(The Daily Advertiser) – “What do I tell my kids?”
I keep asking myself this question as I wake up to new tragic headlines what seems like every day. I’m heartbroken but “lucky” for plenty of reasons. I’m alive and safe and, on the surface, untouched by any of this violence — as untouched as we can be by hate and violence in the world around us.
I’m focusing on this now because my daughter is only 2. Her world includes little more than our immediate family. She watches only Disney movies and she has no idea what Facebook is.
Parenting is hard. I know I’m not the only one feeling these things, so I’m asking parents, what are you telling yours? I’ve asked friends. I’ve asked Facebook. I’ve asked perfect strangers I found at a local public library. I even asked my mom. (Who better to ask than Momma?) Their answers contained common threads — talk of evil and right and wrong.
My college friend Scott Brown, who now lives near Dallas, answered on Facebook: “Just this morning I was discussing with Kylie (10 years old) the different events going on in the United States and the world. I told her the unfortunate truth that: she will see progressively more violence and war in her lifetime and that she needs to grow up being smart, informed and unafraid… and to do the right thing when she’s called upon.”
Jacques Murphy in Pineville echoed my, and probably every parent’s, feelings.
“I really don’t know what to say,” she said in a Facebook message.
She purposefully tries to keep the news off around her daughter Maggie to shield the 9-year-old from some of these things.
“Kids don’t see color,” Murphy said. “They see differences, yes, but not in a negative way. Maggie sees a kid her size and instantly thinks… ‘oooh, a possible friend!’ But because of what she accidentally hears on the radio or television (I don’t turn on the news when she is around on purpose), I feel like its a little bit like Eve eating the apple, suddenly her eyes are opened to prejudice and it makes me so sad.”
I do not envy parents with kids old enough to see TV footage and ask questions. I know I won’t always be able to escape these questions. While I pray daily that this world is different by the time Avery hits 10, it doesn’t seem to be going that way. Violence doesn’t appear to be stopping.
Paula Zeanah is the director of research at the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development & Lifelong Learning and on the faculty for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette College of Nursing. She also happens to be a pediatric nurse and clinical child psychologist who has worked “in lots of different settings with children and families with lots of different stressors.”
Translation: She knows her stuff. Here’s her advice:
1. Pay attention to your child’s behavior and be a good listener. If a child is showing signs of irritability or makes an off-hand comment, it’s a good time to chime in, she said.
“I think it’s a great idea for a parent to ask what they’ve heard and what they want to know,” Zeanah said. “It’s great to have a spiel, but it’s good to start with asking what they know, what they want to know and who they’re hearing it from.”
2. Have that conversation and make sure it’s age-appropriate.
3. Don’t play the blame game.
“You see a lot of that in the news,” Zeanah said. “I think this is an opportunity, if you will, for parents to teach that it’s not fair to blame all of ‘x, y, z’ and take the chance to talk, if your child is old enough, about diversity and discrimination.”
4. Monitor your own emotions. Don’t dismiss the situation or anyone’s feelings, but also try to respond in a way that won’t be scary to the child. She said even very young kids — including mine — can know something is wrong just by how we are acting.
“Kids, kind of no matter what age, are looking to their parents and family on how to handle all this,” she said, adding that she knows that can be a lot of pressure.
5. Turn off the news and do something to relieve stress. Take a walk or bike ride as a family. Take a deep breath before responding to a question.
Zeanah also offered some signs to look for in your kids. Are they more irritable, whiny or having trouble sleeping or concentrating? Are they afraid to be away from parents or family? Are your adolescents more withdrawn or experiencing physical pain like stomachaches or headaches?
Stephanie Riley said her youngest expressed some fear, and she tried to reassure her with prayer and an explanation a 9-year-old might understand.
“I told her, ‘There has been and always will be evil in the world. But the good people will always greatly outnumber the bad. When you feel scared look up and know that God sees you and He loves you! Spend a few minutes talking to Him and see how much better you will feel,'” Riley told her daughter.
My 64-year-old mother of four confirmed what I thought — we didn’t have these kinds of talks when I was a kid.
“I can’t remember telling you anything,” she told me. “Do you remember me talking to you about this? No, I cannot remember even having to have conversations on the topic of what we’re dealing with today.”
Anita West of Lafayette was on the same page as my mother. Her children, too, are grown and they mostly escaped conversations like these.
“It’s a different world today than when (my kids) were growing up,” she said.
What hasn’t changed is the importance of being a role model. She still feels that weight not only as a mother but as a pre-kindergarten teacher. She didn’t want to give the name of the school but noted that her students do not come from the safest neighborhoods and have a different opinion of police than her own.
“They don’t see police as their friends,” West said. “They see them as coming to get their moms and dads.”
So it becomes part of her job to show them “the other side.”
“You try to teach them police are your friends,” she said. “We need to show an example to kids. They are learning from us.”
Terrell Houston of Crowley has six kids, some grown; the youngest is 9 years old.
“I want to teach them what’s out there, so when they run across a situation they know how to handle themselves,” he said.
He said he doesn’t like watching the news these days and his “baby girl” isn’t really into it either. But she is somewhat aware of what’s going on around her. He tries to keep an open line of communication.
“I try to tell her if she has any problems she can come talk to me,” Houston said. “It’s out there now.”
So, I ask again — what do I tell my kids? I don’t want to explain to Avery (and her little sister on the way) about hate, but I want to teach her not to.
This is the world my girls will grow up in. I want them to stay colorblind and to be so myself, but I also want them to see that differences can be good. And I think they should be aware that prejudice and racism still exist in this world, whether blatantly or structurally. Because I believe living as if racism has been eradicated is inaccurate and not helpful.
I want my girls to love and live boldly but to be safe, to be cautious without being fearful because, of course, I worry about their safety.
Houston faces today’s world with something he learned from his mother — prayer.
“I just pray — that’s the main thing — and hope things get better,” Houston said.
I do, too.