What can we do?
1. Ask questions and listen to the answers.
Children need our help to see the smog—and once they do, they’ll need our help to navigate through it.
Pretending the smog doesn’t exist—or that we “don’t see race”—is not a solution, given how our children’s brains develop. Even if we turn off the TV and media outlets, our children are still breathing in messages about race, citizenship, and belonging.
We must confront this smog by asking questions about their understanding of what’s going on and how they are making sense of the world around them.
Many parents believe they can protect their children by not asking questions about racism, violence and xenophobia … but this approach won’t work. We cannot be silent about negative or hateful statements about women, different races, and immigrants or we become part of the problem.
If we don’t talk to our children about these messages, we are allowing others to dictate how our children understand race. Maybe that’s OK with you—but if it’s not, you will need to control that narrative by having a conversation with your child.
How to start? You can ask directly:
Have you heard about the election?
Who are the candidates?
What do you think they are like?
Who do you like and why?
You can (and probably should) also check out what might be happening in their environment: “How are kids getting along at school?”
After you ask the questions, you must now listen. You must listen as much—or even more—than you talk. Make sure you listen to how your children are thinking and understanding.
2. Talking About Self-Esteem and Core Values in Classrooms
While there is no guaranteed way to protect children from hurtful comments and bullying that is increasing in their environments, research and information from social psychology and other social sciences can help avoid or prevent the negative outcomes to both their self-esteem and performance in school.
Rachel Brown, author of Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communications Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech, put together key ideas to help teachers and parents be pro-active and supportive while avoiding political discussions that could reinforce negative messages. These include:
- Be Proactive by talking about children’s identities and how they are alike and the values and other things they have in common, and talk about how children should respect and tolerate others.
- Correct Perceptions of what a group thinks is acceptable and tolerated. There is a tendency to think kids have more negative opinions of others than they do, and correcting that can change the way kids interact with each other. One way of doing this is to uplift positive attitudes and behaviors through storytelling and sharing.
- Provide Accountability by making it clear that people are paying attention to each individual’s action and choices, and remind people that their choices have consequences.
- Ask Questions that encourage students to think more critically about the beliefs that they hold.
- Change the Conversation without addressing the hostilities – for example, instead of talking about a negative stereotype of someone, change the conversation to talk about the shared values of the home or classroom.
There are some additional interventions based on these core principles that may help bring about positive changes in classrooms.
These “Self-Affirmation and Value Affirmation” interventions help students talk about their self-image and their individual value. They are relatively cheap, easy to use, and have been show to work well over time with historically disadvantaged groups.
Self-Affirmation & Value Affirmation Interventions
Self-Affirmation is any act that reinforces a person’s sense of adequacy. Value Affirmation is any act that provides an opportunity to assert the importance of core values.
Self-affirmation and values-affirmation may provide an extra layer of protection against psychological threats, especially among children. It is especially effective in protecting children from historically disadvantaged backgrounds against negative stereotypes about their school performance and can even help minimize their worries about how other students may perceive them (referred to by some social scientists as “stereotype threat”).
The best practice among middle school children is writing about core personal values. This is done by coming up with a list of values and letting students choose the value(s) that are most important to them and then having them write a brief essay on why these values are important. The most common topics include friends, family, religion, humor, and kindness.
During this exercise, teachers should avoid the values that are often stereotyped for students of different groups. These exercises, when done as classroom activities several times throughout the year, have been shown to reduce the threat or fear students feel from being stereotyped.
As a result, student performance increases and the exercises even help them deal with conflict without resorting to violence. Increasing the “dose” or frequency of these interventions might provide the positive reinforcement and feedback students need to be successful.
3. Take a stand and get organized.
The results of the election provide a great opportunity for us to talk about differences of opinions, how to disagree, and how to advocate for a cause. It’s a chance to help children learn about our perspectives and our values.
When parents ask how to have tough conversations with their children, we want to encourage them to do a bit of homework first—by studying themselves. What’s important to you? What kind of world do you want your kids to live in? What would your family motto be? What is your family mission statement? What kind of messages does your family want to send about race, politics, and politicians?
Bruce Feiler’s 2013 book The Secrets of Happy Families, provides several exercises to help create such statements. These exercises aren’t just about coming up with the right words. They provide an opportunity to get organized and take action. This year’s presidential race may lead you to try any or all of the following:
Come up with a family statement about how you feel about the election results.
Write a letter to the candidates.
Watch inspiring anti-racist speeches on YouTube.
These are all ways to teach our children about how we feel and also to help them develop strategies of coping. If the smog is making kids feel scared or worried, taking action can help them feel empowered, connected, and supported. For relatively well-off children, participating in these exercises may help them counter feelings of bias against people who are different from or have less than them.
4. Talk about how people should treat each other.
Much of the behavior we have seen during this election cycle is “childish”: name calling, pushing, shoving, finger pointing. When children see this behavior, they are often shocked, and may find it silly that adults would act this way. Worse, some children may even try to emulate it.
When our children see presidential candidates spew insults or endorse violence against peaceful protesters, they are learning from these messages how to treat each other.
We have a great opportunity to talk about how they feel when they see such behavior and how we think about it—and it’s a way for us to draw lines about what kind of behavior is appropriate.
Check in to see how they understand the behavior they’re observing and what they think about it:
Did you notice how those people were treating each other?
What do you think about it?
Then directly tell them how you feel about it, as their parent:
We are not a family that believes that we should use violence to get our point across.
We think it’s really important that people get to express their opinion even when they disagree.
These conversations do matter to our kids! The way our most influential grown-ups behave and speak about women, immigrants, and each other matters!
When a presidential frontrunner claims that all Mexicans are rapists or that Muslims should carry a special ID, those are not harmless sound bites. They can become part of the foundation of how children understand our government, civic life, and relationships. And they can become an impactful part of the smog that affects children, influencing how they get along with others and how they view themselves.
In short, these messages are shaping what kind of society we are becoming. There are children having a hard time going to sleep tonight because they fear being separated from a parent. We thought we were done with having to put our children to bed with such fear—but clearly we were wrong.
Today, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to speak up and be role models for our children.
This election has alarmed many Americans. We are concerned that the hateful words our kids are hearing may have a lasting damaging impact on their self-image as well as a negative impact on how they treat other people. We hope the suggested activities and exercises provided above will be of comfort to you and your children. Good luck. We send you much LOVE as you navigate the next few months.