After the horrific events in Charlottesville last month—and indeed in the last year or two— I have read a spate of helpful articles about how to talk to your children about scary things in the news. All the advice said to keep it age appropriate. But what do you do when you don’t know what’s age appropriate for your child?
My developmentally disabled 25-year-old son Mickey doesn’t watch the news. He doesn’t know Nazis marched in Virginia–he doesn’t even know what Nazis are. He doesn’t know someone was killed, or that the president of the U.S. refuses to condemn white supremacist terrorism.
Yet he’s not entirely unaware. I’ve spent the months since the election living in a low-level state of dread. Despite my efforts to conceal the worst of my fears, Mickey has picked up on my feelings. If you ask him what he thinks, he’ll tell you that Trump isn’t a good person. He’ll say things like, “He eats fast food,” “He’s nasty,” or “He belongs in jail.” To him, Trump is a cartoon villain.
Our instinct to help and shield our son is so fierce it often feels overpowering. He already copes with so much. Seizures. Anxiety. Autism. We don’t want to traumatize him further when life is already so difficult for him. But have we been remiss in shying away from talking about violence and bigotry? We’ve kept him cocooned, but now I wonder, has that been for his benefit alone, or ours too?
Mickey has a benevolent worldview in which bad things only happen to bad people. He’s naïve and trusting. He still thinks every stranger he meets is a potential friend. To him, people are either Jewish or Christian, they celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, and that’s the end of the story. He doesn’t know that because he is a Jew, there are people who wish him ill—and there are also people who would harm him precisely because he is disabled. The Nazis didn’t only murder Jews, they singled out disabled people too.
I was born 10 years after World War II ended. I grew up in a predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood in Queens. Occasionally I heard comments from other kids like, “You killed our Lord.” In many ways, I had a sheltered middle-class childhood, but I often felt like an outsider. I had Nazi nightmares. I dreamt of hiding in attics or storm cellars.
After I read the diary of Anne Frank, I’d look at our neighbors and wonder, “Would this person have hidden me?” The summer before my senior year in high school, I studied at the University of Nottingham in England. Some of the other American students there had never met a Jew. One asked, “Is it true you people have horns?”
Coming from the safety of New York, I was shocked. My friends and I hung out with a local group of teenagers from the neighboring town. One of them, a carpenter’s apprentice, became my boyfriend. He was shy and sweet when he confided, “I told my Mum all about you.” A few weeks into our courtship I said I was Jewish. He frowned and said, “Dunna matter to me, but be careful you dunna tell the other lads.”
I never wanted my children to experience this, and for the most part, they haven’t. We’ve been lucky. In theory, I believe that children are never too young to start learning about racial difference and the importance of fighting prejudice. So why is this so hard for me?
Mickey knows from Sesame Street that even though people look different on the outside, on the inside they’re the same. He knows Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero, and that a bad person killed Dr. King, but does he understand why? He has internalized our message on diversity and acceptance, but I wonder how to tell him that there are people who hate other people because of their race or religion.
Experts always tell you to tailor your conversation to the child’s age and developmental level, but that’s tricky here. He’s not a child, but his understanding still tends to be concrete and literal. But I worry that now, with these issues so unavoidable in American life, we have done him a disservice sheltering him. He doesn’t even recognize a swastika.
When I share this realization with my husband Marc, he points out how much Mickey loves the Harry Potter universe. He can grasp it, because at least in the basic storyline, there’s not a lot of moral ambiguity. The divide between good and evil is stark. If we told Mickey that Hitler was like Lord Voldemort, he’d get it—and indeed, Hitler surely inspired J.K. Rowling’s story.
Voldemort is followed by a group of wizards and witches called the Death Eaters who believe in pure blood supremacy. Like an inversion of the Klan, they wear black hoods and masks. They use racial slurs like “Mudblood” for wizards born to non-magical parents, and attempt to round them up for elimination. The real-world parallels are unmistakable.
When Harry Potter’s friend Hermione is targeted as a Mudblood, Harry and other friends come to her defense. We’ve often used the example of Harry and his friends to explain loyalty and the importance of standing up for others. Mickey also understands that the Death Eaters are bad people because they try to hurt people who are different from them. So we think that explaining racism to him through the medium of Harry Potter could well be our best route.
Mickey needs to know about racism; we must be the ones who tell him. It will be a shorter version of the facts, without the ugliest details. The world can sometimes be frightening, I’ll say, and then I’ll repeat the words of Mr. Rogers, frequently quoted in the wake of terrorism or natural disasters: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Somehow we must find language that is appropriate but that won’t terrify him. We will have the talk. We will have many iterations of the talk. And each time I’ll also say the words I’ve said to him again and again the past 25 years: “What’s Mom’s job?”
To which he’ll answer, “To keep me safe.”
Even though I’m not convinced I can.