Talking to Kids When Hate is in the News

By Jennifer Sunami

“50 people killed in the attacks…” I freeze. We’re in the car with the radio on and I’ve forgotten to switch the channel from the morning news. I’m wondering if my kids are listening to the story as the reporter continues talking. Should I change the station? Or will that draw even more attention? I hope that there isn’t too much graphic detail, and heave a sigh of relief as the report concludes without any questions from the backseat. Then I feel guilty as I think about how much I’m worrying about shielding my kids from information that so many members of our neighborhood and community cannot avoid. It’s a dilemma that’s all too familiar for parents—hate and violence in the news, confronting us again and again with how to explain terrible things to our children.

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, but especially when we are faced with attacks on our most cherished values, it’s important that we talk to our kids. We have to reaffirm our commitment to diversity and inclusion in our communities, and make sure that our kids hear us loud and clear. Often we can’t control what information children might learn, but we can affect how they process that information. So whether your child is asking questions or not, it’s important to be intentional and address the news honestly and promptly.

First, think about what kind of information is age-appropriate, and realize that you can give your kids an accurate account without committing to an in-depth history lesson or complex philosophical discussion. Preschoolers will not appreciate nuance, so keep the conversation limited to a few specific, but non-graphic facts. Older children may have questions about why a person might target someone just because of their race and religion, and it’s okay to go deeper into the discussion, but you don’t have to explain everything in one sitting. You should assume that you will be revisiting these topics again in the future, and will be building on the conversations you are having today. Keep in mind that kids of all ages benefit from reassurances that you and other adults in their life are working to keep them safe. Tell them that if they ever have questions about scary or sad events they should feel free to talk to you.

Next, look for ways you and your kids can take action. Maybe it might be something personal, such as making a resolution to learn more about the history of a persecuted group. Or maybe it might be more outwardly focused—the desire to reach out is one that should be embraced, and even just sending a letter of solidarity can help heal a community that is in pain. Tragedy is not something that can be solved, but re-establishing a sense of agency can help parents and kids avoid getting caught in a loop of outrage and despair.

Finally, realize that conversations about how to deal with hate and violence should be ongoing. It is important to address negative stories in the moment, but we must be intentional about the messages we are sending to our kids, rather than letting happenstance frame the issues for us. By talking to our kids regularly, we can address the environment in which we present these issues, and make thoughtful decisions about how much information to cover. We can calmly articulate our values outside the heat of the moment and provide space for our kids to process in the way that fits them best. We can focus on what it means to live in an inclusive, just society, and show how our positive values push back against the negative forces of bigotry. There’s no shielding kids from all the hurt and hate that is in the world, but we can practice and learn together so we can be more brave and better prepared the next time a terrible story comes on the radio.