Family Law is a funny thing. Societies decide that they need laws to regulate people’s behavior and interactions to make societies function and not disintegrate every time there’s a serious quarrel. As one part of that, the law has tried to regulate marital and parental behavior since at least the time when Aristophanes was writing Lysistrata and Clouds.
The inability of mere laws and customs to control family interactions is a staple of literature from any Jane Austen novel to the Downton Abbey TV shows and movies. And the struggles between strong women and men, and parents and children, keep high school students alternately gripping and nodding from Hamlet to Midsummer Night’s Dream. Characters through history, like Lysistrata and Portia, give the lie to the legal and common treatment of women as inferior in ability and wisdom.
In modern times, Family Law strictly forbids parents to talk to their children about issues in their divorces, although child psychologists and gossipy neighbors repeatedly remind us that children always know all the details of their parents’ fights.
Talking to children can be difficult, whether the law permits or prohibits it. And talking to children about things that the law, and the politicians who make laws, seem to mock can be even harder.
But it must be done. All indicators show that this summer is going to be one of increased violence and public anger. The John Roberts Court has already done away with the Voting Rights Act and has encouraged race-based gerrymandering. It has released a preliminary decision, deleting the 9th Amendment from the Constitution, and saying that rights women have had for half a century are now ended.
In a year in which we are averaging almost two mass shootings a day, the Roberts’ Court will soon be announcing that gun violence should be expanded, and less subject to local or state control than even the minimal measures now in place. Just last week, John Roberts and his far right Republican team gave the green light to federal agents and local police to resume illegal searches and seizures, and any violence they find “necessary” to commit in the process. Watch out, Black and Brown children and parents!
Whatever the law says, parents must talk to their children about the increasing violence, in schools, in churches, supermarkets, doctors’ offices and in society in general. But how? Go to your local library, or to Amazon or a bookstore (if you can find one). There isn’t going to be a chapter in any book on “Talking to your children about school massacres.”
In fact, it was in a public library that a group of violent “Proud Boys” disrupted a reading session, on a recent Saturday, right here in “ultra-Blue” California (San Lorenzo), proclaiming their “right” to prevent others from the freedom of reading. The Proud Boys targeted a pre-teen children’s reading group.
No shooting. But clear claims of right to inflict violence on those who disagreed with them. One day after a white “nationalist” group was arrested in Idaho, as it set out to attack and disrupt a “Pride Day” celebration. The local police let the Proud Boys go without arrests.
We are in for a long hot summer. A summer of angry language and violence supplanting discussion or debate. In this context, it is more important than ever that parents talk to their children. Or, more importantly, that parents listen to their children.
Psychologists tell us that children are not little adults, with fully developed brains. They evolve in stages with different cognitive abilities. Younger children don’t understand concepts like near and far distances, and don’t know about death. Their world is small, and confined super ego-centric. Talking to them about school shootings across the country has to recognize that their world is about themselves, and their immediate surroundings.
As children grow into adolescence, they learn that their world is larger than they knew. They ways that they think and talk about it changes. And a parent’s talk has to understand the difference in developmental stages. And the similarities.
Even “independent” late teens cling to certainties they relied on in early childhood. While asserting their independence, they continue to look to parents for reassurance and guidance. (Lots of parents of teens might reflexively dispute this. But listen to a teen who wants to express feeling about school shootings.) Parents remain sources of stability, protection and reassurance in frightening times.
It can be hard to talk to a child, particularly a rebellious teen, asserting “independence.” But during a long hot summer, Police and “militia” groups will definitely be talking to children, but with truncheons, clubs and bullets. Parents and friends must make the effort.
In a recent talk to a bar association, a psychologist offered some thoughts on how to talk to children about shootings and unexpected violence in general. She pointed out that children of all ages, including rebellious teens, look for reassurance from their parents - no matter how stridently, or silently they try to convey that they are avoiding communication. As the 2022 Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction) winner, Invisible Child, makes clear, the need for parental guidance, reassurance and support in tough times is multi-generational even when it appears dysfunctional.
Humans are creatures of habit. Structure and routine can provide comfort. A young child who expresses fear of going to school, or summer day camp, where the TV says violence may occur, may benefit from firm reminders that they have friends and their own group at school, as well as caring, protective teachers. And from the constant reminder that, even is this mindless age, school, church and other shooting incidents are incredibly rare. Despite the TV time they garner.
Insisting that a reluctant child go to school, play with friends, not let any fear keep them from the benefits of learning, might be an almost insurmountable task for a parent who wants to wrap the child in protective arms and keep them safely at home. But it must be “almost insurmountable.” The parent may benefit from keeping the child home. The child will not.
As alluded to above, children know all the things the Family Code says that they are not to be told. Children are born with bullshit detectors, and they learn sophisticated use of them early in life. Honesty when talking to children about anything is important. Today’s children, with their wealth of information sources, accurate and otherwise, can’t be expected to cling to a well-intentioned lie.
Answering a child’s question with, “I don’t know,” is almost universally a better response than the most artistically crafted, but wrong, statement of facts. When the misstatement is discovered (when, not if), it may be labeled a “lie.” Whether or not it is, it will undermine confidence in the parent who said it. Confidence which is essential as the child grows.
Perhaps the hardest part of “talking to a child about hard things” is the NOT talking part. One of the most poignant things I ever saw in my practice were three children for whom the Court had appointed a ‘minors’ counsel - an attorney just for the children’s interests, and the divorcing parents fought and used the children as pawns in their fights. The minors’ counsel was too young to have children of her own, but as she was expecting her first child, she knew for certainty how much love a mother has for her children.
No matter what the three children told her about dealing with their mother, she was unable to hear what they were saying. When she went on maternity leave and a new, more experienced minors’ counsel stepped in, the Court learned quickly about the mother’s abusive parenting, violence and false statements to social workers. Too often we hear what we want or expect to hear.
Talking to children (and to new clients) requires listening more than talking. Instead of asking a child, “What do you think of that school shooting in Texas,” ask, “What are you thinking about?” “How are you feeling?” “What have you heard?” and, “What do you know about ...?”
What a child knows or may know might be accurate or exaggerated or completely irrational. But it is the basis for the child’s feelings, fears, projections. And just saying, “Oh, that’s not right,” is rarely a productive response. The child’s response is so much more important than any question. The response provides guidance on what the child’s concerns are, and what the child may want to talk about or avoid talking about.
This kind of talking to children is NOT like “The Talk” that Black parents must give their children. That is life-saving, protection against known, constant, established threats. It is informative.
Talking to children about things like school shootings and violence at demonstrations is an exercise in reassurance, and in learning from the child, more than giving the child essential information.
These comments are from a Family Lawyer, with lots of training and observation of children in settings of legal processes, but no training in psychology. Any parent with the resources would do well to consult trained psychological professionals about the nature of communications with the parent’s children, especially if a child is expressing concerns. And rely on them more than psychology advice from a lawyer.
Two resources that parents may find helpful are the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the Child Mind Institute. Both organizations provide resource materials for both parents and professionals.
I fear that 2022 may have a long, hot, disruptive and violent summer. Parents will need to talk with children, and with each other, about unpleasant and even terrifying issues and topics. There may be strong desires to avoid such talks. But the need will be there and will remain, regardless.