Years ago while teaching a Pre-K class, I learned a valuable lesson about what children are capable of.
A recent article from Vox about the impact of this year's election on children and the increase in bullying and racist comments in schools alarmed me, but as an Early Educator one parent's comment stuck with me and reminded me of that lesson. This mother mentioned that she had been shielding her child by not discussion racism or slavery with him, but now she had to because another child has told her son that all black and brown people would have to leave the country if Trump was elected.
She expressed a common challenge of parenting about when and how to introduce tough topics. And a common fear that their child will not understand or will be traumatized by such discussions. However, children are just as impacted by what we don't say as by what we say, and silence sends the message that they cannot handle it and that it is really terrible.
The lesson I referred to earlier was a conversation between two 5-year-olds about the nature of God. It started as an argument about God's existence between an Evangelical Christian and an atheist, and a proclamation by the Christian that the other child was going to hell because he did not believe in God. I stepped in at that point and required that they could not tell one another what to believe or what was going to happen to them, but instead could say "I believe." After a few minutes of negotiating they got it and what followed from there was a deep and profound discussion about the nature of God. That conversation started my understanding that young children are people who deserve to be listened to, but also are capable of much more than I (or society) have given them credit for.
Don't be afraid to talk about the tough issues. You are not ruining their innocence- you are introducing them to the world and providing them tools to cope with the negative pieces of it. You are promoting resilience in them, and there is not a better gift you can give your child. To help teach resilience read Blackout by John Rocco.
Here are a few other ideas for reading and talking about difficult issues:
1) Introduce topics in a non-threatening, non-personal manner. For example, introduce the concept of grief and dying by reading Tough Boris by Mem Fox. If your child has questions after reading it, answer them by giving honest answers, but don't go into a long explanation. If after reading it your child asks if you or another loved one will die, answer honestly- "Yes, someday, but not for a very, very long time."
2) Acknowledge the good and the bad. Start with the small everyday negatives we (even the littlest ones) endure. It can be having to wait, a friend taking a toy, someone yelling at us, etc. And congratulate them on how they solved it or made it through the tough time. Read Alexander and Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst.
3) Don't let your own fear (or denial) get in the way. If you are too afraid to acknowledge death or any other issue, seek help from a friend or a professional. It does not have to be that way. Death is part of life, as are mean people and tragedies. Give your child the gift of being able to face these challenges head-on knowing that they will be able to handle them.
4) Acknowledge that we are all unique individuals, and at times, that can cause problems. Not that it has to cause problems, but it does. Talk about how sometimes these problems are small, like when how they don't peas and someone else loves them. Or the problems can be significant, like racism and slavery. Read We Are All Alike, We Are all Different by Bobbi Kates and Joe Mathieu for more ideas on talking about diversity, read this past Words Reflected's blog.
5) Let them know that even when bad or hurtful things happen, there will be good people who will help and will stand up against bad things. Read Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochisuki and Dom Lee and for more ideas on finding helpers read this past Words Reflected's blog.
6) Role play how they can advocate for themselves, so you are coming at these issues from a position of strength. You aren't preparing them for a battle, or a long debate with someone, but just to be able to say: "That is hurtful," "That is disrespectful," "I see it a different way," "I need," or "That is not OK." After reading a book, such as Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie DePaola, talk about what they could say if they see someone teasing another child because they are different or because of something they like.
7) Don't be afraid to show your emotions while reading a book. One of our family traditions is to read The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson on Christmas eve and every year I sob as I near the end. When you show your emotions in a healthy and appropriate way, you are modeling for your children that it is OK for them to have emotions too.
8) Finally, trust that your child can handle these discussions. Believe me; your child is far more aware of what is happening in the world than you know. They are already processing that knowledge, regardless of whether it is just the small challenges in their world or the big ones in everyone's world. Get it out in the open by talking and reading about difficult topics. Your child will grow to be a more compassionate, understanding, and stronger person as a result.
As always, I hope you enjoy these recommendations and find them helpful. Feel free to share with credit to Words Reflected and Kim Bogren Owen on Facebook, your website, or in your newsletter.
Please add your favorite book or activity about tough topics or how you have approached those topics in the comments!
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