Emily Barth Isler: “The first step towards getting comfortable talking to kids about hard things is to get comfortable with those things yourself. Historically, American culture has often favored the “let’s pretend that’s not a thing” mentality when it comes to death and other tough stuff. I’d like to present another angle. What if we dive in? What if we get vulnerable and honest with ourselves, and find a way to make some peace with things like the inevitability of death? I love how artists confront mortality, and the genius TV writer/creator Mike Schur does such a great job of doing so in the most hilarious, moving, brilliant way with his show, The Good Place.”
Parenting is hardly all sunshine and rainbows. And neither is the world we all live in. Which is why, stressful as it may be, it’s important to talk to kids about difficult topics in age-appropriate ways—and probably earlier than you think.
To help wade through the discomfort of addressing everything from death to climate change to sex, we turned to Emily Barth Isler, the author of AfterMath, a middle grade novel about navigating grief; one that Amy Schumer has called “a gift to the culture.”
While the parents in AfterMath shy away from these conversations, Isler, a mom of two, takes a different approach, drawing influence from the famous Fred Rogers quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Here, she walks us through tackling some of the tougher conversations with a similar approach: Find ways to draw kids in, activate their empathy, and encourage them to get involved.
EBI: “Kids have excellent bullsh*t detectors. They tend to know when we’re lying—or even just withholding truth—and it can damage their trust in us. I’m not saying that you have to include all the details you would give a 30 year old when talking to a 10 year old, but if honesty is the foundation, you’re in good shape. I appreciate this article because it gives parents very clear step-by-step instructions to get through the tough parts, it helps to be able to lean on that structure.”
EBI: “The survivors of tragedies do not owe us their stories or wisdom. But sometimes, something horrible will bring our attention to a bright light in the world, someone who is knowledgeable, compassionate, and brilliant. Nelba Marquez-Greene, my favorite Twitter follow, is one of these lights. She is such a vulnerable, honest voice, and I—an adult!—have found so much comfort in her faith and resilience. She’s a therapist, but also lost her daughter, Ana Grace, in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, so I find that she’s able to give multiple perspectives on life, death, and grief. Her TEDx talk has advice directed at teachers and teachers-in-training, but I think it translates very well to parents, too.”
EBI: “Most adults are familiar with Ibram X. Kendi’s New York Times bestselling work about antiracism, and I admire and appreciate that his mission includes starting the conversations about race very early with kids. His picture book, Antiracist Baby, is so important because it gives adults a concrete way to talk to kids about race when they’re tiny—as soon as they can look at pictures, let alone understand language. It’s never too late, but it’s also never too soon.”
EBI: “Is it weird to love an article about global warming? Because I love this one. It offers tangible things you can do, starting immediately, to help mitigate climate change. This piece, from the BBC, isn’t meant for kids, but I think it’s a great thing for parents or teachers to read and put into action for kids. If you know a kid who’s already concerned about climate change, empower them with facts and ideas from here. Weeknight vegetarian meals, anyone?”
EBI: “Sex is not a natural disaster or tragedy but it is another thing that American parents tend to put off discussing with kids. It doesn’t have to be that way, and talking about it earlier can make for a more positive situation around a yes, I know, tough subject. I’m not just talking about the actual physical act, but consent, gender as a construct, emotions, societal pressures... there are so many things to discuss. The good news about starting early is that you will get more and more comfortable with this chat as the kids get older, and it’s less awkward because kids are so cool and more informed today than ever. Melinda Wenner Moyer is a phenomenal science journalist who tackles tough parenting topics candidly, and this article is no exception. Plus, I won’t spoil the last line, but I will tell you it made me laugh out loud.”
EBI: “When I tell adults I wrote a book about the aftermath of a school shooting and grief, I often hear a version of ‘That sounds too much/too sad/too hard for me.’ But when I talk to kids, the idea is usually met with relief that someone is starting the conversation, curiosity because no one else is talking about it, or gratitude that they’re not alone in thinking about it. Adults bring our baggage to such topics, of course—we’ve been living longer and have had more experiences! But kids come to things with such openness, it really gives me hope. Lauren McGovern wrote a beautiful, wise essay on this topic that helped me channel some of that openness. It pairs well with Tirzah Price’s BookRiot piece Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Books.”
EBI: “This New York Times article is such a great example of that ‘look for the helpers’ idea from Mr. Rogers. Here are people who are grieving, who don’t owe the world anything, but who are choosing to stay in the hard spaces to be a soft landing for others. A hopeful act I think of often.”
EBI: “Immigrants and refugees are often in the news, and the fall of Kabul and the earthquake in Haiti make it feel even more personal, more gut-wrenchingly urgent. Like a lot of these hard topics, it’s easy to want to look away. But there’s so much to gain by using these tough conversations to foster empathy and understanding in our kids. I love this local-to-us organization, Miry’s List, which connects volunteers with immigrant and refugee families to get them settled in ways that are concrete for kids: Sheets for their bed. A laptop for school. Teething toys for babies. Founder Miry Whitehill was recently a guest on one of my family’s favorite podcasts, Ear Snacks, talking about how everyone can help new neighbors seeking refuge.”
EBI: “Talking to kids about Covid encapsulates talking about so many kinds of loss—loss of connection, of in-person events, of friendships, of so much more. But these conversations can also be about change and flexibility, the ability to help others through simple actions, like washing hands and wearing masks. There’s so much kids can learn about themselves and their community through talks about Covid, and making it a topic that’s on the table for discussion makes it feel less of a nebulous, terrifying threat.”
EBI: “The predatory, pervasive culture of the diet industry is dangerous to our kids—not in the same way as some of these other topics—but it also takes time away from their ability to act and focus on the important things around them. Teaching kids early on that their bodies are not meant to be controlled, and that there’s no prize for taking up less space, is a positive step towards encouraging them to make a more meaningful difference.”
EBI: “Talking about the hard stuff doesn’t have to all fall on you: Outsource! For little kids, that might look like Daniel Tiger, Molly of Denali, Motown Magic, or City of Ghosts. As they get older, make sure kids’ media diets include books written by BIPOC authors, movies made by people who live in other countries, and TV made by previously and currently marginalized people. Of course, this also means modeling a similarly varied media diet yourself. It’s great for kids to see their parents watching shows that don’t just feature people who look like them. This Common Sense Media list is excellent, but it’s from before 2021 so it doesn’t include my current favorite, Rutherford Falls (for grownups and older kids).”
Emily Barth Isler
Emily Barth Isler lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and their two kids. A former child actress, she performed all over the world in theatre, film, and TV. In addition to books, Emily writes about sustainable, eco-friendly beauty and skincare, and has also written web sitcoms, parenting columns, and personal essays. She has a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, and really, really loves television. Her debut novel, AfterMath, is out now; learn more at emilybarthisler.com.