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Talking With Children About Racism, Police Brutality and Protests

Please Note: I originally received this letter in 2014. I am revisiting it in light of recent events.

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 black men and women at the hands of the police, and if so, how?

My community of parents are different races (and genders, and sexualities), but we are all feeling devastated. This is made worse by our memories, not so long ago, of the deaths of  Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, followed by the acquittals of the police officers who killed 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. Thanks!

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, fairness, 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. But if we want things to be different in the next generation, we need to begin those discussions in our homes. Below, I'll give you an age by age guide to talking with your kids.

Graphic too small to read? Click here for the higher res version. (Thank you to Debbie Irving and Children's Community School!)

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'm not 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 unarmed African American men who have been killed during encounters with police; George Floyd 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 later was stopped 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 on his knees 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 have tried to assert their rights. Booker didn't dare to do so.

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. After all, no one is born a racist. Racism is the product of a racist system that is perpetuated with racist assumptions that permeate our institutions and shape our belief systems.

These are tough issues to discuss, even with adults. 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 African-American friends of mine 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. (Former Attorney General Eric Holder tells a story of how this happened to him when he was already a federal prosecutor.) 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 learning that their of-color friends were sometimes 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 as a White psychologist would say to my own children. Let's take this by age.

 

Toddlers

You may think that a Toddler is too young to notice race, and many white parents avoid mentioning race because they are afraid that discussing difference will create racist ideas in their children. However, research shows that toddlers already notice race and are drawing conclusions about everything, including race, all the time. They notice social status. They notice their parent's cues, such as friendliness or stiffening up when someone approaches. They look to parents to "approve" when someone initiates at the playground.

So go ahead and address race in a positive way -- how wonderful that everyone brings their own unique contribution to the world! It's also important to understand that we have all grown up in a culture with institutional racism, so we (as white parents) need to notice any ways in which we might inadvertently give our child impressions about race that aren't what we consciously want to promote.

But while you'll sometimes be talking to your toddler about race and diversity, in positive terms, Toddlers are too young to understand current events. Toddlers' brains are rapidly developing in response to their environment and are highly sensitive to scary images and situations. So toddlers should never be exposed to TV news. I would not recommend talking in earshot of toddlers about any upsetting 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 very concerned about fairness and believe that everyone should be treated fairly. They also definitely notice race and draw conclusions based on what they perceive, so it's important to have ongoing discussions with them about race, the value of diversity, fairness, and standing up for what's right. For instance, if you're driving past a playground, you might mention that schools in affluent (more likely to be mostly White) neighborhoods have more money than schools in neighborhoods with more children of color, so they can build better playgrounds: "That’s not fair, is it?"

But preschoolers are still too young to feel safe in the face of grownups clearly being out of control, which is why they should be protected from TV coverage and scary household conversation about current events. So you probably won't be talking to your Preschooler about the recent events, because they shouldn't hear about them. 

If your child does ask about the current news events, ask what they have heard. Listen and acknowledge: "Yes, that could feel pretty scary, to hear that."

Then give basic facts. For example:

"A police officer was arresting a man named George. He pressed his knee onto George's neck for a long time and it hurt George very badly. That's horrible, right? The officer was very wrong to do this.

The police officer was white, and George was Black. It is much more common for police officers to hurt people of color. Some people think that the officer would not have hurt George if he had been white. That would be terrible, right? That maybe if he had not been African American, the officer might not have hurt him? Naturally, that makes people very angry, and they are marching to say this needs to change."

Preschoolers see conflict in simplistic terms. They know that good guys often "get" bad guys, so they may ask you who is the bad guy here. My answer would be: "The job of police officers is to protect people, even when they are making an arrest. This police officer hurt a defenseless person, which is against the law. And (in the case of George Floyd) then the police tried to hide what had happened. As you know, it's never okay to hurt someone's body, and if our friends do something wrong and hurt someone, it's our job to stop it--not to lie about it."

Use the opportunity to ask your preschooler how they feel when they get angry. Explain that when a person gets angry, we think we're right and the other person is wrong, and we want to lash out. But when we're angry, we aren't thinking clearly. Later, we are often sorry if we have acted on our angry impulses. Because the police carry weapons, they have a special responsibility to be very careful not to hurt other people, even when they get mad. 

Your preschooler probably won't know about the protests, since their only information is coming from you. If they do ask, you can talk about how important it is to stand up when you see something unfair happening, and how important it is to do that peacefully. It is never okay to loot or burn a building.

For your child's emotional well-being, it's important to close the discussion with hope: Most police officers want to "protect and to serve" (the police motto in the US) and don't want to hurt anyone. Most of the protesters are peaceful. Change is possible, many people are working to make things better, progress is slow but real, and there are things they can do to help.

It's also important to reassure your child that she and the rest of the family are safe. I realize that in an African American family in this country, it can feel hard to reassure a child that everyone will be safe. I can only advise parents to calm themselves before talking with very young children, so as not to unwittingly communicate their own fears. (For more support for parents having conversations about race and ethnicity with their Latinx American, Asian American, African American, and Black children, check out One Talk At a Time.)

I would close with something that preschoolers grapple with every day: Violence is not the way to solve problems between people. "This 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 ten are old enough to hear about what's happening from friends or online, so don't avoid the discussion. You'll want to ask what they've heard and open a discussion about it. They're also 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 children under the age of twelve still should not be exposed to news coverage, which is purposely sensationalized to be gain audience share.

