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We live in a major US city, and while we live far enough away from the areas most affected by the rioting and protesting that is currently ongoing, we are not so far that my children aren't aware - both due to limitations in our actions (such as, not going to the grocery store for a while due to it being near areas impacted) and due to what we can hear.

We've found it difficult to address the issues with the children. It's not hard to explain protests of the "people holding up signs in front of the subway" nature; we live in a very progressive suburb and have these fairly often, and have talked about the reasons for the protests with our children.

However, explaining why people move from holding up signs and chanting into actively destroying property - often the property of their neighbors and the very groups they're protesting on behalf of - has proven much more complicated. We teach our children violence is never right, and as members of the privileged majority it's not easy to intuit why people feel a more significant protest is needed.

How can we address this with our elementary-school aged children? Not the "why we are not going outside" part, but the "why people do this" part? What can we do to help them really understand their reasons, and why it escalates into violence?

As a note, I am not interested in explanations involving "professional rioters", or in other political arguments as to the veracity of the current protest/riot's causes. While I absolutely understand those are possibilities, I find it irrelevant to this discussion, as there is certainly a valid undertone here. I'm also not interested in "people should never do this" answers; I want to know how to explain why they do, not whether they should or not. I want to educate my children as to why repressed minority groups might feel the need for a more significant form of protest, in a way that makes sense to an elementary school aged child (6-10 range).

Note: This is asked due to the current (late May/early June 2020) environment, but is not intended to be specific to these particular protests/riots. Answers are welcome that are either generic or specific, as the specific answers may be helpful in other situations as well.

  • I understand this question is about a very inflammatory topic, however it is not about espousing violence or justifying it - anything written as a frame challenge, or insulting the OP or others will be removed ; this conversation has been moved to chat for readability. – Rory Alsop Jun 5 at 7:26

10 Answers 10

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As others remarked, the riots are puzzling to us adults as well — that's the reason you are asking. We are struggling to explain it not because there is a truth so terrible that it is unsuited for children; it's rather that it seems morally wrong and not conducive to the eventual goal of achieving racial justice. So why are people rioting and looting anyway?

One answer is that we humans don't always act rationally, and don't always act morally. I'm sure that you can find general examples for that in something your children did: They lashed out to somebody out of frustration, or did something they were not supposed to do because an opportunity presented itself.

But without addressing the underlying social reasons the picture would not be complete: Where does the frustration come from? Why specifically looting?

I personally think that it can be explained, also to a 6 year old, by the structural injustice simmering. Note that I'm not handing out a moral judgement here — rather, I'm observing.

Wages have, since the 1970s, not risen with the economic growth the way they used to before.1 The resulting prosperity has gone to very few who live in a state of unreal wealth that used to be reserved for kings and queens. Many normal people feel they don't have a chance to ever get their hands on one of the Dolce & Gabbana bags at display in the stores on 5th Avenue. And yet they are presented in the store windows almost as if intentionally mocking and teasing: "See, here I am, an arm's length away, but you'll never get me. I am here not for you, I'm here for the others." It's not surprising that in a moment of emotional upheaval, in an excited crowd, feeling short-changed all the way, without any fear of being punished for it, people grab what they can get. I can also see why the looters may not have that much of a bad conscience.

You can explain racism and systemic economic short-changing by an example. If you were systematically unfair to one of your children (I think you have more than one), the way the stepmother is in fairy tales; if you always excluded the same sibling from nice clothes, dessert, cuddling, give them less pocket money etc. In a word, if you were systematically discriminating against one sibling — how would that make them feel? Could they imagine to lose it if once again they don't get a present on Christmas while the other sibling plays with their new Xbox? Maybe they would take some of the sibling's toys away and hide them? Maybe they would even throw a tantrum and knock the Xbox off the shelf?? I think children are perfectly able to understand such a situation.


