Learning To Persevere: Talking To Children About The Pandemic & Racism

By, Anastasia Galanopoulos, PhD

We are living in dangerous, sad, but also hopeful times. When the global pandemic began months ago, we didn’t know how long we would have to endure changes to our way of living; now we know that these changes may be longer lasting.  Similarly, though many of us in White communities may have known that racism still exists in America, the fact that it was not overtly visible or affecting us directly allowed us to think that it was not our problem to address. Now we know differently.  Maya Angelou had many beautiful and wise sayings but two that come to mind and seem most relevant for our collective, current life moment underscore the fact that if we want action toward change, emotions must go hand in hand with knowledge.

People remember not what you say or do but how you make them feel, and when we know more and simultaneously are made to feel empathy toward one another, we must do better.  The best way we can take action is to start at home.  Let’s have the difficult conversations with our children. Even in a place like Lexington, where we strive for equity and justice, we can do better.

I was almost 10 years old when I arrived in the United States with my parents and sisters, emigrating during the political turmoil of Greek dictatorship. I grew up in a working- class family that valued tight family bonds, education, and democratic ideals.  My dad was born during the Great Depression and both my parents lived through German occupation and the famine of WWII.  Parenting with those sensibilities of adversity and loss, our parents instilled in us the notion that things could always be worse than they are at this moment but also with the hope that we would get through things together. My Greek heritage is something sacred to me but when I was younger, I did not know how significant the upbringing in my particular family and culture would prove to be as I grew into adulthood navigating parenthood, work, and life events, not least of which are the Coronavirus pandemic we are all living through and the witness-bearing of racism.

Anyone who can check the box of otherness, for whatever reason, can tell you that they have developed more empathy and resilience as a result of their not belonging to the dominant group, however that may be defined.  Just ask any Asian-American what their experience with racism has been in the wake of the pandemic. The thread that can bind our earth-shattering life events together and lead us through to the other side is perseverance: it is through perseverance that we develop empathy and resilience and can become agents of change. I learned and honed this skill growing up in my family and studied it in my chosen field of human development. I know many of you are hard at work doing the same thing in your own families. My hope in this piece is to empower you to continue to do the hard work, to have the uncomfortable conversations, and to help your children persevere in the face of adversity through action. You will be actively making them not only stronger but better human beings.

When we look at adversity and resilience research that examine how children fare in times of war, illness, or natural disaster what we find is not only that relationships are key but that leveling with kids is also crucial.  Depending on the age of the child, parents need to balance how much information to provide without pretending that all is well.  When we lie to children, they know it even while acting normally.  Adults may be subconsciously using non-verbal cues to communicate their own anxieties and fears about the pandemic, police brutality, or even the possibility that schools may not reopen in the fall.  Most of our thoughts and feelings are communicated non-verbally and when we say one thing but believe another, that is also being conveyed to our kids.  So, a good rule of thumb is to answer kids’ questions with as little information as necessary to satisfy their curiosity while assuring them that you are always there to talk about their feelings and to keep them as safe as possible. With younger children, parents should limit exposure to the news and aim for conveying facts pragmatically and calmly.  With all children, there can be conversations of personal responsibility to protect self and others by wearing masks, washing hands, and avoiding facial contact.  Some kids and teenagers will be more cooperative by virtue of their temperament, so parents will need to use different tactics for kids with different personalities; you already know what works for each of your children.

Optimize the goodness-of-fit, as we say in human development, between your parenting and the needs of the child at this moment. Kids who have lower thresholds of response and are more intense may need more reassurance, more practice with deep breathing or other calming techniques, and more help holding and expressing their strong feelings.  Those who are already biologically predisposed to positive mood, persistence, and adaptability will need less coaching and modeling from you.  Three popular Greek sayings that echoed in my childhood home and I use often in my own parenting and teaching might be helpful here.  They remind me that hard work and patience, the definition of perseverance, may be two sides of the same coin.

That’s Life (“Έτσι Eίναι η Zωή”)—Life is full of ups and downs; go with the flow.  Work on yourself, your own anxieties, and speak with your children when you are calm. Be patient, work hard for what is right and just, persevere toward your goals, keep moving forward even through life’s big and small disappointments and obstacles. This too shall pass.

It Can Always Be Worse (“Μη Xειρότερα”)—Find and practice gratitude with your children. Slow down and discover joy in the little moments you ordinarily take for granted.  Make a list of needs and wants and notice that you already have all you need to survive. Take in some nature, declutter, create projects you can do together as a family.

