Ep #123: How to talk to your kids about racism and other difficult topics
We can talk to our children about racism, religion, politics, sex, drugs, or social issues without the conversations turning into a heated debate.
When topics are challenging to discuss, we tend to avoid talking about them.
We need to talk about these crucial issues. Change doesn’t happen until we can talk about these issues without getting defensive or emotional.
You don’t have to know everything, or even agree, but being able to really listen to your child’s concerns and answer any question honestly is vital in creating an atmosphere of trust and acceptance.
Talking about complicated topics isn’t easy for most children. If you respond with anger or frustration, they will stop coming to you for advice.
If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, they will find someone they do feel comfortable talking with, and you may not always like the advice they receive.
The skill of Effective Communication is life-changing. When a child can feel heard and understood, even if you don’t always believe the same, they will value your opinion, and your relationship will grow.
Effective Communication shows you how to remove the emotional response from communication. Doing this allows you to listen to understand instead of listening to respond. Using Effective Communication will enable you to find common ground, see multiple viewpoints, and better understand others’ experiences.
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The transcript text is below. You can also download the PDF file of the transcript here.
This is episode 123.
We welcome you to the ADHD Smarter Parenting podcast. Here to heal and elevate lives is your Parenting Coach, Siope Kinikini.
Hello everyone, how are you? I hope you’re doing well. Thank you for joining me wherever you may be, thanks for taking some time to be with me today. This is the ADHD Smarter Parenting podcast, my name is Siope, and I’m your host.
Today we’re going to be talking about the difficult questions. We’re going to talk about, what do we do when our child comes to us with difficult questions, and what environment are we creating to help facilitate conversations that are hard to talk about?
Now, some of these topics may include anything really, but I’m going to list what a lot of families say are difficult topics to talk about. Drugs, religion, race relations, politics, sexuality. And these are all the topics that a lot of people avoid during the holidays when they meet with their extended family because they can be a point of contention.
What I want you to be able to do is to create an environment where you can talk to your child, and not at your child about these difficult topics, and that you can have an opportunity to really engage with them in an effective way.
I will be going over the skill of Effective Communication, and I will be going over the skill of Effective Praise, and both of those skills are needed. So the three things that I want you to be able to do by the end of this podcast is, number one, I need you to learn to be honest and in the moment when communication is happening. Number two, allow the communication to occur without emotionally responding. So you want to take the emotional part of communication out of it when you are creating this environment, to facilitate the conversation. And then number three is you need to absolutely praise communication efforts with your child. Those are the three things. Be honest in your communication, allow the communication to occur without the emotional piece, and then praise the communication efforts that your child is putting forth.
Communication is a two-way street, it really is. We focus a lot on, “Okay, we’re going to communicate and have you communicate to us.” And then we’re focused on the child’s communication, but I need you as a parent to be very aware of the way that you react to any information your child is giving you. Because when you react in a negative way, it may not be verbal, it may be physical, it may be body language, you’re actually telling your child, “This may not be a safe place to continue to pursue this.” So be very aware of the way that you engage, and the way that you interact with your child in creating this environment. And that way, when they have difficult questions, they will come to you for help. And that’s exactly what you want to do.
You do not want your child to go to his best friend in third grade, to have that friend explain sexuality to him. No. Who knows what they’re saying? Who knows what they understand, and who knows what he’s going to get out of that?
Creating this environment does take some effort on your part, but again, I’m giving you exactly what you need to do in order to do this successfully.
Now, I need to share this story with you because I think it illustrates exactly how I learned to do this and how it works. What it looks like in a real day, everyday life. Now, I have to take you back to when I first went to college. In my second year in college, I still did not know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with people, I knew I wanted to help people, but I still did not know exactly what work I wanted to focus my attention on. I attended school at a college and it was called the College of Eastern Utah.
