Talking to kids about Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's passing gave Tracy Chappell the chance to discuss the good— and the bad — with her girls.

1FFN_BARM_Mandela_Nelson_071209jpg_3262951 Photo: BARM/FameFlynet

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

I didn’t meant to blurt it out the way I did — in the van, after daycare pick-up, on our way to grab dinner and rabbit food (for real — more on that next time). But I had only just heard the news in the car ride from the subway and I was reeling from it, listening to the emotional reports on the CBC as I watched the red taillights of cars poke through the dark night. Nelson Mandela was dead.

I should have taken time to think about what I’d say, how I’d convey this complicated slice of history to seven- and five-year-olds, but instead, I told them that a very important person in the world had just died, and the rest all tumbled out. Apartheid. Oppression. Slavery. Sacrifice. Hope. Courage. Heroism.

Three things hit me when I started talking to them. One, like so many parents, was how incomprehensible it was to my kids that what I was describing really happened. I feel lucky that my girls are growing up in a community that is so full of different cultures and ethnicities that they’re just as likely to describe a friend as having white skin as brown skin and will never know another way.

The second thing that hit me is that there is so much good in the world. So much. I know we can’t talk about Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy without covering a lot of terrible ground — and don’t get me wrong, I know there is a tremendous amount of work still to be done — but I was so happy to be able to share with my kids the story of this man who was a true hero, someone who accomplished what once seemed impossible, lifting up a race, a nation, the world, and never backing down. We talk so much in hypotheticals with our kids about how to stand up for what you believe in, how to be a leader instead of a follower, but I think (I hope) hearing about Mandela’s mission and his very long journey resonated with them.

We also hear so much about how to talk to our kids about the awful things in the world — bombings and terrorism and tornadoes and shootings — that it was nice to have to ponder how I could possibly put into words the incredible work of Nelson Mandela in a way that honoured what he did (because that’s what I tried to focus on). I’m sure I didn’t do it justice. And while I do try to point out the good to them, and the good people, in other situations (that Mr. Rogers meme that went around — about how his mom told him to look for the people helping during a tragedy, because there are always people helping — really stuck with me), it was nice to have this shining example to say to them, “This is what courage looks like. We all have that inside of us.”


The third thing that continues to sit in my head is that my kids had no idea who Nelson Mandela was, or many other people who are doing great things in the world — not to mention in our country, our city, our neighbourhood. I should make more of an effort to introduce them to these heroes, so they can see how even small acts can have an important impact, and be reminded that there is so much good in the world. Because I know it doesn’t always feel that way.

How did you talk to your kids about Mandela’s passing, and his legacy?

This article was originally published on Dec 09, 2013

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