Dear Roadie, My Son Feels Torn About The College Protests. What Should I Say?

Students raising their arms with a student in the forefront lifting a megaphone as they protest.

Dear Roadie, My Son Feels Torn About The College Protests. What Should I Say?

Published May 2, 2024

Students raising their arms with a student in the forefront lifting a megaphone as they protest.

Dear Roadie,

I’m the mother of a college sophomore. My son told me he has friends who are actively protesting the war in Gaza, but he seemed torn about the subject overall. I confess that I have been a little confused about what’s right in this terrible situation. Kids today get their news from TikTok, and I’m not sure he has the full picture of what’s happening. To be honest, sometimes I wonder if I have the full picture myself. What should I do as a parent to help my son deal with his feelings and thoughts?
— Protests Have Me Nervous

Dear Protests Have Me Nervous, 

I don’t blame you for worrying about this. Many parents share your concern, especially Jewish families who are hesitant to send their college-bound kids to campuses where reports of hate speech and harassment against Jewish students have been reported. 

However difficult this subject may be, though, we can’t run from it. Our children are going to confront difficult situations throughout their lives, so rather than look the other way, we must embrace it for the learning moment that it is. Have you asked your son, “What do you think is right?, Why do you think people diverge so much in their opinions on this? Are there limits to freedom of speech and protest? What’s a university’s responsibility?”

These are useful questions to prompt conversations that can help him better understand not just what’s happening, but how he feels about what’s happening. Whatever he says, keep in mind our job as parents is to listen and guide our adult children, not to tell them what to do or think like we may have done when they were younger.

I think we can all agree that peaceful protests are a welcome and necessary part of democracy. Historically protests have had a significant impact on myriad topics and events over time. But there is a difference between free speech and harassment. There is a difference between free speech and vandalism, which has occurred at universities such as Columbia and UCLA. When protests turn violent, the message, however well intended it may be, gets muddied, and no one comes out winning. 

Of all places where disagreement and debate should be welcome, it’s on a college campus. A university’s role is to welcome debate, not to suppress it. Its responsibility to its students includes creating a space where discord and disagreement can be examined, probed, and considered from all angles. This is how we teach our students to think critically. 

In turn, our students are provided with such a safe space so long as they respect it and those they share the space with. Harassing students we disagree with and committing acts that violate a school’s code of conduct are simply not the same things as exercising your right to free speech.

To be clear, not all protests about the Israel-Hamas War have turned violent or included the harassment of Jewish students on campus. But the reality is that no place is safe from differing opinions, views, and experiences. Learning to navigate moments like these in life is critical to our children’s future, whether we like it or not. There will be many times when they will find themselves confronted with situations they don’t agree with. How they choose to express themselves is what this moment is about. 

_______

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