The 20-odd people chanting “Honk if you want justice,” on a New Bedford, Massachusetts sidewalk Dec. 12 got a lot of attention. They were second graders, rallying against police for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While the rest of their class enjoyed 11:30 recess that morning, these 7 and 8-year-old protesters stood by the side of the road in front of the Alma Del Mar Charter School holding signs including one that read, “Please don’t shoot me, Ferguson”.
While the students were eager to get involved in the cause, not all of their parents were so thrilled.
George Borden, the father of one participant and a policeman in New Bedford, told WHDH that discovering his 7-year-old had participated in the protest and finding a flyer in her backpack urging people to join a weekend protest “against the unjust systems that allow police officers to kill Black men and boys with impunity,” was “horrific to me.” He says he only learned about the protest after a friend saw it and called him.
Borden told WHDH his daughter asked him, “Daddy, do you shoot people?” And now he wants an apology from his daughter’s teacher.
Yet Will Gardner, the school’s founder and executive director, stands by the school’s decision to let the kids protest, saying it was allowed as part of lesson in civics. Gardner told The Boston Globe that the class’s teacher had sent a note home with her students Dec. 10 alerting parents that the class would be discussing diversity and “issues covered by the media,” and offering kids an opt-out of the talks if parents so chose. The protest “wasn’t something the teacher planned,” he said. “It was something the kids did.”
“We discourage our teachers from sharing their own political and religious views with their scholars,” Gardner added. “[But] we certainly want our scholars to engage in activities that help them to understand what it means to be citizens and what it means to be a democracy.”
But how young is too young to start talking with kids about violence, including the events in Ferguson, that many adults still have trouble wrapping their heads around?
Learning about protesting is “entirely appropriate for this age group,” family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer tells Yahoo Parenting. “Seven and 8-year-olds are at the point in their development when they are learning to find their place in the world and are becoming less focused on self and more focused on others. To facilitate this growth, its important they know they have a voice in the world and that their voice is validated and heard.”
When it comes to talking and showing incidents of violence though, parents and educators must tread with care.
“If violence is involved in any way, even talk of shootings and such, the danger is that it will exacerbate all of the normal fears kids have at this age,” Dr. Alan Kazdin, a Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University tells Yahoo Parenting. “That can come out in the child starting to have nightmares, anxiety, crying. You really want to be careful about not fueling natural fears. So if a parent has a sensitive child, withdrawn at all or prone to anxiety, you’d want him or her out of these types of discussions.”
Showing kids scenes of violence on TV or in photos is also a bad idea, says the Director of The Yale Parenting Center because it leaves them vulnerable to the influence of modeling.
“Exposure to violence won’t be ruinous to every child,” says Kazdin, noting that age matters less than the child’s personality. “It really depends on the child’s temperament. So if you’re a parent, you want to make the decision whether or not your child is exposed to it.” Ultimately talking about shootings and violence is hard for kids to comprehend and, frankly, scary. “And we don’t want more things to scare children.”
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