How Should We Talk With Young People About Charlottesville?

  • August 29, 2017
Parents Talking with Their Teenage Daughter Outside


Adults and children alike are grappling to make sense of current events. Discussions of racism, anti-Semitism and social injustice have become increasingly contentious as images of white supremacists carrying torches and chanting hateful rhetoric in Charlottesville fill our social media feeds and television screens. Children are attuned to these conversations and disturbing images of violence, hate and incivility, and are seeking comfort and answers from teachers, family members, clergy and other trusted adults in their lives. Below are suggestions and resources for engaging young people in meaningful conversations after the tragic events that occurred in Charlottesville.

Q: As a teacher, should I bring up these topics in my classroom? What is the balance between not sharing my own political views with students and explaining events like Charlottesville?

Many teachers feel compelled to maintain neutrality when discussing political or controversial issues in class to avoid disaffecting or offending students and their families who hold differing political views. In today’s divisive socio-political climate, this has become increasingly challenging. Students are paying attention via social media and other online sources like never before and turning to trusted adults at school for information and reassurance. Teachers can and should discuss current events with students in a way that is age-appropriate and that encourages them to think critically, analyze sources of information, develop empathy and uphold democratic ideals of civility, equality and dignity for all. At the beginning of the school year, create a climate in which all students’ opinions and perspectives are encouraged and respected. Be clear and purposeful about core values and behavioral expectations related to respect and inclusion in your classroom. Intervene when these values are not being upheld. Make it clear that there are no grey areas when it comes to civility and mutual respect, and that name-calling and hateful, biased behavior is not acceptable in your classroom or in the world.

Q: How can I talk with my children about racism and anti-Semitism? I want to create a learning opportunity for them but I don’t have all the answers and I’m afraid of saying the wrong things.

It is understandable to feel discomfort and uncertainty because these are complex issues that commonly generate strong emotions such as fear, anger and vulnerability in adults and children. As you prepare to talk with children, reflect on your own experiences, feelings and knowledge as it relates to the topic and consider your children’s ages, maturity and own experiences with racism and social injustice. This will help determine the most effective ways to approach the conversation.

As you engage in the discussion, it is important to set a tone of safety, respect and confidentiality—whether informally at home or more formally by setting ground rules for discussion at school. Allow children the time and space they need to express their feelings and opinions. Establish an environment in which asking questions, sharing emotions and making mistakes are encouraged. Modeling these expectations using age appropriate language is one way to foster an open and honest dialogue. With younger children, you might say, “I am upset by what is happening because I don’t think it is fair for people to treat each other like that. How do feel about what you are seeing?” Or, “You can ask me any questions. I may not have all of the answers but we can try to get the answers together by talking to someone or looking on the internet.”

Q: How do I respond when a child asks, “Why is this happening?”

Before responding to questions like this, it is important to assess the child’s current understanding of the situation. Gentle probing questions such as, “What have you heard or seen about this?” or “Who told you about it? What did they say?” provides an opportunity to clear up misinformation and dispel rumors they may have heard from friends or social media. It also establishes a starting point for discussion that meets the child where they are. Clarifying questions such as, “Can you help me understand what you mean by your question so I make sure I answer it correctly?” will help teachers and family members formulate meaningful responses. Above all, listen attentively to children’s questions and concerns and help them to feel safe and comforted. Children of color, immigrants, Muslim children and LGBTQ youth may be feeling particularly vulnerable so consider how to make discussions safe and comfortable for them.

Q: What can I do to help my children take action against social, racial and religious injustice?

While it’s important to talk about issues in the news with young people, it can also make them feel disempowered and hopeless, especially when complicated situations involving hate and social injustice occur. Adults can play a vital role in instilling a sense of power and hope in young people—a belief that one person or a group of people can make a positive difference. First, find out what interests your children most and brainstorm possible actions that they can take. There are many ways to get involved, such as writing a letter of support to targets of a hate incident or to the “helpers”—law enforcement, EMTs or everyday people who assisted those impacted; speaking out when a classmate is teased; attending a peace rally or protest; attending a legislative hearing to support a local anti-discrimination bill.

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