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Talking to Kids About Race and Violence in America

July 14, 2016

In the wake of last week’s racially charged violence, our dismay and distress have reached a fever pitch. These tragic shootings — of black men by police and policemen by a sniper — add fuel to a burning conversation in this country, and I think it’s important for all of us to take part. The conversation is about the relationship between police and black communities, about violence, racism and divisiveness.

To be honest, part of me wants to ignore it and keep my head down. Can a white child psychiatrist have a role in addressing this crisis? If I did not want to raise eyebrows or potentially offend anyone, I’d stop writing now.

But my job is to speak for children, who too often get short shrift because it is “inconvenient” to put their interests first. And here is the truth: the outbursts and the arguments, the anxiety and enmity, the killings and memorials are out there in full view of our kids — black or white, documented or undocumented, immigrants or native born.

Our children need help. They need the adults in their lives to step up and comfort them and also to be honest with them. And though the conversation is different from community to community, parents need to talk to their children about the way things are and the way we think they should be.

Last week’s violence was particularly painful because it threatens to turn even our mourning into something that divides, rather than uniting us. Our children look to us not only to keep them safe but also to help them think about upsetting information, including injustice, violence and division.

Many people have published helpful guidelines for talking to children about these very American issues of race, racism, equality and responsibility. I offer just a few:

  • Acknowledge injustice in our society. Children know when adults are hiding things from them, and it makes them feel unsafe.
  • Talk about the power of positive action. It helps children to know that adults are working together to make our communities and our country more fair.
  • Communicate hope to children. Feeling powerless or passive in the face of bad things makes them more painful.
  • Focus on togetherness and our common welfare. We need to stress that if some Americans are vulnerable, none of us should be comfortable.
  • Affirm the value of peaceful dissent. Passionate differences of opinion are the lifeblood of this country, but disagreements are never an excuse for violence.
  • E pluribus unum. When the conversation turns ugly, our children should know that uniting rather than dividing is the course that gets results.

Speaking these words to our children is very hard when we feel strongly that we are right, and the other side is wrong. The conversation devolves into fearful stereotypes, unkind words and hurtful shouting. Too often it is punctuated with gunfire. Let us remember that this violence and these words and this free-floating anxiety are not lost on our children.

Luckily, we have examples that we can aspire to. Three of them spoke at Tuesday’s memorial for the fallen Dallas police officers. Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley connected the anxiety so many of us live with to its unfortunate outcome. “Those of us who are scared and afraid, angry and confused,” he said, are suffering with an “illness of violence, hatred, xenophobia and indifference that plagues us every day.”

President Obama spoke movingly about the challenges we face in confronting that illness. “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change,” he said. “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.” But examples like the people of Dallas are strong. “All of you,” he told the mourners, “out of great suffering have shown us the meaning of perseverance, of compassion, of hope.”

The best gift we can give our children, and the best way to make them feel safe, is to let them hear and see our efforts to work towards change. “There is no greater love than this,” Dallas police chief David Brown said in memorializing the five officers killed while protecting a protest. “These five men gave their lives for all of us.”

In moments when hope eludes us, let us remember the power of constructive action and of investing in our children — all our children, not just yours or mine. If we help our children, if we nurture and protect their childhoods, if we spare them from our prejudices and misunderstandings, they have a chance to be better than we are. And in turn they will create a better country and lead us to a more perfect union.

Tagged with: In The News
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, is the founding President and Medical Director of the Child Mind Institute and is a senior … Read Bio