I Can’t Make Sense of America. What Do I Tell My Kids?
It’s not always easy to be the grownup in the room. What are the teachable moments for our children as we watch alarming events unfold in Washington DC? How do you move beyond intense polarization? Lisa talks about research conducted by social psychologist, Henri Tajfel, who survived WW II only because his German captors never discovered that he was Jewish. Tajfel explains how the Nazis are not so different from us. How does his research apply to present day and the recent Capitol Hill riots? How do you help kids see when they’re dehumanizing other people? Reena asks about radicalization online and cancel culture. Lisa explains how you can help your family work against discrimination and prejudice. Lisa's 1.7.20 article in The New York Times: Parenting While Shocked
January 19, 2021 | 28 min
Transcript | I Can’t Make Sense of America. What Do I Tell My Kids?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 23: I Can’t Make Sense of America. What Do I Tell My Kids?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: Have you ever tried to like explain what’s happening in a country in a therapy session? Because that’s actually what I’d like to do today. You’ve talked about this before where you keep checking your Instagram or social media or Twitter and you can’t stop. What is it, is it like dopamine that gets restored? What happens because I can’t stop checking Twitter. I’ll realize l’m online checking with the latest thing is and I’ve wasted an hour of my day. I just can’t keep up but I feel like there’s an elephant sitting on my chest, and I am eating so much dark chocolate. I have to stop.
LISA: Yeah. No, man with an anxious time. What an anxious time, and the checking, I think that’s often rooted in anxiety, right? This sense of, I need more information. I need more information and what we actually see, and we’ve studies this, when you check for information if what you get is ambiguous, it just leaves you more anxious, and right now all we get is ambiguous because if you’re checking in five minute intervals, there’s no significant, usually you know there have been so many significant events, but in those really rapid intervals it just keep your anxiety high, and so part of what you need to do if you feel like there’s an elephant on your chest and you’re eating too much chocolate, right? Is to take a break. To step away.
REENA: But you can’t really take a break, right? Like I’m wondering how do I explain this to the kids. They thought it was really funny seeing the images from Capitol Hill, like they can’t believe these are adults. These are grown adults.
REENA: And they don’t sort of understand fully the symbolism of Capitol Hill, and I don’t even know where to begin, Lisa.
LISA: I know. It’s weird. Like they know it’s weird but they don’t really get it and I am having the same experience at my house and managing it better and worse. I wrote a piece for The Times they came out the day after the Capitol riot, called ‘Parenting While Shocked,’ which we’ll put in the notes.
REENA: That’s great.
LISA: And I just tried to walk through that that experience, right? Of really working so hard to try to take it in yourself and not really knowing how to pivot from one’s own effort to make sense of it to actually trying to explain it to kids, and I walk through sort of how I got there, which is basically, okay I still have to be the grownup in the room at my house, and that doesn’t mean I have to fix everything, but I do need to be present and available and put my phone down and try to think this through with my kids and one of the things I’ve been saying a lot is, you are living through major historical moments. Like that’s something I can say that I feel to be accurate and to try to give them a perspective on how big it all is.
REENA: But before I even help them like I need to understand myself and process this, right? And so as you’re processing it one of the first things that comes to my mind as I’m saying this, like there’s a significant part of the country that feels unheard, and I was just one if you could walk us through, like what do you do when people just aren’t listening? Like you must have sessions where you just realize both sides are warring and whether it’s a parent or child or two spouses, like how do you get people to see the other side, right?
LISA: Yeah, no I mean it definitely comes up in therapy, and I what I will say is in therapy by the time people in my office, things are usually moving in the right direction because they have decided they want help. They have gotten themselves somewhere to get help. They’re willing to pay for help. So, in some ways, by the time you’re my office that’s the low hanging fruit. You know I look at what’s going on nationally and I try to think through like how do we address this like broad scale as parents to move beyond this intense polarization, right? Like that’s what we’ve got. We’ve got this intense polarization and so, I of course just like dig into the psychology research. That’s like my security blanket. I’m like, well what do we know from the science.
REENA: Yeah, because like, what are the facts? What does research tell us? So, what’s most interesting to you?
