What Can Kids Learn from a Tense Election?
How can parents help children cultivate the ability to have tough conversations? How do we teach tolerance? Lisa explains the building blocks of civil discourse and the emotional and developmental skills that help kids engage peers constructively on the charged topics of politics and race. Laurel's Center for Research on Girls, civil discourse resources (scroll down for "Engaging in Civil Discourse" brief): https://lcrg.laurelschool.org/research/lcrg-research-briefs For Children Everywhere: iCivics an online resource founded in 2009 by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to provide free resources for civics education: https://www.icivics.org The Rebound: Watch the first episode on how a former NFL player rebounded from police brutality. New YouTube show hosted by Reena Ninan about coming out of your worst moments: www.youtube.com/TheReboundwithReenaNinan
October 27, 2020 | 26 min
Transcript | What Can Kids Learn from a Tense Election?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 12: What Can Kids Learn From a Tense Election?
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: So I think we all feel it, the tension that is somehow in the air that everyone feels with the election just a week away, Lisa.
REENA: It feels like it’s sort of permeating everything from friendships through you know family, I think everyone’s on edge and we got this letter from this mom. Just absolutely perfectly sort of sums up where so many of us are, it says: ‘As we approach the upcoming presidential election, would you have any suggestions, talking points and resources for how to talk with teens and young adults about how to respectfully listen and talk to each other about difficult topics where people may have differences of opinions. Our teens and young adults have been exposed to so much lately with the state of our country between COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and the political climate, they have a lot on their minds and hearts. I’m thinking it would be helpful to have some tools for how to talk about these difficult topics both at the family dinner table and at school, either in the classroom with the presence of educators, or even just among their friends. What should they say?’
LISA: Okay that is a great letter and could not be more on point in terms of what parents are worrying about right now. You know what we want to help our kids with right now.
REENA: Where do you take it? Because it’s just everyone is so on edge right now right?
LISA: It’s pretty intense. So you know what I like to take it is to the research, what we know from the academic universe.
REENA: A great place.
LISA: I’m so interested in this topic and what I want to actually think through here is some work on civil discourse, which is basically the ability to have a fair and rounded conversation with somebody who does not share your views, and Reena I think you know that one of the hats I wear is that I’m a consulting psychologist to a school in my community in the suburbs of Cleveland here. The school is called Laurel School and one of the roles I hold there is with the research center called Laurel Center for Research on Girls because it’s a girls school, but we research all sorts of things and my extraordinary colleague Dr. Tory Cordiano is the director of Laurel Center for Research on Girls or or LCRG, and one really beautiful body of work that has come out of this research center is thinking about civil discourse and what the team they’re dead as we pull together all of the relevant research that we thought about what do kids need to be able to do? Like what is the actual developmental skills the kids need in order to be able to have a civil conversation with somebody who disagrees with them, and what I love about the way this got thought through is that it is about components and it’s about building those components of our time, you know breaking it down and thinking, what can adults do? What can we as parents do to cultivate sort of the component skills that would make having a tough conversation possible. And so I want to share the thinking that came out of this and if people are interested in accessing more, I’ll put in the show notes where people can get more information about what we’ll talk through, but what we arrived at is this idea that there are building blocks in a couple of categories, and the first category is the emotional skills needed to have a civil conversation that can be really tense.
REENA: So when you have someone who is coming from a completely different perspective, how do you get kids to deal with that?
LISA: Okay. So the first emotional skill that we thought through is this idea of empathy. And you know that part of how people can ultimately have a civil conversation is they have to have the capacity for empathy. They have to be able to think about another person’s position and to be mindful of that person’s feelings and you know to care how the other person feels in the conversation, this is an important part of civil discourse, but you know, Reena, sometimes getting kids to have empathy is a job right? It’s something we’re working on in parenting.
REENA: Are you kidding? Sometimes getting adults to have empathy, that’s even harder I would argue.
LISA: Well, and that actually is part of what we’re up against here is we want our kids to have civil discourse but they’re not necessarily looking at the best adult models in this, and you know when you put it that way, what makes me realize is maybe that sometimes how we can do some of the teaching is if we see people, if we see adults doing this in an ugly way, one jumping off point might be to say, here’s the problem with with this conversation. That person is having no empathy for the person they’re talking with, and that’s the first step.
REENA: So you tell the kids, you help them identify how empathy, seeing what the other side might be thinking or feeling could be constructive and having that tense talk?
LISA: Absolutely. That’s a key element of a successful difficult conversation.
REENA:So how do I teach my kids that? Like how do you teach them to be empathetic if they’re seven? If they’re in elementary school?
