Talking With Children About Racism, Police Brutality and Protests

Dr. Laura,
In the past few weeks, I have had several conversations with parents, both in person and through social media, about whether we should talk with our children about the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and if so, how?

My community of parents are different races (and genders, and sexualities), but we are all feeling devastated by their deaths, followed by the acquittals of the police officers who shot them. Some of us have gone to protests; some of us have not, although we feel solidarity with those who are protesting.

Our questions are: At what age can we start to talk with our children about this frightening, complex issue? When are children old enough to handle such an intense topic? For children who are old enough to discuss it, how can we talk about it with them? (Most of us have elementary-aged children.)

I realize it may be difficult to give one answer. After all, a parent of a 10-year-old African-American boy would need to approach it differently than the parent of a 4-year-old Asian-American girl.

I read your work because I am trying to better parent my children. Your positive parenting model represents a gentler, more conscientious method of parenting than what I grew up with. But it also lays the groundwork for a better world, where people better empathize with each other and try to work together towards solutions.

My friends and I want to be honest with our kids about the very real inequalities and prejudices they may encounter, experience, and/or witness, but we also don't want to overwhelm our kids before they are developmentally ready to comprehend these situations, nor do we want to terrify them.

What great questions you're asking. I'm not sure how to answer this without going beyond what I usually do, which is to give parenting advice as a psychologist. I can certainly address the question of the age at which children are ready to talk about scary but important subjects. But part of what you are asking is HOW to approach this question with children. My answers will necessarily be influenced by how I see the situation and how I would approach it with my own children. So I want to say at the outset that you may not agree with everything I say. After all, this is an issue that is currently very divisive in our country. But I think beginning a discussion, with compassion for all and a commitment to peace as the way, is the only path for healing in our country. And I think if we want things to be different in the next generation, we need to begin those discussions in our homes.

So if we want to raise our children to be compassionate people who participate as responsible citizens in a democracy, we need to find ways to talk with them about the thorny issues that we struggle with as a country. Race, violence, and how to create change in a democracy are three of those issues. I don't think there is ever one conversation about such a big issue; I think we need to talk repeatedly about these tough issues on an ongoing basis as they arise. Sometimes current events will create the opportunity or the need for such discussions; sometimes our personal lives will. Because we as adults struggle with these issues, we will often find ourselves struggling to know how to talk to our children about them. But that doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to do so.

You're right that we need to talk about this differently with children of different ages and races. Unfortunately, the experience of racism is a daily occurrence for families of color, so it's a frequent discussion in many African American and Hispanic homes. I don't think I'm the person to give advice on that conversation, but I want to acknowledge how heart-breaking it must be to have to explain to your child that the color of his skin means he may not be treated fairly by our society, that he runs even the risk of death if he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It would be facile--and just plain not true--to say "Stay out of trouble and you'll be fine." It's easy to give examples of African American men who have been killed when they had not committed a crime and were not resisting arrest; Eric Garner is only the most recent. Cory Booker, US Senator from New Jersey, was my son's age when he graduated from Stanford, was honored as a Rhodes Scholar, and then was jumped by six police officers with their guns drawn. They held him for half an hour as a dangerous criminal, barking at him "I said don't move!" while he was praying and shaking. My children, who are protected from such situations because of the color of their skin, would have been shaking and praying too, but would probably would have tried to assert their rights. That would may well have gotten Booker killed.

White families often ignore the issue of racism because it makes us uncomfortable, and because we assume that it doesn't affect our children. But racism dehumanizes all of us. We can only end racism by talking with all of our children about how it unfair it is, by admitting that all of us have a tendency to judge people based on appearance, by pointing out the terrible cost to people of color but also to our entire society, and by teaching our children that treating all people fairly matters.