1 This archived chart from the New York Times in 2011 shows that development.

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  • Thanks for this answer - it gets to what I was hoping to get to. I also like the Cinderella metaphor; could imagine a "fractured fairy tale" that fit a bit better - especially if the stepsiblings are not intentionally mean, but instead unintentionally, for example. And I suspect my children (yes, I have two) both from time to time think the other is the favorite - and it certainly gets to the point that they're not quite rioting, but close... – Joe Jun 4 at 15:26
  • @Joe Glad you like it. To stay in the metaphor there may be siblings who are actively mean (and play the parents!), some who don't pay attention, some who are afraid to speak up against the bullies and therefore play along etc. There are limits to the validity of single-people explanations of social issues (e.g. what is a "structural disadvantage" on an individual level?), but it there is certainly room for imagination. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 4 at 16:15
  • I liked several of the answers here, but I'm going to accept this one after giving it some thought; it was the most directly useful to me in talking to my children. Thanks!! – Joe Jun 12 at 15:28
  • It's funny -- I considered amending this post after my partner and I in Berlin talked to close friends who live in Midtown Manhattan by video chat. They reported (I assume first-hand accounts) organized looting by gangs with U-Hauls. So there clearly were people rather unrelated to the protests simply taking advantage of the situation. Spontaneous looting happened certainly as well. There is no simple picture. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 12 at 16:45
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To answer the question as to "why protests turn to riots" it often comes down to people not feeling like they are heard. Think about if you (or your child) is asking for something, something you believe is important and the person who you are asking seems to be ignoring you. You might ask again. And again. And again..... and again. Eventually some people give up. Some people ask louder. Some people get frustrated and lash out.

Protests turning to riots is just that same individual-to-individual interaction scaled up to community-to-government (or other community) interaction.

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    I think this is a good answer (+1). I do think it misses a little in the translation to a child, though, because we would always teach our children never to lash out - that it's always wrong to do so. In the case here, I'm not sure that's entirely true - sometimes change seems to necessitate some sort of violent act first to get the attention of the community at large - and that's really where I'm struggling to explain the difference (why it's at least sort of okay here, in some ways, while it's never okay to hit another child because they won't listen to you). – Joe Jun 2 at 18:15
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    I suspect some of it simply is in the difference in importance - it's never okay to hit someone because they won't pay attention to the rules of a game, or because you want Daddy's attention, but when we're talking about people's lives being lost due to entrenched racism, it's different - but understanding differences in scale of importance is something that's very, very hard for a young child. – Joe Jun 2 at 18:16
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    This does effectively explain why they're doing it, though, which is definitely a very important element in explaining it to a child. – Joe Jun 2 at 18:17
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    Even though you teach your children that lashing out is wrong, they can certainly appreciate being frustrated and angry. And they should be able to understand that other people don't always do what you've taught them (either because they weren't taught that way or because they are being "naughty"). It can be hard to explain why frustrated, angry people aren't doing rational things. But maybe the explanation is that frustration and anger don't always lead to rational actions. Sometimes people's desire to be heard stops them from doing logical, moral things. – Becuzz Jun 2 at 19:54
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    +100, this is exactly right. A protest is equivalent to your child requesting something firmly but politely. A riot is when they throw a temper tantrum because they feel like no one is listening. Rioting is bad behavior, just as throwing a temper tantrum is bad behavior. – Lindsey D Jun 3 at 20:23
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You could use it as an example of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowd_psychology - what can happen when people feel like they are a part of a crowd. Their individual responsibility is diffused, things that people wouldn't ordinarily do become normalized. It could happen to anyone, especially if they are unaware.

It could be a valuable lesson for your children to learn to identify such situations, and consciously not let the crowd psychology kick in - remaining responsible for their own actions and acting in accordance with their own sense of right and wrong, not that of the crowd.

This could then also be expanded to more mundane situations - just because everyone around them is doing something, does not make it good or right, and does not mean that they should be doing it. They should think for themselves and take personal responsibility for their own actions. If they internalize it, it could be incredibly valuable to them, especially in late middle and in high school.

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    @vsz I disagree. The OP specifically asked “I want to know how to explain why they do, not whether they should or not”. My answer does exactly that; other answers in my opinion are more political (veering into the should/should not, justified/not justified area). – rinspy Jun 4 at 9:27
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    Take a look at the many comments the OP made, rebutting answers which mention crowd mentality, and then the OP then states that he wants to teach that people feel this is the only way to achieve change. Several other comments made by the OP are nothing but encouraging and justifying violence. – vsz Jun 4 at 9:35
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    @vsz There is a difference between teaching a child empathy and understanding (what the op is trying to do) and teaching the child to go along with whatever they understand and empathize with in other people. – Nobody Jun 4 at 11:11
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    @vsz - you need to stop spreading your interpretation of the OP's meaning as gospel. Various folks have pointed out to you the error of that. – Rory Alsop Jun 4 at 14:52
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    @vsz Your second comment is correct ("OP then states that he wants to teach that people feel this is the only way to achieve change"), but your first comment is not ("teaching the children that in such a situation that's the right thing to do"). That distinction is incredibly important and pretty much the core of what OP wants to explain to their child, how people can sometimes do something that isn't right (since OP teaches that violence is always wrong) without painting the people as willfully/knowingly doing the wrong thing (which would paint them as bad/evil in a child's eyes). – Flater Jun 5 at 11:47
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It seems from your question fairly evident that you don't know yourself why people would behave this way

as members of the privileged majority it's not easy to intuit why people feel a more significant protest is needed.