LISA: Okay, so here’s what I have been returning to, and I really mean it, Reena, like I return to it like a comfort. Like okay, we we’ve thought this through. We are not new to these experiences, and the work here that is seminal, like who really started to try to unpack this? There’s actually an extraordinary story. It’s this guy named Henri Tajfel, who was born in 1919 in Poland, and he was Jewish and so could not go to get a higher education in Poland, so he went to the Sorbonne and started to do school there, and then World War II broke out and he joined the French army, and he fought for the French against the Germans. He was captured and put in a prisoner of war camp where he was never detected as Jewish, which the understanding is that probably saved his life because if he had been detected the Germans would have moved him to a concentration camp and he wouldn’t have survived, so he spent the war in prisoner of war camps. When he went back to Poland after the war his entire immediate family was killed. Many of his friends were killed in the concentration camps, and so then you know stuff happens. He ends up in London studying psychology. And his work was entirely on the roots of discrimination and what he said, and this is the part that was radical, but he proved it in so many ways, he basically said the Nazis, they’re not so different from us. Like we want them to be and the prevailing discourse at the time was there’s something damaged in the Germans, there’s this national character flaw, and he basically said, I think that what we saw was an exaggerated, horrific form of something that everyone carries around inside of them, which is the wish to be part of a group, and often to do that at the expense of another group.
REENA: Wow. That is powerful, especially hearing that Nazis are not so different from us and this needing to feel part of something.
LISA: It’s pretty jarring, and of course we’re talking continuums. We’re talking, you know, there is like my club and your club and then there is, of course you know, lethal, horrific, grand scale violence. So, I’m not saying you know these are equivalent, I’m just saying that we can we can track on the same continuum, and he did a paper that came out 1970 that was sort of like the big break out paper and it was called Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination, and basically what he did, and this is what’s so stunning and this really rocked the understanding of discrimination, he did things where he got like packs of 14- and 15-year-olds, and I think they were all boys in his experiment, and he asked them questions, you know, around like what they like to look at, you know dots, things like that, very random, bogus questions, and then he completely randomly and with no meaning at all said to them, oh you, you’re the kind of kid who likes paintings by Kandinsky, and oh, those guys over there, they’re the kinds of kids who like paintings by Klee. Okay so completely meaningless to the boys, like random bogus assignment of groups, like but you’re like this and they’re like. He then gave them the opportunity to award money to their own group and to the other group, and what he found is of course, not surprisingly, they awarded more money to their own group, but the other thing he found is they even would hold back money from the other group, even if it costs them themselves. And so, he was like, there. There I did it. I created discrimination and the wish to harm another group on the most random, invented arbitrary things, and that piece of like understanding, that every one of us has within us, the wish to be part of something, and that lays the groundwork for the wish to be against something else, and that that can go down a horrifying and perverse path. That piece, that’s where I start as a psychologist.
REENA: So, why do you keep coming back to this?
LISA: Honestly the defense of intellectualization.
LISA: One of the things that we know in psychology is that we all have these psychological defenses we use. They are these unconscious circuit breakers, emotional circuit breakers, they filter intense experiences, and so you know there are better and worse defenses, so like a bad one is denial where you’re like, that didn’t happen. Okay, the reason we think it’s bad is because it completely messes with reality. There are better ones where you still stay in touch with the reality, but you actually filter it through something like an intellectual approach. So, honestly part of it is that the sheer rawness of the polarization, how dangerous and how intense and violent it becomes in this country, becomes emotionally, well, overwhelming for me as it does for many people, and so then I like fall back on the defense of intellectualization, and try to make sense of it in my own way, and so I think that’s part of why I come back to it, but then I also think it opens the path to think about, okay so then what does this mean in my house? Like what power do I have here?
REENA: So, as you’re looking at our situation here today, right? What are the things that you see? I mean I just keep thinking of my time in the Middle East as a journalist, and I spent so much time looking at the radicalization of people online who were mobilized, and I never thought it would follow me back home. That you’re seeing people, and the use of social media, I mean a lot of these big social media companies are getting a lot of heat and I feel like there’s some action being taken, aggressively, but you’ve got so much going on. We’re seeing cancel culture, when you look at this as a psychologist, what do you peel away?
