“Mom, is there going to be a terrorist act at the March?” my 9-year-old asked me from the backseat. He knows I’m flying to D.C. from Los Angeles for the protest; the radio had just announced the news of the Fort Lauderdale shooting. It wasn’t the first time he had heard news like that before I had the chance to change the station.
I paused before answering him. I wanted to allay his fears, but I also didn’t want to lie.
“I can’t promise you that there won’t be, sweetheart, but there are going to be a lot of police. I don’t want you to worry about that.”
He seemed satisfied, but I wasn’t. I kept thinking about his question. What if that wasn’t the right answer? What else could I do to prepare my children for the marches about to take place around the country?
I consulted with Roberta Goldberg, Ph.D., a licensed children’s psychologist who has spent over three decades helping children and their parents. Goldberg told me the challenges for parents in the upcoming week break down in two distinct categories: 1) how to protect your children from the potential anxiety of hearing and reading about what’s happening and 2) how to protect your children if they attend a march with you.
“The overriding most important action in both circumstances,” said Goldberg, “is that you stay calm. Parents control children’s reactions to situations. You can control how your child responds based on how you respond.”
Who doesn’t know that, I thought? But then I remembered my tone of voice around certain events in the last few months.
Goldberg then went on to share some great suggestions for guiding children through the next week. I have put them into a bulleted list for your (and my) convenience.
1. Curb your reactivity. If you overreact, your child is going to overreact. If you react with extreme alarm, disagreement and/or outrage to the news surrounding these events, your child will likely respond with fear.
2. Explain the value of peaceful protesting. As U.S. citizens, we have a responsibility to speak up when there’s something we don’t agree with. Important changes — like the end of racial segregation and women being given the right to vote — have happened because adults have protested and marched for what they believed in.
3. Assure them that in no way is violence a goal. Most protests start and end peacefully.
4. Don’t overanswer questions. Respond to your children using as few words as possible. Be clear. Only answer the question being asked. Don’t use your child’s question as an excuse to give a speech.
5. Ask them what they know about the marches. A lot of times, they hear inaccurate information at school.
6. Limit screen time during and after the marches. Especially alone screen time. If anything violent or sensational occurs, it will be featured on TV. Children watching TV alone might see something they don’t understand and become frightened and confused.
If you’re considering taking your child to a protest march this weekend:
1. Know your child. It’s great to want to share your passion for justice and equal rights, but if crowds make your child anxious or they absolutely hate walking long distances, the lessons of peaceful protest will likely be lost on them.
2. Meet up with their peers. Make plans with the mothers of some of their friends who are planning to go to make it fun for them too. Get together beforehand to paint signs and talk about what to expect.
3. Make sure everyone has comfortable shoes. Seems obvious, but kids’ feet grow quickly, and if you live outside urban areas, they may not be used to walking, so don’t be afraid to ask them if their shoes/sneakers feel good. Also make sure everyone has warm enough clothing, water — and, of course, snacks.
4. Stay in physical contact with your child. Always have not just your eye, but also a hand on them.
5. Check in with how your children are feeling. Plan rest stops to see how they are doing. Are they excited? Do they have any questions or concerns?
6. Be vigilant about noticing the tenor of the crowd. If you sense that feelings and actions are going to escalate, walk away. This doesn’t refer only to potential violence; the threat of emotional escalation can also scare children.
It’s a great impulse to want to show our children that they have a voice in how their country is run. The last thing any of us wants to do is have the experience be so unpleasant they never want to do it again.
Here’s to peaceful, effective marching, teaching our children to stand up for personal freedoms and equality and sharing the highlights of the days’ events over some hot chocolate when we get home.