LISA: So first we wait for them to do something dumb, which which they will do either in front of us or to us, right? Say something that’s off the cuff or mean or not hind, and if the moment is right, we actually stop and say, okay now wait a minute. How do you think that made me feel? or how do you think that made her feel? That’s it. That’s the whole thing. And doing it in a way that’s not so angry, that it just frightens a a kid and shuts them down, but actually does sort of create a teachable moment there, and there’s a lot of teachable moments in parenting, and so this is what we’re thinking through, like what are the teachable moments of getting kids to be able to you know disagree in civil ways? And you can’t turn everything into a teachable moment because that would just make kids bananas, but we should look for them and look for them especially around this topic right now.
REENA: So, you know I am also walking away every time I talk to I feel like the whole robot parent, like you’ve got to take your emotions out of it even though you are so probably on emotional level number 10 when you deal with certain things, you know everyone is just so tense. When you talk about empathy, what else did you find from this research that really makes a difference in giving kids that skill set?
LISA: So another thing that’s really important, and we’ve talked about this in various ways, is actually the ability to tolerate emotional discomfort. And the problem with controversial conversations is they make us uncomfortable, and if you can’t manage that discomfort, you’re not going to be able to have a hard conversation. And so giving kids skills and modeling kids skills, and we can think through what this would look like in real life, for being in a conversation not being altogether comfortable in that conversation, and yet being able to tolerate it is critical if we want kids to be able to have civil discourse with one another.
REENA: So what does that look like then in real life? How do you get them used to tolerating being uncomfortable?
LISA: Well, I’m thinking back actually, you know how we talked a while ago on a few episodes ago since ago about not having really hard conversations when people are too upset or too mad, you know letting kids walk away and come back when they’ve got themselves together a little bit, what I’m thinking is, you know family life and certainly pandemic family life when we’re together all the time there’s plenty of conflict, probably gives us opportunities to say, do you feel like you can have this conversation right now? Are you tense but able to do it? Too tense to be able to do it? So it’s not necessarily like, here’s the magic of like how you’ll be able to bear all conversations, but getting kids to start to be self-reflective of, I’m tense but I can stand it, I’m too tense this won’t go well, I think that the day to day of how we help kids gauge how uncomfortable they are and their ability to tolerate it, and maybe and maybe this feels a little bit aspirational, opens up the door to sa, look I think we should have this conversation right now. What would make it more bearable? You know would it help if we didn’t look at each other? Would it help if we shared a cookie while we had it? I mean who knows?
REENA: Yeah you know when I think about this, i think about what about Black Lives Natter for instance? I think a lot of parents want to have a conversation with their kids about it we all come from certain perspectives, we want to do the right thing , and to make them aware at but at the same time you feel kind of frozen because some people just don’t know how to approach race especially if you were brought up a certain way?
LISA: Right okay so there’s one where talk about accepting discomfort and talk about extending empathy, right? To have a conversation across race or about race is enormously difficult. So I come into this is a white woman, I’m very aware that my experience of talking about color my experience of being a person in this country is enormously different than people who are non white. Reena, you’re non-white. Talk to me.
REENA: Yeah, I’m South Asian my parents are from India, obviously have a different perspective, the children of immigrants, but I’m a person of color but I’m not a person of all color, you know. I’m not Black and in fact this whole concept of race in America really got to me as a journalist to where just last week I launched a show on YouTube called The Rebound where we’re looking at different issues in the first episode is a former NFL player who’s Black that faced police brutality and managed to rebound out of his worst moment. I’ll have the info in the notes in our show notes how to find it, but this guy it’s almost like a textbook for what you’re saying. He developed empathy, like now that I’m thinking about it, I didn’t know this when I taped it, but he developed some sort of empathy almost for the police officers now that I’m thinking about it, and I think that’s what changed. He’s not a man of hate and anger anymore, but it took him a long time, and by the way it was ruled intense brutality. The officer was stripped of his badge and can’t work anymore. It was ruled you know overwhelming force, but it’s interesting, that these things that you’re saying to me about empathy.
REENA: What was the second one? Tolerating emotional distress?
LISA: Emotional distress. So you’re talking about a man of color finding empathy for, you know, was it a white officer?
REENA: It was a white officer. I don’t know, you know I didn’t get into whether he’s forgiven him or any of that, but I think how do you get out of that horrible moment, right? Where you don’t feel good, and create something positive, and I think these conversations we’re having in America, it puts us in that places as you say of discomfort.
