A baby crying when a stranger comes too close. A school-aged boy stomping his feet when the Nintendo must be turned off. A teenager slamming the front door because of a bad grade at school. An adult yelling at the TV because of an unfair strike against their favorite baseball team. All of these emotional expressions are, in essence, protests. Voicing frustration, irritation, anger, or other troubling feelings is a normal and appropriate response to when things don’t go your way. Protesting is a healthy way of dealing with the ups and downs of life, relieving stress and anxiety and, in the end, helps us to feel better and move forward.
In this moment, our country is protesting. We are reckoning decades, if not centuries, of inhumane and abhorrent injustice causing a tsunami of painful emotions, civil unrest, and activism. These protests against our history and current events are the necessary recourse needed for change. And although these protests are warranted, they may still be very scary to children. So how can parents help their children understand what is going on? And further, how do parents help their children be open-minded and adaptable for the changes necessary for today and the inevitable change that comes in the future?
Understanding what a protest is and why people protest can help alleviate anxiety and stress for children. The age of your child should help guide parents on what is developmentally appropriate for their children to know in regards to current events. In our last blog we discuss traumatic news and events, how such stories impact children of various ages, and how parents can respond to help their children. If your child hasn’t come to you to discuss these issues, there is no need to bring it up yourself. It’s important to follow your child’s lead on these matters. When parents discuss unsolicited topics with their children, it may cause unnecessary anxiety.
For children under seven years old, try to shield them from current events as they are much too young to understand what is happening. For young children who have seen or heard events, a simple explanation followed by reassurance and endless comfort will help alleviate their anxieties. It may sound something like:
‘I know that was hard to see/hear. Sometimes people get very upset and need to express their feelings. Expressing your feelings is a very healthy thing to do. It may feel scary because they have big feelings, but Mommy and Daddy are here to take care of you and to protect you.’
School-aged children will likely have more exposure to events from TV, the Internet, friends, etc. If possible, avoid and shield the brutal details of current events, as children’s thinking at this age is still concrete and they may have a hard time understanding that not all police officers are bad or that the protests are not happening around the corner. Scaring children only causes nightmares, insecurities, and anxiety, and does little good to explain the real issues at hand.
If your child has seen or heard traumatic events, like police brutality, provide a straight forward explanation, then follow with reassurances. It may sound something like:
‘What happened was really awful and scary. It was wrong what happened and I’m sorry you had to see that. Mommy and daddy are here to make sure you are safe, to talk about it if you want, and if you need a cuddle.’
If your child wants to talk about protests, listen carefully to what they have learned and be sure to set the facts straight. Be an active listener and help them evaluate what they have learned. It may sound something like:
‘People are very angry with how they or others have been treated because of the way they look or the color of their skin. When people are angry because of unfair treatment, we have the right in the United States to protest. Protesting is a way to ask for help - by expressing your feelings outside in public so that people in the community can see. There are many different ways that people can protest. It lets the people in charge know that people are frustrated and need change. Sometimes change happens and sometimes it takes a long time.’
Engaging in a conversation with your child about what they’ve seen or heard can help them process events:
‘What do you think about what you’ve heard/seen?’
‘I wonder how that would feel to be treated that way just because of how you look?’
‘Can you think of a time when you have protested? When you thought something was unfair either at school or at home?’
Explore what it felt like to protest:
‘How did you feel when you were protesting?’
‘How did you feel after you were protesting?’
‘What made you feel better?’
Exploring what it means to protest helps children know that it is okay to be upset and to ask for help.
For teenagers, they likely already know what a protest is, but they may need help understanding what is happening, sorting out their thoughts, and assessing their beliefs on these topics. Teens are able to have a more in-depth conversation, likely with passionate views and strong opinions. Parents can help their teen evaluate current events as well as their opinions by reflecting what they are saying. It may sound something like:
‘It sounds like you are angry with…’
‘It sounds like you think that police should/shouldn’t be allowed to…’
‘It sounds like you think that protesters should/shouldn’t be allowed to…’
It’s important not to argue with your teen. They are trying to figure things out and make sense of what is going on. Parents can act as their sounding board. If parents disagree, be respectful of your teen’s ideas and offer your opinions gently as another idea to consider. It may sound something like:
‘I wonder what would happen if… ?’
‘What do you think about…?’
