How to explain the Capitol riot to children of all ages: ‘Powerful teaching moment’

Elise Solé
·4 min read

As the country recovers from the events of Jan 6., when a violent mob backing President Donald Trump besieged the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the electoral certification of President-elect Joe Biden, children may struggle to understand what happened.

“January 6 was an incredibly difficult day in the United States — and in our country’s history — and it's affecting not just adults but children too,” Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life.

The big question on the minds of parents: How do you explain the news to children without making them feel unsafe? “I don't know that we're ever doing a child any favors when we shield them from what is happening in the world,” she says. “What's critical is that we give them information in a form that they can understand, and that allows them to feel safe and heard.”

According to Durvasula, children between kindergarten and first grade are somewhat aware of big-picture issues. “They may even know that there is a capitol building or a place called Washington D.C., but for a five-year-old, it is quite difficult to differentiate how close the danger is,” she explains.

On Jan. 6, 2020, supporters of President Trump stormed the US Capitol in Washington, DC., to protest Joe Biden's victory in the Nov. 3 presidential election. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
On Jan. 6, 2020, supporters of President Trump stormed the US Capitol in Washington, DC., to protest Joe Biden's victory in the Nov. 3 presidential election. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

With little ones, parents should be cautiously honest: “Let them know, yes, something's going on and it's not good...destroying public property is not OK,” she says while assuring them that home is a safe place. Parents should also limit exposure to news reports and find a private space for themselves to catch up on current events.

However, parents might take a different approach with older children in late elementary or middle school who are starting to develop critical-thinking skills. “This could actually become a powerful teaching moment,” Durvasula notes, adding that the function of government and free speech, expressed appropriately, are talking points.

Pre-teens and teens are capable of dialogue that’s “engaged, critical and thoughtful” even when controversial, such as the concept of democracy under threat. And parents should be respectful of children’s feelings as they process the news.

Black children may be uniquely sensitive to the events of Jan. 6, given summer protests sparked by George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minnesota police custody. “[This week] brought up painful conversations and reckonings about race,” says Durvasula. “The comparison that's happening for many families is, ‘Hey, there were demonstrations during the summer for Black Lives Matter — how is that different than what happened on Jan. 6th?’”

“Obviously it's incredibly different,” she says. “And it requires critical thinking to talk about and see those differences...to be a Black child in the United States is often to live in the midst of gaslighting, to have the reality of your racial experience be doubted all the time.”

A President Trump supporter who participated in a violent demonstration and entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 201, waves a confederate flag. (Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
A President Trump supporter who participated in a violent demonstration and entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 201, waves a confederate flag. (Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

She adds, “It is absolutely incumbent on parents, educators and any adults who spend time with, talk [to] or educate children of color, particularly Black children, on how to view the events of January 6th, with ...perspective of race in the United States.”

Parents should also squash political debates, especially in homes with opposing views. “This is definitely not a time to get on your political stump and use this [event] as some sort of grand inflammatory teaching point,” she cautions later adding, “You don't want to foster more divisiveness.”

Children raised to respect the office of the presidency might feel confused about witnessing leadership unravel on a national stage, says Durvasula, but dictating blind respect isn’t the answer. “...We respect leaders based on their conduct...and we can respectfully [and] critically analyze the job that they're doing.”

As we reflect on this week, parents might worry about preparing children for the next disaster, an approach Durvasula says needs re-framing. “That's not what this is about,” she says. “This is about how we create a world for children that teaches them to feel resilient enough to handle challenges.”

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