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Parents and teachers may struggle to know what young people see and understand

Children should be taught to appreciate diversity and practice empathy, one expert says

By middle school, kids are aware enough to start talking about the root causes of biases

CNN  — 

A car driven by a man believed to have ties to white supremacists plows into a group protesting hate, killing one woman and injuring many others. One shooter massacres dozens in a gay nightclub; another kills African-Americans during a church Bible study; a third enters a Sikh temple, leaving members dead. Bomb threats pour into Jewish community centers across the nation, prompting evacuations, and an actual bomb explodes at a mosque.

There is no shortage of examples of bigotry-inspired hatred in the United States these days, nor are there iron-clad ways to shield children from ugliness. Between social and traditional media, parents and teachers struggle to know what young people see and understand, and that may raise all sorts of questions about what adults can or should say.

Fortunately, there are experts committed to helping others figure this out. Here are some tips they offer.

Be proactive, not just reactive

From an early age, children should be taught to appreciate diversity and practice empathy, both at home and in the classroom, said Cheryl Greene, deputy director of Welcoming Schools, a resource for elementary school educators.

Are teachers creating environments that make all their students feel welcome? Are schools reaching out to families in an inclusive way? Are there reminders in classrooms to promote respect?

If we want our kids to interrupt name-calling and be allies when others are being bullied, there’s work that needs to be done on the front end, Greene said. When discussions like this are already happening, age-appropriate conversations about high-profile incidents can be treated as teachable moments.

Welcoming Schools, which is part of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, offers professional development trainings. Since President Donald Trump was elected, Greene said, requests for training to deal with bullying have quadrupled.

“But this is not about politics,” Greene said, lest anyone shy away from talking about these matters. “It’s about hate and bigotry.”

And educators – and parents – should know how to address it.

Don’t ignore

Although discussions about “white supremacy” should be reserved for older children, this does not mean parents should altogether avoid discussions about bigotry-fueled matters with young ones. Though some might choose to wait until a young child has questions, there’s always a chance that children will pick up news on their own – say, at a restaurant where TVs are blaring or while playing with Mom’s iPhone.

“You have to be frank and honest, in an age-appropriate way, of course,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s important to name things and identify what’s going on.”

A parent knows what a child can handle and might decide to raise what unfolded in Charlottesville by saying something as simple as “I’ve been very upset about something I saw in the news. It makes me very sad,” Costello said.

A parent needs to ask questions to learn what a child knows, feels, thinks or is worrying about. Children need to be reassured that they are safe, and they need to be reminded that there’s good in the world, Costello said. Talk about the people who stepped in to help others.

Affirming beliefs, defending the values you wish to instill in your child, is also key, Costello said.

“It’s perfectly OK to say, ‘They are marching because they want a country only white people live in, but we don’t believe in that,’ ” she said. “Keep in mind the adult you want your child to be.”

Empowering kids – and yourself

Raising children to speak up when they see injustice may be the ultimate goal. But what shouldn’t be ignored either is the lesson of “active nonparticipation”: the idea that they shouldn’t, say, join others in schoolyard bullying or laugh at racist jokes, said Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League. This way, a child can learn to take a moral stand when calling people out feels too risky.

By the time they’re in middle school, kids are aware enough of ideas like scapegoating and stereotypes to start talking about the root causes of biases, Spiegler said. The questions they ask will be more sophisticated, and this can be an opportunity for adults to beef up on their own knowledge.

What’s the Confederacy? Where’d the KKK come from? What’s Jim Crow? For the questions that can’t be easily answered, it’s OK to say, “we’ll learn together,” Spiegler said.

For children who may be taught to hate at home, she said, teachers are supposed to promote critical thinking and, in this case, “complicate their feelings.” By talking about different identities, teachers can address biases and challenge them.

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    Some kids, especially older ones, may want to be involved on a personal level. This can mean simply inviting them to send sympathy cards to families affected by bias-motivated hate. Or maybe they’re hungry to learn about community activism and where they can step in.

    In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Spiegler wrote a blog post, “Lessons to Teach and Learn from ‘Unite the Right,’ ” offering tips on talking to high school students about the alt-right, the historical context of white supremacy, the First Amendment and more.

    It’s one of many parent and teacher resources that organizations like hers offer. And in today’s world, the need for tools like these is part of reality.