WHITNEY: Ferguson and helping kids understand violence on TV

We were both watching the computer screen when she turned away from her nursery rhymes to focus on my news article, a story accompanied by a slideshow of photos from protests in Ferguson, Mo.

“Is crying?” my daughter asked as she looked at a woman whose face had been soaked in Malox following a run-in with a cloud of tear gas.

I hesitate. I cringe. I don’t know what to say.

“She’s crying because she’s hurt. And she’s probably upset. But someone will help her.”

How do we talk to our kids about Ferguson? About tragedy? About the intersections and differences between justice and the law? How do we let them know they’re safe even if we’re questioning the idea ourselves?

For me and my child, things are easy right now. I watch the news, she sees someone crying and she asks why. I can’t explain the greater “why” in terms she can even begin to conceptualize, so I can lean on simple answers.

For now.

Just a few years from now, I know she’ll encounter similar images — I hope not for similar reasons, but I can’t rule out the possibility — and my simple answers will all of a sudden be shoddy.

“But why did she get hurt? Who will help her? When?” I might not have the answers.

Experts tell us we need to explain things to kids in a way that makes them feel safe.  Let them know these protests aren’t happening in their backyard. They’re safe here.

But it’s also important to emphasize the presence of injustice in the world. Talk about how laws work and how race, unfortunately, continues to play a factor in the actions and beliefs of so many Americans.

Talk to them about how they can change things.

Madeleine Rogin, a kindergarten teacher and leader of startempathy.org, suggests talking to kids about “changemakers.” Start with the Lorax, who spoke for the trees, and move up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when his story becomes age-appropriate. Give them examples to follow. Show them how they can make a difference.

Southern Poverty Law Center, through its Teaching Tolerance initiative, even recommends using news photographs as teaching tools for children. Viewing photos of what’s happening in a situation like Ferguson allows them to visually identify concepts like “protest” or “hatred” or “looting,” which they can’t define if they haven’t experienced it firsthand. Let them talk about what they see in these photos and answer their questions as honestly as you can.

At some point, turn off the television, says The American Psychological Association. Limit the amount of time spent watching news reports, as constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears.

If all else fails, go back to the simple stuff.

Tell them they’re safe. Tell them you love them. Give them a hug.

Explain that some people are good and some people are bad, but no group of people is good or bad in totality.

Make sure they know that violence is never an answer, that telling the truth is important, and that change for the better is always worth the fight.