by Michael Strickland
From the graphic images on TV to information circulating on social media, the fallout from the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues. It will be embedded on our minds for a long time. Weeks after this seemingly surreal tragedy, the media is still flooded with images, and there is no indication that this trend will end anytime soon.
As the unprecedented barrage of images and messages unfolds, the national media is flooded with chaos and violence. Millions of Americans working and learning at home during the pandemic have pivoted their attention to the sound and fury. The searing pictures of a weapon-wielding mob storming the Capitol have been difficult for many adults to process. But for children, making sense of the violent images that have flooded the airwaves and social media can be particularly challenging. As adults work to digest all that happened, how do we help kids? Here are tips for talking with your children.
First, You need to find a balance between what is out there, and what they really need to know right now. Clear statements help. Here is one of my favorites: “We should treat one another and all of God’s children with respect, dignity, and love.” No political or other affiliation should supersede that covenant and sacred responsibility.”
With young kids, keep it short and sweet. Keep it to the facts, tell them what they need to know. Follow your child’s lead. Begin conversations by asking what your child knows. Ask questions like, “What have you heard? What are you thinking? What are you feeling?”
For younger kids, limit details and avoid graphic images during such discussions. It’s also important not to mix and confuse how you might be thinking and feeling with their questions. Open and honest discussions are keys to helping children understand the events.
Some children will worry, “Is my home safe?” “Is any place safe? ” Reassure them about security. Find out how children are making meaning of it. Be flexible enough to respond in ways that show understanding and empathy.
This is also a great time to talk about democracy, to explain that we are engaged in this brave and beautiful experiment called America, but it’s not indestructible. We have to recommit to our republic every generation. It requires work, investment, sacrifice, and support.
Teach children to avoid demonizing “the other side” as well as engaging in wild stereotypes. It’s important for them to understand that large groups of people are motivated by many different things. Don’t lump all people who speak out with law-breaking rioters. It’s also a time to talk about our information bubbles. Echo chambers can lead people to overestimate the prevalence of their own perspective. This inhibits authentic dialogue.
“We experience conflicting thoughts as actual psychological discomfort,” says Don Vaughn, a neuroscientist at the department of Psychology at UCLA. “Given that we prefer to eschew negative experiences, it comes as no surprise that people avoid the immediate psychological discomfort from cognitive dissonance by simply not reading or listening to differing opinions.”
Foster critical thinking and the ability to disentangle facts from fiction. Talk to your kids about the definition of a reliable news source. This is a great opportunity to discuss critical reading, viewing, and listening. Be a co-investigator with your kids. Conduct research together to determine truth.
History can be a guide to some of these conversations. It is important in understanding the political divide. This is far from the first time our country has been deeply divided. There have been brawls in Congress. We’ve had a Civil War. There have been times in our history when the electoral system broke down. Bringing in the historical context is important to help kids realize that, while there is much to overcome, we have prevailed over injustice in the past.
Sociologist Aaron Antonovsky talks about the need to make trauma comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful. This is a national trauma. Thus, all of us are affected. Give your children tools to share kindness. Encourage them to listen to each other. Teach them to hear each other, even if they don’t like each other. Empower them to see themselves as little people who are capable of peaceful change instead of violence. This dialogue will continue for years and decades to come, and a parent is the key to helping children learn to sort through everything in the information age.
Michael Strickland of Pocatello teaches at Boise State University and is a Visiting Scholar at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity and Justice at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.