How Parents Across the United States Are Talking About Family Separation at the Dinner Table

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(Image credit: Bijou Karman)

Images and stories of Central American families split apart at the border have become the topic of conversation for families of all ethnicities over the past month. But how do parents handle such a delicate subject with their children at dinner?

More than breakfast or lunch — almost always rushed affairs where conversations lean toward the superficial or mundane — dinner is what anchors families as a unit and as individuals. It’s when they reunite to share what’s going on with them, what they’ve learned over the past 12 hours; it’s a time to feel comfort before bed, but also to gather strength for the following day. This is when children ask their parents about issues they hear about at school or on the playground, because they’re confident parents will have answers that’ll let them sleep well.

And few political issues are weighing on kids right now as much as seeing the plight of their peers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

We spoke to a wide range of fathers and mothers across the U.S. — white, Latino, Muslim, and foster in New York City, Los Angeles, the South, and Albuquerque — and the answers were telling. Parents are being frank with their children, if age-appropriate, while the kids themselves — from toddlers to teens — are surprising their parents with an empathy borne by how viscerally they feel the subject. As one dad told me, “My daughter sees those families and wonders why it’s them and not us.”

Below are the thoughts of 10 parents.

10 Parents on How They’re Talking About Family Separation at the Dinner Table

“As a professor of Latin American history, I have tried to talk with my teenage son a bit about the history of the countries many of these kids are coming from (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), and the role of the U.S. in creating the conditions these families are trying to flee. In addition to the younger kids he heard on the audio, we talked a bit about the kids more his age being held in these detention centers, what it would be like for a kid his age to try and make it to the U.S. on their own, and how bad things would have to be at home for these kids’ parents to be so afraid for them that they would make the choice to send them on their own. The last year-and-a-half has been hard on him and kids his age, I think. But I also want him to understand the privilege of not having to worry that his parents may be picked up and deported.” – Christine

“My son and I were eating sushi, his favorite meal, when after two spicy tuna rolls he started talking about children being caged at the border and then flipped his phone to show me images. Since my son is now 18, he remembered a time where I would tell him ‘You’re not going to remember the good times in your childhood until you are older.’ He said, ‘Mom, when we are children, you are right. We easily forget the good times but the bad times haunt us forever. So these kids are going to be haunted by being in cages, by being separated by police-looking people. They are going to go through life always fighting cages and live in fear by anyone that is an extension of the police.'” —Rida

“I asked my teenage daughter if she had heard what was going on the border. She answered that her and her friends did discuss the issue at school. But I didn’t do it while we ate. I make it a point to talk to my daughter about certain things that are happening in this country — especially after Trump was elected. My problem is that many of the ugly actions by this president and his followers are so disheartening that I choose not to discuss when eating with the family. I do not want to ruin a perfectly good meal.” — Javier

I kept the conversation simple. Here’s my basic script: Some families were in danger in their home countries, so they came to America to be safe. But our government separated the families. The children are living apart from their parents and are very scared and very sad. Some don’t know where their parents are. We — and a lot of other people — don’t agree with this, and we need to work to help the families get back together.

“Then I encouraged my children to ask questions, and I also reassured them that they are safe and no one will take them away from Daddy and me. We planned a bake sale with some family friends to raise money for RAICES and the ACLU, and our kids made the cookies and signs and ran the sale. I was heartened by how generous all our customers were — we ended up raising $715 in just two hours.” — Joanna

“We were at my uncle’s house when we turned on the TV, which was of course stationed to Fox News. The Laura Ingraham Show was on, and the guests were talking about how these [detention] centers were, and so much better than what [refugees] had at home and how people wanted to be there and that it was basically like a summer camp. My teenage nephew (whom I’ve raised since he was 8) launched himself off the sofa and screamed at the TV, ‘Are you fucking insane? Are you fucking crazy?’ shocking my uncle with his words. I reprimanded my nephew and pissed him off so much that he stomped out of the room.

Later he told me that I sent him mixed messages, as he thought I was reprimanding him for being critical and I said, ‘No, no, honey, it’s just that we can’t use the f-bomb in front of your older relatives so find other ways of describing what’s happening.’ And then he asked me, ‘Does Uncle Don know what pendejo means?’ — Susan

“Among other food ‘laws,’ dinnertime is one part of the day that Italians do not mess with. Therefore, discussions that are ‘bruto’ do not occur at dinnertime; ugly concepts and thoughts do not pervade the time of eating together. So when this very American and ugly atrocity had to be discussed at mealtime with my kindergarten- and middle-school-aged sons, we all lost our appetites. We could not eat knowing that others are suffering; no enjoyment could be felt. Mealtimes should be safe and with family, and not filled with sadness. But, the truth is, for immigrant children, mealtimes are filled with sorrow while being detained at the border.” —Gina

“We always have conversation about life at the dinner table. My son is 3, but I like to include him in conversations and have always spoken to him with respect. One day, he asked if I was sad, and I told him that yes, I was. I was sad because families were being separated. And that seeing kids without their moms made me very sad. I told him I loved him and that he and I were very blessed that we live together as a family. I don’t know if he fully understands just yet. At his preschool, all the kids decorated a banner that read “Families Belong Together.” I do know he understood what I said, though. He did tell me he wanted us to be together as a family at dinner once. —Bricia

We discussed it using the lens they know well: Hamilton! They believe that we live in ‘A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.’ So we discussed how immigrants have faced hatred and hardship since Hamilton’s time, and how the border crisis is unfortunately not as unique as one might hope, and how important it is to fight back against hatred. ‘Like standing up to bullies?’ our 8-year-old son asked. Yes, just like that. ‘Why doesn’t Trump like dark-skinned people?’ my 7-year-old daughter then said. ‘He should meet my friends at school. They’d change his mind.’ —Kedric

“When I was growing up, the meal table always felt like a safe space to share. The breakfast or dinner table is a place where most families share their days, good and bad. But the conversation was a hard one to have. Both my 11-year-old and 19-year-old don’t understand why the U.S. would, number one, separate families, and number two, why we would treat people who are here to work and support their families like criminals. And because I am in economic development, I like to point out that immigrants are twice as likely as the native-born population to start a business and that welcoming immigrants must be viewed as a vehicle for economic growth, period.” — Synthia

“My 8-year-old loves reading age-appropriate histories, and she is fascinated by African-American history. So we now have very intense conversations about history and activism. And at her tender age, she now knows she will have to step up as an activist because her roots/routes of the U.S. are also immigrant. But she remains a picky eater, so our deep conversations revert back to the real world when we ask her to eat all of food and she can’t jump straight to dessert! We have to intentionally try to bring back her innocence that this current administration has taken away from us.” —Alexandro

If you want to get your kids involved in what’s going on at our border, see how other families participated in #StandforKids with a lemonade stand.