Explaining Immigration to Children

Any explanation about immigration with a child starts by asking the child what he or she knows, has heard, or has questions about. Immigration is a complex subject that intersects in politics, news, and family dynamics. Likely, any child that has questions about immigration was exposed to these subjects while at school. Therefore, the questions and methods of explanation will depend on the child’s age, maturity, and school environment.

Asking Questions

Kids are always learning. A child will learn from friends, teachers, television, and YouTube. Sometimes, those sources are credible, like Sesame Street on sharing or Jon Stewart on satire. However, often, those sources aren’t credible. Children may ask and answer questions if invited. Children may also explain to parents their feelings about immigration. How those feelings are expressed, and the questions asked, will vary depending on the child’s age.

Shushing vs. Explaining

Young children often use offensive language to test boundaries or express anger—a natural inclination of any parent is to “shush” the child. However, children respond to matter-of-fact explanations. Explaining the difference between “bad” and “hurtful” words can help to avoid negative talk surrounding immigration. Experts generally find that young children avoid using hurtful racial terms after understanding why those terms are hurtful. Conversely, “shushing” trains the child to interpret the subject as bad or shameful.

Racist Rhetoric and Family Stories

Children may learn valuable lessons from friends or teachers. Sometimes a child may learn lessons from T.V. or YouTube. Children are exposed to racist rhetoric when in elementary school, and by sixth grade, these stereotypes usually start to harden. Young children who see images of immigrant moms and kids in cages watched over by Federal officers may begin to ask questions or internalize lessons that “immigrants” are bad.

Young kids benefit from lessons that help with understanding empathy. Most families have an immigration story (unless the family lineage traces to an indigenous people) similar to those that bring people to the border now. These stories can help children empathize with immigrants and understand that no one can be reduced to a single word or phrase – that life is complicated.

Individualism vs. Community

Children can and should learn individual responsibility. However, these lessons are also easily manipulated into the myth that individuality trumps community. Human advancement is marked by cooperation between ever-increasing numbers of people. Hard work is important, but so is an understanding of how a child’s actions affect those around him, such as his family, friends, and strangers.

Discussing these subjects is complex but crucial. The questions that a child of immigrant parents asks will be different than those of native-born parents. Children who are applying for citizenship are probably more concerned about personal safety. Older children will start to understand the complex issues faced by a particular family member. Any answer that a parent gives should respect the age and maturity of the child. Older children should get more explicit answers. Younger children should be made to feel safe. Any conversation about immigration with children should start by asking questions.