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How To Talk To Kids About Hate Speech

What should you do when your child says something inappropriate?

In the fall of 2018, I came home from work, kicked off my shoes and casually flipped on the evening news, just like I had so many nights before. I was expecting the usual traffic incidents, airline delays, weather reports and the like. But there it was: a deeply disturbing video of a group of Southlake teens, mostly girls, chanting a racist slur in unison. A second, similar video featuring Southlake students was circulated last February.

I’m sure so many other parents thought the same thing I did when that footage surfaced: What would my children do if they found themselves in a similar situation? I would like to think they would never say such things, that they would immediately speak up and put an end to that behavior, but have I really prepared them for our current cultural climate?

Hate in all its forms—crime, speech and the dangerous comingling of the two—seems to be reaching a fever pitch, so much so that just last March the House of Representatives passed a resolution aimed at its own members that condemned “hateful expressions of intolerance.”

But hate speech is not something many of us address directly with our children because we think bigotry is taught by imitation and or overt instruction, and that if we’re not using offensive language, our kids won’t either. But many will fall victim to everyday exposure—TV shows, online games, memes, music, the comments section on a YouTube video.

So what can we do to raise children who speak (and act) with compassion and empathy?

Look Inward

“We have these biases we’re not even aware of, so for adults, it’s more about self-reflection first before we can even start the process of teaching kids how to be culturally competent,” says Tyisha Nelson, the executive director of special programs for Carroll Independent School District. She is facilitating programs to teach Southlake elementary children about cultural competence in response to the recent videos.

Instead of telling them what not to say, we want to teach them what we want them to do.” 

But even younger children watch and imitate us and will reflect the attitudes and values of those they look up to and love. At a recent training with a child development specialist, Nelson learned that children as young as 3 months can pick up on how their parents respond to people. At that age, they might not be expressive, but they’re certainly receptive to everything from body temperature to mannerisms.

Teach by Example

The tolerance you demonstrate by the way you treat and speak to others naturally sends your children a message.

“Behaviors are learned, so it’s just about teaching them the expectations,” Nelson says. “What does kind look like? What does it feel like, what does it sound like? So instead of telling them what not to say, we want to teach them what we want them to do.”

But what about those times when they blurt out an insensitive comment that makes us wish the floor of the grocery store would just open up and swallow us whole? First, acknowledge the hurt by simply apologizing to the hearer. Then stop and think about your child’s intent versus their impact before turning your attention back to them.

“In that moment, validate the truth of their intention in a way that doesn’t make them feel like pointing out things that are different is bad,” says Bianca Anderson, the Dallas-Fort Worth director of the Center for Racial Justice in Education. “When we negatively reprimand for pointing out difference, we can subconsciously send the message to kids that difference is to be feared.”

Hate speech hurts. Sometimes I think we are really afraid to tell our kids, ‘I feel really devastated. That kind of breaks my heart.

Then share the impact of their words in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for that child. “Think about what that child needs and the way it would land for them,” Anderson says. “The worst thing to do in that situation is just reprimand and that child not understand the impact.”

Start a Dialogue

As children get older, look for teachable moments—maybe something that happened at school, a racially charged news story (such as those videos), an undertone in a show on Netflix. Then be authentic. “Hate speech hurts,” Anderson says. “Sometimes I think we are really afraid to tell our kids, ‘I feel really devastated. That kind of breaks my heart.’”

Talk about how words are powerful and the hurt they can cause and why, including the historical ties. “Kids don’t always understand why using [a slur] is harmful, because they don’t understand the historical, structural ties … because we don’t bring it there,” Anderson explains.

Most of all, remember that the conversation should be ongoing. “That’s the great thing about having children—you get to keep them! So if you mess up, you can come back that next day,” says Anderson. “It’s OK to misspeak or wish you would have said something differently and come back and acknowledge that and say it differently. That really is the beauty of relationships.”