A Teachable Moment for Young Children

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

The ongoing contentious debate over kneeling for the National Anthem escalated this past week in response to President Trump’s position that the act is disrespectful to our flag, our military, and our nation as a whole. Those in opposition to Trump’s position have argued that kneeling during the national anthem is their constitutional right and a symbolic statement of solidarity to call attention to serious social injustices in the US today — incidents involving police brutality, racism, inequality, etc.

There’s no denying that the argument over kneeling for the National Anthem isn’t going away anytime soon, but, regardless of your feelings or opinions as adults on this topic, it’s important to remember that our younger children are the most at risk emotionally as a group.

As a child psychologist, I have been dealing with the emotional impact of the National Anthem controversy with a number of my younger child patients. While I am perforce in the role of treating children with emotional and behavioral struggles, there are times when larger societal issues can enter the therapy space — and this is undoubtedly one of those times. Many of my younger child patients have broached the topic of kneeling with me this week with a heightened sense of confusion, anxiety, and even anger.

Children have said, “We were at the Redskins game, and we all booed when they didn’t stand for the National Anthem,” and “I’m not a Steelers fan anymore…they didn’t even have the guts to come out of the locker room,” and “Colin Kaepernick should move to Canada” and, “Drew Brees did the right thing to stand.” One client even proudly displayed his recently purchased Alejandro Villanueva jersey and commented that Villanueva was his new favorite player because he stood for the Anthem with his hand on his heart.

Not a single one of my younger patients has asserted support for any of the players or teams that kneeled this past week — even for players for whom my younger patients are fans. Of course, parental influence and socio-economics may have something to do with the forceful one-sided view from these youngsters inasmuch as the median household income is over $125,000, and the median home value is $478,000 in Loudoun County. By no means then do the voiced concerns for my younger child patients represent the concerns of all younger children in the US; demographics likely bring about divergent interpretations on this topic for children.

But beyond socio-economic, cultural, and other demographic differences, there are developmental and social factors that, for the most part, are universal for younger children at this moment.

First, younger children don’t possess the cognitive (or emotional) resources to truly grasp the complexity of kneeling or what it represents; using logic to solve problems in relation to others and the larger world toward more involved solutions requires abstract reasoning skills, which typically don’t develop until around 11 years of age and older. Just as 6- or 7-year-old children do not fully understand and cannot accurately explain the meaning of a metaphor or analogy, expecting a younger child to comprehend the social, cultural, and racial conflicts behind the National Anthem debate would also be unreasonable.

Second, younger children are rule-bound, and they are expected to listen to and obey the adults in their lives, so challenging authority in this way is also not acceptable to them. A veteran second-grade school teacher shared with me this week that in her many years of teaching, not once has one of her students not stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, nor has a single parent made such a request. For the elementary school child, you stand for the National Anthem because you’re expected to, and it’s the right thing to do. Younger children will have that same expectation for professional athletes with the National Anthem.

But while younger children tend to be more black and white or concrete in their thinking and problem-solving — right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, etc. — life events sometimes force them to employ some degree of abstract thought in recognizing the underlying lessons and meanings of more grey moments. Why does God let people die? Or if there’s love in my family, why are my parents divorcing? Even younger children, with our assistance, can accomplish some understanding of these sorts of complex questions and realities when compelled.

Professional sports play such a large role for so many children that, in my opinion, the current National Anthem controversy and debate is an unavoidable teaching moment for parents. Thus, I offer the following five tips to help parents to better manage what is happening right now for their younger children:

1. Be aware of your own biases and feelings.
Before speaking to your younger child or children about the National Anthem debate, be aware of your own feelings on the topic. Whether you are for standing, for kneeling, for locking arms, or for something in between, make sure you don’t bring too much of your emotional weight or too many of your strong, negative feelings to the conversation. Children can be very perceptive to how their parents are feeling, so make sure you’re calm, reassuring, and confident if and when you choose to discuss what’s happening.

2. Remember who you’re talking to and why.
Consider your audience when determining what you share or do not share on this topic with your children. Regardless of the concerning or upsetting information, we receive as parents via the media, we must always be mindful of what our children are capable of handling before discussing things. Your child’s age, maturity level, and threshold for becoming emotionally upset are all things to consider before discussing the National Anthem controversy. Just as you would not discuss natural disasters or school shootings in the same way with 4, 12, or 16-year-old children due to developmental differences, you would not do the same for this topic for your children of varying ages.

3. Make diversity, bias, and social justice okay to talk about.
Children are aware of racial differences as early as infancy, and racial biases can form as early as 3- to 5-years-old. So, the earlier you teach your children about diversity, bias, and social justice, the better since these topics will also come up for them in different ways in both elementary school and middle school. Using examples from history, TV shows, or movies can be a helpful way to tackle these challenging areas with your younger child. For example, I am Rosa Parks, by Brad Meltzer, is a great picture book for children between the ages of 3 and 7 years that age-appropriately addresses the importance of standing up for what one believes is right. While the concept of segregation, or while understanding why Ms. Parks’s action to remain seated was illegal or why she was arrested, may not be entirely clear for younger children, you can discuss these deeper points with your children slowly and over time. Moreover, the Disney film, “Zootopia,” does an excellent job of addressing the harm that can come from stereotypes, intolerance and prejudice, and the good that can come from confronting these ideas toward making meaningful change.

4. Minimize exposure to the media.
Turn off the news! For the past week, news agencies have been on fire with the National Anthem controversy and debate and the high contention between professional athletes and the President. And while the Anthem debate is a newsworthy story, such widespread exposure can cause increased anxiety and upset for our younger children. So, on game day, don’t let your younger children watch which professional athletes chose to kneel during the National Anthem and what the commentators said afterward. Instead, I recommend that you avoid the TV at that moment and throw a football with your younger child or children in the backyard or grab some tasty pre-game snacks together before sitting down for the actual game.

5. Model empathy, compassion, and kindness.
An older teenage client of mine shared his very thoughtful and mature view on the controversy with me the other day when he said, “I don’t think it’s right to kneel for the Anthem, but I also don’t think people would be kneeling if they didn’t care…I think those guys are doing what they think is right, and I think they love America, and they’re just hurting.” While you may have strong feelings about standing for the National Anthem or kneeling for it, how you manage those feelings and what you model for your children as a parent is critical.

Younger children are highly impressionable, and they learn from what they experience. So, racist or derogatory messages, inappropriate jokes or insults, judgment, and criticism, whether overt or subtle, can become a part of a young child’s value system if parents believe in those sorts of ideas themselves. I recommend then that if and when you discuss the National Anthem kneeling controversy and debate with your younger child, you do so with empathy, compassion, and kindness. It’s your job as a parent to teach your child what you believe to be right and just, but it’s also good practice to have an open mind and a kind heart when discussing opinions or positions that differ from your own.