Chris Rock and Will Smith: An Opportunity to Speak With Our Children

On Sunday night, the world unfortunately got to see an altercation between two celebrities play out on live television during the Oscars.  Chris Rock made a disparaging joke regarding Jada Pinkett Smith, and her husband, Will Smith, approached the stage and slapped Chris Rock in the face. By the time children went to school on Monday morning, this incident had made its way onto many news reports and social media, so even those who didn’t observe this first hand are likely to hear about what happened and can see it replayed through videos, internet memes, and talked about among peers.  Sadly, what was portrayed on stage models behavior antithetical to the values we teach at RESPECT.  While most of us don’t encounter these kinds of incidents in such a public forum, the dynamics do play out frequently in other settings, and it’s important to take the opportunity to discuss with children why what happened was wrong and how we can do better in our own lives.

What Went Wrong:  A few things, starting with Chris Rock’s disparaging joke.  It is never okay to make humor out of something that is hurtful to another person – whether it is about someone’s looks, abilities, beliefs, or anything that makes them different or stand out.  It is completely appropriate for Will Smith to want to put an end to comments that were made at his wife’s expense.  It’s admirable to stand up for someone you care about and at RESPECT, we teach kids to be positive, active bystanders in cases where someone is being made fun of.  However, it is never okay to escalate to violence.  Some might look at this incident and say, “See, the way to stand up to a bully is to hit them in the face.”  In the moment, that could put a stop to negative behavior, but it does not ultimately resolve the conflict, and can become quite dangerous and have long term consequences. 

What Could Have Gone Better:  One of the skills we model during RESPECT programs is that while we experience big emotions, we take deep breaths and say to ourselves, “Stop. Think.  How can I help?”  Taking a moment to think through our actions, possible outcomes, and the best strategy to use in a particular situation is an important step in making good choices about how to resolve conflict or stand up to someone demonstrating unkind behavior.  We don’t know what goes on inside someone’s mind, but this would have been a good time for Will Smith to think through all of the ways he could have stood up for his wife without using violence.  Likewise, with so many others in the room – and in the control room of the show – it would have been helpful if others in attendance – bystanders – found ways to make it clear that Chris Rock’s statements were unacceptable.  

How We Can Model Better For Our Children:  Where Hollywood has failed, we have a chance to shine.  Talk with your kids about a time you stood up for a friend in a safe way or when someone helped you out of an uncomfortable situation.  Ask them to think about what they would do if they saw a friend being made fun of.  Some things to consider are extracting the friend from the situation by asking them to play somewhere else, using humor to diffuse a heated situation and move on to another topic, or enlisting the help of a nearby adult.  Kids are good at figuring out what they are the most comfortable doing.  Role-play scenarios with them, so if they encounter a challenging social situation in the future, they feel well prepared to address it in a safe and positive way.  With practice, our children’s brains’ “muscle memory” will kick in when needed, rather than getting flustered and being unsure of how to respond in the moment.

Lastly, this is also a good time to talk about how even adults and celebrities make mistakes.  It’s important to do our best, but sometimes we don’t get it right.  Ask your kids to think about what we can do when we hurt someone’s feelings or act out in ways that aren’t right.  One way is to apologize stating that we are sorry, promising to never do it again, and asking what we can do to make it better.

One final thought: Celebrities get a lot of attention for what they do – right or wrong.  We can admire celebrities for particular skills they have, whether it is acting, sports, comedy, music, etc.  But just because they are famous doesn’t mean they should be role models in all areas of life.  Have your kids consider who in their lives are role models who show exemplary behavior and who they can look up to and even interact with on a regular basis.  By having these conversations with your kids, you are giving them the chance to do just that!