By Lauren Sweeney
Last Wednesday morning, with school drop offs and general morning chaos behind us, we headed to rag & bone where New York HEYMAMA members enjoyed some treats and catching up before sitting down for an expert panel on how to have tough talks with our kids led by our very own Amri Kibbler.
While the vibe was as positive as ever, we were there to explore answers to a loaded question: how to we broach tough topics with our kids when we’re not quite sure of the answers ourselves? Whether we’re trying to protect our kids from dangerous situations or instill positive values around topics they will hear mixed messages on, figuring out our approaches to difficult subjects requires thought. Rather than figuring it all out on our own, we had the chance to work through some of this together.
With panelists Shaina Harrison (New Yorkers for Gun Control), Dianne Myles (Dope Mom Life), Rachel Henes (Hallways), and Dr. Maria Shifrin Ph.D as our guides, we were ready to explore how to approach conversations on guns, drug and alcohol abuse, and diversity and inclusion with our kids.
Early on in the conversation, Shaina Harrison introduced us to a new term: “brave space.” In brave spaces, it’s okay to ask questions. The main goal is to learn, and in order to do that we have to be vulnerable enough to share what we don’t know. In brave spaces, we come ready to be present and listen. Read on for insights we picked up from the panelists on each topic covered.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shaina Harrison got involved in gun activism as a teenager when she noticed that, despite the fact that she was a young person whose life was impacted by guns, she and other teens were not being included in the conversation. That early initiative led her to where she is now: teaching for-credit classes on gun violence prevention to students across NYC. Her own experience as a teen shapes the way she approaches conversations with kids now. Her advice: if you want to know why kids might pick up a gun, ask them.
Of course, a huge piece of gun violence prevention is limiting kids’ access to guns in the first place. Harrison suggested that we ask our kids’ friends’ parents whether there’s a gun in their home in the same way we would tell them about a nut allergy.
There’s another piece of the conversation that came up among the moms in attendance even before the panel got started. What do we do about Fortnite? Dianne Myles shared her own experience that helped at least a few moms listening feel better about letting their kids play the video game on so many of our minds right now. Her own son plays Fortnite, even though it took her some time to come around to accepting it. Rather than banning him from playing, she gets involved. Even asking simple questions like “so what’s that guy doing?” lets our kids know they can open up to us without being judged, paving the way to more honest conversations about guns and other tough topics.
Drugs & Alcohol
Whether we’re talking about guns or any nearly any other subject, keeping an open line of communication is the key that unlocks the door tough talks with our kids when we need to have them. Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to have a few of those tough talks about drugs and alcohol.
As a Licensed Master Social Worker and Director at Hallways, Rachel Henes has unique insight into the risk factors present when kids receive the message that their worth as a person is tied to their success, from their parents, school community, or peers. Feeling burdened by pressure to succeed can heighten kids’ risk factors for substance abuse issues. If a parent notices that the culture of their child’s school community over-emphasizes achievement as the key to self-worth, Henes suggests they point it out to school administrators, asking “what can we do as a community to make sure all of our kids thrive?”
Outside of the school community, we can give our kids solid foundations to lean on at home. Dr. Maria Shifrin shared a simple, impactful tip: teach kids to contemplate before acting. We can also help our kids develop coping skills that will help them process difficult emotions without turning to drugs and alcohol. Henes suggested asking kids “how do you deal with stressful situations” and modeling positive coping skills ourselves.
Diversity & Inclusion
When the conversation turned toward diversity and inclusion, Myles shared a beautiful and thought-provoking sentiment: “What would it look like if we cared as much about our whole community as we do about our own kid?” The answer to that question, as deeply personal as it is to each of us, gets at the core of why diversity and inclusion are indeed tough topics.
And yet, it’s so important for moms everywhere- again, everywhere- to explore what inclusion means and how their kids is affected by the level of inclusion in their community. In privileged communities, so often diversity and inclusion are valued to the extent that they make people in the community feel good. This is a mistake, with a negative impact not only on the kids left out, but also on the kids within privileged communities. Rachel Henes shared that growing up in a less-inclusive affluent communities is actually a risk factor for low empathy.
What can we do to raise inclusive kids wherever we’re raising them? Harrison suggested the best way is to model it ourselves. If we do it, they’ll follow our lead.
When we do talk with our kids about diversity, it’s important that we talk about it in real terms. One panelist turned to another and asked: what is your culture? The answer is obviously not “black” or “white”; we all come from unique backgrounds or blends of backgrounds that make us who we are. Myles reminded the room that sticking to talking about color erases the wide diversity of cultures we all come from.
While we heard from experts with a diversity of backgrounds on 3 very different topics, a common thread ran through the entire panel. If we lay the groundwork with honest, non-judgemental communication in our relationships with our kids, we’ll be able to handle any tough topics that come up.