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Here are a few ideas on how to talk to kids about race, police, and protests

Jul 8, 2016

Early Tuesday, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Just a day later, a Minnesota traffic stop turned deadly Wednesday evening, when a police officer opened fire on 32-year-old Philando Castile, killing him.

In both cases, cell phone video of the incident or its immediate aftermath quickly circulated on social media, fueling anger, grief, and protests over the police officers' actions.

Both men were black, and the incidents are reminiscent of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Staten Island.

And Thursday night, five Dallas police officers were killed, and seven were injured in a sniper attack during a peaceful demonstration protesting police violence.

This week of tragedies is hard to deal with, and can take an emotional toll on most adults. But what if you're a kid? How do we talk to children about things like police brutality, protests, and inevitably, about why race matters in these situations?

Talking about race can tough, and can be tempting to avoid. According to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, white families are three times less likely to discuss race than families of color. But talking about it is important. KJ Dell'Antonia wrote for The New York Times:

There is plenty of research suggesting that children notice race early and that, given the opportunity, they tend to choose friends who look like them. They even draw conclusions about the fact that every president they have learned about is white until now — and they don’t necessarily go ask parents about that. If we’re not talking with our children about how race affects a person’s life in the United States and how racism factors into that, we’re not convincing children that skin color doesn’t matter. We’re telling them to figure it out themselves.

Talking about race and police is often unavoidable for families of color. Parents of black children, including the mother of Castile, often say they teach their children lessons like how to deal with police, or "how to survive a traffic stop."

So where do you begin to talk about this week's events with your kids? I thought I'd share a post from the International Business Times, which suggests three approaches to keeping your child calm and informed: Time it right, seek resources, and set a good example:

Time it right

Laura Markham, who founded Aha! Parenting and also trained in clinical psychology, wrote that age should determine how in-depth your conversation is with your child.

In general, she said, toddlers and preschoolers shouldn't be around adults' conversations about intense news events like Wednesday's. You should tell kids between 6 and 9 the basic facts of a police shooting and answer their questions as you see fit, emphasizing that guns can be dangerous and children should obey police. With older kids, facilitate discussions about the judicial system, racism and respect. Be prepared to revisit the topic later and tailor your discussions based on your child's individual experiences.

Yesha Callahan wrote for Clutch in 2012:

How do you explain to little black, brown and yellow boys that not all police officers are bad? I tried to explain to my son that there are officers out there who genuinely take on that career choice because they want to serve their community, but that there are also some out there who abuse the privileges that are given to them, and because you’re never able to tell which one you’re dealing with, that it’s always best to respect the fact that they are 'authority' figures.

Seek resources

After Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2011, social media users put together a Ferguson syllabus to help students learn about the shooting and subsequent protests. You can also take cues from this spring episode of "Blackish."

Or pick up a copy of "All American Boys," a young adult book with the following summary:

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to stay still as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins — a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan — and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team — half of whom are Rashad’s best friends — start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.

Set a good example

Michael Oberschneider, director of Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services in Ashburn, Virginia, told DullesMoms.com that parents should be sure to embody the principles they espouse to their kids. If you tell them to respect authorities, make sure you respect authorities. If you tell them to speak up when they feel unsafe, speak up when you do, too.

You can also encourage your kids to take action, as Chuck Creekmur wrote for Madame Noire in 2014:

The next rally, I’m taking my daughter with me. She’s far more aware than I was coming up. She notes when a police officer turns on her/his flashers just to run a red light, for example. She sees these as minor daily injustices. She knows police are supposed to follow rules, too.

My daughters are fairly young, but probably old enough to understand the basics of what's going on. But I will admit, I often shield them. I like that they still live with a mindset of innocence and naivety, and I'm in no rush to change it.

So, most importantly, do what you feel is best for your kids.

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