The school has since changed, it’s now an extension of Utah State University, but it’s located in the middle of Utah. So it’s a small area, the town is a college town pretty much, or at least at the time that I was attending, and most of the people were miners, they worked in the mines, mining coal, and it was a small town. And a lot of the people who lived there knew each other. They knew about each other, and the school had students coming in during the school year, and it would be super busy, and then in the summertime, it would be obviously less busy, because everybody had moved out and waiting again for the next school year.
I loved my time there, and it was a surprising place for me to go because in that area, in the rural area of Utah, I am a person of color, and going to a school where there were not a lot of people of color there, presented its own interesting dynamics.
Anyways, while I was there in school, my second year, I was sharing my dilemma with a friend of mine. His name was Ed, and Ed and I talked about the future and I just shared it with him. I said, “I don’t know what I want to do. I want to help people, but I’m not exactly sure in what area, and I don’t know in what way I can help people.” And as we talked, Ed looked at me and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me after classes on Thursday and I’ll take you somewhere?” And I asked him, “Where?” And he said, “Well, I’ll show you.”
Now, Ed was a pretty private person. He was a local person who was raised in that town, but a lot of people didn’t really know him. He wasn’t very loud or anything like that. He did his own thing, and I think that’s why I got along with Ed well. So Thursday came along and I met with Ed, and he drove me over to this school. It was called the Ann Self School.
I still remember walking up the walkway to enter the building and seeing that on the wall, and he started to explain, “Well, this is a school, they serve special needs children, and started to integrate some adults with special needs here at the school, and they just help them. And we’re going to go in, and we help as teacher’s aides, but we’re basically the muscle because some of these kids are heavy, and so we will help move them from place to place or into wheelchairs. We will also put them on the bus when it’s time for school to be over.” So I entered the room and there were maybe about six students in there with teachers, and that’s what we did.
When a child needed to be moved somewhere, or needed to be helped physically, we were the muscle. We would move them around. There was one young man who was fairly mobile, he had some physical disabilities, but mentally he was sharp, super, super smart. He was about five, six years old, and I fell in love with him the very first day, because as soon as I walked in, he just looked up and he said, “Who’s that?” He had no qualms about asking questions or sharing his mind about what was happening. So Ed explained who I was and what I was doing there, and he was like, “Oh, okay.” Then he went back to playing just his brash honesty was so refreshing. I loved it, I loved it. So this five, six-year-old, he was kind of a handful because he always had a lot of questions.
We’re going to call him Len. Len always had questions and he was on top of things. He was one of the brightest kids. He could observe something and really understand the concepts of it, understand it on a deeper level than most people could. His disabilities required him to be in a wheelchair, and so our job was to help prepare him, get him into the wheelchair, and then put them on the bus.
I continued to go back to the school for a few weeks, and I started to get closer with the students and also with the staff there, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a wonderful experience for me to see that side of helping people. Well, one day we were loading the bus, and Len and Edward were standing together and they were talking, and I was helping with some of the other youth.
We got them onto the bus and I was working in the front of the bus, and Ed was working in the back of the bus. Now, in the bus, each of them had their own location, because you could strap them in specifically with the gear that is needed to secure their chairs. While we were there, I could hear Ed and Len talking. They were just chatting, but I didn’t understand what they were saying. And they were just going back and forth. And finally, I heard my friend Ed just say to Len directly, “Well, why don’t you just ask him?” And so I looked up and Len looked at me and he’s like, “Hey, Siope come here?” And I walked over there and I leaned in and I said, “What’s up?” And he said, “I have a question for you.” And I said, “Okay.”
“Why are you brown?”
“Yeah, okay.” That was my response initially. I just stood there, kind of stunned and silent thinking, “Wait, what?” And I did. I said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” And he said, “Why are you brown?” Now, as I looked into his face, it was a sincere question. This was a real question that he had. He was being completely honest in his question to me. “Why am I brown?”
So I knelt down beside him, and I felt like we were pretty good friends, I really enjoyed my time working with him. And I said, “Well, God made me this way.” And he looked at me and he squinted his eyes a little, leaned back his shoulders, almost as if to say, “Well, hmm.” Trying to figure this out, and then he said, “Well, why don’t you ask God to make you white like the rest of us?”
