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How to Talk with Your Kids about Charleston- Rachel VerWys

In the wake of the Charleston shooting, many parents are wondering, "How can I talk with my kids about this? How much can they handle? How soon? How can I raise kids who speak up against racism and root it out of their own lives and the life of their community?" You're not alone.

To help answer that question, Do Justice is starting a daily series featuring interviews with parents of various races about how they speak about race and Charleston with their kids. Yesterday, we heard from Anissa Eddie, and today we're listening to Rachel VerWys. 

1. What phrases do you use when explaining racism and hate crimes  - like what happened in Charleston -- to your kids?  (What do you find to be age - appropriate?)

The conversation about racism I have with my nine year old son and my three year old daughter is different, suited to their unique level of cognitive development, but the conversation’s heart is the same. I don’t shy away from using the word "racism" with any of my kids, yet the depth of discussion I have with my nine year old is more complex. In the case of Charleston and other recent events spotlighted by the media my 9 year old and I will talk about the systemic roots to current racist events, while my daughter will hear our prayers about the event and a limited conversation. We want the conversations we have with our kids to be linked to action. For example, when I talk about how our hearts are broken because of the devastating hate crime in Charleston, I remind my kids of our participation in a peace march a few months ago. I want our kids to recognize that our family’s conversations are a part of the larger movement to stop racism. The words we speak against or about racism with our kids cannot be the only aspect of our engagement.

2. How do you comfort your children and offer them hope when faced with situations like this?

When the darkness seems to overwhelm us we go to scripture and a community of believers. This past week I needed to read scripture about light breaking out of the darkness. I needed those words to wash over me when I had no words to give my kids. I wanted them to know that God’s work and his promises are where I found hope and that there is comfort in a community of believers. When in a Sunday morning gathering they hear about that the terrorism in Charleston and then prayer over the pain, I believe my kids get to glimpse the mystery of God’s Spirit working in our ugly broken world. There is comfort in solidarity and collective recognition.

3. What were your kids’ questions? 

My younger kids have a hard time grasping how someone could walk into a church and murder people, and also why a person would kill someone because they are Black. There is some innocence in their understanding that I want to protect, so I wrestle with how much to dig and reveal. I also recognize that because of white privilege, I don’t HAVE to share the hard realities of racism with my kids when our friends of color don’t have that option. So I listen to my friends of color and know they have the hard and painful conversations regularly, not just when the media highlights something or a hate crime is committed. I am learning and stumbling through engaging my own children in age-appropriate conversations when racism fills the headlines, and when it’s not the top story. I know silence allows hate to go unchallenged. I pray that my kids will ask questions because we as a family seek reconciliation. We want to promote healing and a new narrative through the way we live and pay attention.

4. What are you hoping other moms are telling their kids, particularly moms who are raising kids whose race is different from your own?

I hope white moms like me are telling their kids about racism. I hope they go deeper than the individual level, but acknowledge the continued systemic brokenness in our nation. We need our kids to understand the historical racist acts and laws that our nation was built upon. My concern is if we do not share that history we will miss fully understanding the context for what is happening in our nation today. I hope that families will learn and listen in relationship across cultural lines and ethnic backgrounds, and that what we tell our kids could be a story that isn’t just told through the lens of our limited experience. I hope that moms who have kids with a darker skin tone than my kids will be able to say with confidence that there are individuals, families in our church, our school, our city, and our nation of all ethnic backgrounds and cultures who are disrupting racism. My prayer is that all moms can say to their kids that hope and love will overcome the despair and evil.

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