Racial equality, politics, and sexism aren’t topics Laura Livingston, a Houston-based university program administrator, often discussed with her parents when she was growing up in the 1980s. “Many of my questions went unanswered,” Livingston says.
Today, Livingston says she makes a point to regularly talk to her 9-year-old daughter, Nova, about complex and sometimes troubling subjects like homelessness, LGBTQ+ rights, guns, and mental illness.
“I’m always honest and direct,” she says, “but I try to explain things in an age-appropriate way. I encourage my daughter to question and challenge the status quo.”
In an era of streaming videos, constant news alerts, and our 24-hour news cycle, kids are likely to hear about potentially distressing subjects on their own, but they still look to trusted adults to interpret and help them process events. That’s why experts say it’s more important than ever to address topics like these from an early age.
“Kids today are definitely very exposed, and often to concepts many of us weren’t as children,” says Anne Glowinski, professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. It’s important, especially, to talk about racism early on, she says, as research shows kids as young as two can develop racial biases.
Yet, for many parents, having these discussions can feel overwhelming or uncomfortable. For example, an NPR/Ipsos poll showed that 84% of parents agree children should learn about climate change, yet only 45% have talked to their kids about it.
One effective tool parents can use is storytelling through books, stories, and printed activities, which can help kids of all ages understand challenging subjects by presenting them in contexts kids can relate to, encouraging discussion and dialogue, and inspiring them to take action and be a part of solutions.
“Stories are very important,” Glowinski says. “They really speak to kids.”
Use the printed page to make abstract ideas concrete
Books and stories in print can make complex topics more manageable for kids, helping them learn about tough subjects in a non-confrontational way. Reading something on their own can feel less embarrassing than hearing it from an adult, and when kids feel less threatened, they may be more likely to engage in meaningful conversation.
Public relations specialist Amanda Sorena and her husband, Joe, who live in Houston, bought the “It Is Not The Stork” series of books early on and have always had a dialogue with their children, Sophia, 10, Michael, 7, and Angelina, 7, about their bodies. In talks about puberty “we take it one question at a time,” she says, “and don't assume they want to know more until they ask about it.”