November 1, 2016

The Trick that helps me teach my Children the Difference between Learned Fear & Real Threat.

scared child nervous

Trying to explain to children the difference between learned racism and tuning into their intuitive sense of danger or threat can be a tricky task.

We need to educate and guide them through where their responses to certain people or situations come from.

I think of myself as open-minded, as well as someone who is willing to look at my own potential blind spots. As both a mother and therapist, I love to show children how to recognize their own blind spots. The recent shootings of people of color by police officers have me considering the best way to talk to kids about racism and how to look at their own implicit biases.

In my book, I teach a playful and powerful concept about intuition. I call it “Shoe.” My children and I created this code word to signal a feeling of discomfort or fear.

It came to us when my oldest daughter was in preschool. One day, we were in a cafe where I had just ordered a cup of coffee when, out of the blue, a woman started to chase after me, holding her shoe and shaking it at me. My immediate concern was for the safety of my daughter. Once we left the coffee shop and the troubled woman, I knew we had to talk about what had just occurred. Although my daughter was only five, she understood things beyond her age. She immediately called her the “shoe” lady.

From then on, my children and I use the word “shoe” if we are feeling uncomfortable for any reason. I realized I was teaching my kids about intuition—or as we began to refer to it, our “in-shoe-ition.”

Here’s how it works: when my children and I are out in a public space and anyone of us feels uncomfortable for any reason, we simply say, “My shoe hurts.” That lets us know that something scary or uncomfortable is going on. It alerts the rest of us to gather close by, so we can find safety and then explore those feelings.

As my children have gotten older, we have used this conversation to explore racism alongside intuition. I often remind them to always trust their gut. A decision made from their gut is a true response, even if appearance, race, culture, sexuality, poverty does, in fact, play a role.

This process has a powerful intention: helping children feel safe should they feel out of sorts for any reason. Its bonus purpose is to open conversation about complicated topics: our own biases, fears and racism. It is vital to teach children to listen to their intuition and trust it. In addition, we want to explore the why behind our bias.

Recently, after one of my daughters had called out “shoe,” we took some time as a family to explore what the situation we had just encountered.

“That man kept looking at me,” my daughter explained. She had enough sense to use our shoe code word, rather than wonder aloud why he was looking in her direction or if she was being unfair. At that point I asked her to explore her discomfort. He was heavily tattooed, with art going up his neck and had a ton of piercings. She said, “He looked scary and kept looking at me. I felt afraid.” Her fear may not have been irrational.

It’s powerful to explain that just because we may be experiencing thoughts tied to implicit racism doesn’t necessarily mean that we are wrong about our safety. This is an important distinction for all of us to make. “Shoe” allows a parent the opportunity to further explore what may be underlying the child’s discomfort.

When necessary, we discuss if and how race plays a part in their calling “shoe.” This process can provide a way to safely explore a complex topic.

As a parent, it’s the best we can do to look at our own biases, not hide them, but rather explore their origins. It is powerful to ask ourselves if we have inherited ancestral pain and racist ideas from others. This process provides an opportunity to begin the conversation so that our own unexplored racism comes to the forefront and is better understood. But we also honor the child’s intuitive gut reaction. In keeping the conversation alive, we are teaching the importance of inquiry and exploration of our own responses to others. The most important thing is that it helps to create a sense of safety for children to address topics that are difficult and uncomfortable.

Choose a word like shoe.  Make it your family code word for identifying an uncomfortable reaction to an unsettling circumstance. Teach your child to use this family word to tell you that something is bothering them and that it is okay to explain nothing more to you because the causes will be discussed later, in a safer venue. In particular, be alert to the potential causes of this discomfort as this may assist you later in developing your child’s ability to focus, pinpoint and discuss their discomfort.

As this relates to racism, the most important task is to be aware of your own racism and habitual reactions. When you courageously examine your own thinking, you are guiding your child to a clearer understanding of potential prejudices or cultural fears they may have already learned or absorbed.


Author: Lisa Pepper-Satkin

Image: Capture Queen/ Flickr

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

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