I think it it entirely acceptable to tell your children "I don't know". If you try to explain others' answers you are going to struggle with follow-up questions. You can of course do research yourself to reach some form of understanding, but it's fairly clear there are wildly differing 'answers' why people do this, many politically biased.

"I don't know" is a reasonable answer if it's true. Probably one of my few thoughts on parenting :)

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    I agree that "I don't know" is fine when one doesn't know the answer, but it's sort of why I posted here... to get that answer. :) – Joe Jun 3 at 21:35
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    Then you probably should ask "what are the reasons" not "how do I explain them"? Also - there are different reasons different people do it. Not sure someone can tell you definitively. – Mr. Boy Jun 3 at 21:37
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    Then you want Politics. – Prometheus Jun 4 at 20:35
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There's a whole bunch of moving parts, and some are beyond explaining, even to adults. I'll aim for the pre-teens with this. Let me caveat this by saying that I understand the George Floyd situation very well. This is NOT an attempt to downplay it, but to explain it to a child who may not comprehend death, let alone the myriad of emotions and politics that are swirling about.

The people who were supposed to help hurt someone instead

I've always loved Fred Rogers' discussion of finding hope in tragedy. The TL;DR there is

Always look for the helpers

I've taught my kids that if they were ever in trouble, that police are almost always a safe bet. But what happens when the helpers (in this case police) are the ones who did the hurting?

I hope you apologize to your kids when you screw up. If you don't they probably won't get it. But if you do, explain that the police are just like anyone else and they make mistakes. And here, they made a major mistake that badly hurt someone and they didn't seem to care they had done so. That made people angry.

How do you feel when people hurt you?

Anger is an understandable response here. When people hurt you, you want them to hurt too. That's natural. But sometimes we need to tell the people that hurt us that they did indeed hurt us. That's not fun for anybody, and when you're angry it's a lot harder. We shouldn't just tell the people to stop feeling bad, though. We should listen to them and see if we can help. We usually call this "protesting".

Sometimes angry people only want to hurt other people

Most children have lashed out in anger at someone at some point. Tie into that. If they had to apologize for saying or doing hurtful things. Or maybe they've been on the receiving end.

Just because you're hurting, it doesn't mean you can go hurt other people. But that's what some people are doing right now is simply hurting other people, and sometimes, just because they can do so.

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  • What does any of this have to do with stealing some XBoxes? – Davor Jun 5 at 13:11
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    @Davor You're missing the forest for the trees. A child (especially a young one) will possibly understand that stealing is wrong, but not why people are angry, protesting and/or looting. Reducing this to a mere act of theft is going to confuse them. – Machavity Jun 5 at 13:16
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There are the opportunists, who see this as a chance to get some free stuff.

There are the aggressive, who are filled with so much anger they just want to burn things down.

There are the agitators of extremists groups who injected themselves into such protests to increase tensions, spark the violence and keep it alive. As they see it as an opportunity for their ideology to flourish when the media portrays their targets as evil looters.

There are the criminal organizations, gangs and groups who know they can do their business (steal, rob, murder,...) under the cloak of the herd.

Then there are just frustrated regular people who don't know what to do, and just go with the flow. They do exist.

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    I tried to remove possible political references. @dxh I think it address the core of the question - why the protests turn in riots. Next step is to explain those points to children, though. I kindly ask the downvoters to read the editted text and then vote. Thank you. – Crowley Jun 3 at 14:11
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    @dxh In my opinion there are NO valid justifications behind rioting, so there are NO answers that comply with the request. The answer contains information that amara suggest delivering to the children (and not only children), the ways how to deliver them is up to the reader. – Crowley Jun 4 at 8:08
  • Yes. I wanted to provide a realistic set of motives. – amara Jun 5 at 12:44
  • @Crowley I doubt very much that there is no circumstance whatsoever in which you would become violent and perceive it as justified. If you happen to do that in a public place, you're a rioter. – barbecue Jun 5 at 23:14
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I would approach it from the group psychology angle. Something like so:

When any one person is alone, they're pretty well-behaved. You're well-behaved, we're well-behaved, your grandma's well-behaved. However, when you're with your friends, you probably act a bit differently, yes? You don't want to be the odd one out, so you go along with the flow. Eventually things might get out of hand. All these people misbehaving started reasonable, then more and more people tried to follow each other and it got out of hand. Adding to that, we've been stuck at home for three to four months, so they have too much energy.

