As I’ve thought almost continuously about the nine individuals murdered at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I’ve also spent time considering how a young person grows into a hateful individual. All children begin life as accepting young beings, but at any age, once exposed to hateful attitudes or violent behavior, attitudes can change dramatically.
I’ve read every article I can find that offers guidance to adults about interpreting horrific events and addressing topics that feel uncomfortable, most recently We Need to Deal With Our Discomfort and Talk to Our Kids About Racism by writer Meghan Leahy in the Washington Post. Interestingly, few of the materials that I’ve read address the issue of online hate, the ease with which users, including kids, can access it, and the need for adults — parents and educators — to ensure that 21s Century children possess the evaluative skills to recognize and thus inoculate themselves from hate material when it pops up on their screens. For parents conversations about race, privilege, extremism, and hate can create a considerable amount of discomfort.
Fifteen years ago only people taught children to hate. Today the transmission of hate doesn’t require human contact or conversation at all — just a computer, some misguided online searches, and a lack of adult supervision. If we want to raise children who recognize racism, understand privilege, and yes, speak out, we must be sure to pay attention to what they do online.
Parents who give a child a portable digital device to carry around day-in and day-out must be proactive. Setting up a contract that lays out clear behavioral expectations is a first step. Discussing the range of inappropriate content sites, the importance of privacy, and the challenges of online behavior are crucial — as is noting why so many offensive websites exist. Talking about these issues provides context — reference points for children to consult when adults are not around.
Racism, intolerance, and hateful web sites need to be included, as developmentally appropriate, in these discussions. Nothing improves the online behavior of digital kids as much as regular family conversations that tackle problems head-on, and as Leahy commented in her article, it’s sometimes necessary to embrace discomfort, as repugnant as some of the ideas are to talk about and the sites are to look at. The Dalai Lama once commented, “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”
When it comes to talking about hate and intolerance on the web, some good discussion resources can be found at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) including Discussing Hate and Violence With Children, and Empowering Children in the Aftermath of Hate. The materials at Teaching Tolerance are designed primarily for the education community, but the website has enormous amounts of information to help parents learn more. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) website offers additional information to help adults understand more about hate issues, including a map that lists extremist groups (almost everyone with a web site) state-by-state. Back in 2010 I wrote a blog post here on MediaTechParenting, Kids, Hate Groups, and the Internet, describing how the World Wide Web offers access to racist, white supremacy, and extremist groups and what parents can do about it.
Is this one more thing on the Internet for adults to fear? Not at all.
When it comes to learning about the dangers in life, scaring kids and creating fear does not work that well — online or off. A much better strategy is to use the family discussion tool to help children construct a strong moral compass and strong evaluation and critical judgment skills so they learn to make good decisions about the content that they encounter. No matter how confident or inept parents feel about the online world, they are connected-world mentors for their children.
If the goal is to raise children who accept differences, value diversity, understand privilege, and affect change, then we adults need to talk to so they understand more about race, racism, and hate — online and off.