Ten ways to inoculate your kids against bad ideas
We adults do a lot of talking with other adults about our kids. We’re good at that, and it’s important. It’s a big, complicated world out there, and it’s full of bad ideas that can be harmful to your kids. For example, some ideologies in school today teach them to treat their classmates as representatives of racial or ethnic groups, instead of as unique human beings. It’s important that we talk to teachers, school board members, and other parents to help one another work things out. But we also need to talk directly with our kids. What’s more, as parents, we need to not just command them to reject divisive and harmful ideas, but actually show them how they can evaluate those ideas on their own terms.
In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the young princess Ariel’s curiosity led her to the surface. When her father King Triton found out, he scolded her and demanded that she never return to the surface again. Instead of preventing Ariel’s return to the surface, however, Triton’s harsh reaction likely rendered it inevitable. This blunder is emblematic of the many well-intentioned actions we take as parents that ultimately backfire on us.
Let’s analyze King Triton’s missteps and learn from them. Let’s go beyond simply shielding our children from bad ideas and divisive concepts, and inoculate them against their effects.
1. Focus on the positive
Kids can be easily discouraged by negativity and fear. Despite the seriousness of some of the ideas you’ll be discussing, don’t simply be a voice of warning. Tap into your child’s natural optimism by bringing up positive alternatives to the harmful ideas they may be facing. For example, instead of only focusing on the ills of smoking and drugs, be sure to model and discuss healthy lifestyles, too. Think of it this way: if a smile doesn’t come naturally to you during your talk, you may want to rethink your approach.
2. Avoid binary thinking
It was overly simplistic for King Triton to portray humans as all bad. Since Ariel’s personal (though limited) experience proved otherwise, it’s understandable that she decided her dad just didn’t have a clue—and off she swam.
Take care not to reduce things or people to being entirely good or bad. Those who argue for race consciousness, for example, inspire with legitimately noble themes of justice and compassion—and while you may disagree with their proposed solutions or methods, you’re surely not against these themes themselves. Although I believe that Ibram X. Kendi’s conclusions regarding race and racism are counterproductive, I also think he makes a number of insightful points on these topics.
Your child could have friends she trusts and teachers she admires who buy into ideas that you think are harmful. If you suggest that those people must have bad intentions or want to ruin the country, it can easily backfire. What’s more, it is most likely untrue. Try to discuss the ideas, not the people or even the political parties involved.
When you can clearly state the points you agree with within an argument you are criticizing, you not only ensure full understanding of those arguments, but you also gain credibility. In whatever ideas you’re pushing back against, look for those points or values that you can validate and identify with.
3. Define your terms
As every parent knows, words can mean different things to you than they do to your kids (I still have no idea what “lowkey” and “highkey” are about, for example). “Woke” may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it could mean something positive to your kids. Many important terms, including even “racism” itself, seem to have numerous and often conflicting definitions. This doesn’t mean you need to have your dictionary app at the ready—just try to avoid labels and buzzwords if you can. When your child uses a word that you think could be defined in multiple ways, ask them what they mean! Get clarity on that before moving on.
Don’t be like King Triton and reject the opportunity for a productive dialogue in favor of another lecture. When you’ve made your points, give your child the chance to respond. In fact, if you stop yourself to ask what they think, you’re doing even better.
Also, make sure the environment where you choose to have the discussion isn’t one where they feel they have to nod in agreement with you. Your child should feel free and safe to explore ideas out loud with you at their side. If they don’t feel comfortable opening up, you’ll never get through to them.
5. Maintain your composure
Put on your poker face and stifle the grimaces (and smirks) as your kids inartfully sort through conflicting ideas. Don’t choke on your drink if they test you by saying something they know you won’t want to hear. Save some battles for later.
The key right now is to make sure your child feels heard and understood. Though it may feel unnatural at first, treat them more like a competent equal and less like a kid who doesn’t know anything.
Most importantly, don’t panic if they don’t see things your way—and remain open to the possibility that you might learn something from them.
6. Keep the conversation going
My wife deplores my habit of starting projects I never finish. In this case, though, it’s a good thing.