Never Say Never (“Μη Λες Μεγάλα Λόγια”)—No one can predict the future so let’s not try.  Focus on today and on your family’s mental health.  Use flexibility.  Relax rules.  Redefine productivity and success. Anxiety lives in the future and depression in the past. Happiness is found in the awareness of now.  Stay present and hopeful.

Hope, I was reminded a few weeks ago by Marc Lamont Hill, a BET news anchor, is different than optimism. Optimism may be more idealistic in nature whereas hope intrinsically contains struggle in the context of progress, while on the path to positive change toward social justice. The witnessing of George Floyd’s death has reminded us of the systemic and institutional racist beliefs and practices that are imbedded in American culture, whether we like it or not. That is the truth. But let’s not forget that we have come some way from segregation and Jim Crow to today, albeit slowly and painfully. Mr. Floyd was not the first African-American human being to die at the hands of police in modern society. Police brutality and racist policies in law enforcement are not new nor are they the only institutionalized policies that create and maintain white privilege. There is indeed generational trauma in black and brown families in this country as Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley so eloquently described recently, and until white parents and white adults fully see their privilege as a contributing factor and actively act to change that, we will never move toward equity under the law for all people.

To get at equity under the law, we must also face inequity in health care, in housing, in education, in hiring practices, in all facets of society. This is why talking to children about racism right now through the lens of what is currently happening in the country is crucial. I’ve heard many scholars and others talk about the present time as a tipping or turning point in American culture and I agree. The largely peaceful protests that occurred in major cities and small towns across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death are multi-generational and racially diverse, in contrast to the protests of the 1960s. Though those peaceful protests are growing and continuing, we are also witnessing increasing unprovoked violence at the hands of federal agents dispatched in the name of protecting federal buildings. All eyes who do not fear seeing the truth, especially the eyes of young people, can see what is plainly in front of them. There is systemic racism in all American institutions, including government, policing, and education.

Parents must seize this historical moment and begin or continue their conversation about racism in developmentally appropriate ways. They can read books, watch documentaries or movies but also have uncomfortable conversations at the dinner table. When the Attorney General of the United States can say that he does not agree there is systemic racism in police departments, we as citizens, parents, educators, and human beings must notice this discrepancy between facts and conclusions and discuss it with our children helping them to develop critical consciousness. We must use Representative Sheila Jackson Lee’s calm and inviting response to him at his July 28th House Judiciary Committee hearing as an example in our conversations with family, friends, and others: “That’s what we need you to join us on Mr. Attorney General, [substitute anyone’s name here, child’s, neighbor’s, colleague’s, etc.] and to recognize that institutional racism does exist, and until we accept that, we will not finish our job and reach the goals and aspirations of our late iconic John Lewis.” But conversations are not enough. Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s legacy has left us with instructions to do something when we see injustice, to stand up for what is right, to get into “good trouble.” Let’s talk to and model for our kids, then, about getting into good trouble not only by standing up for their friends but also for those they don’t know so well when they’re in need, by teaching them about democracy, about asking the right questions, about speaking up and using their voice, about calling their representatives, about writing letters, about starting and signing petitions, about supporting businesses owned by people of color, about voting.


Several organizations and websites (e.g., Barnes & Noble, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, etc.) have compiled wonderful resources for adults talking to children as well as for ones’ own journey towards understanding racism. Some of my favorites are the works of Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds (Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You), Debby Irving  (Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race), Ava DuVernay (13th), Ronald Takaki (A Different Mirror) and the following list compiled by The Children’s Trust Fund (https://onetoughjob.org/articles/statement-of-solidarity):

Teaching Tolerance — tolerance.org

Parents – “How to Wipe Out Prejudices Before They Start”

CNN — “How to Talk to your Children About Protests and Racism”

USA Today — “George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. What do we tell our Children?”

National Museum of African American History & Culture – “Talking About Race”

NY Times – “These Books Can Help You Explain Racism and Protest to Your Kids”

For a more academic collection of books recommended by Harvard University faculty exploring the history of racism, white privilege, and otherness, see The Harvard Gazette’s 6/15/20 article by Liz Mineo, “A Reading List on Issues of Race.”

In order to be able to talk truthfully and openly to children about injustice, we must first start inward. I hope the above resources will help you and your family on your journey, and I hope the focus on perseverance will serve as your guide.


Dr. Anastasia Galanopoulos

About the Author – Dr. Anastasia Galanopoulos has over 25 years of experience as a professor, facilitator, trainer, and coach. She holds a B.S. in Psychology, B.A. in French Literature from Tufts University, and a M.S. & Ph.D. in Human Development & Family Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. She has taught at Wheelock College and Penn State, and has worked with the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development at William James College. She offers education and coaching to families, professionals, and institutions at her practice in Lexington.


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