“Why is everyone shooting each other?” my nine-year-old asked the other day. Good question.
As a parent it can be hard to know how to talk with your kids about the craziness in the world right now: police being shot, police killing African Americans, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, the negative political climate, and more.
When you pull up your email, news is on the front page. There’s 24 hours of news on the television. News updates pop up on your iPhone. We are bombarded with disheartening information. Our children are also privy to this news. When children are young, most of us try to keep them away from the news. But, as they enter elementary, middle and high school, they are most likely going to hear about important world news. It isn’t uncommon for my children to know about events by the time they come home from school or from a friend’s house.
It’s hard enough for adults to understand and cope with the tragedies we seem bombarded with. But to younger minds, it can be even more confusing, frightening, and depressing. It’s, however, a “teaching moment” where parents can help their children and teens develop skills for staying peaceful and open in a world searching for black and white answers. Events, even major news stories, are typically discussed in brief snippets of time in the news. The people who are interviewed at the scenes of disasters are typically extremely upset or angry. When politicians are interviewed about events, they often speak in ‘black and white’ terms, hoping to secure the support of their voting base. In general, we’re spoon fed emotionally-charged and narrow information about complex issues. This information is played over and over again. So, it’s easy to jump to ideas like “all cops kill African Americans,” or “all Muslims are terrorists,” or “there are a lot of ‘bad guys’ in the world.”
Ironically, social research has shown, this is how prejudice is taught in racists and sexist families: stereotypes are given about minority groups, repeated frequently, and then it’s emphasized when a person from that minority group does the stereotyped behavior. Anything that goes against the stereotype is ignored. Over time, children train their brain to search for confirmation for their racist ideas and to ignore information that goes against their biased ideas.
There are several things we can do to help children and teens create an understanding about world tragedies. Education is important: let them know how information in the media is typically presented and these issues are typically much more complicated. Have family discussions and ask every family member what they think “the deeper” issues are. If a family member has read an in-depth article about the issue, ask them to describe what they learned. Make sure even younger children have a voice and their ideas are valued.
If family members are evidencing any racists or ‘black and white’ ideas, educate them about how prejudiced thinking develops. Ask them to notice the opposite: people being kind to each other, people of different races and religions interacting peacefully together, police officers helping African American people.
Teach them “peace skills.” It’s helpful for adults to remind kids most people try to be good. Encourage them to pray for, or send peaceful thoughts, to all the people involved in the tragedy. Encourage them to try to limit how much they think about tragedies and to keep their mind thinking about positive things. Limit the amount of news coming into your home.
I asked my teenager and some of her friends if they felt afraid of Muslims or African Americans after the latest week of terrorism and an African American gunman shooting police officers. They all replied, “No.” Rather than leaving it simply at that, I asked them, “Why not, when it seems to be all we hear about on the news?” One girl replied, “The Muslims I know aren’t terrorists. There are a lot of Muslims and African Americans in America and they aren’t all shooting people. White people do tons of bad stuff and no one says it’s because they’re white.”
They can teach us a lot, too.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.