“Fellow parents of smallish kids: Are you planning to take your families to the March for our Lives?” wrote an acquaintance on Facebook earlier this week. Her children are in fifth and second grade. “Anyone else have concerns about the event raising fears in our kids’ minds? My kids know about Parkland, but have not (yet) asked, ‘Could that happen here?’ “
And that is a good question. For many parents, it is the question right now.
How young is too young to join in a protest or a march?
There is a lot to consider for those thinking of taking younger kids to the March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington. The logistics alone can be a major issue: thousands of people, scattered bathrooms, hours of standing.
But more than that, this march is about kids being shot to death in schools. So the images and messages at the event will certainly be concerning for children who may be too young to process (aren’t we all?) the horror.
Will a march or protest send their anxieties into a freefall? Or can it empower them and make them feel as if they have some control or ability to change things? We spoke to a few experts for their advice.
First, consider your child
Some kids are more anxious than others. Some have imaginations that run rampant. Others naturally feel a strong desire to act by writing letters, making signs or, yes, joining marches and protests.
Especially with a large protest or march, parents must take their own child into account, says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and the upcoming “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen.”
Parents “have the idea that [kids] will be empowered. But it really depends on the child,” she said. Decide “not by age, but by temperament, cognitive ability and emotional maturity.”
Don’t just assume your first-grader will be okay at a large march or protest because you’re with them. “Our kids are so sophisticated, so we think they’re more cognitively developed than they are,” Mogel said. “They ask profound questions … and parents think, ‘Oh, a march will be great because it will undo all the fear that comes with lockdowns and drills, and it will reverse the helplessness into a sense of agency.’ Not necessarily.”
There are other options if your child isn’t ready for a march but wants to somehow be a part of it. You can help them make signs, watch a few minutes of the march on television, or even help them write letters to politicians.
Mogel said there’s a difference between the “robust, powerful and positive impact of the school walk-outs … and the hazier benefits and clear risks of taking children younger than 8 or 9″ to mass public demonstrations. The walkouts, she said, are directly helpful for kids. “Especially when teachers participate, even young students experience can safely experience democracy in action. They are learning-through-doing and through classroom discussions about how organized student protests have changed minds and laws throughout American history,” she said. A massive march, however, might be more chaotic, and scary, for younger kids, she said.
“I wish there was a one-size-fits-all answer,” said Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at the Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health. “Parents know their kids best. Taking your 6-year-old for one family may be great, but for another, it may be better to get them a play date.”
Discuss it as a family
If you think your child is up for joining in the march, make sure they understand why you are going, what it’s about, and what they may see, Gurwitch said. Explain how crowded it will be, that bathrooms may be hard to come by, there will be a lot of signs, some that they won’t understand, and probably chanting. And have an exit plan. “Parents need to think out the mundane pieces. They are equally important as why we’re marching,” Gurwitch said.
At any of these events, she said, look at it as an opportunity to discuss your values, goals and beliefs.
“It can be extremely empowering for parents to say, ‘Okay, this is how we can have our voices heard, so we’re going to do this together, and here are the reasons why we think it’s important to do this march,’ ” Gurwitch said.
Steven Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, said this is also a good opportunity to model and talk about positive ways to debate issues. “It’s critical that parents engage children in a discussion, and it’s critical that when a parent does this, they remain calm and rational,” he said. Parents should ask a lot of questions and “not just lecture their children or express their own points of view.” Make sure to model useful dialogue with your own children and partner, he said, so they know how to deal with conflicts themselves. If you take them to the march, you can point out different examples “where there is appropriate conversation and examples where it’s not appropriate.”
Children are developing their own perceptions about what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the issues surrounding it, particularly based on what they’re hearing from friends at school, Dinkin said. So if you want them to think about the issues in a constructive way, talk with them, he said. “If you can involve them in the march but prepare them ahead of time, it can be a very impactful event for them.”
If you go to the march and decide not to take them, you can still use the event as a lesson. It’s just as important to share what the march was like if they decide not to go with you. “It’s not just, ‘Mommy’s going to march, I’ll be home later with KFC,’ ” Gurwitch said. “Talk about what your hopes are for what happens next.”
David L. Hill, a pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, believes joining in a march can be a great lesson in political engagement. “You can bond with your child over something that reflects your family values,” he said. “I think it’s a fantastic civics lesson.”
Talking about the issues behind the march
For many parents, the concern of taking a child to the march is based on not being sure how to explain the shootings and the actions by politicians afterward. But you should talk about it, especially if your child is asking, Gurwitch said. “Even if they haven’t asked, there’s a part of them thinking, ‘It could happen here,’ ” Gurwitch said. They are, after all, probably having drills at school, so they probably know more than we wish they ever had to.
When thinking about younger children, like those younger than 8, “they have a really difficult time understanding reality versus fantasy,” Hill said. “You need to make things concrete for kids this age.” And, at the same time, parents need to reassure their children. Explain that although school shootings are “an enormous problem, they’re still very rare things,” he suggested. “Talk about concrete steps that are being taken to make sure they are safe.”
One good way to find out what you need to talk to them about is to ask questions. “If they ask about it, ask what they’ve heard,” Mogel said. “Find out what they know, what they’re concerned about, and put your heads together and talk about … what each person can do.”
If you do decide to take your kids to a major march, there’s one more potentially positive aspect to it:
“It’s also a moment of history, and you may want them to look back and say, ‘Yeah, I was there,’ ” Gurwitch said. ” ‘It was important for us to look back and say ‘We were a part of this.’ That’s a part of these marches, too.”
For more information about how to talk to kids about traumatic events, check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.