How do you talk about sensitive issues with children?

Introduction

‘Unrest’- the word has become very commonly used in the last few months in not just India but across the globe. Whether it’s about communal distress, discrimination, casteism, poverty, and unemployment due to which daily wage workers faced unimaginable difficulties to reach their own hometowns or the protests and appeals for changes in racist policies and systems. These events may have different kinds of impact on everyone. Children are very much part of those impacted by what they see happening- to them, around them, on the news, in conversations they hear; children who were there with their parents when they were walking back to their homes on the roads, the children who have faced or seen communal violence in our country, children facing discrimination on the basis of their caste, children witnessing hateful conversations at home. There are so many important and sensitive topics such as gender, sex and sexuality, birth and death, etc, which need to be responsibly unpacked with children in a manner that addresses their curiosities, makes them empathetic and gives them the tools to act responsibly themselves. This is typically the part that most people may find difficult. Questions like, “Do they need to know this?”, “How do I explain such a difficult thing to a child?”, “What if they ask me questions?”, are ones that all of us must be familiar with if we work with children or young people as a teacher, caregiver, parent, or in any other capacity. To start with, I will let you in on a secret- this is important. And the good news is that it is possible!  

Why is it important to talk to children about these issues and the impact of it?

Children’s understandings of the world originate in both their independent exploration and in their interactions with others. Let us consider what developmental theorists have found about how children learn. The Piagetian theory emphasizes how children construct understandings through active interactions within the world, rather than just learning passively from others (Miller, 2011). According to Piaget, and other constructivists, children are like little scientists who experiment and explore as they attempt to make sense of the world. They are naturally curious in their observations and will develop and test their own personal theories in domains such as biology, physics, and psychology.  Vygotsky’s theory emphasizes how children engage with others with more experience to guide them in learning about new topics and in participating in new activities.

Now, if we were to think of this in the context of issues of discrimination, oppression, inequity, “if children are prevented from being exposed to conversations, they may become more vulnerable to biased information. It is important for parents to hold inclusive and unprejudiced views themselves to be able to build positive influences on children. Talking to children is of utmost importance, not just to help them cope with what they may get exposed to directly or indirectly, but also to raise responsible, non-judgmental, and inclusive human beings,” says Prateek Sharma in his article Talking politics to children: Hiding truths is futile; honest, sensitive conversation can help build empathy.

(Source: Firstpost.com )

Discrimination does not go away by pretending that it doesn’t exist. It is important to acknowledge then, that caste isn’t limited to the ‘clever brahmin’ folk-tales that children read or that many of us may have grown up reading or discrimination on the basis of colour, can and will be imbibed by many children who continue to see fairness product advertisements or books that represent only fair-skinned protagonists. It is something they will have to confront as they grow up – and if they are to deal with it sensitively and sensibly, it’s a good idea to take the bull by its horns when they are still young. Source: Should you talk about caste to your child?-Sowmya Rajendran. (Sources: The News Minute.com)

Whether we like it or not, racism, casteism, classism, misogyny, patriarchy etc. are very much all around us. What we can do though is to acknowledge this, understand it and work towards dismantling it to make a safer environment a healthier future for children.

How do we begin?

Working with a non profit that focuses on such conversations as part of our work with children I have put together a few ideas that might be useful for you to consider:

How do we, at Apni Shala, respond to this in our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum? 

  1. With students from grade 4 we have a module named Individual Difference with a series of activities that break down what similarities and differences mean for children. One such activity is called ‘just like me’ where we all sit in a circle and each and every student gets a chance to share something they like to do, eat or play or anything they wish to be. And after the sharing by a student, other students who have a similar experience or like, or wish, shout out loudly and say “just like me!”. Another activity in this module is the storytelling of a book called The Hair Book. After reading the book we have some questions for students to reflect on. Here are some questions we ask the students. 
    1. Look around in the group. Share 2 or more characteristics that are different from your classmates.
    2. How do you feel when you see someone having different physical attributes than yourself?

After reading/showing the book, the facilitator may choose to list down ( blackboard/ floor, chart paper) all the physical attributes that the group found that they have in common, although they all look different. This can also be combined with a pair-share conversation (for those who may not be comfortable talking in large groups) where each one in the pair talks about what are two things they find in common and two things that are different between them. You may consider doing this even in your family.

