Let’s admit it: our generation is a lost cause. Despite our Take Back the Night rallies, candlelight vigils and rampant use of hashtags, our generation keeps doing and saying terrible things to other humans. But when I think about a world where my kids have to post #MeToo and #TakeaKnee on their 2040 virtual-reality equivalent of Facebook, I want to bang my head softly on my desk.
We may have failed to build a world where everyone gets treated like a person—no modifier needed—but it’s not too late for them. One first step? Teach them to speak up. Like the TSA ads urge, “If you see something, say something.”
But telling them to “say something” won’t work if they have no idea what specific words to use when a friend makes a racist joke or a teacher winks and tells them, “I like the pretty girls to sit in the front row.” Even as adults, many of us feel paralyzed, resorting to an awkward laugh or a quiet un-friending.
So here are some tips for teaching your kids to speak up, drawn from research-based trainings and vetted by actual t(w)eens (a.k.a. my kids and a handful of their friends):
Give the person who made the comment a chance to self-correct. Sometimes people — especially kids — say something without thinking about what it means. Repeat their statement back to them in a tone of polite confusion: “Did you just say girls are bad at math?” Often people — hearing their own words — will self-correct and say, “What I meant was…” When someone tells an inappropriate joke, say, “I don’t get it. Can you explain why that’s funny?” Because nothing ruins a joke like having to explain it.
Make the comment or behavior outside the norm and deeply un-cool. Shame is a powerful emotion; no one likes to be mocked. With peers and friends, your kids can make socially devastating comparisons, complete with eyeroll:
- “Wow. Even my grandpa doesn’t say things like that anymore.” (This is admittedly age-ist—and slanderous to many awesome grandfathers—but it’s a powerful insult.)
- “Dude, don’t be that guy.”
- “You might want to upgrade your humor for 2017.”
- “Did you really just say that?!”
- “[Snorting laugh] Well, you’re an idiot.” (My 12-year-old’s response of choice, of course.)
Appeal to their higher self. Name what you heard and what you’d expect from them. “Wow, I didn’t expect to hear something so racist from you. I thought you were better than that,” is a good start.
Speak (carefully) for others. If your child is white, male, Christian or straight, encourage them to speak up even if they’re not the target of the comment or behavior. It’s often more effective to have offensive behavior checked by someone similar to you; you can’t shrug it off with, “They’re too sensitive.” Plus it’s exhausting for your kids’ peers who are girls, LGBT or from communities of color to always bear the burden of saying something.
Explain why their comment or behavior isn’t okay. As our kids get older, they might be ready to educate their friends. We humans are terrible at learning when we feel attacked, though, so it helps to start with, “You might not realize…” or “One thing I’ve learned is…” Try putting the offender in others’ shoes: “I know you said that calling each other [gay slur] is just a joke with your friends, but what if one of your friends is gay but not out? How do you think he feels when you call him that, even as a joke?” Or make it personal: “When you call Tim a [female body part] as an insult, you’re basically saying there’s something wrong with being a girl. I don’t think I’m less of a person than Tim. Do you?”
Talk to an adult or socially-powerful ally. Most of these tactics presume a certain amount of physical and social safety. If the offender is a coach, teacher, or older classmate, your kids may want to enlist help from an adult or a peer with more social power. (If your child comes to you after an incident, honor their bravery and work together to come up with a plan. If you want to hear about the incident next time, don’t storm into the principal’s office unless they say it’s okay.)
Apologize and ask for help if you say something that offends someone. We all say things offensive things sometimes, either out of carelessness or cluelessness. When someone calls you out, let go of your defensiveness. Take a deep breath and say, “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have said that,” if it’s something you shouldn’t have said. If you’re not sure what you did wrong, ask for help: “I didn’t mean to offend you. Can you help me understand what you heard so I don’t make the same mistake again?”
When—as inevitably happens—the offender tells your kid that they can’t take a joke or they take things too seriously, make sure your child has a follow-up line that maintains their power. “I’m pretty sure most people agree that [insert behavior] isn’t okay” accompanied by a you’re-not-worth-arguing-with shrug is a good option.
Just like when they learned to brush their teeth, your kids need practice to use these effectively. Role play at dinner or in the car: “What could you say if you heard a friend make a homophobic joke?” Brainstorm ideas. Ask what might prevent them from saying something. Ask them if they’ve heard or seen anything that’s bothered them; work together on a plan for if it happens again. Return to this conversation regularly to keep their skills fresh.
And watch your own behavior, too. Don’t let Uncle Lou’s joke about women in combat slide past with an uncomfortable laugh. And if you have to use an insult for other adults, pick one that doesn’t reinforce negative stereotypes; “asshole” is a good choice because we all have one. (Oh, and all the tips above work for grown-ups too.)
Obviously, none of this will undo the lifetime of biased messages some kids hear at home, but it might make the offender think before sharing their hate out loud. And it will send a statement to other kids that standing up for what’s right is an option, that they have power and they can use it. Which is a message kids — and all of us — should hear more often.
Want to learn more? Try this cute but pointed video explaining why speaking up doesn’t take superpowers and this article on why talking to kids is important. If you’re working on your adult-level skills, try these resources on bystander intervention (StepUP! Program, It’s On Us), tips for men and inspiration for hilarious adult-friendly comebacks here, here and here.