Don’t Know What to Say to Kids about Civil Unrest and Tragic Events? Foster Critical Thinking

mother daughter worried watching new

My daughter called me on January 6, 2021, in the midst of the most profound civil unrest any US citizen has witnessed in our lifetime, and said, "Mom, the whole world's on fire." She sounded so sad, so disillusioned. She was deeply moved by the tragic events of the day.

In that moment, as we talked, I said something like, "I hear you, kiddo. It’s scary, I know." At some point I asked, "Do you want to hear how I'm choosing to think about it? I think it’s more like a fire that we're in the process of putting out." Not wanting to dismiss her feelings, I also said something like, "I can see how it feels that way to you right now."

When You Have No Idea What to Say

Did I handle that well? I have no idea. There's no precedent for this. For her, or for me. There’s no handbook for talking to kids about civil unrest or tragic events.

But I can tell you this: It was not my only conversation with her – or with any of my kids – on that most challenging day. It was one of many.

  • We texted about the resiliency of democracy and the opportunity to test and improve it.
  • We grieved for the loss of decency.
  • We commiserated about the inherent racism of the day.
  • We share links about handling mental illness.
  • We discussed the impact of learning to take responsibility for mistakes.

And so, as I spent the evening of January 6 watching C-Span and thinking about what I could say to you – what message I could share with other conscious parents that would be helpful in these surreal, uncertain and unprecedented times – I realized that the most important thing for me to share is actually not about what’s happening in the world.

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It’s About Communication

The key to talking to kids about ANY difficult situation is that communication is a process. You see, it’s never really about what you say in a single conversation. It’s about what you say over time, in a series of conversations, that matters most.

There’s no one sex talk. Or drugs talk. Or race talk. Or safety talk. Or civics talk, apparently.

We don't want to lecture our kids about important topics. We want to talk with them. To exchange thoughts and ideas. To encourage them to evaluate information. To make assessments and develop opinions… even if they differ from yours.

The world has been turning upside down, of late. I don’t need to remind you of all the ways that’s happening. Most of us are at a loss as to how to respond ourselves, much less model for our kids. And the good news is that it’s not as important what you say as how you say it.

Foster Critical Thinking

We want our kids to learn to think critically – because that, above all else, is fundamental to an educated electorate. It is essential to cultivate responsibility for civic-mindedness. And it is one of the most important skills they can take into adulthood.

The secret to how to talk to our kids about anything and everything of importance is to stay in relationship with them, so that

  • they feel safe when having difficult conversations
  • they'll be willing to have complicated conversations with you, over time
  • you can guide them to evaluate and think critically

When I was a teenager, my mother was a strong advocate of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). I was not. At fourteen, I'm a bit embarrassed to share, I was too worried about having to share a bathroom with boys to understand the bigger picture of equal rights.

My mother, to her credit, stayed in conversation with me, without judging me for my opinion. She continued to let me know what she thought, and why. She helped me assess the information that I was getting, consider the source, discern what was accurate, and what was not. It didn’t take long for me to re-evaluate my position and come to my own decision in support of the ERA (and ultimately become a professional advocate for women's rights!). But I didn't do it because my mom told me to. I came to that decision by evaluating information, staying in conversation, and developing an opinion based on critically evaluating information.

How to Talk with Kids about Civil Unrest?

So how should we respond to the current civil unrest in our country? With anger? Understanding? Rational explanation? Optimism? Fatalism? I honestly don’t know what makes sense for you and your family.

But I do know this. As a parent, we are responsible to teach our children and young adults to think consciously and critically. We want them to feel their feelings, while still learning to challenge what they hear and read, and assess it for accuracy. To learn to form their own opinions, instead of repeating the trope of others.

On the night of January 6, I was glued to the television. I watched at least 4 different stations. Ultimately, I landed on C-span because I wanted to hear all different opinions, and then make an informed decision. I didn’t want commentators telling me what to think. I wanted to listen to the elected officials of our nation, from both sides of the aisle, so that I could think thoughtfully and critically about the events taking place.

We have had a lot to process over the last few years. Most of us haven’t known what to say to our kids about school shootings. About bombings and acts of senseless violence. About bullying, even among our elected officials. About institutionalized racism. About the rights of the individual in relation to the responsibility of the community. And that, as you know, is just scratching the surface.

So, how do we explain a governmental shutdown? Or an assault on the US capital?

What Do We Tell Our Children?

  • We give them the facts.
  • We teach them to discern whether they can trust those facts.
  • We tell them how we are interpreting those facts.
  • We might even tell them how others are interpreting them.
  • And then we begin to walk them through a process of critical thinking, of exploring what they think and how they feel about the facts.
  • And we do that over time.

It's not a single conversation. Nothing important ever is.

One more thing. These questions don’t get any easier as our children become adults, I assure you. I spent Wednesday, January 6, alternately hiding from the news, and watching it, horrified. And throughout (and since), I was in ongoing communication about civil unrest and tragic events with my adult kids, who are thinking critically and trying to make sense of it all, just as I am.

Thankfully, the conversations continue.

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