Don't Just Talk to Kids About Violence, Help Them Take Action

Hiding what happened in Connecticut from kids isn't the answer. Help them take action.

This afternoon when I go pick my two sons up from school, I'm going to hug them extra tight. I know in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, every parent across America is doing the same. And then I'm going to have to tell my boys how someone went into that school and shot and killed seven educators and 20 children.

This won't be the first time I'll need to have a conversation with them about gun violence or a mass shooting. As black boys they also worry that, like Florida teens Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, they could be shot by someone who thinks their music is up too loud or that they look suspicious. Given the gun violence in Chicago, they're nervous about going to visit relatives there. And, after the mall shooting in Oregon earlier this week they're anxious about going holiday shopping.

After the shooting in Oregon, I told my sons the same thing I told them after last summer's movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado—it was just an isolated incident so don't be afraid. But, I know these shootings are chipping away at their sense of safety. We'll have this conversation tonight and they'll see their schools differently, too.

So why talk to my sons about it at all—and why should other parents, educators, or caregivers address it? Well, when I talk to my boys about about why they're getting an education, we don't talk about test scores. We don't talk about being prepared to enter the workforce, or helping America maintain her economic dominance. Instead, we talk about how the reason they're getting an education is so they can be better equipped to be a good citizen—a good community member—and so they can acquire the knowledge and skills to solve the problems in our world. And, clearly, gun violence is a problem that needs solving.

Psychologists also say it's better to be honest about what's happened instead of hiding it from kids. The key is to have the conversation in an age-appropriate way that reassures kids that they're safe and doesn't rob them of their innocence. That's easier said than done, especially when what's happened brings up so many emotions for each of us.

One resource to help with the conversation comes from the American Psychological Association. They have tips specifically for talking to children in the aftermath of a school shooting, including finding times when kids "are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner, or at bedtime," and "remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug."

The National PTA and the Anti-Defamation League also have some excellent tips on talking with children about violence. They suggest preparing for the conversation by coming to terms with your own feelings and recognizing how "your past experiences may influence how you look at current situations." It's also imperative that we reassure children that "police, rescue workers, and government and private agencies" are doing their best to keep us safe. In the case of today's tragedy, I'll be adding teachers to that list, too.

However, what I still find most noteworthy in their recommendations are their suggestions for helping kids take action—it's critical that they "know that people are not powerless in the face of hate; there are many things children and adults can do." They suggest:

  • Have regular discussions about ways people can address hate. Brainstorm ways to address these concerns at home, in school and in the community. Examples include speaking out against name-calling, making friends with people who are different from you, learning about many cultural groups and exploring ways to increase intergroup understanding. Discuss specific steps to make these things happen.
  • Help children understand that if hateful words go unchallenged, they can escalate to acts of physical violence. Discuss how hate behaviors usually begin with unkind words. Discuss and practice ways children can challenge name-calling and bullying. Even preschool children can learn to say, "Don’t call him that; that's not his name!" or "Don't call her that; she doesn't like that!" or "Don't call me that; it's not fair!"
  • Help children understand that sometimes it might not be safe for them to intervene; teach children to seek adult assistance when someone is being harassed or bullied.
  • Help your children feel good about themselves so that they learn to see themselves as people who can contribute to creating a better world.

We all need that advice. And as adults, we're going to have to figure out how to take meaningful action—on guns, on mental health, on a whole host of issues—regardless of our personal politics. There are parents grieving out there right now—parents whose children, as President Obama said in his statement, had their entire lives ahead of them. We owe it to those children—and all the other victims of these senseless tragedies—to do something.

Click here to add demanding that President Obama and Congress take action on gun violence to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Click here to add empowering children to take action against hate and violence to your GOOD "to-do" list.\n

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