Just try to explain to them that each person is reasonable, as long as they can burn their energy, however when a bunch on energetic people get together, they cause mischief. If there's some bad apples in your kid's class, they'd be good examples, since at that age they're just energetic instead of malicious.

Edit:

Since you want to focus on injustice - something like this:

Whenever you need something, what do you do? You tug at my sleeve and try asking nicely. However, if I ignore you, you probably start screaming. If I ignore you for long enough, you'll probably start breaking things. Even if you haven't done that yet, you haven't been pushed to desperation in the way they have.

Edit 2:

Continuation to make it unique:

And because they're acting out like that, it's likely that they won't get what they want and will be punished for their misbehavior

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    I understand this answer, but I don't think it gets to the root of the issue. It assumes people are rioting because they're misbehaving, like some rowdy children; but what I want to teach gets more to the heart of why long-standing social injustice leads reasonable people to feel this is their only way to achieve change. – Joe Jun 3 at 20:31
  • @Joe see edits. Covered it as asking for something from you – awsirkis Jun 3 at 21:35
  • The edit seems to be wrong from the parenting perspective. What a child might take away, is that screaming and breaking things is a useful tactic for getting what they want, and that this is what you actually expect from them. – rinspy Jun 4 at 9:54
  • I think the edit is useful, though I think it's really ultimately not different from Becuzz's answer now. But I think it's fine to explain it that way - it can go along with an explanation of why not to do it as a child. (Both answers leave that part out, of course.) – Joe Jun 4 at 15:30
  • @Joe Answer now covers the consequences of their actions, i.e. kicking and screaming won't get them what they want – awsirkis Jun 4 at 20:04
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There are several things about the question that make it hard to answer well. (1) An age range of 6-10 is a huge range in terms of emotional, intellectual, and social maturity. An answer that's right for age 6 is not right for age 10. (2) This whole age range is very young, so it's really going to be impossible to explain things to a kid this age in a way that would also be convincing to an adult. (3) The question seems to sketch an oversimplified analysis of the situation, which to me, as an adult, doesn't seem very convincing.

We teach our children violence is never right, and as members of the privileged majority it's not easy to intuit why people feel a more significant protest is needed.

I would avoid offering this explanation to your kids, because it takes all African-Americans and lumps them together as if they were all people who went through a sequence of doing certain socially positive and then socially negative things. You can't lump a whole group together this way. In reality, there's some kind of complicated Venn diagram. Making generalizations like this plants stereotypes in the kids' heads.

Rather than dumping a complicated political analysis on your very young kids, I would suggest that you instead expose them to some direct experiences with African-American people so that they can start building up their own authentic narratives of black people as individuals. Some random hypothetical examples:

Your 6-year-old loves spare ribs. Locate a ribs place that has a black clientele, go there, and get take-out. (I'm writing this during the covid-19 quarantines.) Sit down on a park bench nearby and eat. Let interactions happen.

Go to the most peaceful, mellow daytime protest that you can locate, and participate while social distancing and wearing a mask if appropriate. Leave the kids at home. But the kids see you creating a sign, leaving, and coming back. The 10-year-old expresses sympathy for your activities, and you tell her that next time, if she wants to come and participate, she can.

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There are many types of people and many groups as well. As in every group there are exceptional ones and the medium, or neutral ones, no matter how you assess the group. Among the extremes, there are exceptionally smart people and exceptionally dull ones, there are exceptionally empathetic ones and exceptionally selfish ones... The neutral ones are somewhere in between leaning one side or the other, sometimes they can change the "side" under influence of the environment.

Anyone has their form of regulatory feedback constantly comparing their status against their expectations and the others. The exceptionals have either low level of the feedback at all (I am who I am. period) or weak influence of the surroundings (I want to be an astronaut and I will be one!). The mediums try to conform with the others, some to the level they have no own opinion (which is exceptional in other measure...). If their surrounding get wild, they get as well, if the surrounding act bravely, they are brave as well.