And that actually brought on a chuckle. I could hear Ed laughing in the back, and it took me by surprise. But the pure honesty of the question was amazing. Now I knew at this time he was asking an honest question, and I wanted to be as honest as possible to him. And I wanted to be sure that I didn’t allow my emotional response to say, “Hey, this is an area that is uncomfortable, or that is not appropriate.” I didn’t want to come down on him that way. I wanted him to continue to ask the questions that he had, knowing that I was fully aware of those questions, and I was okay with it. So, after thinking for a bit, I said, “Well, you know what Len? God created me this way, so that’s why I’m Brown. He just made me this way.” And out of instinct, my brain just had this lightning flash.
And I remember saying, “I want you to look around the bus. There’s a lot of different kids on here. Why didn’t you ask God to make you walk?” Talk about honesty. And he looked outside the window and then he looked at me and he said, “Because I like the way God made me.” And I said, “I like the way God made me.” And then he said, “Okay.” And that was it. That was the end of the conversation.
Later on, I praised him for that communication, The next day I’m like, “Hey, Len, thanks for asking that question. It was a wonderful question, I’m glad you asked it, and I’m glad you feel open to ask me that question. You can ask me any question you want.”
So, those are the three things that occurred during this interaction with Len. First, it was the honesty of communicating about it. The second thing was allowing the communication to occur without emotionally responding to it. So removing the emotional part, and really listening and understanding, “This is a question, let me answer it with an honest answer.” And then going back and praising him for that communication effort.
We ended up being really good friends, and we have since reconnected just briefly a few years ago, just catching up on how things are going and where he’s at in his life. It’s been fascinating really to reconnect after all this time. I’m sure he’ll pop up again because we tend to find each other, but I still remember that communication. I asked him if he remembered and he said, “Yeah, I remember that communication, that it was pretty funny.” And yet at the same time, it created an environment of openness and of communication between the two of us. It allowed him to ask me anything.
One thing that I want parents to really be aware of is that any communication that you do is not just words. You are communicating through body language, through facial features, the stance that you make, your body is visually communicating something. I’ve had it happen so many times where parents will openly say, verbally say this to their children, “You can talk to me about anything.” And yet when the child comes to them with a difficult topic, they struggle controlling their body language. They’ll look at them with a look of suspicion, or they will have a judgy look on their face when the child is communicating. You as a parent need to be aware, “How am I communicating with my child with my physical body, my facial features, my tone of voice, the level I’m at?” With Len, I knelt down, so we could be at eye level so we could communicate.
Very, very important in the communication process, that I’m not standing over him as if, “I’m in authority, and you’re smaller than me, and I’m going to communicate this way.” No. You want to be able to communicate using your body language, in the most effective way possible. You have to take stock, and you have to look inward in the way that you communicate with your body, as well as with your words.
So, simply hearing a parent say, “You can tell me anything, sweetie, just tell me.” Is very, very different than when a child comes to you with a difficult topic and you are listening, you’re not saying anything, but your body language is saying, “I’m disgusted by this.” Or, “How dare you think that?” Take stock of what’s happening. You also have to know what areas are your triggers.
If your child comes to talk to you about sexuality, will that trigger you? If they come to talk to you about drugs, will that trigger you? Religion, will that trigger you? Race relations, will that trigger you? Politics, will that trigger you? We all have things that we struggle with, and we all have our own views of the world.
You have to understand that children are coming, when they’re talking about difficult topics, because they’re trying to figure it out, and our job is to help them understand how to look at things, and how to make sense of it all. And if you cannot provide that safety for communication with your child, your child is going to find it in someone else. And it may be anybody. They may go to a stranger, they may be communicating with peers. Can you imagine talking about sexuality with just your peers as the authority on that topic? Talk about horrible. I had a person who said that he learned about sexuality from his third-grade friend.
