It’s not hard to see the Oscars blowup between Will Smith and Chris Rock played out at recess in the schoolyard.
One person makes a mean joke about someone else that strikes a nerve, and someone who cares about the targeted person gets upset and hits or smacks or punches the joker.
It’s a scene that played out this time between a comedian making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s closely cropped hair and her husband reacting with violence, but it’s daily event for many kids.
Now that the encounter has made its way into memes and TikToks, parents and other caregivers may be struggling to make sense of events and how to talk to their children about it with context and guidance.
The conversation is likely to cover complex topics like: When is teasing in good fun and when is it bullying? What reactions are appropriate in different contexts? How do we stand up for those we love in ways that best support them?
Those questions won’t be answered the same way by everyone, but psychologists can help you guide the conversation with your kids.
Get curious yourself
Before bringing these topics to your kids, it could be helpful to examine the cultural context and societal influences that affect how you are seeing the situation and the ideals your family holds, said Kira Banks, associate professor in the department of psychology at Saint Louis University and cofounder of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity.
Some families don’t believe in teasing ever, while others focus on finding the line of appropriateness. For many Black communities, being able to trade insults, or “play the dozens,” is an important cultural skill, Banks said.
It’s important not to oversimplify the context in which these conflicts happen for ourselves and our kids, she said.
“You want to be able to say to little ones that violence isn’t the answer and that we use our words to resolve things and yet we live in a complicated society where we’re in the middle of a war,” Banks said. Denying that reality “is not honest.” We have a responsibility to help them see the nuance even if we can’t package it up nicely and neatly.”
Adults may have a harder time packaging their own thoughts neatly in light of the gender and race aspects at play.
Banks encouraged adults to get curious about the way those topics impact their own lens. Society’s expectations of masculinity might have made Smith’s actions seem chivalrous or patriarchal, she added. Racial perspectives might have limited some people’s ability to see why a joke about a Black woman’s hair was insensitive.
The best place to start talking to your kids isn’t with a lesson, said Wendy Rice, a psychologist based in Tampa, Florida. It’s with questions.
Not sure what to ask? Here are some suggestions: What did you think when you watched Chris Rock and Will Smith? Could you understand why Smith was upset? Do you think the joke crossed a line? Do you think Smith’s reaction made sense? What were his other options at that point? How do you think Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from hair loss due to alopecia, felt?
“What we really want to do is create thinking kids,” Rice said. “How do you make it a learnable moment that kids can hear instead of parents saying, ‘No, don’t do that.’”
Being in conversation with your kids can take those important contextual nuances and help them feel through where you stand as a family on these topics as well as where they stand as individuals, Banks said.
In addition to questions, parents and caregivers can provide their kids with models of behavior when there aren’t clear answers on these topics.
“When kids say things that cross the line or when parents and kids are together and they hear somebody else cross them, the parents can say, ‘Ouch, that really might have made that person feel even more badly about themselves,’” Rice said.
A quick “ouch” when hearing hurtful comment from your kid, their TV or movies, or the people around you can help model for your child a recognition of other people’s feelings and the impact of words, she said.
Adults can also model appropriate ways of responding to hurt feelings and supporting those they care about. Rice recommended asking your child this question: “If somebody says something that I think is going to be hurtful to you, how do you want me to handle it?”
That kind of question shows your child that your actions are in support of them and taking their feelings into account. But how they feel about someone speaking up in defense of them or glossing over an offense to avoid more embarrassment may change as they get older and should be readdressed through time, Rice said.
Leave room for experience
An important note for both you and your children: This is not a one-time, quick conversation, Banks said. These ideas are complex and will come up again and again through their lives.
You don’t need to get it all right in one conversation, and they don’t need to define these things for themselves fully right away.
And the truth is, they will likely have to experience for themselves getting offended and offending someone else; reacting to hurt in a way they like and in ways they don’t; and being an effective support for someone else and missing the mark, Rice said.
These conversations are important for helping guide them in understanding the impact they can have on others and defining the values they strive toward, Banks said. And we can show them that there are consequences as they navigate these issues, but there is also forgiveness and chances to try again, Rice said.