How to Have an Ongoing Conversation With Your Teen About Race
“I knew you cared and you always made me think.” It was my wife that pointed it out. After 25 years of being in schools, I frequently run into former students or they drop me a message on social media. They usually say the same thing: “I knew you cared and you always made me think.” When it comes to having an ongoing conversation with your teen about race, those are great goals to have. You want your teen to know you care and you want to make them think.
Having conversations with your teen about subjects like racism, use of force, and justice can be hard for many reasons.
Sometimes our teens bring the conversation to us and we may feel:
- Attacked—they may accuse us of being hypocrites or not doing enough, or being on the wrong side of important issues. Don’t get defensive—and keep your cool.
- Fearful—of disagreements escalating into full-blown fights or that we are ill-informed about the issues involved. It takes two to fight, so keep your cool. Get informed if you aren’t and recognize that this is a real opportunity to show what it looks like to disagree, have strong feelings about something and still be able to love through it and continue to have conversations.
- Disappointed-—that we haven’t passed down our beliefs and values to our kids the way we hoped. You’ve probably passed down more than you think, but understand, this is the age that teens begin to think for themselves and form their own beliefs and opinions. You can still speak into their life—as a role model and active listener.
- Overwhelmed—by all the information that they may have to share with us. It’s okay to say, “Hey, slow down… I’m trying to keep up!”
Sometimes we try to bring the conversation to our teens and they may be:
- Close-minded because their mind’s already made up.
- Dismissive and think our “generation doesn’t get it” and is out of touch.
- Apathetic and don’t share our concern about these issues.
1. We want our teens to know we care:
- Listen, but don’t lecture. Make sure they feel heard, even if we don’t agree. Let them take the lead in the conversation and allow them to fully explain their ideas and opinions.
- Show respect for them by respecting their thoughts and opinions. For many people, teens especially, the personal and the political are intertwined. If we dismiss or minimize their opinions, we have dismissed or minimized them. You don’t have to agree to show respect. In fact, you are modeling showing respect for differences.
- Support their activism where you can—on social media and in the real world. If your teen knows you don’t agree with their cause, yet you are willing to stand with them at a protest, you have demonstrated how much you care in a powerful way. Conversations will flow out of that…
2. And we want to try to make them think:
- Help them understand that we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. All of us see the world through the tinted lens of how we were raised, our life experiences, our friends, and what we’ve been taught. We can choose to simply look through that lens, or we can choose to look at that lens and question it or even try to look at the world through someone else’s lens.
- Help them to distinguish between facts and opinions. Most of what your teen is exposed to are opinions. The most reliable opinions are ones supported by research, facts, data, and logic. Opinions based only on feelings, personal experiences, and anecdotes should be viewed with healthy skepticism. In the past, being educated meant knowing information. Now, it involves knowing where the information comes from. Is it biased or trustworthy, and reliable? Does it have an agenda? Do you believe whatever you read or do you fact-check it? Challenge them to be a critical thinker.
- Help them understand the role that the news and social media play. The news and social media don’t simply report reality; they have the power to create it and manipulate it. And they are looking for ratings and clicks to make money.
- As a teacher, I didn’t use my lectern as an opportunity to lecture teens on my opinions. I had to remain neutral in a room full of kids from various backgrounds with varied opinions about all the “hot button topics” that frequently flared up. My role wasn’t to photocopy my beliefs and opinions into the teens that occupied my desks. It was my responsibility to help them be critical thinkers. My mantra was, “You don’t have to think like me, but you have to think.” I asked questions and I listened. I especially tried to help students understand where their classmates were coming from and how to be respectful of each other.
- Sure, I have values and character traits that, as a parent, I wanted to pass down to my children, but I wanted my kids to think for themselves, form their own opinions, and to be able to civilly articulate why they held that opinion—even if it was very different from my own. I encouraged them to seek out and be courteous when they navigated conversations with people holding different opinions and perspectives or didn’t look like them. Our dinner table was a classroom where ideas and opinions flew around. I tried to play the role of questioner, not a lecturer.
- In the last few weeks, our family of five from 14 to 25 have had some great conversations about racism, protesting, rioting, the role of the police and the government, social media activism, and how to do things in the real world that make a difference. These aren’t conversations to shy away from as a parent, but they can be hard and sometimes get lively and passionate. That’s okay.
- Be a role model. We should respect and continue to have relationships with people who don’t believe exactly the same things we do. Our teens are watching. We should cultivate relationships with people who look different than we do. Welcome them into your home. Have a meal with them. Even little things can send a big message. I took my kids to see Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel because I wanted them to see that superheroes aren’t just white men.
- Teens often feel strong emotions associated with their perceptions of current events. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Make sure they feel heard. You can encourage them to stay off social media for a while or to channel their emotions into doing something productive, legal, and positive in the real world. You could even do it with them. This will give your conversations more credibility.
Keep the Conversation With Your Teen About Race Going
Talking to your kids about the latest headlines isn’t that different than talking to your kids about sex, dating, pornography, or drugs. Just know that these aren’t one time monologues but ongoing conversations. Also, know that the average teen spends about seven hours a day in front of a screen and has at least two social media accounts. This is where they see corporate messaging, news and information, and the opinions of their peers. You might not watch much news or engage in many controversial conversations in your day to day, but your teen steeps in it for hours a day, day after day, for weeks. And these past few weeks have been heavy.
Don’t miss these excellent opportunities to help your teen develop their empathy, learn from people different from themselves, and hone their critical thinking skills. You can help them process complicated and controversial topics even if you don’t agree with each other. Be their role model for how to handle disagreements! Be their role model of loving and empathizing with people of other races.
Then you can keep the conversation with your teen about race going.
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