That’s reliable? No, it’s not. It’s absolutely not. And yet, these are the topics that if children have questions about, we have to understand, they’re trying to navigate and understand what is happening, and how to make sense of it. And when they come to us, we need to be able to provide an environment of safety that can facilitate the conversation, so we can help them along the way to discover what they need to discover. Very, very important.
Now, in working with Len and working with Ed, that did transform my life. It changed me in many ways, and I am forever grateful to Ed for introducing the Ann Self School to me because I still have very fond memories of my time. Just providing service there and learning and understanding what service was all about and helping people, yeah, fantastic. Now, that was something that happened when I was in my second year in college, and it is a lesson that has remained with me throughout my life.
So, now we’re here in 2021. A lot of difficult topics are coming up. I had a parent reach out to me a few months ago about race relations. How do they communicate with their child in regards to racial issues? And it was difficult. This is an African-American mother, who had a Caucasian husband, and so their child was biracial, and in trying to help them navigate and communicate about this topic.
Now, obviously, there are two different points of view in the marriage because of the parents and their experiences, and again, our experiences inform our ability to comprehend the world around us. And what we were doing was helping them learn how to communicate safety to their children, how to communicate wellness, and how to continue to have the conversations that would be necessary for their children to navigate this world.
Those topics were a lot more difficult, but the same advice was there. It’s just being honest and being in the moment, allowing the communication to occur without emotionally responding to that.
So we had to do a check. We had to check what is going to cause you to feel uncomfortable, and in what ways can you counter that discomfort? You can allow the conversation to just flow naturally, and then praising the communication afterward. The praise of the communication encourages the child to continue talking about it.
I always want parents to know that conversations are not a one-time deal. You will be communicating about these things throughout your child’s life. And so when you establish an environment that’s safe when future questions come up, they will come because they feel safe, and you can help navigate them through them.
When I was working with children who had been sexually abused, perpetrators and victims, talking with parents, it was very important for me to let them know that these would be ongoing conversations. You need to continually have these conversations because as your child changes their perceptions and their understanding about things that have happened in the past, will also change and they need to be able to feel safe in expressing and understanding their world based on where they are in the moment.
So, what we’re doing is recreating this environment that is a long-lasting environment, and will continually help your child to be safe in the world that they’re in, and to include you in that home process.
Parents are the ultimate guides to helping their children, and so it’s very, very important. Once you can do this with your child, your child is going to be able to do that with other people. And can you imagine a world where children are able to do this? To be honest and not allow emotionality to come into the communication, but just honestly listening to try and understand, and then praising communication efforts afterward. This really does fall into the line of conflict resolution as well.
This is something that will permeate the entirety of their life and the way that they engage with future husbands or spouses or wives and their own children. So you are laying the foundation of something that will continually bless their lives if you can do this well. So take stock. What are the things that will trigger you into an emotional response? Pay attention to your body language, your facial features, your tone of voice, how you’re reacting. Don’t just think that by saying, “You can talk to me about anything.” That that is going to cover all of it. Because it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. Your child is receiving messages that may be conflicting. You may be saying them, but your body language is telling them, “This isn’t a safe topic.” And that makes them shut off, and try and find answers somewhere else. The questions will never go away until they can find the answers. And they might as well find it with you.
I need to go over the steps of Effective Communication, but before we do, we need to take this break.
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Okay, welcome back. So let’s talk about Effective Communication and the steps. The steps to Effective Communication is that you need to look at them. There are six steps. You need to look at them, pay attention to them. Number two, use their words to describe what you understood. Number three, clarify that that is what they meant. Step number four, state your own thoughts. Step number five, have them clarify what they understood. And then number six is if you need to come up with a solution, if necessary. So look at them.
In my communication with Len, I did look at him, I went down to eye level, I was attentive to him, in a way shut out the rest of the bus and the noises by just focusing in on him, and just being right present with him. And using their words to describe what you understood.
