The Challenge of Talking to Black Children About What’s Happening in the World
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Doing your best to reduce fear, instill confidence, and tell the truth
It’s conventional wisdom in parenting to keep your children out of harm’s way and shelter them from the cruelty that can occur in the world. It’s also a natural instinct in mothering to protect your children’s innocence so they can grow freely without the long-term effects of trauma. However, as the digital age continually surfaces information that finds its way to your children’s consciousness, it becomes increasingly harder to shelter them from it. They overhear the morning news show you have on television as you get ready for work and the phone conversations you have about what Donald Trump said—not to mention the ongoing stories of gun violence, international terror attacks, and the killings of black men, women, and children by law enforcement, inciting a new movement for black lives.
The list goes on and on; and, unfortunately, it will continue.
For black people, the repeated police shootings covered in the news are deeply affecting. With the killings of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Mike Brown; the incident in the South Carolina classroom; and what happened between police and partygoers at a community pool in McKinney, Texas, Solo Moms (and all moms) of black boys and girls are given more and more reasons to have prescient conversations with their children about what they should do if they’re confronted by police—and frankly, what to do in general.
I have a Solo Mom friend whose black teenage son has been so affected by current events that he prank-called the local police department in anger. Unfortunately, in order to “teach him a lesson,” he was sentenced to jail time. Distressed by her usually mild-mannered son’s behavior and knowing he’s depressed, she reached out for support.
Right now, Solo Moms with black children are in a unique and unfortunate club. And if you’re black as well, it can feel doubly binding. However, mothers are gathering together in solidarity to support one another through their fears. They have questions, such as these: What do I do when my young child stops being cute and starts to be perceived as a threat? At what age does this typically occur? What precautions can I take to protect my child? Should I talk to them about this? How? Managing all the emotions that surround all of this can be daunting.
I spent some time in a deep conversation with psychotherapist Kyana Brindle, daughter of a Solo Mom herself, about ways in which to approach this sensitive subject with your children. Brindle has spent a decade working with children and families dealing with all kinds of emotional trauma, including focusing on ways to help them heal and access joy.
Here’s what we discussed:
Try not to project your fear. It is difficult to not project fear onto your child(ren). There is a level of self-awareness and self-care that moms need to put in place for themselves first in order to manage their own experience and relay this information to their children in a constructive way. It helps to clarify these matters yourself before communicating your thoughts to your child. Finding solidarity is helpful, and keep in mind there is no “right” way to protect your child from the fears you have. Managing these worries as best you can is key.
Avoiding the topic does not work. While evading certain atrocities might seem like the best course of action, it isn’t. Children (even babies) have cognitive awareness of their mother’s emotional state.
Children will sense concern and try to figure out why you are feeling the way you are, and by default, they might even blame themselves because of their developmental stage and lack of understanding. (Think back to when you were a child and something was not going right. Do you recall how you perceived your mother’s reaction?) Try to remember they don’t have the intellectual capacity to put into context what is happening with regard to your response to world events—but they are feeling it. Also, they are listening and possibly talking with other children. Take the initiative and speak with your child.
Talk to your children by asking engaging questions. There is no need to pull out your laptop and show them your Facebook feed of horrible news stories. Start by asking them age-appropriate, specific questions to get the ball rolling.
Often people ask children, “How was school today?” This question is an invitation to talk, but it’s not specific enough. Instead, try questions such as these: “Did you see your friends?” “How did you feel at the end of the day?” “Was there something you wanted to talk about in school today but didn’t want to say?”
Extending the invitation to share in a more focused way will allow the conversation to flourish and get your children to share details. Once the door is open, you can ask about what is happening in the world, such as “Have you heard anything that is going on in the news?” “What are your thoughts about what is happening on TV?” “Has your teacher said anything about—?” “How do you feel about—?”
Your goal is to get a sense of their inner world to help you assess how they are feeling about and interpreting what is happening in the world. Are they worried, afraid, oblivious, and/or self-protective? Remember to caution yourself about projecting your thoughts onto them by asking leading questions, such as “Aren’t you afraid?” They might not be, and that is what’s real for them. If they are, comfort them. Take note of what their needs might be by listening and watching their behavior.
Some behaviors to watch out for. For older children, becoming withdrawn or a change in social behavior, such as not going out with friends, changes in eating and sleeping patterns (too much or too little), and being easily irritable can signify there might be an issue. I know this might sound like the behavior of a typical teenager, but anything too out of the ordinary for your child should be monitored.
For younger children, hair pulling, bed-wetting, regressing to thumb sucking if they’ve stopped, baby talk, and/or anxiousness are things to observe.
Talk to your children about their identity. How children perceive themselves is very important. At a young age, children sometimes talk about themselves the way you talk about yourself, especially if you’re of the same racial identity as your children. If you aren’t, there is more of an onus to learn how they see themselves, and that applies no matter what the ages of your children are. Even kindergartners are aware of how they are treated among different people. For example, black children can see the difference between how they are spoken to in their black community versus in spaces that are inhabited by others. Again, they are not necessarily intellectualizing their treatment, but they are aware of it. (There is the famous Clark doll test that demonstrates this notion of how quickly they become aware of the difference from socialization.) It is helpful to have them form their sense of identity with you because it sends a strong message that there is agency in their lives. It also gives them space to talk about themselves.
A black Solo Mom or Solo Moms with black children might hear their children say, “We were talking about the violence at school (or slavery), and everyone was looking at me.” A white child would not have that experience. Black children are often socialized to feel powerless. For example, respectability politics in the form of “if black boys pull up their pants, then they won’t get confronted by police” sends that message of powerlessness.
In the age of popular culture and fashion, conversations of that nature are not helpful. It also could be argued that such a statement/reasoning is not necessarily true. By all means, validate your children’s experiences. Acknowledging racism and discrimination does not have to limit your children’s abilities to have a fulfilling life, but to ignore the nuance of these realities does not protect them.
Children are resilient. Helping children frame who they are as well as what their goals may be and how to work toward them will allow them to feel good about who they are in the world. The aim is to mitigate fear while bolstering their understanding of the potential dangers to their well-being. Such a task is difficult and requires a delicate balance, but it’s not impossible. Our desire is for our black children to live as freely as possible. It is also important to note that Latinos, Muslims, the Asian diaspora, recent immigrants, and the LGBTQ communities have similar concerns.
There are no magical solutions here. For black people, the reality is that we are always managing microaggressions and dealing with systemic racism. The challenge is how to do that successfully as a parent, and by that I mean keeping your children aware while also keeping their spirit intact. Solo Moms should talk to one another about their fears and pain, and organize among themselves to keep all of our children as safe as possible.
Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.
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