“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you`ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”. – Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
Without question, we live in times when social issues in our country and the world position themselves at the forefront of our lives. They present themselves with our family and friends, in our entertainment, and nearly everywhere we go. At times, we can tune out the rhetoric and debate. Other times, we verbally and physically engage in the issue at hand. There are times too when we think our children are not even attending to the world outside their own universe. Yet, as parents, we must remember they are attentive at a very visceral level. Although they may not fully comprehend the significance of what is going on, they feel it.
When my daughter was 7 years old, the seemingly unending OJ Simpson trial was in full swing. She surprised me one evening to ask if I thought he was guilty. Pausing to respond at an age-appropriate level, I realized I wasn’t sure what she knew about the case. So I asked her. Her response provided context for my response and allowed engagement in further dialogue.
She knew that OJ was accused of having “hurt two people really bad,” and that it must be “really bad” because it was on the news “all the time.” She believed that one of the persons hurt was his wife. My response brought some cohesion to her information: “Yes honey, he is accused of hurting his wife and a friend of hers. In fact, they died because of how badly they were hurt.”
What followed was my providing what I knew through news reports about what happened, acknowledging that the court’s job to have more information to make a decision about his guilt while allowing that I had an opinion of my own. She listened. What was a simple question became an understanding of evidence, the courts, the legal system, and juror responsibility, as well as a moral conversation about harm to others – all at a level this 7 year old could understand.
Talking about the news happens in everyday moments. Kids ask questions in the car, on a walk, while you’re rushing out the door. The phrases “Don’t worry about it” or “You’re too young to understand” can leave a child more unsettled than satisfied. Remember: They brought up the topic because they already feel something about it. The conversation need not be monumental or time-consuming, just genuine and empathetic.
Here are some strategies to truly listen to what your child is thinking and feeling while engaging in meaningful dialogue together.
Find Out What Your Child Knows
In my conversation about the OJ trial, I asked an open-ended question to learn what she knew. To ask “What have you heard about it?” is an invitation to share not only knowledge but also feelings. We are in a listening stage at this time, so if information is not complete you’ll fill in the blanks later. If it is incorrect, we can correct it next.
Ask a Follow-up Question
A follow-up question can provide you context for their information or misinformation. To ask “Where did you hear that?” can open a door for context and allow you to correct with new perspectives or information. For example, a child might hear about an earthquake that was followed by a tsunami warning. The child also heard from a school mate that “We’re going to get washed away by a giant wave.” At this point, we want to sort through the facts and offer more accurate information. While a significant earthquake might have occurred somewhere in the world, the danger of a tsunami affecting us locally is very slim. That reassurance is what we want to convey while honoring their information and concern yet putting forth a new perspective.
Let’s say their information is fairly correct. Following up with questions can further discussion that encourages your child to formulate opinions and share concerns. Turn the tsunami conversation into a discussion about earthquakes here in California: “What might we need if there was an earthquake here?” “Have you talked about earthquakes in school?” “What might people need who are affected by earthquakes?” and if modeling altruism, “Shall we look for ways we can help?”
Give information to children in ways that makes sense to them. Often, a few sentences are enough for younger children. Older children and adolescents may want to engage at a more meaningful level. Consider how you might talk about sex with your children. Imagine that conversation at age 6, then 12, then 14, and then as young adults. It isn’t just a “need-to-know-based conversation” but also a “what-do-they-want-to-know and what-will-they-understand conversation.” This framework works for other social issues as well.
Listen and Acknowledge
We’ve described underlying feelings and how they help children formulate questions about social issues. It is important to acknowledge these feelings and help your child come to a place of acceptance about them.
Gun violence in schools, for example, has become an all-too-frequent news story, which, expectedly, raises anxiety for parents and for children. Imagine your child raises the question after seeing a news report about a school shooting. First, acknowledge the fear or worry that you see or hear in the child. Then reference the work done by their school to help promote safety. Point out the importance of sharing when they are worried about a classmate. Assure the child that you are always just a phone call away. While we cannot prevent a horrific event, we can provide a sense of protection that we and others would put into place.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
We’ve described how to begin conversations about difficult issues and how we can respond to our children. We’ve described how we treat others, being available to children, and gathering accurate information. Our ability to model a safe, fair, open place for individuals to discuss important questions speaks to our parenting role in raising our children as responsible individuals. Daily examples might include the following:
- If your children are fearful of shootings and know there are guns in the home, demonstrate how secure they are.
- If your children respond adversely to bullying, show how your interactions with others are assertive and respectful.
- If your children have questionable sources of information, teach them how to research the subject.
Handling the Hot Topics
According to the independent polling group, ISideWith.com, the top 5 social issues identified by their readership are abortion, gun control, immigration, healthcare, and same-sex marriage. What kind of conversation would you like to encourage with your child on these topics? Would your goal be to persuade them or to help them formulate opinions they can stand behind?
These are not easy topics or issues, yet you may have already formulated opinions that have evolved over your own lifetime. Questions your children ask demonstrate their readiness to engage in their own exploration of social issues. Using the strategies above can help them on that journey and strengthen the relationship you have as an open and empathetic individual in their lives.