Parenting in these Interesting Times is pretty awful sometimes.
It’s also incredible and brings me more hope than nearly anything else has in the last 3 years, though.
My husband and I have three kids. They’re 12, 9, and 8 years old and we’ve been open and honest with them since they were born. We’re both white, and we have worked to raise them with knowledge of their privilege as well as helping them understand anti-racism (instead of “colorblindness”), sexism, and homophobia since a very young age. White families especially need to teach our kids about these things because the wider culture isn’t going to do it for us. We’re “the norm” and it’s unacceptable for us to just let our kids grow up assuming that’s fine.
Our parenting goals have been to respect our kids as autonomous human beings while balancing that with their safety and others’ autonomy. In practice, this means that my kids don’t have to hug people they don’t want to hug, but they had to sit in carseats even if they threw a tantrum. They can choose when to use their screens or read or play outside, but they do have limits that they have to respect.
We aren’t perfect parents by any means. I struggled with undiagnosed, unmedicated postpartum anxiety when they were young and yelled more than I should have. We get frustrated because kids are frustrated and kids are FRUSTRATING! But our parenting priority is treating all kids like the autonomous human beings with fundamental rights that they are.
Which brings me to… today. The Interesting Times I mentioned above. The creeping tide of fascism. Our subculture of xenophobia and jingoism that got put into power by a long process of undemocratic and treasonous gerrymandering and the subjugation of democratic rights.
This is a toughie when you’re talking to sweet, innocent toddlers and preschoolers and idealistic elementary students and sarcastic but still idealistic middle schoolers and high schoolers who just realized their education was false and the democracy (and teachers and pastors and authority figures) they believed were wrong at best, or much worse – liars.
However, there are a few ways to make these discussions a bit more fruitful as a parent, aunt/uncle, or any other loving caregiver.
The first, and the most important for every single age group:
Welcome kids’ emotions and feelings and hold them together with the kids in a safe space. Kids who feel like strong emotions that are coded as negative are “bad” or otherwise unwelcome won’t be open with you. Tears and yelling and anger and hurt and grief are all completely normal and okay – and feeling them with you there for support will mean the kids will learn they don’t have to repress themselves.
For toddlers and preschoolers:
Use the Mr. Rogers method of looking for the helpers. Children at this age desperately need to feel safe with their caretakers. It’s incredibly easy to talk to kids this age about stuff like sex (make it simple, use the correct words for body parts, talk about consent, and discuss it pretty clinically), but discussing death and state-sanctioned kidnapping is REALLY SCARY.
A toddler or preschooler needs to know that they are safe and their parents have the power to keep them safe. Even if it’s not technically true these days (especially if you’re a person of color or an immigrant!), and even if it feels incredibly unfair to get to say “we’re citizens so we are safe” – keep kids’ hearts safe while you’re talking to them about the news. “The government is doing some things that harm these families and the kids and parents are being kept apart right now. This isn’t something that’s going to happen to you, and we and all the other adults we know are working hard to make this better for all the people in trouble. We’re giving money and we’re protesting and we’re making sure new people are put into the government. But it IS terrible, and we’re angry and sad about it. We love you, and we want these kids to have their parents back with them as soon as possible because they love their kids just as much as we love you.”
For elementary students:
These kids can understand a lot more about the difficulty of pushing back against the government than younger kids can. My kids started learning about the Civil Rights Era in school, and by 2nd grade they were learning about Ruby Bridges being screamed at by white adults and MLK getting assassinated. This varies based on school system. My kids are in Chicago Public Schools where they don’t whitewash it as much as many places do, but I still had to do some “homework” with them about the way people teach this history and how it whitewashes MLK and erases the contributions of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Speaking to kids about how we are working hard to improve the people in charge of our country by protesting, voting, donating, etc. is crucial, as is bringing kids to protests and letting them see you living out your ideals. Stand up to family members who are saying hurtful things, “Uncle John, I don’t feel comfortable with you saying that, especially in front of kids. Please be respectful of us.”
Make yourself available to questions the kids have even if they’re scary or upsetting to you. If you can’t answer questions because of your own anxiety or similar mental health struggles, find a trusted adult who can help them. (In my family, my anxiety acts up severely about school shootings, so I refer the kids to my husband when they want to have those discussions.) Ensure the kids feel like their concerns are important.
Helping kids have something to do to help will help them feel secure AND help them learn activism. Kids can:
- Make protest signs
- Help look up charities for your donations
- Write letters to elected officials
- Help you call elected officials (call your favorite “family values” politician and tell them your 5th grader has something to say and enjoy the guilt trip!)
- Look up youtube videos about stepping in when people are being bullied. Non-violent conflict resolution is a great keyword here.
For middle and high school students:
These kids are learning sarcasm and humor and often need reminding that empathy and love and friendship is not uncool. They can do everything the elementary kids can, and they need the same reassurance that little kids need, but they can also start to make their own choices about when to step in. They need to practice how to stand up for people with marginalized identities, how and when to go to an authority figure, and how to stand up to their friends.
You’re not going to be able to teach all of these things but you’re going to be their soft place to land while they practice living out their values. You’ll give them ideas, support them, sometimes maybe march angrily into the principal’s office if they’re treated poorly by authority figures – and you’ll answer their tough questions. Practicing telling the truth when they’re little is so crucial because 1) you’ll have more practice and will feel less awkward and 2) they’ll trust you to tell them the truth and they’ll know you won’t laugh at them for whatever they ask.
The big takeaway to all of this? Teaching kids about difficult topics doesn’t have to be a miserable slog. Kids are smart, interesting, invested human beings who want to make their world a better place. Help them figure out how to do it by giving them ways to take ownership of the world they live in, and help them understand that parents all over the world want nothing more than to protect their babies and children. We can all help, but pretending nothing is going on is going to do kids a major disservice in the long run.
Leah Chibe is originally from northern Michigan but has been living on the south side of Chicago for 15 years with her husband and, eventually, kids/dogs/a biergarten in the backyard. She is currently in seminary working to become a Lutheran chaplain. She can be reached at @LeahChibe on Twitter.
Moderator Note from Captain Awkward:
Could we keep the discussion on this thread for parents of kids under 18, by parents of kids under 18 today? If you don’t have the problem of trying to explain world events to kids right now, cool! This is not your catch-all drive-by politics-feelings-thread. Thank you.