  1.  In our work with Grade 8,  we have a module called diversity where we aim to facilitate conversation so that learners can recognize cultural, religious, and other differences in the school and community and will be able to identify problems that arise due to religious differences and cultural differences. We begin our activity with a video called Go India. Followed by creating a collective mind map on the word diversity. Then, as a team, we make a collage of diversity where students look through newspapers, magazines etc. to pull out pictures together that represent diversity. Another video which we look at is Dr.Seuss’s film- Sneetches. Some reflection questions asked by the facilitator include:
  • What do you think the film is about? Do you think there is discrimination based on certain factors in your community? 
  • Have you ever isolated someone or called someone names  or bullied someone? Would you like to share the story without taking the name of the person? 
  • Have you ever been isolated or name called or bullied by someone? Would you like to share the story without taking the name of the person? 

Please note, some of these questions can be triggering emotionally. To ensure safety the facilitator reminds them that this activity is for us to understand ourselves and our surroundings with a clear lens. If anyone is sharing something be respectful of their sharing. Confidentiality needs to be emphasized here, and space and time must be created to speak about this again if necessary.

Activities such as these, are great tools to set the context for discussing issues of discrimination. We understand that there may still be some hesitation to act on this. But, it becomes our responsibility to work on this reluctance with concrete actions or steps. 

What can you do? If you are a teacher how can you begin talking with students?

In a classroom where there are students from diverse backgrounds, it can be an opportunity for a teacher to have an enriching conversation. But talking about issues such as gender, sexuality, class , religion, caste, etc can be a little tough to navigate, and making sure that there is an equity of voices in the classrooms is paramount.  After reading various articles (you can find the references at the end of the article) and talking to a few facilitators and teachers I am sharing a few ideas for things you can do as a teacher.

  1. We can educate  ourselves and be prepared: As a teacher, it is important to self educate about various social  issues. Beginning a conversation with students and keeping it incomplete can lead to misconceptions, emotional triggers and other difficulties that students may have to deal with. So before engaging in any conversation around issues of discrimiation or inequity with students, be sure to have your concepts and facts clear. . 
  2. Creating a safe space:- Having a space for students where they can share their thoughts openly can lead to more spaces of conversation. Safe spaces have always worked in my classrooms for students. When I say ‘creating a safe space’ what I mean by it is that as a teacher we need to be more open for conversation with students, intentionally listening to their thoughts and respecting their boundaries through such understanding that if a student does not want to talk and need their  time they should get it. In spite of doing everything in one’s capacity towards creating a safe space, there may still be some hurtful comments that you may not be able to prevent. In that moment the teacher could first listen and then try to understand where this is coming from and then have a conversation without making any comments blaming, shaming or putting the child in guilt.
  3. Avoid personal views: While talking with students it is important for teachers to be mindful of their personal views about a topic and the influence it can have. Teachers can be more open to conversations and keep the discussion more group-oriented so as to allow for knowledge to be created and constructed by the group. The focus can remain creating a balance of views with respect and acknowledgement of different arguments. Sometimes as a teacher/facilitator we may tend to go in our preaching mode where we ourselves decide what is right and what is wrong.  We need to remind ourselves that we are not here to teach them to believe in our truth or what is right for us but how they can decide what is their truth and what they think is right. It may also help to make visible the impact of what they believe on others and the world around them. 
  4. Keep some norms: It is important for teachers to keep some ground rules for students while discussing a topic. Norms such as respecting each other while talking, listening to their peers, and making sure that everyone gets the chance to speak and hear are useful to have as agreements.

If you are a parent/caregiver how can you talk to your children about sensitive topics?

Children spend most of their time with parents/caregivers. Sometimes even the more confident parents can feel uncomfortable while talking about sensitive issues with children. Anindita Paul in her article How to talk about the difficult stuff mentions five easy steps for parents to talk with their children. 

Begin Early: As a parent/caregiver before speaking to your child it is very crucial that you educate yourself first about the topic you are planning to talk about.