In The Little Mermaid, when Ariel brought up counterpoints, King Triton shut her down. Consider approaching your conversation from the other extreme by doing the opposite. Purposely leave your exchanges open-ended and don’t declare a winner. Each time you engage with your child, make it clear that you’ve enjoyed the talk and would like to pick it up again later.
Leave some things unsaid, and maybe even let them have the last word. The chances they’ll let you bring this up again with them—or better yet, that they will come to you—will skyrocket as a result.
7. Fill the void
Don’t simply point out things that are forbidden. Replace the flawed ideas you’re looking to avoid with better ones. Steer your kids toward influencers, organizations, and media that inspire unity instead of division. Remember the Titans is one such movie, and my YA novel, The Bathwater Brigade, was written for this very purpose, teaching many of the lessons and skills in this article.
8. Plant seeds; don’t make pronouncements
Ariel’s father generously tried to save her the time and effort of thinking for herself by deciding for her that the surface wasn’t safe. Seasoned parents know this approach is tempting, but it doesn’t work. You’ll see the best results if you make your case but stop short of imposing your conclusions on your kids.
If you’re worried they won’t get the full story at school, plant the seeds of nuance yourself. These will start to grow on their own, causing your children to think and to question the things they’re seeing and hearing.
For instance, to inoculate them against the idea that all people of a given skin color think alike, watch some videos together of individuals who have similar looks but diverse opinions. To combat the idea that racism is and has always been the defining feature of America, show them that this history is balanced by America’s history of progress.
Planting seeds can be effective at addressing bad and divisive ideas without even needing to address them explicitly. This will also help you avoid echoing the mistakes of those you’re arguing against by overgeneralizing, mischaracterizing, and vilifying those who disagree.
9. Think critically
Help your child learn critical thinking and avoid logical fallacies. Ask questions and pose hypotheticals to help you see an issue more clearly.
One exercise I find to be particularly helpful is to swap out the variables. Take the fact, for example, that black Americans sometimes encounter people who want to touch their hair. This must be uncomfortable and annoying. However, some go so far as to call it a microaggression, rooted in racial privilege and power.
By swapping some variables, we can examine this concept from another angle. Instead of the hair of black Americans in the U.S., we’ll change it to blonde hair in China. My own sandy-haired acquaintances who have spent time in China have experienced strangers wanting to touch their hair. Is this experience rooted in Chinese racial privilege and power? Perhaps, but it seems more likely that it’s due to genuine human curiosity (and maybe differences in personal boundaries). It might make sense, then, for us to view this phenomenon in the United States the same way.
Most importantly, we should encourage our kids to always assume good intentions, even if what other people are doing seems annoying, misguided, or insensitive.
10. Be a model of the values you’re teaching
If you’re like me, your dreams of someday lighting up the fashion runway are sadly fading. But you can still be a role model for your kids by demonstrating for them how to engage with other people and how to process new ideas. One of the best ways to encourage your kids to take your ideas (and advice) seriously is to take their ideas seriously too. Don’t just tell them what the “right” answers are; give them insight into your thought process and have them walk you through theirs.
When your kids tell you something you didn’t know, or expose you to a perspective you hadn’t considered, let them know! Respond with things like “Thanks, I hadn’t thought of it like that before''; “I didn’t know that. Let’s talk later once I’ve had a chance to look into it”; “Are there videos you can find on that subject? Let’s watch a few together tomorrow night. I’ll bring the popcorn.”
This will show them that these conversations are a two-way street, which will make them eager to engage in more of them with you.
Admittedly, The Little Mermaid would have been a boring movie had King Triton taken the approaches described here, but your family has enough excitement already; no need to add any.
Even if you perfectly execute all of this guidance, however, I can’t promise that your child will react by holding you in a tearful embrace and thanking you. It will likely take multiple talks before they really start to get what you’re saying (and there’s no guarantee they ever will). They might have mixed feelings and thoughts that they’ll need time to sort out on their own. Give them the encouragement and the space to do it, while making sure they know you’re always there whenever they feel ready to talk again.
You’ll always be their parent, but they need to choose you as their mentor.
Follow these guidelines, and you’ll sleep better knowing that your kids have a pretty good shot at handling themselves when bad ideas come their way. What’s more, you’ll have prepared them to approach the countless and inevitable disagreements they will have later in life from a pro-human perspective.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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