LISA: It does. So let’s talk about talking with our children about race, and moving into those conversations, and the first thing I think that’s hugely important to acknowledge is when we talk about deciding to talk with our children about skin color and its meaning or race and its meaning, that decision that the latitude to opt into that conversation belongs to white people. That from what I understand, families of color this isn’t an optional conversation that you’re having, that it’s so atmospheric that it just becomes woven into family life to have these conversations. Whereas, when we’re talking about people choosing to have these conversations we’re by and large talking about white families choosing to have these conversations. And I have a way to think about how we can enter into this discussion with kids and the framing that I like or I’m using right now has broad application regardless of who’s having the conversation, but I will also say I’m very open to the idea that I have a lot of room to grow still in my thinking on this. I welcome push and challenge to how I’m thinking, but the word I like to use to get into this conversation with kids is the idea of belonging. It’s a word that kids understand even as young as age three we can start to talk about belonging because three-year-olds are actually keenly aware of feeling left in or left out or leaving other kids out or feeling that they themselves were left out, and so we can start having conversations about belonging and even using that word even before we get into questions of skin color and race, the kids know what it feels like. And even three, four, five we can continue to move along those lines and talk about who in any setting feels they belong or being made to feel like you don’t belong and also pointing out when our kids do things that make other kids feel like they don’t belong, and then, as kids get into elementary school I really like to continue to talk about belonging because they start to sometimes become sort of clubby and sometimes sort of exclusive, and so what I like to say to kids and you can start this, it depends on your kid, but definitely some point elementary school, you can start to say, loo, in any situation you’re in, your belonging may feel high or low or somewhere in between, right? So, Reena, like when you’re hanging out with a bunch of female journalists, your belonging is very high, right?
REENA: Or just moms? There’s definitely a pact with us moms.
LISA: Do you have an Indian community that you stay connected to?
REENA: Yes. You know growing up my parents did as well. They’re from Kerala, which South India, and they had maybe about seven or eight families at the time, but it’s just grown, there’s there’s probably hundreds out in Tampa from Kerala, but yeah I think that offers people a sense of community.
LISA: So okay, so in those contexts right, your belonging would be very high. If I’m hanging out with a bunch of psychologists, my belonging is high. If I walk into a room where I’m the only woman, my belonging feels like it plummets, so one of the concepts that I actually like to put forward with kids is almost this idea of belong-o-meter, that we all have belong-o-mters, that go up and down all day, and so I think that we lay the groundwork for these harder conversations by introducing this idea of a belong-o-meter, like where do you feel you belong? Where do you feel left out? And what is quite useful, I find about this, is everybody knows what it feels like to not belong. You know that this is a universal experience and this gets to the empathy idea, right? Like it right away, you say the word belonging and not belonging like empathy arrives.
REENA: Yeah yeah.
LISA: Then, I think what we can do is we can start to push kids as they get maybe late elementary, middle school, to say, I want you to pay attention to your belong-o-meter and I also want you to pay attention to everybody else’s. Like any context you’re in, who is high? Who is low? And if you are high and know that someone else is low, it is on you to try to raise their belong-o-meter.
REENA: And do you offer them suggestions on how they raise the meter?
LISA: Yeah I think you should. So like if we bring it then back to questions of race so if we say okay you’re in a classroom, you’re a white kid, and 80 percent of the kids in class are white or 90 percent of the kids in class are white, you need to be minding the belong-o-meters of the kids of color and you need to be going out of your way to make it clear that you want them to feel a strong sense of belonging, as you do.
REENA: But I think that’s that’s great in theory, but if you’re white and you want us and you really have a heart you want to reach out to a Black kid at school, it can be hard if your whole group is white, right? How do you make that authentic, and how do you teach them to be comfortable with it so it’s not something that’s forced, right?
LISA: Yeah I think this is probably a lot of conversations where you say, what would this look like? How could you do it? Or even to really recognize that there are things that happen that injure the belonging of others in ways we don’t mean to, right? Like mixing up the names of kids who you know this happens, right? Kids of color will tell you all the time that you know fellow students or teachers will mix up their names with other kids’ names and the teachers experience with the other kids experience might be like, oh I mix of people’s names all the time, but if your kid of color,
REENA: You feel it. You feel it and it stays with you. So, lisa, if you were to walk us through, like let’s say we have these building blocks of civil discourse, what would you say if you had to go through the list? Like what are the skills? What are the emotional skills and what are the things that we need to count on?
LISA: Okay, so you definitely need empathy. You definitely need to be able to tolerate you know a fair bit of discomfort. You have to be willing to have a hard conversation. You have to be brave right? So bravery is probably in there, and you’re talking about bravery when you’re talking about how we extend ourselves, if our peer group isn’t doing the same. And then we also can think about some of the cognitive skills like you need to be curious, like curious about other people, right? And this is where the belong-o-meter kind of weaves itself in because if you are I walk into a room and we’re like, okay my belong-o-meter’s really high, like for whatever the context is really high if I then take the step or you then take the step of thinking, okay but what about everybody else in this space, that’s our curiosity coming to bear right? Coming to sort of be curious about other people’s experience of being in the same space, which we don’t always do a good job on, right? We’re often very caught up in our own moment and so our kids and we just need to do better, and especially elections this tense remind us like it’s this tense because there is so much misunderstanding and we don’t always understand or don’t try to understand where other people are coming from and things get really rigid in that place.
