She couldn't focus. In fact, she couldn't even function. She just sat there at her desk, crying off and on throughout the day. Just 7-years-old and buried under the belief that the president-elect hated her, she was devastated. While others celebrated the passing of the torch in the White House, young *Mya couldn't help but to wonder how her friends could be so happy. This was the man who said that she and her family were bad people. At least, that's what she'd been told...
The story is true and it happened in the days following the election. I know this young lady personally and others like her. This week we're talking about our adult responsibility to teach children about the world in terms that are both appropriate for their age, and sensitive to their hearts. Welcome to the conversation...
Peek through the door of any classroom and you'll see children with a myriad of unique experiences. In my eldest son's class alone, there are students whose families don't watch TV, some whose parents spare not a single opinion from reaching their ears, and others who can report, verbatim, the headlines and details they heard on the news any given morning.
These same learners live with grandparents, single parents, two parents, or foster/adoptive parents. They come from faith-filled, faithless, and "don't know what to believe" families. Economic status varies from household to household. Those factors aside, they all have one thing in common...
Exposure to information will manifest as one of two things in kids' lives: Empowerment or Prison.
*Mya spent two days of precious learning time mourning, all because she was given mature information from a specific point of view, and in a way that was unhelpful with regard to her age and development.
It's a myth that children will simply "grow up faster" when we expose them to conversations meant for adults. Their brains are physically incapable of processing them in a productive way. The result of over-exposure is a child who's insecure, fearful, easily influenced or frustrated, unwilling to take positive risks, avoidant, shame-filled, and unable to connect well in future relationships.
Having sensitivity to a child's life stage helps him or her to trust caregivers and supports learning. As we have conversations with our school-aged children about the Inauguration this month, here are three things that we need to understand about them:
1. Their thoughts are concrete.
Elementary-aged kids see the world in yes or no, right or wrong, good and bad. Concepts like death, hope, and faith are tough to grasp. Seeing is believing, unless they're Superboys and girls, in which case, they'll try to "see" if they can fly. (Chock it up to scientific method). Along those lines of creativity, many kids also believe that they have control over events that are impossible to orchestrate.
Example: My Mom left my Dad when I got in trouble at school and they fight because of me. If I got better grades, maybe Mom would come home.
The thinking is logical but it's also magical. It's based on a limited, self-focused perspective. It's easy for kids this age to believe untrue things about who they are, consequences, and the motives of adults.
Related to this election, normal thoughts might be:
Kid Tip: Discussing historical facts about our country and the election process might be more productive than commenting on the character of the candidates, political party nuance, or debating mature social issues.
Scripture Help: God's in charge and He'll never leave us, no matter who the president is. (Joshua 1:9)
2. They're developing a sense of competence and "can do."
For this reason, harsh comments about a child's characteristics and God-given talents are devastating. Children who believe that they're strange, less-than, incapable, and unwanted will often stop trying. This is why bullying, blame, foul language, racial slurs, and criticism is so harmful.
Additionally, kids who hear bad remarks about their families, friends, town, or country veer into mistrust of people around them. Too much information about the failings and untrustworthiness of adults causes kids to feel unsafe. Too little gives the impression that children have no power over their own lives and that their opinions are unimportant.
Kid Tip: Explain democracy as a process. Speak about our leaders with grace and respect, regardless of agreement. "We vote for the candidate we like, but we don't always get our way and that's OK."
Encourage your child to make a list of ways that they could improve the household, neighborhood, or school. Help them to take action on a project. Reinforce their strengths and give them opportunities to share gifts and talents with others by serving. Take time to discuss and appreciate all of the positive responses they get for their hard work!
Scripture Help: Life doesn't always feel fair, but we never stop doing good work because it shows others the love of God. (Matthew 5:16)
3. School-age kids rely on people around them to understand how they feel about themselves and their world.
Children won't easily differentiate between their thoughts and their family's until they're closer to the teenage years, when self-esteem develops. Until that point, they feel compelled to believe what their parents and siblings believe. It also means that they'll handle conflict, problem-solving, and communication in a similar way. They'll do what they know.
It's tough to help children understand that their feelings can be different from those of the people they love the most. This is because they look to our feedback, which informs their worldview:
Am I able?
Am I loved?
Should I be scared?
Am I good at this?
Do you want me around?
Am I safe?
When adults panic, speak negatively, explode, criticize others, and worry about the future, our kids can't help but to become immersed in the same negative emotion. They don't understand that our frustration over an issue is temporary and circumstantial.
Kid Tip: Ask your children to wonder out loud why other people seem sad, happy, angry, or frightened. Talk to them about a time they've felt that way. Assure them that every feeling is OK and that they're welcome to talk to you about theirs.
Scripture Help: The best way to bring peace to your child is to be at peace yourself - keeping a soft heart and trusting that God is in control of our nation and world. (Proverbs 28:14)
I hope that understanding our little ones better will be an encouragement to you in the upcoming year with a new administration.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
With you and for you,
M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy. Earns Crossfit participation trophies. Disaster cook. Enthusiastic wife. #Boymom. Clutches her faith, not her pearls.