Four Children Protesting Silhouettes

As if COVID-19 wasn’t enough, a long overdue reckoning about racism and the militarization of police forces has exploded in our front yards.

It is almost impossible to shield your children from the murder of George Floyd, the protests and the riots. They may have questions. You will need ideas about how to talk to your child about protests, free speech and how you treat others. Here are some suggestions about how to explain what is going on to a child between the ages of 4 and 10 years old.

Overview for Parents. These are some basic elements to consider before having a conversation with your child about protests. 

To begin with:

  • Like most conversations with a young child, give very simple, general information and  then stop. See what they do with the information. Only answer the questions they ask. That may be all they wanted to know. 
  • If they haven’t asked, see if they have noticed. Your child may not realize what all they have been taking in or they may not have gotten around to asking you what is happening. So you can bring it up.

“Have you noticed some of the scary things happening on the TV? Have you heard us talking about some things we have been worried about with people marching around and being angry? Do you have any questions?”

  • Even after you talk to them, it is best to assume that some questions are still bouncing around in their mind. This is the time to get some story books (see resources section below) that address some of the questions they asked in a story, making it less scary.  
  • You may also see things show up in younger children’s play that indicate they are still thinking of the protests. Their play can have characters who are protesters and police, vandalism or prisoners being mistreated. There can be monsters chasing people through the streets. Ask them to tell you about what is happening in their play. You can join the play and be one of the characters that demonstrates the way you want your kid to act in that situation. 
  • If your child is really unaware of what is happening, I would not recommend you inform them about all the civil unrest. I would instead recommend that you get one of the books on protesting and racism in the resources section below to read to your child as a way to begin their education about this critical American freedom. That may lead to more questions without having to throw them into the middle of making sense of angry protesters and rioting.    
  • End with letting them know they can ask you anything. 
  • Be truthful. Whatever you tell your child, however you explain what is going on, make sure it is the truth. If your children catch you in a lie about something that scares or worries them, it undermines their trust. They will question how much they can rely on you to help them understand the world, especially the complicated, confusing and scary parts of the world. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you should tell them everything in gory detail. Some things should only be discussed when they ask.

“Daddy, what happened to that man they are talking about?” “He was hurt by another man who was a police officer.” “Did he die?” “Yes” “Oh” [silence] “Do you have any other questions?” “Nope.” Or “Do you have any other questions?” “Why did the police officer kill him?” or “What happens when you die?”  And off you go . . .

  • The main point in talking about the protests is to help your child understand something they saw or overheard that worried or scared them. Reassure. Don’t make it worse with a lot of details they can't take in. 
  • Remember, simple words, simple concepts. Younger children won’t fully grasp a conversation about racism, police brutality, looting and murder. They can grasp that people are being mistreated in some way so use words like “mean”, “hurt”, “unfair” “kind” “right” “wrong” “good” “bad” instead.
  • If you decide to talk about a death (or you have to because they bring it up) use phrases like “hurt that man” (rather than killed him) or “he hurt that man so badly he died.”  
  • Think about what you want your child to learn from your explanation and emphasize that when you describe things. Some of the important things for them to get from this are: 
    • They are safe (even if it isn’t technically true).
    • We are here for each other.
    • People should speak up when they see something that is wrong.
    • We have family values about what is right and wrong, good and bad.
    • You should stand up for what you believe is right.
    • Anger can be a good thing but too much anger makes things worse.
    • As you know all too well, being aware of how much prejudice and racism there is in the world can be depressing and demoralizing. Instead of creating a 4 year old social agitator fighting against societal prejudice and racism, start your kids out by focusing on the need to do the right thing and to expect that other people should do the right thing.  That is true whether it is racism or rudeness. (When they are older, you can help them be both accepting that racism isn’t rare and optimistic that it is worth continue to try to make it rare.) 
      • Your child can grasp that we should treat everyone with respect (no matter what they look like or who they are.) Everyone is everyone. 