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, 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. It's okay to say you don't know in answer to a question -- you can tell your child you need to research that question and you will let them know what you find out. (Given the inflammatory nature of news on the internet, it's usually best to do some research before looking online with your child.)

Give the basic facts as you understand them. For example:

"A police officer in Minneapolis was arresting a man named George Floyd. After Mr. Floyd was in handcuffs, the officer pressed his knee onto Floyd's neck for a long time and it killed him. That is called "deadly force" and it can only be used if the officer or someone else is in danger -- otherwise it is illegal. So since Mr. Floyd was already in handcuffs and subdued, the officer was very wrong to do this, and it killed Mr. Floyd.

It's a terrible thing, but young Black men are 20 times more likely to be hurt by police than young white men. One of the reasons for that is that many 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. 

And since people of color are much more likely to die while in police custody, many people think that sometimes police officers assume that they can use illegal force against an African American person and get away with it, when they wouldn't do so to a White person. 

Many people are very upset about this incident and the many other times that something like this has happened, so they are protesting to stand up against the unfairness and to demand change. The Constitution of the United States gives Americans the right to protest peacefully. Most of the big changes that have happened in the world have come when people stand up and demand change.

Some of the demonstrators are so angry, though, that they are destroying property, including attacking police stations, or breaking into stores and stealing things. In one city (St. Louis), someone even shot bullets at the police; luckily the injuries were minor. And we don't know who did the shooting, so it might not have been a protester.  There was at least one killing of a federal officer that was originally blamed on the protesters but turned out to be done by the right-wing extremist group known as Boogaloo. But no matter who does it, is that ever okay, to hurt someone you disagree with? (Wait to see what your child says.)

Of course, it is never okay to hurt someone's body, or to burn property or take things that aren't yours. But it's important to remember that most of the protests have been peaceful and the leaders of the protests have been working hard to keep the demonstrations peaceful. 

The other problem is that many police departments are not handling the protests well. So some are misusing their power and hurting demonstrators, even when the demonstrators are trying to be peaceful in their protests.  There are many accounts from reporters who have seen police officers assault peaceful protesters.

But you should know that there are many police officers across the country who are showing solidarity with the peaceful protesters by taking a knee (kneeling) in memory of George Floyd. And there are many police departments across the country who have successfully decreased incidents like this. They do this in two ways -- by training police officers to de-escalate tense situations. And by firing the officers who are repeatedly involved in such incidents."

Your child may wonder about the protests. Acknowledge that any violence is frightening. 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 Gandhi and the Civil Rights Movement, but together you can google other examples. You can also note that it was the initial protests about George Floyd's death that prompted the arrest of the officer who killed him.

Ask your child how they feel when they get angry, and how to handle anger responsibly. Acknowledge that when people get angry they may want to destroy things, but emphasize that violence always makes things worse. Explain that it is never okay to destroy property. Ask your child how they think the message of the protests changes when looting starts. 

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

  • If a police officer tells you to do something, do it immediately. Police officers are not always right by any means, and they can be challenged in court after the fact. But the law does not give you the right to challenge them in that moment, so you have no power in the situation. 
  • 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.
  • Guns are very dangerous. Never touch a gun, and if anyone shows you one, leave the room immediately.
  • Violence is not the way to solve problems between people. "This 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."

Always end the discussion positively. Reassure your child that they and the rest of the family are safe. Assure them that change is possible, that many people are working to make things better, that progress is slow but real, and that there are things they can do to help.

It's important for children to think they can make even a small difference in addressing the injustices they see. In the next section, there are some ideas on taking action that your child may find inspiring. 
 

Preteens and Teens

With Preteens and Teens, you can go into even more depth with ongoing discussions, and you should. Read over the information above to get ideas about how to frame your discussions. Then share information and ask questions, beginning with:

  • How can we make sure that deaths like George Floyd's don't happen?
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., said "A riot is the language of the unheard.” He also believed that protests should be nonviolent. So he understood why people are angry, but he encouraged them to stay peaceful. What do you think Dr. King thought was the answer? Maybe that we need to all be better listeners?"
  • If you were in charge in a city and people were outraged and protesting, what would you do?
  • What do you think the responsibility of the police is in a demonstration? For instance, one video shows a man with his hands up in a surrender pose holding his press ID. The police responded by holding him down, pulling off his face mask, and spraying him in the face with pepper spray. Do you think that was the right thing to do? Why or why not? What should the police officer have done?
  • When something unfair happens and people are very angry, does it make sense to react by attacking the police department building? What about looting a nearby store? 
  • If you were at a peaceful demonstration and some people started to break into a store, what might you do?
  • Can you think of examples of our individual or group actions and perceptions being shaped by racist ideas that we might not even notice?

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. Brainstorm with them. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Join a peaceful protest in your town.
  • Donate to organizations trying to make change, protecting Black lives, or educating people about racism. Your teen can do the research to find an organization whose mission they admire.
  • Send a letter to your local mayor or government asking what they are doing to prevent police brutality in your town.
  • Send a letter of condolence to the family.
  • Watch Jay Smooth's Ted talk "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.

There are many resources online to educate ourselves and our children. Some listings to get you started are below. For most White parents, 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!

***

Thanks to the Children's Community School for the graphic used in this article and all their resources. If the graphic is too small to read, click here for the higher res version. (Thank you to Debbie Irving!)



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