“Mama, what’s a vigil?”
My partner and I had decided not to tell our children about what happened in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub, but a few days later they heard us talking about the vigil I attended in Toronto. We found ourselves ad-libbing some answers to astute questions from kids not yet familiar with terms like ‘homophobia’ and ‘mass shooting.’
The scenario brought home for me how the onus is consistently on those most impacted by violence to have the tough conversations. I was uncomfortably aware that my telling left out the Latinx identities of the victims and the ways racialized communities were disproportionately affected in the aftermath.
The conventional wisdom is to let children lead: wait until they ask, and offer only the minimal information necessary.
I realized I needed to do some more thinking about how, when, and whether to explain global injustice, racist and colonial oppression, and mass violence to little ones.
The conventional wisdom is to let children lead: wait until they ask, and offer only the minimal information necessary. As a parent, this approach feels right to me; reporting every act of global violence to my children would be needlessly traumatizing. As an activist, however, I am very aware of the privilege that makes speaking to my children about targeted hatred and violence optional.
For many marginalized families, there is less choice. As queers, we have had to talk to our children about our differences and vulnerabilities as a family. Most straight parents have not had to discuss homophobia with their children, which means there are few allies for my children when slurs and heterosexist assumptions arise.
For many racialized communities, there is an urgency to teaching children how to behave around police—because their lives depend on it. Many feel it is not appropriate to discuss Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women with young kids; but an Indigenous child whose mother, sister, or auntie is missing or murdered doesn’t have the luxury of ignorance. Very few parents have tried to explain immigration detention to their little ones, but there are hundreds of children in Canada who need to be told why they can only talk to their fathers once a month from across a glass barrier.
Is it ethical to opt out of addressing acts of violence that don’t directly impact us?
Is it ethical to opt out of addressing acts of violence that don’t directly impact us? Or does doing so disproportionately burden parents and children in marginalized communities?
I came up with two questions to guide myself when choosing whether and how to talk to my kids.
First, is what I’m telling my children compatible with the full truth? I don’t need to tell the whole truth, but I refuse to lie, mislead, or avoid the core of the issue. For example, if my children were to hear a CBC News update, and ask me why the police shot Philando Castile, I could truthfully answer, “I don’t know,” or “because they thought he was reaching for a gun.” But both are avoiding the capital-t Truth. So instead, I might say, “Well, we don’t know for sure. But sometimes police shoot because they are scared. And sometimes they are scared because they don’t like a certain group of people. So it has nothing to do with the person they shot, but it’s about discrimination. Or racism.” Which you can be sure will lead to more questions. “What’s racism?” or “Why don’t they like a certain group?” and lead to a much different conversation.
When we are hesitant to explain something to our kids it likely has more to do with our insecurities around our ability to explain the topic than it does with our children’s capacity to learn. They are relentless with their questions. More so than a school quiz or a conversation with an expert, your children will expose just how little you know about a given topic. It’s always an option to admit what we don’t know, and to embark on research alongside our children.
Second, will offering my children a framework and a vocabulary around a particular issue enable us to participate more meaningfully in social change and solidarity?
How can I sit comfortably with my children 45 minutes away from 50 men—migrants in indefinite detention—who are on hunger strike due to their forced separation from their families? Since I do not have much free time away from my children, letting them in on the conversation is the only way I can join in events and actions with the End Immigration Detention Network. Being able to hear from people who have been in jail will counter the fallacy of what my kids are learning from school and media: that the police can always be trusted and that jails are only for “bad guys.”
Our children may not be asking about racism or police violence, but they are very likely overhearing news reports and adult conversation on these topics.
If we want to support Black Lives Matter mobilizing in our community, we will need to offer our children a framework for understanding the movement and the racism it is responding to. Our children may not be asking about racism or police violence, but they are very likely overhearing news reports and adult conversation on these topics. A friend of mine who works in dispute resolution comments: “Kids are likely only getting information in disturbing fragments, and are left to make meaning alone or with peers, drawing on their limited perspective and resources.”
If we do choose to offer our children tools to understand what they are witnessing, we need to do so with accessible vocabulary, with age-appropriate detail, and with lots of ongoing time and space to ask questions, share perspectives, and hear from those impacted. We can use stories and metaphors. When in doubt, we can call a friend, or search for relevant articles.
Most parents I know strive for a world without bigotry and hate. And most children have an innate sense of curiosity and justice.
Often when I’m telling my children something that’s not commonly understood (“We live on stolen land” or “Not all boys have penises”), I also need to prepare them: “Your friends or even your teachers might tell you this isn’t true, but that’s because you have different information about this than they do.” We may also have to watch for signs of anxiety, and teach our children skills around coping and self-soothing.
Most parents I know strive for a world without bigotry and hate. And most children have an innate sense of curiosity and justice. If we find we are avoiding conversations or events regarding important issues because our children lack the vocabulary and framework to understand, then it is time to give them that framework. Until we become comfortable discussing oppression with our children, we can’t be in solidarity with those most impacted by injustice. Telling our kids what’s actually going on in the world is not an easy task, but it’s an imperative for nourishing authentic relationships with our children and our world.