“Some people are mean to people because of how they look or where they come from. That’s wrong. We don’t do that in our family. We are (fill in values: kind, patient, understanding, polite, generous, nice to everyone, accepting, inclusive, etc.)”

Talk about racism and prejudice in terms of how a person is supposed to be treated regardless of who they are (i.e., universal values) rather than just focusing on how people are being treated differently because of the color of their skin (for now). It is still racism or prejudice they are confronting but with a focus on how an individual person is treated instead of trying to explain institutionalized racism and discrimination. That’s for when they are older.

Keep in mind:

  • Anger over unfairness is tricky because a child’s sense of fairness can be simple. For example, if they didn’t get the desert they wanted, they may think it’s unfair. However, this understanding can be deepened by describing the difference between needs and wants. All people need to feel safe, have enough to eat, and be able to learn and grow. There are many things we might want, but things are really “unfair” when denied what we need.
  • Even though the reasons are technically the same, not all protests are equal. Protests against minorities or to overthrow an elected government is wrong. At this age, that is too much to expect them to take in. Just make sure to emphasize right and wrong and that people being mistreated is a reason to protest. 
  • Discuss ways your child can stand up for what they think is right. For example saying “stop it” when you see someone being mean to someone else, making art or writing words to describe what is right and wrong.
  • Let your child know there have been lots of protest marches to make our country better. People marching and protesting is an important part of US history.

What is a Protest?

General concepts about protests in words for kids:

  • A protest is people gathering who put their voices together to point out when something is very wrong.
  • When people are doing things that are very wrong, good people should stand up and say it is wrong. It is scary to stand up for what you think is right and hard to do. 
  • Every person should develop their voice to speak about the truth they see, and what is right and wrong.  
  • When you join your voice together with others, it can be heard by more people who can join their voice with yours. When enough people have joined their voices together they can change things that are wrong and unfair and hurtful.  
  • There are lots of people who will stand up for what is right, kindness and fairness
  • You should stick up for someone who is not being treated fairly
  • When people are protesting, they are supposed to be kind and considerate of other people even though they are angry about how someone is being treated. They can walk together and chant or yell about what they are unhappy about. But, they are not supposed to hurt other people or hurt/break other people’s property.

Questions your child might have

  • What is a protest?

A protest is when a lot of people get together to talk about something that happened that is very, very wrong. They all stand or walk together to show that lots of people are all saying something is wrong with one voice. When everyone joins their voice together it is a very strong way to talk about something that needs to change. Lots of time, when people who are walking together to have their voices heard, it is because they think someone is being treated unfairly and disrespectfully and they don’t want that to happen again. 

  • Who is protesting?

You don’t know it but lots of different people began to notice that something was wrong and so they gathered together and joined voices to make sure other people heard that people were being hurt and it needs to stop. There are lots of people around us, in our neighborhood, city and the whole country, who think this is bad and who are standing up for what is right, to treat people with kindness and with fairness

  • Why are people mad and yelling?

Well, when people are very mad about being treated unfairly or about someone being mean to other people, they can start to talk really loud or even yell to make sure other people hear them say being unfair or mean is wrong and should stop. They want people to know it is wrong to treat people like that. That can sometimes be scary to watch but most of the time people are just really mad but they don’t hurt each other.  

  • Is protesting OK to do?

In our country, there are laws that say it is all right for people to get together to protest like this. It is called free speech. It is very important because everyone should be able to talk about what is unfair or wrong in order to change it and make it better.

  • So, is it all right for me to protest about my sister if she is unfair?

Normally, when someone treats you wrong or is unfair, you should talk it through with them. A protest helps solve a problem that affects many people. That’s when people should join their voices to convince everyone to do what is right. You don’t protest your sister, you argue with her and then you come get us. Now if both you AND your sister together think something is very, very unfair, you could protest to us and we would listen.  

  • What can I do?

Everyone should stand up for what they think is right. They should speak up when they think something is wrong. There are lots of ways we can stand up for what is right.  Tell people to “stop it” when you see someone being mean to someone else. Be a nice friend to someone who is lonely. You may help fix something in the neighborhood that people have hurt/damaged. Or put up signs or write words to encourage people to do what’s right. Or, some day, when you are older, there may be something you think is really wrong.  You may march with people too.

