When To Chime In

By Zach Mural

We’re very lucky working in parks and recreation because most of what we do with young people is focused on building skills, character, and sportsmanship, and just having fun. That said, an unfortunate byproduct of the times we live in is that events in the world can adversely impact the youth we serve. Too frequently, the news is dominated by stories of violence, political divisions, and inequalities. Whether local, national, or international, these issues are in the thoughts of youth and can become topics of conversations during programs and events. Determining how we engage young people in conversations about what is in the news matters in how they view themselves, their safety, and other members of the community.

I regularly hear park and rec professionals at all levels say something like, “I’m not comfortable talking about issues of race” or “I don’t know what to say about X.” Adults invest significant time and energy building positive relationships with children and adolescents, and young people want to know what we think. At the same time, we must tread lightly when sharing personal thoughts or opinions that may contradict the views of parents or other members of an organization. With this in mind, here are some ideas to think about and discuss with staff members in an effort to better prepare for handling weighty discussions.

Safety First
Every organization should have plans, procedures, and safeguards in place to protect the physical safety and well-being of participants and staff members. I also include the emotional and professional safety of everyone involved. While I would argue that steadfastly refusing to acknowledge or discuss issues that youth bring up is not the best strategy, at times simply saying, “That’s a great question to talk to your parents about” or “That’s not something I’m comfortable talking about” is absolutely the correct and only answer. If you or your staff members are not confident you can remain professional, not become overly emotional, or your personal beliefs run counter to the goals/mission of the organization, then remaining silent about a topic is the only acceptable choice.

Have A Plan
Probably the greatest mistake an organization can make is not discussing or planning how to handle sensitive issues. In many states, adults who work with youth are trained in handling issues of abuse and neglect, and are required to report suspected abuse. As part of this training, adults are taught to guarantee they will not share what they learn (keeping the confidence of the person reporting the abuse). Having an open dialogue with staff members who work with youth about what is and what is not okay to discuss prior to issues coming up is an important first step. Like plans for ensuring physical safety, these conversations must be frequently revisited as events unfold. Assuming your organization does not mandate that staff absolutely refrain from engaging in tough conversations, providing some guidelines and suggested language to use with youth (for example, guaranteeing that everything will remain confidential) is extremely valuable.

Character And Values
More often than not, events in the news are complicated and rarely do we “know” all of the details. Getting caught up in guessing why someone did something or what someone was thinking generally is not productive and can lead to staff members saying or sharing something they wish they hadn’t. Fortunately, most organizations have a mission statement or inclusion policy that speaks directly to issues of diversity, acceptance, and opportunity. As a general rule, this statement can be a fantastic anchor for having conversations about sensitive issues.

Let’s think about a specific example of an all-too-common occurrence in today’s society—a mass-shooting incident. Frequently, these incidents involve issues of diversity. They also inevitably lead to discussions about guns and gun laws/availability. These issues can be divisive, and without a doubt members of your staff and community have different and often competing takes. That being said, youth hear about these incidents, see the coverage and reaction in the media, and naturally are curious and scared, with a desire to talk about what is going on. Coming down one way or another on gun control, declaring which group is right or wrong, or placing value judgments on a certain group of people are surefire ways to upset a segment of your population, and will likely add to the confusion youth have.

This is exactly where grounding a discussion around the organization’s mission is a good starting point. Speaking to youth about every person’s right to safety, expression, with an emphasis on similarities rather than differences can have a profound impact on a young person. Hearing from an adult who is also concerned, saddened, but hopeful for better things in the future helps a young person process the incident. And, by sticking to the values and goals of the organization, you and your staff members are much less likely to offend or say something controversial that could result in upset parents or supervisors.

Keep It Age-Appropriate
My final piece of advice for anyone discussing an uncomfortable topic with young people is to know the group and the members’ relative moral and social development. For example, very young children understand behavior as “right” or “wrong” based on rules. Older children and adolescents are more capable of understanding multiple perspectives, and their sense of morality has more space for a “grey area.” Ensuring that you and your staff receive training and have at least a basic understanding of the moral and social/emotional development of the young people you serve is essential if you are serious about providing high-quality experiences for youth.

So, Yeah, About That
Nothing that I’ve written so far, or what follows, makes having a difficult conversation easy (that’s why it is called “difficult”). However, like most things, having a plan for handling certain topics and making sure everyone understands what’s okay and what’s off-limits is a good start. At the end of the day, providing a safe place for youth to ask questions and express their thoughts and concerns, and giving hope and support, goes a long way in helping young people navigate the world we all share.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.