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In child psychiatry, providing guidance on controversial issues is nothing new. There’s the routine stuff: screen time, and birth control, and curfews, and how much homework is maybe too much. There are also the tough ones. The Twin Towers came down. The Boston Marathon was bombed. Take your pick: school shootings, natural disasters, wars, pandemics.
We have social turmoil and misbehaving adults, and political vitriol that would warrant academic expulsion and punishment were the same behaviors enacted at school or at home. These are the events that bring parents to my office, and we are asked again and again to provide our talking points.
This one is different. Everyone agrees that a school shooting is traumatic or that a pandemic is scary. But I worry that some readers might feel that simply by writing this article I will be foisting on them a specific political view disguised as therapeutic advice.
That is not my intention and I want to make that clear. These guidelines are important no matter where you stand on this issue. We all want our children to grow up to be civil. That’s what’s at stake as we craft our responses as parents to these contentious and trying times.
With all of that in mind, here are some general guidelines I'd like to propose. I’d welcome readers’ thoughts on the six points below. We’re all raising these children together.
1. Temper the vitriol of your political views when your children are around.
This is as relevant for this issue as it will be for all the other divisive topics that are barreling toward us. Whichever newscaster you shout at, or whichever newspaper you angrily throw down on the table, with every sarcastic tweet that you retweet or indignant video that you post on Facebook, remember this: All those actions will serve to fuel that very same dynamite that is blasting away at the already weakened foundations of our capacity to be civil.
Colloquially speaking, I worry that we’re starting to drive our children crazy. We don’t need to share all of our political hand-wringing with our kids. It’s our job to be parents and it’s their job to be kids. I’ve heard lots of children and teens say they’ve had it with us. That sounds like a reasonable assessment.
2. Remind your children that they’re safe.
When adults start yelling, kids feel threatened. Remind your kids if they seem worried that you will do all you can to keep them safe, and remind them, if you are lucky enough for this to be the case, that for all intents and purposes, their world (not the one you read about in the morning paper) is going to remain unchanged for them. Tell them that you’ll talk politics when they want to talk politics, but you will not shove your politics all over their morning cereal. It’s hard enough being a kid.
3. The families who are affected by these changes are not that different from you and me.
You should tell your child that some people agree with the edicts of the president’s executive order and that some people do not. You should tell your child where you stand, especially if they ask. But no matter where you stand, you should impress upon your child that the vast majority of people affected by this most recent round of executive orders are people like us. They have families, and pets, and swing sets and dreams. They love each other. They want food on their tables and roofs over their heads. We mostly want the same things.
4. There will be lots of political marches.
These marches are the focus of another commentary, but I’ve already been asked whether we ought to let our children attend these protests. The marches on both sides of the issues have been by and large peaceful, but they could always get ugly. Whether you allow your children to get involved in these kinds of movements will be a very personal decision. However, if you do decide to allow your kids to become actively involved, protect them. Prepare them for what they might see or hear. Explain to them, and indeed take pride in the fact, that free expression is a right and a privilege afforded very few people on this planet.
5. Avoid nihilism.
If your kids want to be involved, don’t tell them that they can’t make a difference. First of all, that’s not true. The opinions of children are very powerful. Moreover, children need to feel that something can be done about problems. You might need to temper the expectations. You might need to stress the seemingly glacial pace of change. But kids will undeniably be part of these changes.
6. Most important of all, avoid the self/other messiness that drives a lot of the nastiest aspects of our current national mood.
We don’t do our children any favors when we dehumanize each other. That practice is dangerously transferable. There are individuals who do bad things, and even individuals who intend harm, but you cannot condemn an entire people or an entire ethnicity. That’s a path we can never take. It’s our dirtiest bomb. We all become vulnerable when we go down that road, and our children deserve better.
I’ve written and rewritten this piece about a hundred times to try to avoid sounding preachy. If it still sounds preachy to you, that’s really not my intention. But maybe the seemingly simple reminder that we must strive for civility can’t help but sound preachy. That’s a lesson in itself, I guess.
I've been told that as a doctor I ought to stick to doctoring. I’ve been advised by doctors and patients and readers that I should leave the political opinions to somebody else when I take out my doctor’s pen.
In this instance, however, I don’t think we can separate the doctoring from the politics. There are certain fundamental principles at stake when we enter the territory of this executive order. These principles are equally at stake whether we support or speak out against the president’s edicts.
Simply put, we must avoid, at all costs, the demonization of entire groups of people. That kind of rhetoric is without question harmful to us and to our children.
Dr. Steve Schlozman is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
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