In this case in Minnesota several millions of people live. Every single day many people die there, many are born as well. Many are arrested, harassed, many live their lives calmly. There is no coverage of this in any media, because it is just a normal daily life routine. Nobody cares about it.

But there is one guy killed by another one and every single newsroom from the anywhere is broadcasting live news about it. Because violence sells. Violent death doubly so. The other news that sells are super-rich celebrities affairs (drugs, sex, violence,... the more shocking the better!). Those who watch news are overwhelmed by those bestseller news. And only thing they can compare it with are their shitty lives - mortgage, debts, taxes, dull boss,...

They are in their bubble frustrated. They are being filled with anger, fear.

There are people who calmly protest against the system - do not confuse it with government, though. Some are fighting it through helping the vulnerable, some are joining the open discussions, some are organizing rallies, some take part in those rallies. Some don't give a damn. The exceptionals do take actions, the neutral ones are watching the situation or take some actions with the herd.

There is also group of exceptionally violent people and there is significant amount of latently violent people. The most extreme ones does not need any excuse, they are randomly aggressive. Some just need something to "fight" for and the frustration helps them to justify the reason for the violence.

There are also psychopaths that love chaos outside and actively but surreptitiously support and propagate the frustration, spark the conflicts etc.

We can clearly identify at least one psychopath, I won't mention the president, because it is far away from Parenting.SE, enjoying and profiting from the situation.

We can identify groups of people that disagree with the status quo - the officer caused a death of the suspect ignoring their status.

We can identify the violent herd rioting American cities. This herd is full of neutral people set in the violent frame, so it is normal for them now. Many are hiding themselves in the huge herd thinking they are invincible...

You can also see that:

  • People from those three groups seldom mix.
  • There is a small group of leading rioters and huge herd that follows them.
  • When the calm protest turns wild the original protesters are labelled as "traitors" and attacked by the new protesters.
  • The riot is localized so there is a huge density of rioters per square meter. When spread out, the riot weakens and extinguish.

Maybe explaining them that not all people are good will help. Explaining that not everybody has good intentions. Explaining them that there are logical fallacies that many can be fooled by...


Another way is setting up a thought experiment:

  • Imagine big room with N apes, a ladder in the middle and a banana above the ladder. Anytime a ladder is touched entire room is sprayed by cold water.
  • What will happen, when some ape touches the ladder? (all the apes got a cold shower)
  • What will happen within few days? (apes will avoid the ladder)
  • Now, remove one ape from the room and put another one in. What will happen? (the new one tries to get the banana and the others will attack them even before they reach the ladder, because of the shower about to happen again)
  • Now, turn the water spray off. What will happen? (the apes will still protect the ladder from being climbed)
  • Wait until situation settle down.
  • Now remove one ape after another while placing new ones at the time. What will happen? (the "old" apes will defend the ladder against the "new" apes).
  • Continue until you remove all the "original" apes.
  • What will happen if you put another one in? (the herd will attack the newcomer reaching for the ladder even though there is no reason for it.)

You can see how a group can transform from one calm state to violent one just by sharing noncomplete information. The later apes are attacking the newcomer just because the others do so.

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    The monkey-banana experiment is a nice story, but it's not true. You can choose to tell your children stories knowing they are not true, but it's good to at least be aware of it. – gerrit Jun 3 at 14:47
  • @gerrit I suggested setting up thought experiment, emphasis on thought. Like famous Shrödinger's experiment, which has never been conducted in real life. Ezop stories are good too. – Crowley Jun 3 at 15:01
  • Oh yes, stories/thought experiments can certainly be good! I just think it's probably better if the narrator knows whether their story is true or not, so they can make an informed decision whether or not to tell a non-true story. – gerrit Jun 3 at 17:13
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To explain the protests against literal and figurative knees on the neck, both adults and children needs to understand (each in their way) 400 years of African American history in the United States. I recommend to visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American history in Detroit, Michigan, USA (I'm not sure at what age the message hits home best; perhaps it's wise to wait a few years before visiting this museum — they do have children programs). I was there in December 2014 (as an adult without children) and I found the museum very good (certainly the most impressive one I have visited in the past ten years). Visit it if you want your children to know the history (and you will likely learn something yourself). Although it is of course a painful history, the museum is not without messages of hope. I don't know how much of this is covered in school in the US, but I went to school in Europe and learned a lot in this museum.

To explain why protests turn to riots, see other answers to this post.

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