Explaining and evaluating protests is an important step to understanding their importance and the healthy benefits behind it. But what can parents do to help their children be adaptable, embrace differences, and value diversity and inclusion.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi
From our decades of working with thousands of children, parents, and families at Smart Love, we know that the most effective way children learn behavior is from observing and copying those people closest to them - parents and caregivers. An example may be helping children learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, as Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. note in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “True manners are learned only by imitation. If you and your husband always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to each other, to your son and to others, your son will pick up this habit on his own in the next few years.”* Similarly, children imitate their parents’ coping skills by how their parents respond to their child’s troubling and challenging emotions. For example, when a child is upset because he cannot go to a friend’s house and begins to express his frustrations, he learns how to handle those emotions by how his parents respond to him in those moments. Should the parent respond defensively, a child observes that this is how to deal with frustration. Should the parent respond by helping their child understand their own feelings and offer kindness and patience, their child will learn that understanding, kindness, and patience is how to handle frustrating feelings.
“There is a misguided notion that being kind to children who are ‘misbehaving’ encourages the misbehavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your ongoing kindness provides a model of relating that your son will emulate. On the other hand, when parents respond punitively toward a misbehaving child, the child copies the harsh response and learns to treat himself and others punitively. So a punitive response actually strengthens a child’s aggressive behavior, and a kind response makes it less likely to occur.”*
When parents show understanding, patience, and kindness to children and all of their behaviors, they are modeling how to be flexible and adaptable. As children grow, these skills are used in almost every aspect of life - socially, academically, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, allowing children to react calmly and rationally to challenges.
So how then do parents help their children learn to embrace diversity and expect inclusion and equality? Again, by modeling.
Within a family there are many opportunities to explore diversity. Although family members may look the same, practice the same religion, or hold similar values - there are always differences that parents can use to practice inclusion. Diversity exists in preferences, like food, activities, or interests; in opinions of movies, books, or music; and even in physical features like hair color, height, or eye color. When parents respond to these differences in a matter of a fact way, without negative or positive commentary, children learn that differences are just that - differences that everyone has. It could sounds something like:
‘Madison has long, straight, brown hair. Billy has short, curly, black hair. We are all beautiful and unique!’
‘Sophia likes to play soccer. Daddy likes to read. I wonder what activity you like to do?’
‘It sounds like Sam really liked the movie and Maggie didn't. What did you like about it, Sam? What didn't you like, Maggie?'
Simple acknowledgment and understanding that is free from judgment helps children to embrace the differences they experience in the world. As our director of The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool, Kelly Perez, affirms, "it is only when children receive the reflection that they are heard and understood by their parents, and feel that their parents’ love for them is not altered because of it, are they then able to imitate such behavior and responses." Conversely, when a child’s thoughts, ideas, wants, needs, etc. are rejected or judged, embracing diversity - in all of its forms, may be more challenging as they will take it as a personal assault against their own opinions and thoughts.
“Forcing children to [behave] causes resentment and teaches coercion as a model for making others do as you want.”* Drs. Pieper explain, “We can always make young children behave as we want. The issue is how to make them want to behave considerately when they are not under our direct control. The best way to do that is to treat them with politeness and respect. If you always say ‘please’ and use an affectionate tone when you ask your children to do something, they will copy you and, over time, will grow into thoughtful, polite individuals. It is so important to keep in mind that the most formative influence on our children is not what we say or what we make our children say, but how we treat them.”*
But what happens when there is disagreement? Differences in opinion is normal and expected in life. When children are disagreeing, it’s important for parents to help them figure out their feelings and understand that it’s okay to have those emotions. It could sound something like:
‘It sounds like you are offended that Caroline doesn’t like Harry Potter. It can be hard when friends have different opinions. Maybe you are feeling a little hurt?’
There is no need to talk your child out of these feelings, again, modeling acceptance of all of her feelings, even the ones that are challenging or don’t feel good, is a key step to helping her embrace our differences and understanding the richness diversity brings. Parents can help their children understand differences by looking at their own family and highlighting the value it brings, building empathy and bringing families, friends, and neighbors closer. It could sound something like:
‘It’s normal and okay when people have different opinions. Everyone has things that they like and do not like, and that is okay. Sometimes mommy likes Thai food, but daddy prefers Italian. Before daddy met mommy, he never had Thai food, but now he enjoys it! No matter what our preferences or differences are - we love each other no matter what.’
Valuing our differences helps children value others’ ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Doing so without judgment helps children’s empathy grow, allowing them to put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand their point-of-view. It is because of their ability to empathize that children learn about inequities. Kelly Perez summarizes this in a very Smart Love way: "When everyone has the right to express how they feel, as long as it’s not hurting someone’s feelings or physically hurting someone, it is the springboard for changing, adapting, and ensuring that all in the community feels valued. It is an opportunity to show how by doing this it brings us closer together as a community. As it is not when we all agree that’s most important, it’s what we do when we don’t agree. These are the building blocks of collaboration and a just society."
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
*Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood. (2012). Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services.