Yet again, parents are asking the question, "What do I tell my children?" after the tragic deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and five police officers. In the past, I've written about how to help children in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, school shootings and the like, but this time, I find myself viewing the situation differently.
This time, instead of trying to find words to explain to our children that there are people who are mentally disturbed and sometimes act out of confusion and pain, I find the question demands a different kind of answer. It isn't what we tell our children, it is what we show them.
The issue of racial tension and violence cannot be addressed simply by weeding out those rare police officers whose racism compromises their ability to serve and protect all citizens fairly. And as desperately vital as it is to institute sane gun control laws, that too is not enough.
It starts on an individual level. Every act of violence against those of a different race, sexual orientation, or religion was orchestrated by an individual. Every one of these individuals was once a child. Every one of these children was influenced by the people, attitudes, and beliefs they were exposed to during childhood. If we are to change the climate of discrimination and violence, we need to start at home.
This is not to say that those who commit acts of violence do so because of how they were raised. Innumerable elements contribute to mental illness, many which have nothing to do with the loving efforts of caring parents. Mental illness is far more complex than that.
But when we look at the bigotry that inflamed events like the church shooting in Charleston or the deaths of five policeman at a peaceful Dallas rally, we have to consider the beliefs that fueled them. Children who grow up being told that there is a Right Religion/Race/Orientation and a Wrong one believe in US versus Them, rather than We.
There's an axiom that says, When is the best time to plant an oak tree if you want to enjoy its shade? Fifty years ago.
When is the second best time to plant that oak tree?
As parents, we have the opportunity today to plant within our children seeds of tolerance that can slowly but surely stem the tide of hatred and racism. Ordinary parents can help create a more humane world simply by raising their children to be inclusive, inquisitive, and accepting of others.
It is no small thing, bringing up a child to be a compassionate citizen of the world.It is everything. Every child who grows up to become a man or woman who refuses to judge others based on color, age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or creed helps make our world one in which love can prevail.
Show your children what it looks like to embrace all people as equals. Spend time with those whose color, race, orientation or beliefs differ from your own. Take your kids to cultural events and places of worship that celebrate other ethnicities and religions. Confront hidden biases and attitudes within yourself, perhaps instilled by parents whose ideologies were framed by generations of prejudice.
We are all grieving at the senseless loss of precious lives. Today, when my car pulled up beside a police car at a traffic light I rolled down my window to say, "Thank you for the work that you do..." but was too choked up to finish my words. The officers smiled and said, "Thank you, ma'am" and I wept the rest of the way home.
What must it be like to be a fine young woman or man who has chosen to protect the public, knowing that someone may randomly attack you because of their fury? What must it be like to be a young black man, wondering if you're safe as you stop at a traffic light.
My heart is broken for those whose lives were cut short, those who loved them, and those who live in fear because of the color of their skin or their cherished beliefs. May we each find some small way to honor these innocents, expanding our children's' worlds so that people who once might have been a Them become part of our Us.
May we find our way to live together in peace.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.