Check your self:  In your daily life, be aware that your children are watching you, so remind yourself to think before acting- “Is this discriminatory?”, “Am I sending a message of treating people unequally because of their identity?”.  Be mindful of things you say. Avoid things which build or reinforce stereotypes like blue and pink colors- blue for boys and pink for girls.

Be mindful of stereotypes: The act of recognising that gender stereotypes exist and that your child may or may not be comfortable with them, can go a long way in influencing the experiences you expose your growing child to, says Dr Dave in the article.

Be more accepting:  As a parent, it is important to be more accepting. Teaching our children about the diversity around them and the differences they can come across. This can be seen in our own behaviour of how we treat the people around us- the people who work in our society, in our office, in our streets, or in our homes. 

Break it down: It’s important to respond to your child’s questions in a manner that suits their readiness and ability to process information.  In the article How to talk about the difficult stuff Dr. Marker designed a table for age appropriate conversations. 

Age 3-5 years: At this age, children can only process simple and concrete answers to their questions. Use language your child understands and try to only address the specific question asked, without giving any further details.

Age 6-12 years: Your child is now beginning to explore and understand their identity as compared to the world they live in. Their questions about gender and sex will become more complex and your answers can be slightly more elaborate. We may extrapolate this understanding to also talk about how you and your family identify religiously, or talk about what it means when you may be able to afford something that another person is not, or why the dignity of the job of sewage workers in an important thing. 

Age 13-18 years: During the age group of 13-18years, children’s sexual orientations, especially as witnessed in their peer groups. Understand that the questions your child asks may be a way to measure your reaction to their own sexuality and/or ideas about sexuality. It’s important that you limit any personal judgments about matters you don’t understand or don’t agree with. If necessary, have your child speak with a professional or a family member who is more comfortable discussing sexual identity.  (Source: Mumbai Mirror)

How can the media play an important role in talking about sensitive issues with children?

Media has been a very powerful tool especially in times like the pandemic. We all know the importance of the media such as online platforms, movies, and cartoons. Additionally, social media is widely accessible to individuals including youth and children and can be a very powerful tool to educate young people  about issues of justice. If we look at mainstream movies we can easily see the biases and stereotypes created by movies such as representation of villains in many cases as dark skinned, representation of Muslims in many cases as terrorists. There are several advertisements which perpetuate negative stereotypes and prejudice as well such as marketing products based on skin colour or showing poverty as an indicator of failure at life. 

How can  storybooks, cartoons and movies include diversity in it?

“Research on prejudice shows that coming in contact with people who are different – so-called “others” – helps to reduce stereotypes. This is because when we see people who initially seem different, we learn about them and get closer to them through their story. The ‘other’ seems less far away and, well, less ‘otherly’” says BJ Epstein.

 I urge you to think of your own role – either as a teacher, an educator, a caregiver, a parent or just someone who shares, creates or consumes content on any form of media; to think of what you might be able to do to make the world just a little bit safer to talk about things. How you can do this without glamourising, sensationalizing, victimizing an identity that experiences privilege, or patronizing or pitying those that experience oppression or discrimiation. I would like to end by reminding us about something that Michael Rain said in a TED talk –What its like to be the child of immigrants. He says that we are walking melting pots of culture and if something in that pot smells new or different to you, don’t turn up your nose. Ask us to share. Maybe it is time for us to wait, pause , reflect and the most important thing, to ask. Perhaps, when we destigmatize some of these ‘difficult’ conversations it will make it easier for children and young people to ask. And once our children start to ask, I have hope that the world will start becoming more beautiful. 

Authors:

This article is produced by the R&D team at Apni Shala. Shahbaan Shah and Amrita Nair are part of the R&D team that works on researching, creating, and publishing contextualized content on social-emotional learning. The team also works to aid professional development initiatives by Apni Shala within and outside the team. If you want us to support you with more such resources or offer feedback, write to shahbaan.apnishala@gmail.com 

Loved reading this piece? At Apni Shala, we are committed to bring you more SEL-aligned resources during this pandemic. Our work is dependent on generous donations from our supporters. If you found this useful, make a donation here: I would love to donate to Apni Shala.

References: 

One Comment Add yours

  1. zaid khan says:

    I’ve come across notions that have been shunned when I was a child. This article was learning and reflection as well. Well authored Shahbaan!!

    Like

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