Scariness and Suffering pt 2

The previous post talked about introducing your kids to scary topics, and helping them build resilience. This post will talk more about building compassion in the face of suffering and injustice.

While I grew up with a lot of childhood fear—and I think, did a pretty good job of battling against it—I’ve always had a pretty firm grasp of justice. I think most children do: “That’s not fair!” is heard in any house with a four year old. Of course, as we grow up we learn that life isn’t fair—but we don’t want to squelch that inner cry, to just tell children to suck it up and let the injustice slide by. Rather, we want to help kids channel that frustration they feel at personal injustices into compassion for those facing more serious injustice.


imgres.jpgIn ninth grade I was chewed out for protesting the practice of hazing at our school. That was also the year I mounted a campaign to build wheelchair ramps for a girl in our grade who was wheelchair bound. (I also documented pie charts showing the injustice of how my life was being sucked away by homework and posted them around our house in silent protest. You know, I wasn’t totally selfless!) Here are a couple of things my parents did that helped me to build compassion for those facing injustice.

 Use age-appropriate stories to introduce tough topics: Everyone stop what you’re doing and just go read Jodie’s Between Worlds blog. She has actual children and actual wise thoughts. She has tons of articles on how to talk to your children about race.  Kids probably don’t need the details of lynching, but they can learn that black people’s lives were in danger, and very brave black people (including children) stood up to that injustice in the Civil Right’s movement. They don’t need graphic details of the horror of the Taliban, but they can know there was a girl who stood up to it. When your child asks about Black Lives Matter, you can say, “Remember the book we read about Rosa Parks?” and have a framework to build on. Here’s a great post with links to stories, videos, and other ideas on how to raise globally aware kids (okay, have you actually visited Jodie’s blog now?) 🙂

Cultivate compassion and a sense of justice by exposing your child to the world: When I was doing my research on white people committed to racial justice, one participant told me that growing up she always knew apartheid was wrong. Other white families engineered their lives to avoid having to go to poor, black townships, whereas her parents would drive right through them and say, “Look. Look at this. Don’t look away. See that man who is begging over there? See that run down house? That is because of apartheid, and it’s wrong.” When apartheid ended and schools integrated, her peers were overwhelmed and confused by all the changes (not to mention ignorant and racist), but she was able to compassionately welcome new black students. I mean, you don’t want to promote some kind of weird poverty tourism, but don’t purposefully avoid exposing your children to suffering people. Travel with your kids, and not just to neat, tidy, controlled and safe spaces. (Jodie again). Also, what intimidates you might not intimidate them. You’re helping define their ‘normal’. The person I interviewed in my masters thought it was normal to be aware of racial injustice and working towards racial equality. Growing up near the township of Sweetwaters, I wasn’t scared or overwhelmed to visit places with material poverty–it was normal.

** Side note: They might not always like it. Yes, I would have preferred going to a 50 minute American church with a kids ministry that looked like Disney world and not a 3-hour Zulu church service when I was in fourth grade. OBVIOUSLY. But I am so incredibly thankful for my experiences growing up in Zulu church, the life-long friends I made, and the things it taught me. So don’t only structure activities and choices around what’s going to keep your kids the most entertained and smiling.

Frame: Your kids are forming ideas about the world on their own. You can be part of shaping these ideas towards justice and compassion or away from it.

  • “How come in this cop show, when they go to the poor area where there are suspects, all the people in the neighbourhood are black?” my 10 year old adopted cousin stopped the TV programme to ask me.
  • “All the brown people walk in the morning, and the white people all drive cars,” observed my nine year old South African neighbor on the drive to school.

Both of these comments show that kids are making observations about the world. Kids see race. They see disability. They see rich and poor. Help them interpret it.

Do something: You don’t just want kids who can see injustice and feel compassion (although that’s the start) but who also feel empowered to do something about it. Maybe that’s idealistic, and at some point you’ll probably have to have conversations about how authority structures often refuse to listen to truth—but when talking about injustice and suffering it’s important for your child to have a sense of agency. The guilt, helplessness, and terror come when things seem completely beyond our control. It would be horrible to show a child the reality of suffering and injustice in the world and then leave them to wallow in it. It’s a recipe for mental health breakdown. Growing up, when we learned about persecuted Christians around the world, we prayed for those countries. We gave part of our allowance every week to our church that helped support the nutritional needs of members with HIV/AIDS. I spent my sixth grade birthday party playing with puppies and kittens at the SPCA to socialize them.

Teach your child nonviolence and the power of the appeal:

51O1WAsVNeL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_“Yes Mommy, but may I please appeal to you?” was a phrase heard often in my home. I grew up in a family culture that emphasized conflict resolution and peace building – this involved listening, negotiation, saying sorry and asking forgiveness. Our parents were the authority figures in the home. We couldn’t just ignore them, or refuse to do what they asked—but they also taught us that there are acceptable ways to appeal when you feel that something is unjust. When Dad takes my brother’s side in an argument and tells me to go clean my room, rather than responding with violence, (aka, hitting my brother) I can make an appeal to the authority figure. My parents taught us to use “I” statements, to avoid saying, “you always” and “You never”, and to have concrete alternatives to offer. We practiced this at home, and we felt empowered to use these same skills out in the real world.Think about it, the whole Civil Rights movement was built on the back of nonviolent appeals.

I used this (albeit unsuccessfully) in my appeal at school about hazing/initiation. (To clarify, I was a ninth grader, and opposed to the hazing of the eighth graders below us by the 12th graders). I appealed the practice through a letter written with lots of “I statements”. It didn’t go down well. I was a goody two shoes who never got in trouble with teachers, and it was traumatic being chewed out by a teacher over this letter of appeal.

My mom had encouraged me to write it, and maybe she felt like a terrible mother when I came home sobbing. Maybe she thought, “I should have told her to just go along with it.” But I hope she didn’t feel that way, because I think she did the right thing. When I came home crying, she listened to me and helped me talk about it. She helped me see that perhaps while my intentions were noble, my delivery of the appeal was not quite as tactful as I had imagined. She helped me see the teacher was a person too, and he was under pressure as well, and perhaps had responded in fear. I learned how to make better appeals. I learned that sometimes authority doesn’t respond well to appeals. I learned that when standing up to injustice and making nonviolent appeals, you have to be ready to withstand the response (think of Moses appealing to let the Israelite slaves go- Pharaoh increased their workload rather than listening). But my Mom was proud of me for doing something. I grew more resilient.

As a very small aside, this Spring Break I used a successful appeal when my husband and I were unfairly sent to the back of the line at the Liberty Bell in Philly by a security guard. I used my I-statements, and when the guard refused to listen, I respectfully asked if there was someone in authority that I could appeal to. I think it threw the security guard off, but I was able to talk to someone higher up, and he heard my appeal. ( Also, I should point out I’m white and privileged, and so I have a greater ability to appeal and be heard. There are many more things to be said on this topic!). 


So, should you take your five year old to an anti-sextrafficking event? I honestly don’t know. But I guess even if it’s scary, or even if exposes them to a lot of suffering, if you’re able to talk about it with them, frame the experience, let them ask questions, and empower them to do something positive, you could probably take them to anything and they’d be okay.

OKAY, over to you- what are some practical things you do to build compassion in the face of suffering and injustice?

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