Many white parents talk about heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and about slavery. We also need to talk about institutionalized racism and about privilege. These are tough issues to discuss, even with adults. So maybe the easiest way to teach children about them is with stories. So, for instance, my son told me today that he remembers a time when we ran to catch a bus, when he was ten. After we got on the bus, I told him that friends of mine, who were black, had forbidden their son to run in public, even to catch a bus. They were afraid that a police officer would assume that he was running from a crime and should be apprehended. (Attorney General Eric Holder tells a story of how this happened to him when he was already a federal prosecutor.) My son was horrified, naturally, and this evolved into a discussion about privilege, which he remembers ten years later. Of course, over the years that ongoing conversation was amplified by my children's own experiences; such as watching their friends of color be repeatedly stopped and searched by police officers, when neither of my children were ever searched.

So how can we talk with our children about these recent incidents? Obviously each parent will have a somewhat different perspective, so what we choose to say might be different. I can only tell you what I would say. Let's take this by age.

Toddlers

I don't think toddlers should ever be exposed to TV news or alarmed discussions about threatening events. So I would not recommend talking in earshot of toddlers about such an issue, even if you assume they won't understand. Toddlers are acutely sensitive to our tone of voice and are easily alarmed.

Preschoolers (3 to 5)

Preschoolers are still too young to feel safe in the face of an issue like this, which is why they should be protected from TV coverage and household conversation. If your child brings it up, ask her what she has heard.

Then give basic facts: "A teenager named Michael got into a fight with a police officer and the policeman shot him." Your child may ask if Michael was a "bad guy" because that is a preschooler's way of understanding the world, and he knows that bad guys often get killed by good guys. My answer would be: he was a confused and angry teenager who may have done bad things, but he did not deserve to die for those things. This is a terrible tragedy. Reinforce that "They got mad and forgot to use their words...Hitting and hurting is never okay."

With a preschooler, I would use the opportunity to explain that guns are very dangerous, and that once someone is shot dead, that person cannot come back. That's why we never touch a gun.

Finally, reassure her that she and the rest of the family are safe. (I realize that in an African American family with a teenage son, for instance, it can feel hard to reassure a child that everyone will be safe. I can only advise parents to calm themselves before talking with young children, so as not to unwittingly communicate their own fears.)

Preschoolers do notice race, and look to parents for guidance about it. So if your child asks about it, or asks why people are protesting, you might say something like "The police officer was white, and Michael was black. Some people think that the officer would not have killed Michael if he had been white. That's terrible, right? That maybe if he had not been African American, the officer might not have shot him? Naturally, that makes people very angry, and they are marching to show how upset they are."

I would close with something that preschoolers grapple with every day: Violence is not the way to solve problems between people. "No one knows who started the fight, and it is a terrible tragedy. That's why it's so important that we use our words instead of hitting or hurting when we're mad."


Elementary Schoolers

Children age six to nine are old enough to talk about all the issues here: race, guns, protests. BUT obviously you will have to tailor your explanation to your child's developmental understanding. Your child may seem very sophisticated, but research shows that elementary schoolers do have nightmares in response to new reports, because the news shows them a world that's scary and chaotic. Reading the newspaper together is educational, but I would shield even a nine year old from TV news, which is purposely sensationalized. Calm yourself before speaking with your child so your own outrage and fear doesn't scare your child. Always reassure your child that he and the rest of the family are safe.

With all ages, let your child talk as much as he wants. Answer questions truthfully, and don't be afraid to say you don't know. Start by asking your child what he's heard. Listen to his answers before jumping in to explain. Repeat to be sure you've understood.

Give the basic facts as you understand them. Here's how I might say it. "An eighteen year old named Michael Brown got into a fight with a police officer named Darren Wilson, and the policeman shot and killed him. We don't know exactly what happened. Some people saw the incident but they said different things about it....

Apparently there was a struggle, and the officer's gun fired and hit Michael's hand. After that, Michael ran away, with the officer chasing him and yelling at him to stop. He fired his gun, and the autopsy showed that he probably hit Michael in the arm. When Michael turned around after he got hit and started to come back, the policeman thought Michael was charging him and was scared, so he shot his gun and killed Michael. Some people who were watching say that Michael's hands were up like this, so he was surrendering and the officer shouldn't have shot him. The officer said Michael's hands weren't up and he was afraid Michael was running at him to hurt him."