George Floyd: What are they demonstrating for?

  • General concepts about the George Floyd demonstrations for parents:
    • Use words like “hurt” “didn’t treat him right” “a person died” (vs saying the police officer killed him). We can be really angry as adults that the police officer killed Mr. Floyd and some other police officers around the country have been doing similar things to people of color, especially African American men. But, that is too much for a child to handle.  If you talk to them about all those problems it will be more likely to just have them lose trust in everyone (even you) and be scared and negative all the time. Start with the basics of right and wrong about how they treated Mr. Floyd.
    • The goal is to give your child information they can understand without scaring them. This is complicated when your child is African American because they will begin to recognize actual racism and being targeting by some police when a little bit older. Children are too young to grasp the possibility they can be a target for police brutality or being killed. They can’t do anything about it but worry, and the worry isn’t productive. If they have a particular vulnerability (like being African American or otherwise being a person of color or a sexual minority), you will help them understand that when they are late childhood age and especially when they are adolescents. At this age, keep the focus on specific instances of people being hurt or treated unfairly.
    • Many police officers are honorable people. And, we want police officers to be honorable people. Don’t make all police “the enemy.” Talk about the person who happens to be a police officer.  It is the person who hurt George Floyd, not “the police.”  If your child is African American, it will make them worry too much to make them fear the police (even when there is a reason to). Helping them deal with fear of police is for late childhood and adolescence when your child can understand the complicated concept of good police officers/bad police officers and unjust systems.
    • Talking points with kids:
      • A white man hurt a black man named George Floyd because of the color of his skin. The man who hurt him was a police officer. It was wrong for the man to hurt Mr. Floyd, especially because the man who hurt him was a police officer.  Police officers should have been keeping him safe instead. Mr. Floyd died because of how much the police officer hurt him and lots of people are very angry that the police officers didn’t keep him safe.
      • People are mad because there have been other people who were also treated unfairly because of the color of their skin or where they’re from. It is wrong to hurt people, but it is really wrong for police officers to hurt people or treat them unfairly. They are supposed to help people and keep them safe no matter who they are. So people are getting together to walk and march to say they want police officers who hurt people and are unfair to get in trouble so they will stop doing it. 

What is a riot?

  • Hurting people or breaking other people’s property is not right, even if you are mad. That is not how you are supposed to protest.
  • Anger is an important emotion for doing what is right but you can get too angry and then it makes things worse.
  • It is always important to do what is right, even if you are very angry.
  • Some people haven’t learned to have their anger help them do the right thing. 
  • Being angry can help you stand up for something important but being too angry can make things worse. Some people are so mad they want to hit or break things. That is wrong. They need to get better at having helpful anger. 
  • Some people even think they can take things that belong to other people like their bicycles or hurting buildings just because they are mad. That is very wrong. That is just thinking about yourself.  
  • Sometimes, you can be so mad and feel so upset because nobody is listening that you feel like hurting people or want to break things. But, hurting other people is wrong, breaking things is wrong and taking things that belong to other people is wrong, even if you are really mad. It makes me sad when I hear about people doing that. I’m sad that someone is that upset and hurt and I am sad that the person who is upset ends up doing things to hurt other people. 

Don’t forget, be the bearer of hope and promise for your child (even if you have to fake it).

Be smart. Be kind. Be safe.

Protest Resources. Here are some useful resources that can add to your talk about protests.

[Note: While the recommendations in this column are relevant for any child who has become aware of  protesting and riots, there are certain aspects of this discussion that are very different for people of color, particularly African American children, or marginalized groups (e.g., sexual minorities). When there is a greater risk of a person being profiled, the target of excessive force or the victim of lethal violence by police, more specific information is required to help children make sense of this destructive reality. That additional information is a vital part of raising your child but beyond the scope of this column.]


wellborn

James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.

www.drjameswellborn.com

Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting.  Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren.  You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.

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