By: Connie Chang
As an Asian American mother of bi-racial children, I’ve watched the news this past year with a mixture of dread and recognition. Although anti-Asian racism isn’t something my parents dwelled on, my memories are punctuated by incidents that left a lasting sting—the grade school classmate who pulled on his eyes whenever he saw me, the shopkeeper who laughed at my dad’s English, the jeers to “Go back to China.”
With rhetoric like “Kung Flu” and “China Virus” sowing hate and division, it’s not surprising that violence against Asians is again on the rise. More than 3,700 anti-Asian incidents have been reported since last March, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit group initiated in the early days of the pandemic. Tuesday’s killing in Atlantaof six Asian women, in a spree that claimed eight lives, is just the latest escalation of a troubling trend.
In the wake of these disturbing incidents, how can parents help kids navigate difficult conversations around race and racially motivated violence?
Start the Conversation
We want to shield our kids from uncomfortable or distressing topics, but with the prevalence of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the cat’s out of the bag. “Kids know more and faster than any of us,” says Catherine Vuky, Ph.D., director of the Asian Mental Health Program at William James College, which recently created a guide to help parents address these issues. So, it’s crucial that “parents start the conversation, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if they don’t know what to say,” she says.
And while recent events have been horrible, “they offer opportunities to have frank conversations with kids,” says Nadja Reilly, Ph.D., a psychologist at William James College. At the same time, Dr. Reilly recommends limiting kids’ exposure to media to avoid traumatizing them further. “Use media as a starting point for a conversation, rather than as a source of repeated exposure to the violence,” she says.
Don’t shy away from describing what happened, but make sure the language is developmentally appropriate. Stephanie Wong, Ph.D., a psychologist based in California and host of the podcast, Color of Success, explained the racist attacks to her elementary school-aged children using simple and straightforward words: “People are being hurt because of the way they look.” Older kids can handle more details and nuance: “The police are saying that the [assailant in Atlanta] was having a bad day, but that’s not an excuse or reason to hurt or kill people.”
Ask Questions and Listen Carefully
Experts stress the benefits of asking open-ended questions. “Starting the conversation in a really calm, neutral, but open way is really important,” says Dr. Reilly. Some questions to consider: Have you heard about what happened recently? What are your thoughts about that? Have you ever experienced anyone calling you a name?Have you seen or heard anything that made you feel uncomfortable?
Allow your children to fully express themselves without interrupting or commenting. When we ask them questions, Dr. Reilly notes, “we’re also trying to learn: What is my child’s experience?” Once they’ve responded, ask follow-up questions to delve deeper. Show them that you’re curious and want to hear what they have to say.
Validate Their Feelings and Share Your Experiences
Discussions about racism and violence are rarely easy to navigate. There are no easy answers, but kids aren’t necessarily seeking them. Often, a bit of validation can make a huge difference. You can say, I hear you and I agree: The news has been scary lately. Make talking about feelings a natural, expected part of the discourse, Dr. Wong suggests. “It lets kids know that it’s OK to feel scared and angry,” she says.
Parents can also bring up their own experiences with racism as a way to “set up the conditions that make kids feel safe talking about these things and asking questions,” recommends Dr. Reilly.
Dr. Vuky agrees: “A lot of kids want to know that their parents are scared or uncertain too, because that becomes a shared experience—to go through this together.”
Introduce Different Cultures in a Positive Way
Growing up as an Asian American kid in a homogeneous culture, I never saw myself reflected in the books and media around me. Back then, mainstream stories featured overwhelmingly white, non-Asian characters. A simple way for parents to widen their kids’ perspectives, therefore, is to incorporate books with Asian and Asian American characters into their libraries and family reading time, says Dr. Wong.
After she borrowed several books from the library centered around a same-sex family, for example, Dr. Wong saw this type of intentional choice play out in her kids’ games. They’d been fighting over who’d get to be the dad in their imaginary family when her daughter suddenly declared that their family would have two dads.
Racism often comes from fear—of the unknown, of people who look or sound different from us. So, teaching our kids at a young age to understand and celebrate different cultures will help set the stage for talking about racism in a meaningful way.
In the face of so much uncertainty, kids can feel overwhelmed and powerless. For children who experience discrimination, “their self-esteem can take a hit,” says Dr. Reilly. Giving kids the space to speak and be heard helps them feel more empowered. For example, competing narratives that downplay the role of racism in some of these attacks are good opportunities to encourage kids to think critically about the news and how it’s reported. You might ask them: What about this reporting feels right and what do you think it’s missing?
Encourage kids to take steps to effect change in the world around them. Remind kids that small, community-centered actions can make an impact. Dr. Wong’s daughter recently asked her teacher to include books written by Asian American authors in their classroom. In addition, the family has created anti-racism signs to display in their windows.
Not only do these actions keep the conversation going, but they also help kids play a part in promoting a more peaceful world. “Through these conversations [and actions], kids feel a higher sense of self efficacy and self-esteem, and that they can be agents for change,” says Dr. Reilly.