One morning, my children were arguing about a scuffle that happened while I was in the other room. One of them definitely did something, and the other definitely responded, but from there the story got fuzzy and confusing as I tried to untangle the narrative to meet their need behind the justifications they were shouting. The mess of differing opinion draws attention to what we call controversy, the way my other children circled around the two arguing ones.
People say there are two sides to every story, and that is exponentially true when that story is told through the media. Without at all minimizing the horrific and real struggles that we see in the news, or may be experiencing near to us, or even participating in by choice or by proximity, there are parallels in this that can help us teach our children. Here are seven tips for explaining controversial news stories to your children, and peacefully creating positive change in your own family.
Focus on the issues, not the drama
As a clinician and as a mom, I know that most behaviors are an “acting out” of underlying issues that get louder and louder while waiting to be addressed. We can teach younger children in simple ways how to look for what needs are beneath behaviors: whininess means sleepiness, wiggles mean playtime, questions mean learning.
Explore this further with older kids by helping them choose by consequence rather than by choice, so instead of asking, “Do you want this or that?” challenge them to consider by consequence: “If you do this, that will happen; if you do that, this will happen.” This will help them learn they are not only choosing between what is in front of them or happening right now, but actually choosing between consequences of their choices. Teaching these executive functioning and critical thinking skills helps children see the people behind the stories, and understand the needs people may be acting out instead of only hearing about the “symptoms” of those needs as may be reported in the media.
Explain different perspectives
You might have a favorite sports team, political party, food or holiday tradition. Other families down the street, across town or on the other side of the country have very different perspectives and preferences. Celebrate another religion’s sacred festival days, or another culture’s holidays, and talk about what truths you have in common with them or why your family can appreciate the experience. Teach your children how to respond to different issues by expressing themselves effectively, without responding impulsively in ways that make things worse.
Be balanced, not biased
Explain both sides of controversial issues in addition to sharing your own views. When you do share your views, teach your children how you thought about the different pieces of the issues and came to your conclusions, rather than only telling them the conclusion itself. Teach them how to think, how to research the different aspects of an issue, and what those layers are that get people on both sides so riled up. Don’t excuse bad behavior, but don’t dismiss legitimate feelings, needs or cries for change.
Seek out other opinions
Read the news as reported by a different culture, nation or religion from than your own. Teach your children how to debate an issue or hash out both sides with someone who has the opposite opinion, demonstrating respectful dialogue and ongoing friendship.
Always tell both sides of the story: If you talk about looters, also talk about the people who stood together quietly trying to block looters and protect community businesses; if you talk about undocumented workers, talk about how hard it is to get documented; if you talk about race issues, also talk about privilege issues; if you talk about protestor violence, also talk about systemized state violence; if you talk about civil rights, also talk about human rights. Most issues have more than one layer, and while you feel strongly about one layer, you might have an opposite opinion in a different layer.
Find common ground
Just as we can disagree with another perspective without hating the person who believes that way, we can also find a lot in common with others if we slow down, really listen and sincerely care. We are all children of parents, have good days and hard days, make mistakes and learn from them, celebrate our victories and mourn our losses. Those are good starting places for conversations with anyone. Most hot topics have philosophical arguments that flesh out where one stands or draw the line in the sand apart from our opponent, but it is not so difficult to also participate in living next door to other human beings.
If we teach our children principles, they will quickly be able to discern truth underneath the chaos and see needs behind loud behaviors acting out underlying problems. They will be able to think their way through information that comes at them, experiences they endure, and the noise of so many different perspectives that we have access to in this technological world today. They will be able to problem solve, boldly state their opinions without cruelty, and give a voice to those crying out for help.
Do something to create peace
Smile. Pray. Read a different news source. Stay calm. Follow someone on social media who is different than you. Notice people. Eat food grown locally or by fairly paid workers (or both). Shop across town. Watch a movie about an ethnic or cultural experience or historical event. Give to an underserved charity. Foster a child. Hug a single person. Listen to the wisdom of someone older than you. Serve in a soup kitchen. Clean up trash in a park. Go to a funeral. Buy a gift card for a single parent. Encourage lively discussion. Ask yourself, “Why do I think this?” or “Why do I feel this way?” Forgive, and let go.
When my children were fighting that morning, both felt justified in what they had done and both proclaimed their innocence. However, both of them had made poor choices, and both of them had chosen the related consequences. They both reacted instead of responding. When it was so loud and chaotic as I intervened, it was a challenge for me to respond instead of also reacting. But even when they choose poorly, I am still not justified in also choosing bad behavior or resorting to name calling.
Becoming a good mom — or a good sibling, or even a good citizen — has a lot to do with learning that.
Emily Christensen lives with her husband in Oklahoma. Her Ph.D. is in marriage and family therapy and she is pursuing a second degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies. Her blog is housewifeclass.com and her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.