Talking with children about the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol

How can families help their children and young people understand the attempted government takeover by White nationalists at the U. S. Capitol on January 6?

Parents can share with children that when people feel really strongly and they don’t have other problem-solving skills like communication or strong relationship skills, they think that the only solution to a societal problem is through violence. When these people are from our own country, we call them “domestic terrorists.” Domestic means they are from our own country, and terrorist means they are using violence and terror to try to get their way.

  • Parents can ask children “Have you ever been really mad when you wanted to get your way but couldn’t? What helps you calm down? What do you think the people at the Capitol should do to calm down instead of using violence?”

Parents should tell their children that in the United States, most of our government workers and leaders care about peace and telling the truth. President Trump and the domestic terrorists using lies and violence to get their way are the exception. But they cause a lot of fear and confusion, and this makes it seem like more people agree with them than actually do.

  • Parents can ask children, “Have you ever noticed how one loud or violent person can make the whole room seem scary? But when you look around, most of the people in the room are remaining calm and peaceful?”
  • Parents can also tell children that a true leader leads by example and the way to know who a true leader is to see who is using their power to help others understand each other and stay safe during a crisis. Even though some people in leadership positions, like President Trump, may say that not having your way is a sign of weakness, real leaders listen and recognize that they can’t always have their way.

President Trump and the white nationalists at the Capitol are mad that they lost the election. It is difficult for them to imagine that so many other citizens in the United States voted for President-Elect Biden. It is so difficult for them to imagine this reality that they think it is not even possible. They are making up stories, which are lies, to explain away something that makes them very uncomfortable: that the majority of Americans voted for President-Elect Biden, not Trump; and that Biden won the Electoral College fair and square – in fact, by as many votes as Trump won in 2016.

  • Parents can ask children “Have you wanted something to be true so badly that you couldn’t understand how reality could be any other way? What helped you calm down so you could accept how things really are?”

President Trump hasn’t admitted his loss, and this has made it very hard for the people who like and care about him to accept that he lost. Children also need to know that human beings tend to use violence and things like this have happened in our country before, though more than 100 years ago, and happen today across the world. They need to know that the United States was founded on the idea that humans can be better than this. The peaceful transition of power is key to this idea of being better. No one likes to lose least of all the leader of a country. But in our country, a losing President is supposed to admit their defeat, and this helps the people on his side accept it.

  • Parents can ask children “Have you ever seen anyone you care about lose something important to them? How did they act? Did they accept it or deny that they had lost? How did you feel when this happened?”
  • Parents can confirm that it’s good that President Trump has finally asked for a peaceful transition of power, but he is not the right person to trust or listen to, because he changes his mind so much and because he has shown he approves of or likes the domestic terrorists who are using violence. He is unpredictable and unpredictable people are scary to be around. He also tells a lot of lies. When you say one helpful or true thing and 9 scary or untrue things, it doesn’t really matter if you said one helpful thing.

It is important right now that we listen to people across our communities and government who are remaining calm and have called for peace and a peaceful transition since the November election. And it is important to look within our communities and see that the vast majority of people in the United States want a peaceful transition and are ready for President-Elect Biden to become President on January 20. Even when people, including senators and members of Congress, didn’t vote for Biden, most of them want a peaceful transition.

Finally, parents should emphasize to children that they are safe and this includes protecting them from too much information. While talking openly and encouraging questions and conversation appropriate for the child’s age, parents should limit children’s exposure to media about the violence at the Capitol. Limit or avoid watching videos or letting children overhear adult conversations about these unsettling events. When parents are able to stay calm and keep to the regular family routine, this reassures children that they are safe and helps us all navigate an uncertain period.

I recognize that many different people can be parents: grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, other relatives, and family friends. I use “parents” in this article to include all these people and others who are helping nurture children during these uncertain times.  

Additional resources:

NEA article about talking to young people about the violence at Capitol

NEA about white nationalism in schools

Get the Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit

Facing History & Ourselves