As African Americans in the United States we are often taught that to be successful we often need to put on a brave face. Never let them see you sweat. Fake it until you make it. Escalating violence, prolific social media and the overall growing harsh political discourse is making that brave face harder and harder to maintain. No one has illustrated better than Evelyn from the Internets skit on “Calling in Black”. With each killing of a black life and each viral video it gets harder, we feel more worn down and hopeless.
There is one audience that we are always trying to convince: our children. No matter what our circumstances, parents always want to protect children from our own grief, pain and hard truths for which they may not be prepared. While we think that putting on a brave face is the only way, children can see right through it to our anxiety and concerns. One friend of mine used to say, “By the time they are 2, your children have a PhD in you.” While their experience and worldview is more narrow than adults, they still pick up on clues from our demeanor, what we say and what we don’t say. Often if we don’t provide them an explanation children will make up one. Far too often what they make up has something to do with them being the cause of your angst.
As parents, we have to find a way to process these difficult issues and show up in a positive way for ourselves and our families.
- Put your oxygen mask on first.
It’s easy to say but when you are awoken when it is still dark only to stumble through the morning, getting kids off to school, it’s hard to have a minute to yourself. But when traumatic events happen, it becomes an important survival tactic. Take a minute or two to feel your feelings. Are you angry? Terrified? Feel those things; even write them out. Give yourself a moment to decompress. If you can’t do it right away, give yourself the gift of a one on one appointment with yourself as soon as possible. If you are struggling to process, it’s very difficult to feel confident handling questions from your kids. If you want to help them understand, give yourself time to feel your feelings.
- Build a network of real people.
Social media is great for information and connection, but nothing beats real human connection. Talk to other parents or friends who are willing to just listen. In person is great but also texts, calls and words of encouragement. And don’t just receive them. Give them too. If you are an ally, don’t avoid talking about a police killing with your black friends and associates. It is isolating for the person and totally transparent. Showing solidarity is a central act of friendship.
- Keep it “age appropriate” but remember: age inappropriate things happen, especially to children of color.
When dealing with traumatic events, experts will rightfully tell you to keep things “age appropriate.” Your 4-year-old is unlikely ready to understand the nuisances of the latest incident. As a matter of fact, I always wanted to protect my young daughters even from the knowledge of police brutality but then she saw it first-hand. Every parent needs to decide what is the right amount of information for their child but know that reality may intervene at an inconvenient time. Be sure to have open communication especially if something happens directly to your child.
- Good parents say “I don’t know”
Many of us grew up in households where our parents never admitted they didn’t have the answers. It was considered bad parenting not to direct children and weakness to admit not knowing. Today, there are many tough questions that we as individuals don’t have the answers for. If it’s a factual question, take the opportunity to learn the answer together. The long-term effects for a child could be increased curiosity, built trust and increased resiliency. When a child asks a question like, “Why are people racist?”, I don’t know may be your only answer. Using age appropriate terms to talk with your child about the question can lead to more understanding— even more than just giving an answer.
Bottom line is our kids are only as happy and comfortable as we are. While little ones often express that they covet “things” new toys, etc. what they really need is the security of having parents that are mentally and emotionally present. The more you can do to process traumatic tough issues, the better your communication to them will be.