LISA: So, let me actually stop on what you just said about, like when you look at this as a psychologist, because, like that’s what I can do and I have a lot to say to say on how understand this, but the other thing I always think is so interesting and it’s so fascinating to me, is the way in which, if we if we think about what we’re facing as a country right now, that there’s all these different perspectives that can be brought, like there’s the political one, there’s the gendered one, like you talk about radicalization that tends to be guys. You know there’s all of these different framings, and they’re, you know, they’re all fascinating in their own right. The only one I can do comfortably is a psychological framing, and I just say that not to in any way diminish the other, you know critical framings. So as a psychologist, where I go to is the idea that everyone, and especially I would say this is really raw at, you know, adolescents, everybody needs a sense of identity. Like what am I about? And everybody needs a source of self-esteem. And when you look at radicalization, or people going to extremes, from a psychological perspective that’s what’s usually the root. I needed to feel that I was part of something, I needed to feel like I knew what I was about, and I needed to feel that it was important for my self-esteem, and to that piece of like, if we look at it through that developmental lens of do kids have a sense of feeling a part? Do kids have a source of self-esteem that does not involve, and this is a hugely important thing, the dehumanization of other people, right? Those are the questions as parents that we have to be asking.
REENA: So, how do you start laying the foundation to help your kids see this? Like what should we be telling them? What should we say?
LISA: I think mostly you start with their questions, because they’ve got lots, and then of course the other thing is, they’re picking up information all over the place that we don’t know about. This is true really at all ages, right? I mean kids pick up stuff on the playground that, you know, they misunderstand, or some other kid misunderstood something and then says something that terrifies your child or it confuses your child. This is totally happening with teenagers because they have a whole discourse going on online that grown-ups don’t have much access to or knowledge of. So, I think the first question is you say to your kid, what are you hearing? What you’re hearing? What are you thinking? What are you thinking? Then, whatever comes at you, a guiding way to engage it is to make a distinction between disagreeing with somebody and dehumanizing somebody, and that’s the place, that’s the line that we cannot cross, right? You can disagree all day long with somebody. You can’t humanize them. When disagreement grows out of control, it’s because it’s crossed the line into this dehumanization, and by dehumanization meaning, you are not a whole person. You are not a valuable person. Everything about you is horrendous and I can be violent against you because you don’t count.
REENA: So, getting into the process of that mind space of dehumanization, how do I know I’ve crossed it? Because I think some people don’t.
REENA: It sounds like it seems pretty clear, you know, and defined, but I think for a lot of people they don’t even know that they crossed that line.
LISA: They may not be conscious of it, right? They may not and I think if they’re our kid and we hear them saying, like that person’s horrible, I hate them, and I wish they would die, right? I mean that’s a pretty good indicator that you’ve moved over that line. I think the right response for a parent to say is like, tell me what you’re talking about. Tell me what happened. Tell me what was said. Tell me what you’re thinking. And then I think to try to bring it back to, okay I agree with you. I disagree with everything that person did. I disagree with everything that person said. Still a person. Whatever place they’ve arrived at we have to assume that they somehow got there by a path that makes sense, even if we disagree with so much of what was on that path, they’re still a person.
REENA: I think often just siblings, especially my kids are 18 months apart, right? So they’re constantly fighting all the time, right? 8 and 10, and I think there are moments where the clearly dehumanize each other, right? Like it’s part of, chalk it up to sibling rivalry, right? But in those moments, how do I make them conscious and aware that this could bleed out into something else? Or is there a point where they’re too young and it’s just too over their head?
LISA: I think there’s never a point, well I mean like little, little ones probably over their head, but I think the way you do it is empathy, right? Like you say, look I understand you’re really, really mad at your sister and you can’t do this and you can’t do that and you disagree with her, she did something that really made you angry. Is there any part of you that can understand where she’s coming from? And pushing on that empathy and pushing for the retainment of empathy, and then that’s one flank, and then the other flank is what’s my kid’s identity? What’s my kid’s source of self-esteem? And those are the others sort of balls to watch, I think, as parents. What are they deciding they belong to? We talked about belonging in a past episode, you know, what makes them feel good about themselves? And, you know, I would watch like are they deciding to belong to groups where the price of admission is that you’re crummy to other people, right? Now that’s really concerning and that’s the kind of thing we want to watch out for.
