a lot of loss occurring right now,” says David Kessler, the author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” and founder of grief.com. “There are micro and macro losses. Grandpa dying is a big loss, but your kids not being able to have graduation or go to school and camp also are losses. There’s no judgment or comparing in loss.”
“We all have to learn disappointment, but usually it’s titrated in small doses. I didn’t get invited to the party or onto the select team,” says psychologist Madeline Levine, the author of “Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.” “The amount of disappointment these kids are absorbing is very high.”
Take time to process your own losses and understand grief, Kessler says. If your child is crying because their baseball team can’t practice, don’t say: “You don’t want to get sick, do you?” That invalidates their loss. Say, “Yes, it’s disappointing,” and explain that feeling sad is a normal reaction to grief. “A feeling only lasts for a few moments, but when we suppress it, we have all these half-felt emotions that never get expressed, and then the day comes when you need to find your emotions and don’t know how,” he says. Model how to cope with difficult feelings by saying things such as, “I’m having a really hard time not seeing my friend Suzy, but I’m looking forward to when we can be together again.’ ”
Sexuality and healthy relationships
Social distancing means kids have to connect in new ways, and you can use that to talk about their relationships. Ask: “What do you need from your friends right now? How can you support them?”
Your child is also spending more time with you, which means you may be watching the same shows or reading the same books. These shared experiences can provide natural segues to talk about relationships without being overly intrusive.
“It’s more fun for all involved when you can get into important topics by way of a favorite character,” says Marisa Nightingale, the media adviser at Power to Decide, an organization that gives young people accurate sexual health information. She notes that a show such as “Black-ish” “dives right into social issues, relationship dynamics and the importance of honest communication.” You can ask: “What would you do if you were in that character’s shoes?”
Use the quarantine to talk to your children about sexuality and their changing bodies. They’re spending more time online and may get exposed to pornography, says Amy Lang, the founder of Birds & Bees & Kids. Signal your openness to questions by providing them with developmentally appropriate books and introducing them to websites such as amaze.org and podcasts such as “Feeling My Flo.” They may want to read or listen on their own, but be willing to discuss the content afterward.
“The narrative is that it’s one talk, and there’s a giver and a receiver,” says sex educator Mackenzie Piper, senior manager of programs at Power to Decide. “We want to change that to be a whole lifetime of age-appropriate conversations.”
Values and meaning
The pandemic has upended school as we know it, both the setting and the role of grades and test scores. It’s a paradigm shift “that could broaden notions of what values go into a good, meaningful life,” Levine says. “We’ve had this incredibly limited view of success that’s so much about performance, but there’s this other set of skills that have been neglected, and I think that conversation is about values.”
“The disruption can be positive if parents are willing to get curious about who their kids are,” says Debbie Reber, founder of tiltparenting.com and author of “Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World.” “So many of our kids have strengths that have been overlooked. What matters is our kids understanding what they need to become self-actualized adults who can contribute their gifts, because they all have gifts. Maybe that’s an easier sell now.”
Ask questions such as: “What mattered to you this week? Why was that important to you?” Levine says. Then answer the same questions, sharing any disappointments and how you regrouped.
If your children have taken an interest in protests or finding ways to even the disparities in the world, seize the opportunity to help them live out their values. “Parents need to have daily conversations with their child about purpose,” Kafele says. When he taught fifth grade, he had students write essays on the seven principles of Kwanzaa, answering questions such as, “What will I do to forge productive relationships with other people in my school, home and community?” and “How will I go about determining my purpose, and then walk in it despite temptations to deviate from it?” He urges parents to ask their child similar questions.
“Tune into [their] concerns about the world, be it racism, poverty, climate change, bullying or homelessness, and encourage [them] to find a way to create positive change,” adds Michele Borba, the author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” You can instill hope and empower them by pointing out the many ways people are working to make a difference, including “the thousands marching peacefully every day together as a multicultural front against hate,” she says.
“The best thing that can come out of this are kids who understand the vicissitudes of life in a way we wish would happen slower, but don’t underestimate the value of figuring out what to do with your time, how to care for one another and be part of a community,” Levine says. “The thing we have to be careful of is that we don’t come out of this, breathe a sigh of relief, and go right back to where we were. It just wasn’t working.”
Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.
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