Tweens and teens are developmentally primed to examine and critique their world with newly independent eyes. As they develop critical thinking skills and explore who they are apart from their parents, they begin to form their own opinions. Parents can no longer shelter tweens and teens from outside influences. Images, information, opinions and belief systems from the entire world are literally at their fingertips. Dylann Roof was not raised in a racist home and he did not become a member of a hate group, yet he became obsessed with white power to the point that he killed nine African Americans while they were praying in church.
Teen and tween brains are in an intense developmental phase of rewiring. They can easily become overwhelmed with information and critical thinking skills don’t always prevail, especially if emotions are also high. It is easy for parents to assume that after years of discussion their teenagers have a fundamental understanding of how to view social issues, when in fact they may need someone to walk through it with them in a more elementary way. We would be remiss, then, to not give some attention to what parenting looks like for this tender age at this incendiary time in our nation.
Certainly, children learn racism and other extremist ideologies in the home, both overtly and covertly. Yet, even if a child’s home environment does not promote racism, this does not guarantee she or he will know how to navigate the world on this issue or not become influenced by the views of others. This requires consciousness, connection and conversation.
Consciousness includes being able to recognize that your experience is not the experience of all and being able to critically examine current and historical information from a variety of sources. It involves self-awareness and an honest appraisal of one’s beliefs, behaviors and contradictions. Consciousness culminates with aligning one’s speech and behavior with truth.
Connection involves the capacity to be in relationships and value the worth and dignity of the other, even when there are opposing opinions and viewpoints.
Conversation is about being able to tolerate hearing both sides of an issue and expressing one’s thoughts and views in a manner that they can be heard by others.
How can we, as parents, equip our children to practice consciousness, connection and conversation so that they know what to do when they encounter extremist ideology? First, let’s take a look at what the research says. Sociologist Pete Simi, has conducted over 17 years of fieldwork with radical-right extremists. His research shows that many who are members of hate groups, come from a disrupted family, such as with an absent or incapacitated parent. (It’s important to note, however, that many children from broken homes do not join hate groups and many who join hate groups don’t come from broken homes.)
Simi also discovered that another characteristic present amongst almost all who adopt extremist ideologies is a tendency to view things in very concrete, all or nothing terms. This low tolerance for ambiguity makes a rigid a belief system very alluring by “oversimplifying a highly complicated world”.
At its most basic level, teaching our kids to develop into adults who can find their way through a mass of competing ideologies seems to boil down to creating healthy relationships (which require psychologically and spiritually healthy individuals) and balanced thinking. This teaching happens over time, in obvious and subtle ways. Sorry to say there’s no easy and guaranteed step by step formula. It again goes back to modeling consciousness, connection and conversation.
Here is a guide to help you evaluate how you are modeling these three essential elements.
Are you conscious about the choices you make in your personal life and your relationships? Do you consider how these choices affect you and your family?
Are you informed about how life is experienced by others who are different from you?
Are you deliberate and aware about where you get your information and on what you base your beliefs?
Do you challenge your own ideas and opinions?
Do you practice seeing the “gray areas” in life? Can you be comfortable with the unknown and incomplete answers?
Does your speech and actions reflect your truth?
Are you aware of how your behavior is seen and felt by those around you?
Are you able to be in loving relationships with people who view things differently from you?
Do you insist on being right when talking with your kids or can you acknowledge other views and change your position?
Are you in conversation about difficult issues with your kids be it extremist ideology or dirty socks on the living room floor?
When you communicate with your children, are you modeling how it looks to tolerate hearing both sides of an issue?
Do you demonstrate compassion in the midst of disagreement?
Can you express your views in a manner that makes it easy for others to hear, even if they disagree?
Does your behavior in conversation elevate the discussion or shut it down?
In the midst of writing this, we took a break and went downtown to explore a newly renovated art museum. It was cool, calm and quiet; a nice respite from grappling with a complex issue. We walked into the recent acquisition exhibit, meandered past photography, textile arts and collages, and then stopped, riveted by a six print series by Enrique Chagoya in collaboration with poet, Alberto Rios. We looked at each other and said, “This is how we should end our blog”:
It is not magic or strength
All of us, in one of us
We hope focusing on Consciousness, Connection and Conversation will help you walk forward with your children.