REENA: They do. They absolutely do. As we talk about this, I want to tell you one of the sweetest stories that I I would really grasping for anything that makes me long for an America where people really work together is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia who despite how they were at opposite ends of the spectrum, the two of them took a trip to India, there’s a great part of them on an elephant that I absolutely I’m gonna post on my Instagram feed I think I’ll explain a little bit more, but it talks sort of about how he went out of their way to engage each other socially outside of the court, even though they couldn’t be more further apart, and everyone talks about how wonderful Ruth Bader Ginsburg is and I don’t ever want to take away from her career and her life, but boy the two of them together it’s like the the Ginsburg-Scalia method.
LISA: You know whatever they got going on there, we could use more of that.
LISA: And so you need to be able to engage, right? Like and have ways to engage and I don’t know as much about this as I should, but that may also go to go to theater a fair bit together?
REENA: They quite a bit. They had a pretty active social life and enjoyed each other’s company even though they couldn’t have been more on different sides of the court right?
LISA: Well, so then if we think about okay helping kids build civil discourse skills and helping kids really think about belonging, it really does get into these questions of, in what ways are kids engaging kids who do not share their views or who are not, you know, very similar to them. Are they on the same teams? Are they doing the same after school activities? Are they being invited to the same out of school events? Right? That idea of a staying connected, not getting so siloed, which of course is like nearly impossible right now in the pandemic, but I think we need to be mindful not just of the settings are concerned that our formal, but do kids have ways that they are with other young people that don’t share their perspectives or don’t share their experiences on a regular basis, right? Like that’s what’s so worrisome is when there’s no contact with people who have different lives.
REENA: So if you have to wrap this up, Lisa, what would you say is really important as we are entering what could be a really difficult period for our nation. How do we break this down and have our kids ready to deal with the tension that could be coming?
LISA: I mean, I think a lot of empathy, a lot of perspective-taking, you know and then once we get into something like electoral politics, you can take that belonging idea, and then this is where it gets exciting for me, you get kids who are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and start to think about what are the structures in our society they make people feel they belong, make people feel they don’t belong, and I think a lot of however the selection goes down, I mean we’re going to see those structures really exposed. You know, who feels in, who feels out, and how does that happen functionally at scale, right? And I have to say, my mind doesn’t work well at that leve, like I am so much person-to-person but I really tried to push myself to think, you know when we say things like systemic racism, right? Like the systemic part of it I have to think really hard to see and watch, and it’s a lot of learning for me and I’m trying to do it, you know what are the systems that make people feel in or out, and I think that’s how we can sink at the, you know political, electoral level, and grounded in something that kids should get about belonging or not belonging.
REENA: Yeah, I think we all want to do right by this, and have these conversations but sometimes it’s just hard to know where to start, so grateful, and I know we’re gonna keep talking about this more more. Please send us your your emails because they really help in crafting this podcast. Lisa tell us what you have For Children Everywhere.
LISA: So what I have for us today actually fits perfectly with what we’re talking about. It’s an organization that was founded in 2008 by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor It’s called iCivicsm and it’s I C. I. V. I. C. S. dot org, we’ll put it in the show notes, and it’s a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides online games and lessons to help kids learn how to do civil discourse, and also become active citizens. So that seems exactly where we all need to be right now, and we’re thrilled to support them.
REENA: I wish they had more civics education in school, especially when I was in school, bt I think this is great. We’ll check it out. Thank you.
LISA: You bet.
REENA: And so to wrap it up, what do you have for parenting to go, Lisa?
LISA: Wo let’s stay on this theme, especially as we come into, you know the week of the election, and I think our goal as parents should be to continue all the time to try to cultivate our kid’s ability to take another person’s perspective. And when kids are feeling like they don’t understand someone who disagrees with them, or they’re angry with somebody, or they’re angry with us, it’s not always clear what the pathway through that interaction is, but I feel like you absolutely can’t go wrong if you do a thought experiment, if you say to them, okay I know you don’t agree with that other person or I know they’re mad at you or you’re mad at them, can you stand in their shoes? Can you try to see where they’re coming from? Maybe that will be a way that you can start to find some common ground.
REENA: A little empathy goes a long way.
LISA: Yes it does.
REENA: We’ll have more information and details for some of the stuff we talked about on the podcast in the show description, but I’ll see you next week, Lisa.
LISA: See you next week.