Thanks to Madeleine Rogin for offering to share her perspective on talking to kids about current events. She is a mother, a schoolteacher, and a citizen of Berkeley, CA.
I am the mother of two daughters, an eight year old and a five year old, and their exposure to news of any kind is limited.
When I am alone in the car I usually have the radio tuned to NPR or KPFA. When my kids are in the car, I push in a child friendly cd, or, when I’ve had enough of that, we listen to other music.
I have a vivid memory of watching the news as a young child in the early 1980s and having frequent nightmares about nuclear war. For this reason, I try to maintain our news free bubble as much as I can. At the same time, some of the topics that have taken center stage in the past couple of months, including the Supreme Court's decision to void Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes a coverage formula to determine which states have to receive clearance from the Federal Government before changing their voter registration guidelines; the Cheerios ad on YouTube that featured a mixed race family and the racist comments that forced YouTube to disable all comments on the ad; and the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, have personal meaning to me as a white mother of two biracial (black Ghanaian and white) girls, and, I believe, should be significant to all parents as we work to educate our children around creating and maintaining just, inclusive, diverse communities. In this spirit, here are some guidelines to talking about the news with kids 8 and under:
1. Avoid listening to news/talk radio in the car or at home when your children may not be actively listening or watching with you, but are soaking in the information. This is especially problematic for very young children as they are often not able to process the information and make sense of it. Instead, they pick up on the tone and feeling of the images or sounds, which are often angry, fearful, or sad, and these emotions can be overwhelming, especially when they are not part of a deeper conversation they are engaged in with you around these topics.
2. If and when your child is exposed to the news, facilitate processing the stories. If your older child is listening to the news with you, create time and space to discuss it afterwards –or before. Stress the action oriented, or problem solving, parts of the news story -rather than the doom and gloom. Ask yourself, what are the parts of this story that are about justice or hope? How can I help empower my child to see him/herself as an active participant in working toward justice? Who in this story may serve as a model of anti-racism and how can we talk about the strategies and ideas this person has and how we can apply them in our own family?
3. Find ways to engage around topics of race, racism, and justice with young children. A great place to begin is to celebrate the diversity of our culture, through reading picture books that explicitly discuss different skin tones and ethnicities, and making sure your child’s play area and bedroom library is full of examples of these differences. The next step is to talk with your child about the importance of inclusion and the dangers of excluding others because of race. In the conversation about race with slightly older children, we can discuss more strategies around how to be anti-racists. It is key to talk openly about how to be an ally, rather than a bystander, when it comes to viewing racism. Talk about “what if it’s not me”—what do you do if it’s not you that’s the victim of prejudice. Also, talk to your child about someone your child knows who works to stand up for a community and make positive change. This will help your child begin to understand themes of inclusion and social justice and become empowered to make positive changes. You can also read children’s books that have “changemakers” in them. “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss is a good one to use to get the conversation started with young children.
How much to say and how to say it are some of the biggest questions we have as parents when it comes to talking about difficult topics. As I stumble through these conversations with my own children I realize how important it is to communicate how people of all genders, races, and ethnicities work together toward goals of justice. Of equal importance is finding ways to be a part of that endeavor through action projects. Ask your child what problems he/she sees in your community and find ways to take action together, through community service, church groups or volunteering, and continue to create space for your child to ask their growing questions. The news can often feel overwhelming and at time devastating. Finding ways to take action to solve problems is a great way to process these feelings and become a part of the solution. This is true not only for our kids, but for all of us.
Related: Toolkit for “When Bad Things Happen” on Tolerance.org