Talking to kids about hate crimes

Violence against Asians and Black people are at a record high. Here’s how to explain the issue to children—and what they can do to help.

Kavan Yee was in the kitchen on a quiet March evening when he saw the news about a mass shooting in Atlanta on his computer screen. A 21-year-old white male had gone on a shooting spree, killing eight people—six of them were Asian women. Yee says he barely had time to process the horrific news before his 11-year-old daughter, Kellyn, started asking questions.

As an educator, Yee recognizes the importance of having a direct and open dialogue with children when terrible events happen. “There’s a lot of confusion, and children want to know that they are safe,” says Yee, the director of middle school at Lowell School in Washington, D.C. “It’s natural for kids to have a lot of questions, especially about why things happened.”

According to a recent report from the FBI, hate crimes against Asians and Black people have soared to a record 12-year high, increasing by nearly 42 percent since 2014. The steady uptick in race-motivated violence in recent years has been attributed to a backlash against the first Black president, government officials pushing the blame of the global pandemic on the “Chinese virus,” and politicians defending white supremacists. Racial tensions were further escalated by the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people by law enforcement—events that sparked nationwide protests.

“Negative views of a particular group can be transmitted through images in the media, through literature, and unfortunately, what political leaders might say,” says Ervin Staub, founding director of the psychology of peace and violence doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Yet these are difficult conversations to have with kids, and it’s understandable that parents want to protect their children from learning about the dangers of the world. However, experts agree that kids are going to seek out that information, and if they can’t get it from a trusted figure like their parents or teachers, they might turn to more unreliable sources like social media. (Here’s how to get a conversation about race started.)

“We can’t dismantle bias by pretending it doesn’t exist or hoping it goes away,” says Christine Koh, co-author of Minimalist Parenting. “Families need to talk about what has happened historically, and what is happening in the present in order to understand why it’s so important for things to change.” 

Here are some tips on how to talk about hate crimes with your children. 

Explaining what a hate crime is

The Department of Justice categorizes “hate crimes” as crimes committed on the basis of the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Generally, these tend to be violent crimes—assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threats to commit them. “The perpetrators often don’t even know these other people whom they harm,” says Staub, a holocaust survivor who has written books about genocides, terrorism, and other group violence. “They just harm them because they’re members of a different group.” 

Koh advises to keep the explanation age-appropriate. “A simple way to explain hate crimes to kids is to share that a hate crime is when someone chooses to be hostile—typically through a physically aggressive act or defacing property—because of things like the color of a person’s skin, what religion they practice, their gender identity or sexual orientation, and more,” she says. “Kids need to be taught that no one deserves to be attacked on the basis of their humanity.” 

Why people commit hate crimes is also hard for children to grasp. Staub recommends explaining to kids that those who commit hate crimes often feel powerless and are therefore trying to gain power over other people different from them—but that it has nothing to do with the actions of the victims. It’s a phenomenon that affects both adults and children. According to FBI’s hate crime statistics, more than 10 percent of known offenders were ages 17 and younger.   

Talking to kids about hate crimes 

The level of details and the examples you share will depend on how old the child is. However, if you’re having the conversation because of breaking news of violent incidents—such as the Atlanta shooting or the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre—take a moment to calm down and speak with another adult. (This article provides advice on talking to kids about xenophobia.)

“When something terrible happens, we might be terrified, too,” says Rochelle F. Hanson, director of the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center’s Training and Technical Assistance Division. “I always recommend that adults talk to each other first. Then we’d be more prepared to talk with our own child because kids literally look to adults to find out how we’re doing and what our reaction is.”

Yee agrees that it’s important to take a pause before proceeding with a conversation about hate crimes. “I recognized at the moment how I was feeling when I saw those [Atlanta] images on the news,” he says. “But the parenting brain has to take over, and instead of relating everything I was feeling, which can be overwhelming for a child, I turned it around and asked her what she needed to know.”

And Yee says that’s especially important: Find out what your children knows and ask how it makes them feel, instead of telling them how to feel. Inquire as to how they arrived at certain conclusions, such as what the person was thinking when they committed the crime.

Hanson also recommends limiting children’s exposure to the news by putting controls on phones, computers, and iPads. “We don’t need the TV on 24/7,” Hanson says. “The constant bombardment is completely unhelpful. All it does it make people feel worse.”

Children who are of the same race as those being victimized can feel especially vulnerable, but experts saying speaking honestly from your own experience can have surprising benefits. For instance, Yee’s daughter asked him why Asian people were targeted, and she wanted to know if anything has happened to her dad in the past.

“I’ve had to share with her, ‘Yes, several things have been done to me over time,’” Yee says, adding that the complex discussion about violence toward Asians led to conversations about how the adults in Kellyn’s life are protecting themselves or feeling scared. And that brought the family closer together.

“It’s led to her to want to spend more time with my parents,” Yee says. “Out of these awful incidents, we’ve had more time to really talk about our family and our Chinese heritage.”

How can children be allies

“A huge piece of the work lies in teaching kids about empathy,” Koh says. “Dehumanizing other people is one reason why cruel behavior thrives.” To empower children to stick up for others who might be being harassed because of their identity, Koh recommends translating the Bystander Intervention 5 D’s—distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct—into age-appropriate tactics. (Concerned that your child’s innocent questions about race and ethnicity might be hurtful? This article might help.)

For example, your child can start a conversation with the kid who’s being harassed to draw attention away from them. Asking for directions or even dropping a book also helps distract and de-escalate a tense situation. Or your child can put their arms around the person who is being targeted and walk away with them.

“The earlier a person does it, the better it is because then the people who are about to harm somebody else are not yet committed to it,” Staub says.

Another strategy is to approach a grown-up to help intervene, or turn to others nearby and say, “We should stop this.” “If you work together with others, that increases your power to act,” Staub says.

And though kids can directly intervene in a situation, Koh says checking in on someone and offering direct support after something has happened—“Can I sit with you?” or “What do you need right now?”—can be small yet powerful gestures.

Practice these tactics with your child by asking what they would do when something happens to a character in a book or on a TV show. That way, they know what to do or who to reach out to when they witness a real-life incident so they can become comfortable enough to speak up and express their views.

“When children get involved, even in limited ways, it can increase their confidence,” Staub says. “And that’s how they gain moral courage and act according to their values.”

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