Talking to Kids About Free Speech

It’s not easy, but there are ways to make it a productive conversation.

According to koodakpress، Two years ago I was driving through the countryside with my 10-year-old daughter. It was a picture-perfect summer day. Fair-weather clouds dotted the pale blue sky, and there were swallows darting in and out of the never-ending corn fields. The sun had just started to set, giving everything that orange-red glow that seems new and magical even after you’ve drank it in a thousand times before. My daughter and I were laughing at my insistence that we listen to country music. I’d had enough of the same old pop songs she liked, and there was something about a fiddle and a twangy guitar that just fit the day. It all felt quintessentially American.

But then we saw the little yellow house.

The lawn was nicely tended, and the house itself was surrounded by flowers. There was a hanging swing on the front porch. Off to the right of the driveway, just next to what I think was an SUV, there was a flagpole displaying two flags that were flapping gently in the evening breeze. One flag – the one on top – was the flag of the United States of America. Just below it there was a red and black flag with a swastika. It was the flag of the Third Reich, and it was just sitting there on that tall shiny pole and dancing along under the stars and stripes of Old Glory.

I can’t put into words how shocked I was. The juxtaposition was creepy. Everything in that town was perfect except for the Nazi flag. I actually had a hard time breathing. It was like I was thrust into some kind of dystopian novel.

Now here’s the thing: My daughter could see that I was undone, but she didn’t know why. We’d been laughing a few seconds before, arguing the merits of potentially listening to country music while we sat in our car with the windows down, and then as far she was concerned, I had out of nowhere pulled over to the side of road to stare at a pretty yellow house.

“Why’d you stop talking,” she asked.

“Because of that house,” I muttered, without explaining.

She wasn’t even sure what house I was looking at, and although I think she’d have recognized a swastika if it were shown for a class at school, I don’t think the flag itself would have caught her eye.

“What house?” she asked.

“That house,” I said. “That flag.”

She looked to where I was pointing and saw the two flags strung up on the same shiny pole.

This is where the real crux of my parenting dilemma hit me. Of course it’s jarring to see a Nazi flag flying. Of course I’d rather that flag not be there. But when I said, “I don’t think whoever lives there should fly that flag,” she seemed puzzled, and so was I.

After all, what was the most important parenting I could do at this surreal juncture? Was it to point out how offensive, even threatening, that kind of symbol can be? Was it to talk about all of the history associated with that particular symbol? Or, as I thought about consciously only later, was it to stress that one of the things that quite literally sets the United States apart from almost every other nation is the near-absolute hegemony of free speech? After all, whoever flies that flag enjoys the right to fly that flag, however distasteful some people might find this deplorable practice. You can’t have freedom of speech unless it’s freedom of all speech.

And this of course bursts right into the increasingly murky waters of our increasingly nasty world. How do you explain to a 10-year-old that some people will not only show symbols but also espouse out loud their firm beliefs that certain kinds of people are literally worth less than others? How do you reconcile this fact with the anti-bullying rules at school, knowing that these rules are essential for the well-being of schools themselves? And how do you adjust your conversation to meet the developmental needs of your child?

These are not easy questions to answer. A 10-year-old knows that it’s “wrong” to insult other people and that it’s “wrong” to use symbols that are implicitly threatening. But it is also, in nearly all settings, quite literally a right to do so guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. To a 10-year-old, however, the word “right” is the opposite of the word “wrong.” That sets up some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in any discussion. Add to this the sad fact that hateful speech and symbols are proliferating, and it’s likely that these discussions will become more common.

The medical and psychological literature isn’t much help here. There are lots of reports about how to discuss with kids the clear dangers of hateful speech, but there’s very little discussion on threading the narrow path between the awfulness of hateful rhetoric and the right to spew that rhetoric as one of the most protected aspects of our civil liberties. I actually recall my dad talking to me about this back in the ‘70s when a neo-Nazi group marched through Skokie, Illinois. The ACLU was representing the marchers, and my dad said that the marchers, however awful they seemed, had a right to be protected. I never quite understood the reasoning until I was older, and it so clearly made my dad uncomfortable that I dropped the subject back then when I was the same age as my daughter was when we saw that yellow house.

The best I can offer – as a child psychiatrist, as a parent, and as a firm believer in equal access for everyone to the same civil liberties – is advice regarding what to say based on your child’s developmental stage. Also, I can’t really see the benefit of this discussion with toddlers or very young school-aged children. To that age group I’d simply note that these are adult matters and that you’ll discuss it when they get older. Let’s start, therefore, our discussion in earnest from the perspective of third graders and then work our way up to high school.

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