You want to restate, especially if it’s a difficult question you want to restate what you understood to just clarify. And then state your own thoughts on it, and then have them clarify that they understood. So again, your part is in listening and being attentive, up until step number four. Step four is where you can finally share your own thoughts. And again, in step four, pay attention to the way that you are conveying your own thoughts. Be very careful, be very intentional about how you do that.
Then step five, have them clarify and then come up with a solution afterward. Those are the steps that you need to use in order to encourage communication to continue to happen. It’s a structure that you can build communication on. Now, once you do this with your child, your child is going to start doing it back with you.
It’s going to be this interesting dynamic that you see. Over and over again, I’ve seen parents do this. They start to do it, and their children naturally adopt it, and they start to do it as well. Think of it this way. When you’re walking down the street with a group of friends, it doesn’t take very long before everybody starts walking in sync. And it’s this uniformity that we like. We tend to feel comfortable in being in sync with everybody around us. Well, the same thing can be said about using these skills. Once you start setting the pace and the tone and the speed, your child is going to also mimic that, because they want to be in sync. They want to be there right with you along the way. So, learn the steps and be sure that you can do all six of those steps.
Now, the important piece though, then I want you to also focus on in the communication, is that you take some time to effectively praise your child when they come to you about a difficult topic. So there are four things to keep in mind with praise. Now, I’ve talked about this before, and it’s important for you to know, but there is praise and then there’s Effective Praise. We do Effective Praise. Praise is general. It’s like, “Hey, good job, you’re awesome buddy.” It doesn’t really give you much. It doesn’t tell you much.
When you’re using Effective Praise, however, you’re being very intentional about the praise in order to help them repeat that behavior that you would like to see them do again. Effective Praise only has four steps. First, you want to show approval or find the positive in what they’re doing, you want to describe the positive behavior, which is communication, talking about the difficult topic, and then giving a meaningful reason of why to continue in that behavior. That meaningful reason needs to be important to your child, not to you.
So, if the communication is like, “Hey, thanks for communicating, asking me that question of why I am brown.” You want to give them a meaningful reason to continue that behavior. “When you ask me questions like that, it makes me feel like we can talk about anything, and that’s a wonderful thing. And it helps you have answers, and it helps me know what you’re thinking about.” And then number four is an optional give a reward.
I learned these steps to these skills. I innately did a lot of them naturally, and when I learned the Teaching-Family Model, I realized that they were very specific steps. So following the steps helps me keep track that I’m doing things correctly and that I’m doing them well. This is a challenge to you. We’ve covered quite a bit during this podcast, and it’s a lot. So I hope you took notes because it’s important.
If not, you can get the show notes on the Smarter Parenting website. You can also download printable sheets where you can follow the steps to these, but I want you to really pay attention to Effective Communication and Effective Praise in your communication. I need you to be able to be honest and in the moment of where your child is at.
With Len and our communication back and forth, he asked a question. We could have gone further. I was willing to talk about it for a long time, and really dive deep, but he didn’t need that. He asked me an honest question, I gave him an honest answer, and then he’s like, “Okay.” And then he was done. So be in the moment, be honest with it, and just don’t direct it so much as allow it to naturally occur, and when your child is done, your child is done.
Number two, allow the communication to occur without emotionally responding. I could have responded in a negative way, looked at him like, “How dare you ask that about me?” Or, “Haven’t your parents taught you about people of color?” I could have responded a million different ways. And of course, he was adorable, so I didn’t respond that way, but this goes for any child that you’re communicating with. You want to remove the emotional response and pay very close attention to your body language as this communication is happening. And then you want to go back and praise them for their efforts. Again, encouraging them. “Hey, come to me. Ask your questions. I am here for you. I’m here to guide you through.”
With the family that I was working with, in regards to race relations, it was important for us to be able to create a dialogue in the communication and being honest.