REENA: You know when you and I were talking, so much of this podcast and what we have tried to really do is we know it’s so important in shaping this next generation of children and the impact this pandemic is having on them that we might not know for decades, maybe even, but as we are trying our best in this moment, you said something to me as we were talking, we are all wired for racism. What did you mean by that? Because I like to think I’m a brown woman, you know, my parents are from South India, how can I be wired for racism, right?
LISA: So, some of that idea that we’re sort of wired for racism is grounded in Tajfel’s work, who basically proved it, like you can get people to be discriminatory on the dumbest things, you know, in 20 minutes, so it’s easy to trigger it, but another way that we understand racism when we look at it through a psychology lens, is this idea that if you go back historically, like, there’s always discrimination, right? There’s always one group who decides another group is somehow lousy, and what’s really interesting is the complaints about the other group are surprisingly consistent, right? Like they’re violent, they’re dumb, they’re overly sexual, right? There’s always like this in a pattern, no matter who’s being discriminated against, and one of the ways we understand that in psychology is the technical term we use is called projection, which is basically where we take aspects of ourselves that we’re uneasy with and we ascribe them to another group, right? Our own wish to be aggressive, our only used to be sexual, our own wish to be lazy, or you know not smart. We dislike this in ourselves and so this, in an unconscious process, we assign those traits to a group that is observably different from us, right? So, see I’m not violent, sexual, dumb, whatever because I don’t look like the person who is, or I don’t worship like the person who is, or I don’t live in the part of the country like the person who is, and so we create these like artificial divides. Skin color, religion, race, whatever and then we put the parts of our personality we dislike on the other side of the divide, ascribe it to the whole group and then we go against the group. And so this is another way to just be honest about the fact that if we’re going to make things right, if we’re going to make things right, that we cannot start from the position of, I love everyone equally and always have and always will. We actually have to start from the position of, I have to work constantly in myself and my children against the impulse conscious and unconscious to draw lines between myself and others, and to hold on to all the good traits on my side of the line and assume all the patriots are on the other side of the line.
REENA: You know I want to also ask you before you go about cancel culture, Lisa? Can you talk to us a little bit about the psychology of cancel culture?
LISA: Well, yes because that idea of like, I’m on this side of the line and that person’s on the other side of the line also plays out in cancel culture, and so cancel culture is a way, you know, and like it’s complicated, like are there some people who should be cancelled? I don’t know probably, right? I mean so I’m not saying like all cancel culture is useless or bad or terrible, but I think if we’re watching our kids decide to cancel somebody, right? Like so if we really bring it home, because kids are doing this, like you know somebody does something silly in middle school that was dumb and probably racist, then, you know, they can be canceled by their peers. What does that mean? and what I would be really careful about as parents is letting kids fall into the same thing they are saying is terrible, which is, you know, that kid said something bad. They are bad. They should be erased forever, I mean basically dehumanizing their peers, right? So, one of the things that we find really powerful, like, when kids do dumb things, right? Because kids totally do dumb things, is this idea of restorative justice, right? This idea of giving kids and also people a chance to try to make it right and a chance to sort of acknowledge whom they’ve harmed and try to make repairs and ask for patience in the repair-making, and you know, some adults, some kids will really engage in that process effectively. Some adults and some kids will not engage in that process effectively, but at least there’s a process that’s been extended, but I want us to watch out for, on either side whatever side people think they’re on, this idea of dehumanizing people on the other side, saying you are worthless, I’m erasing you. I want to be really careful that people aren’t doing this from any posture.
REENA: So, what would you say as we’re kind of in this uncertain space. We don’t know what to expect from day in and day out, and I think, I don’t really like to think that I suffer from anxiety but I’m definitely feeling something, I’m definitely feeling something in the past few days. What would be your takeaway for folks?