Your child will probably ask you whether Michael was wrong or whether the police officer was wrong. Here's my answer to that. We don't know. Obviously, yours may be different. "Being a police officer is a very hard job....They have to make quick decisions when they don't have all the facts, and they deal with dangerous people every single day, who might hurt them or other people. And it's entirely possible that Michael started the fight with the officer. We don't really know....

But Michael had just graduated from high school; he was still a teenager. So even if he started the fight, I think that Officer Wilson should have tried to find another way to handle things instead of killing him. The Supreme Court says that police can only kill a suspect who is running away if that person is armed and dangerous. The officer knew he was not armed -- he did not have a gun. He was not threatening the officer at the time that he was killed, he was trying to run away. I think the police officer was very frightened and very angry, and when people are scared and angry they don't think very well....

I also wonder if the police officer saw Michael as different than him, because Michael was African American and the officer was white. Sometimes when we think someone is different than we are, we are more frightened of them, and also more willing to hurt them. It's a terrible thing, but young black men are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than young white men. There are lots of reasons for that, but one of them is that most white people, including police officers, assume that an African American man might have done something wrong, more often than they assume that about a white man."

Your child may wonder about the protests. I would use the opportunity to talk about how change happens in a democracy, and about the long and respectable history of peaceful protest and civil disobedience which has created change in the face of entrenched power structures. Your child may already have heard about Ghandi and the Civil Rights Movement, but together you can google other examples. You can also talk about how when people get angry they may want to destroy things, but stress that two wrongs never make a right. Violence always makes things worse.

I would take the opportunity to talk about safety in a few ways here:

  • Guns are very dangerous. Never touch a gun, and if anyone shows you one, leave the room immediately.
  • If a police officer tells you to do something, do it immediately.
  • Toy guns can look just like real guns. Some young people, even kids, have been shot by the police when the police thought their toy gun was real. It is never okay for you to take any gun, even a toy gun, out in public. If you want to play guns, make a pretend gun out of a stick.

Preteens and Teens

With Preteens and Teens, you can go into even more depth. Your child may want to know why the Grand Jury decided not to indict, which gives you a terrific opportunity to talk about how juries work, and how hard it is to know what's true. Courts can't actually decide what happened; they can only try to do that, but it depends on the evidence presented to them. We don't know exactly what evidence was and was not presented to the Grand Jury. The prosecutor decides what evidence to present, and the proceedings are not public. Explain that the Grand Jury had to make a decision with the information they had, and the witnesses described the incident in contradictory ways. Stress that in the US, we consider people innocent until they are proven guilty, and since the evidence was so contradictory, the jury gave the officer the benefit of the doubt. In fact, since being a police officer is such a tough job, most juries could be expected to give the officer the benefit of the doubt.

Preteens and Teens are exploring their identities, working out how they fit into the world, and how they can make a contribution. Taking positive action to address problems they perceive and make the world a better place helps empower teens and keeps them from becoming cynical. Talk with your child about how he or she can take a stand against racism. Maybe they will want to join a peaceful protest in your town, or send a letter of condolence, or take the YWCA's Stand Against Racism Pledge, or read more about the experiences of children of all races around the world at Tapori (http://www.tapori.org/site/en), or watch Jay Smooth's Ted talk "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race" with you. There are many resources online to educate ourselves and our children. For most parents who grew up white, this is an educational process for us as well, so don't be afraid to say you also are just learning and are trying to understand.

Hopefully, this will be just the beginning of an ongoing discussion in your family. Good for you for being brave enough to start it!

***

When community activist Kenneth Braswell's 6-year-old son asked him about the Baltimore protests surrounding the indictments of Freddie Gray’s death, Braswell didn’t know how to answer. But he just began, and his explanation grew into a beautiful and important new children’s book, Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside. The story of two children who are awakened in the middle of the night by noises outside the window of their inner-city home and spend the next morning talking to their mom and dad about the protests in their neighborhood, the book breaks down situations like rioting in a way that even young children can understand.

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