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Eva S. Goldfarb, Ph.D., is a professor of public health at Montclair State University specializing in comprehensive sex education. She helped to develop the National Sex Education Standards, and recently published research that supports starting sex education in early elementary school. This first appeared at nj.com.
Talking with children about the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade may seem daunting. To some extent, this is because it means discussing abortion itself, which many adults find hard to talk about.
Nonetheless, it is important for parents to talk about abortion because it is a rather common part of life, and because children — yes, even those as young as kindergartners — have a lot of questions right now.
Research has found that children as young as 5 usually know about current events, but they have gaps in their understanding and are susceptible to misinformation. With the right approach, parents and caretakers can help them understand this issue while instilling their family’s values.
The CDC estimates that one in four women have an abortion in their lifetimes (as do trans men and nonbinary people). So not only is this highly politicized issue not going away, children should know that they or someone they know and love may want or need an abortion someday. And it is up to us as adults to give them the tools they need to understand the fight around reproductive rights currently embroiling the country, abortion itself, and to help reduce the stigma associated with it.
Here are some tips on how to talk to children about these issues:
Make it age-appropriate. There are many ways to explain the concept of abortion in developmentally appropriate ways.
For example, for very young children, it might suffice to say that abortion is something that a pregnant person can have if they don’t want to continue a pregnancy. For slightly older kids, you might tell them that abortion is a procedure someone can have when they don’t want to be pregnant any more for some medical reason because they aren’t prepared to be a parent, or that they just don’t want to continue the pregnancy.
For a tween or teen, it’s appropriate to explain the procedure of an abortion with straightforward, simple facts, along with a discussion about their own or their partner’s future potential need for an abortion and what that means, depending on where you live.
Follow your child’s lead. It is helpful to first gauge how much your child has already figured out about recent events. Whether they ask directly or not, ask them whether they have heard anything about it. Then, sit back and listen.
With younger children, less is more. Make sure you understand what your child is asking. It may not be as deep or complicated as you think. For example, you might say, “I’m not certain that I understand exactly what you are asking. Are you asking about why this has made some people sad?” or “Are you asking about the job of the supreme court?” Avoid a long, detailed explanation that may be much more than needed.
It’s important to remember that no matter their age, if your child is asking questions, you need to answer them. Keep it simple, and don’t feel you have to answer everything all at once. But after you have responded, check in to see if you answered their question, and let them know you are always available if they have more.e
Make sure you are ready, then think about what you want to say. It’s important to feel that you are emotionally ready to discuss the topic. It’s understandable that you might have very strong feelings. Take the time you need to be able to talk in a calm and supportive way.
If you are unsure of how to answer your child’s question, it is O.K. to delay your answer. Tell them, “I’m so glad you asked that important question. I want to make sure I give you a really good answer. Let me think about it and get back to you after dinner (tonight, after school, etc.).” Then, take the time to figure out what you want to say and make sure you do get back to them.
Share your values and worldviews. One of the most important things parents do is to instill the values of their family, faith and culture in their children. This conversation is a good opportunity to do just that.
Something many parents and caregivers talk a lot with their children about is consent; the idea that nobody should do things to their body they don’t want, and that it is important to ask another person if you want to give them a hug, play with their toy, share some of their lunch, etc.
You can say things like “Our family believes every person has the right to make decisions about their own bodies and lives,” or ” There are a lot of times in our lives when a decision may not be so clear or easy to make, so it’s important to be understanding of people around us and give them time and support to make the decision that is best for them.”
My colleague Lisa Lieberman and my research shows children as young as 4 are able to have conversations about social justice with regard to differential treatment of people and that early childhood may, in fact, be the very best time to have these discussions before stereotypes and biases become more ingrained. This issue provides a great opportunity for these messages, such as “It’s not fair that everyone doesn’t have the same access to the care they need to make the choices they want for their own bodies.”
Help children understand their risk – and their agency. It’s important to talk about what is going on in the world, especially those issues that are likely to have a profound and lasting impact. It is okay to tell children that while their ability to have an abortion in the future may or may not be endangered, they also have the power to fight for what they believe in. This is a great opportunity to talk about the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy, including being educated about important issues, voting, advocating and protesting if necessary.
Talking about abortion, and how the laws around it affect people, is an ongoing conversation that can start very simply and grow more complex over time as children need and want to know more. The most important thing you can do as a parent or caregiver is to reassure children that you will always be there to support them, love them, and answer their questions.
(Photo courtesy of nj.com.)