LISA: I think the takeaway on this is actually to separate out the adult experience from the kid experience because we have the gift and the curse of a lot of perspective on this, right? So, Reena, you and I can look at this in middle age and be like, woah like this is major and huge and overwhelming. Interestingly, kids just developmentally, just because they’re not middle aged, they can’t put it in a scope of 50 years of never seeing news like this, and so it doesn’t arrive necessarily to the same scale for them that it does for us. So, I guess I would say is try to assume that they don’t necessarily experience it the way you experience it and that they can’t and that it’s not something for them to be faulted about. I think some parents can be like, you’re not getting it. Well yeah because they’re kids, like they can’t really. Like you need a life experience. You need to have worked in Baghdad. You need to have that broad scope to appreciate the scale, and so I just, I would say like, be really gentle with yourself and be really gentle with your kids. Like these lessons will spool out in front of us, but bring them home, right? Listen to how your kids are talking about people, even if your kid feels like they’re on the right side and being righteous, just listen to how they’re talking about people because the lesson, the lesson you want to drive home is you can have differences, you can have disagreements, you can disapprove of what somebody did, dehumanization does not happen in this house.
REENA: That’s so important. You know I don’t think I’ve paid attention enough in that or kind of let it go in and don’t use that as a moment to say something, so that’s really powerful. Thank you.
LISA: You’re welcome.
REENA: I feel a lot better. I really do. I really do. Although you did call me middle-aged, and that’s the first person to ever call me middle-aged.
LISA: Oh, Reena, I’m sorry, but come on. Come on.
REENA: I’m still on our January first week episode of manifestations of what J-Lo keeps telling us. I am timeless. I am youthful.
LISA: You are. And also, I love being middle aged. I think it’s the best.
REENA: I can’t say enough about that, too. I agree. I totally agree. So we’re going to start doing these Instagram Lives on Friday, you’ve got to check out our Ask Lisa Podcast Instagram account, and we’ll tell you when on Fridays, and in addition to that we got some feedback, we were thinking of what other segments we can add towards the end, and one of the things we came up with was this idea of a book giveaway, you know other resources to give parents that are really great books that you love that are new and so we decided we’re going to do a book giveaway on Instagram. So, it’s pretty simple, if you, all you have to do is follow us on our account asklisapodcast and tag a friend, place a comment, you’ve got to be in the U.S. If you’re not in the U.S. you can still follow us, tag us, and let us know where you’re consuming the podcast from, but we’re going have a book giveaway this week. It’s going to run until our next podcast comes out, which is the following Tuesday, so Lisa, tell us about this awesome book.
LISA: Okay, so the book we’re giving away, and we’re going to give away three copies, is ‘The Price You Pay For College: An entirely new road map for the biggest financial decision your family will ever make’ This is a brand new book coming out from Ron Lieber, who is a journalist for The New York Times and he did unbelievably excellent reporting on how college costs work. I have read this book. It is eye-opening and hugely, hugely useful and important for any family that is looking at the price tag on college and trying to figure out what they’re going to do. So, we’ll give away three copies and, oh and we’ll continue to do For Children Everywhere, but we’ll start to mix in some book giveaways because we have such incredible resources that we want our listeners to have access to.
REENA: It’s great. So, follow us, asklisapodcast, tag a friend, leave a comment and we’ll randomly choose a winner.
REENA: Awesome. So, before we go, what’s your parenting to go?
LISA: So, my parenting to go is, I’m sure I’ve said this before, my favorite saying I ever I got from a dove chocolate wrapper, which is don’t talk about it just be about it, and so if we think about discrimination and we think about prejudice, the way you work against it is actually to have diversity in your circle because it’s very hard to maintain discrimination and prejudice against someone who you know who is different from you. And so I would say in addition to the kinds of conversations we’ve talked about today in terms of working against prejudice and discrimination in our lives, you also have to have diverse circles, and you have to work to help your kids have diverse circles, and that is probably the most powerful way to work against discrimination and what we call in psychology implicit bias, this unconscious process by which we decide we’re better than other people.
REENA: That’s really good. Thanks so much Lisa. See you next week.
LISA: See you next week.