How To Talk To Children About Difficult Topics

Recent events in our world have left my heart sore. I grieve for those who have so senselessly lost their lives. I ache with those who fear that these events will cause our world to be less safe – in encouraging or inhibiting gun control; in applauding or condemning police action; and in promoting or discouraging racial profiling. But, most of all, I am distraught that our children have to live in a world where choosing a profession that helps people means that someone is likely to shoot you. Where even asking a reasonable question of authority figures might put your life in danger. Where senseless violence is so commonplace that we no longer recoil in horror at the words, “mass shooting.”

So what do we tell the children about these recent events? How can we explain the unexplainable?

  1. Assure them of their safety. Above all, children need to feel safe. When they feel in danger, their frontal cortex shuts down and they can no longer reason. (this includes adults, too.) Reassure them of your presence and that you will look out for them.
  2. Answer their questions. Is a bad person going to come to their school? (Your teachers and police officers are doing everything they can to make sure you are safe.) Are guns going to hurt them? (Not unless they are used in wrong ways. Guns should always be locked up and unloaded when not in use, and children should never touch them until they are old enough to be trained in how to use them.) Are Muslim people bad? (No, but some Muslims, some Christians, some Atheists, and any other group you can name do bad things.) If I’m black, are the police going to shoot me? (Police officers only shoot when they feel threatened, so it is never a good idea to joke with anyone in authority, or to be sassy to anyone holding a weapon of any kind. Most police officers really like kids.)
  3. Teach them to be accepting of differences. The only way our society will get out of this mess is to raise children who can see beyond ideologies and skin color. Make sure your children are not overly exposed to racist comments or jokes, or to opinionated talk radio or television.
  4. Tell them that there are no easy answers to hard questions. Some might have you believe that if we only have gun reform, we will be safe. It might help, but it won’t stop killing. Or, if we lock up or deport anyone who was not born in our country, everything will be better. Not at all, in fact, that might make things worse in the long run. Others want us to live within walled neighborhoods, and make our schools impregnable, or have armed security guards on every street corner, or some other extreme defense. Not only are these impractical, they cannot stop someone that truly wants to do harm. We just need to use our own common sense and work together to stop the violence.
  5. Above all, love others. All religions teach a form of the Golden Rule (as Christians call it). You are to love God, and love others around you – no matter how different they may seem. Read books that celebrate being different. (Todd Parr is one of my favorite kid’s authors, and he has great books for preschoolers.) Greet everyone with a smile and do what you can to learn about other cultures.

If you want to do something, you don’t have to go to a rally (although I would encourage it for older children). Write Congress, phone your representatives. I would love to see an op-ed piece written by a 12-year-old. If you have other great ideas about how to change the world, please comment below.

Finally, live a life of loving acceptance in front of your kids, and teach them to settle differences nonviolently, and we could build a world more worthy of them.

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