What I did was I asked both parents to spend some time being honest about their perceptions, about race and coming up with a game plan first before talking about it with their children, so they were on the same page. It’s important for parents to be on the same page because if they’re not, the communication gets muddied and it’s hard for children to really break apart pieces, and understand what is being communicated if one parent is saying one thing and another parent is saying another.
So a unified front, being honest. The other part was being honest with their children and allowing their children to honestly ask any question that they may have, and then allowing the communication to occur without becoming emotional about it. You want to remove the emotional part of the communication. I cannot tell you how important it is for parents to be able to have this ability.
When you remove that emotional response, you actually allow your child some room to wiggle and move and interact in that environment, which’s freeing for them. It allows them to continue to ask questions. If you are communicating in your body language, “Hey, this is a dumb topic.” Or, “This is a silly thing that you’re asking.” Or, “How stupid.” Even if you’re not saying it, but your body is communicating it, your child will pick up on it, and they will say, “Okay, I can only go this far in regards to this topic, and then I need to pull back because my parent’s not with me. So, okay, where am I going to get my questions answered?”
And then they’re going to try and figure out where they can go to get those questions answered. I would prefer they come from the parents. Prefer they would come from you because you know your child and you know in what ways to best help them.
And then you want to obviously go back and praise the communication efforts. This encourages them and lets them know, “Hey, my parent is paying attention to what I’m asking them, and I feel safe because they realize that, hey, I’m bringing something to them, and it’s of value to them. I’m a value to them. My questions are a value to them.” So working through this.
In race relations, obviously, with the family that I was communicating with about this, it really is important to be on the same page and understand the overall messaging that is going to happen without forcing the message down but allowing children to ask their questions and lead the conversation where it needs to go. And then being there with them. Now, previously, I gave the example of walking down the street with a group of people, and pretty soon everybody’s in sync.
What I want to challenge you to do, is to take everything we’ve talked about here, but let the child do the leading during the communication. Yeah, I know it’s hard. You want the child to lead the communication, and pace the communication, and you start to follow along. When you can start to do this, it really does reinforce the independence of thought, it allows them to really open up. You’re going to see a blossoming of communication happening. Now, this is a skill that I have used consistently with my own daughter, and what’s fascinating is that we spend a lot of time communicating, and we’ve heard it all.
And I’ll be honest. There are some topics that trigger me, and they’re difficult for me internally, but I already know what those are and I’m prepared for them. So in my mind, I go in with the mindset, “Hey, she may be telling me something that’s hard to hear, but it’s not about me and my feelings, it’s about my child being able to feel safe to tell me these things, and then for us to work through it.” Then I’ll go back and praise her. “Thank you for sharing that.” I will say there are some times she has come to me with very difficult things, and I pretend I’m playing poker, and I have a poker face and I’m just reassuring and opening it up and allowing her to lead, and I’m just following along and providing guidance along the way, and it has made a world of difference.
I think that between my wife and I, there really is no taboo topic. I can see the formation of a young adult happening before my eyes, and I am a participant in that effort. And I know when questions pop up, she just asks. She just comes and asks. And we are able to explore it together and help her find the answer she needs, but she’s not going to outside sources, or to friends for verification, because I will tell you, if you are leaving this up to other people to help inform your child, they are going to be raised misinformed. They will be raised misinformed, and you won’t know what information they’re receiving or what is wrong with it. So take some time.
This is going to require you to do some real introspection on your part as a parent, but it will be worth it, absolutely worth it if you do this.
This was a wonderful podcast. I want to thank you for joining me for this podcast because these are the difficult things that are happening right now in our world, our children obviously have some questions about it. A lot of them may be less triggered by everything. Adults are dealing with the stress of it all, children are only dealing with what’s happening in the world based on their worldview and their experiences, which may not be as profound as yours. So, really take some time to take stock in yourself and how you’re communicating things because this will make all the difference in the world.
That’s it for me for this week, join me again next week. Thank you for spending some time here at Smarter Parenting, and remember, we’re here to help you. So there are a lot of options for you. I’m Siope, and I will talk to you later. Thanks, bye.
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