Very often, I encounter people who wonder how to explain very difficult and supposedly adult matters to young children. Readers should know that I am not an early childhood expert; mostly, I am a parent of young children whose professional work and studies for the past 21 years has significant overlap and contact with the work of experts in early childhood development. That gives me a slight advantage, but I would not claim expertise in this subject area. This is how my wife and I approached explaining to our very young children, Eric Garner and the problems too many of our fellow New Yorkers have with the police department.
Our first premise from a very early age has been to be honest with our children but to seek framing that is within their actual experiences. Cultural conservatives often seem convinced that same sex relationships and families are fully beyond the understanding of young children, but that seems far more tied to their unwillingness to call such families, well, families. This was easy for us; my uncle and his husband are raising three of our children’s cousins, and we traveled to Vermont for their wedding. For several years, the apartment next door to ours was home to a gay couple raising three children. It was simple enough to explain to our children that some families have a mommy and a daddy like ours while other families have a daddy and a daddy and others have a mommy and a mommy. Other families may have a mommy or a daddy, and others still have grandparents, aunties and uncles helping — there are all sorts of families. When our daughter was old enough to want to know where babies come from, we added that understanding to our explanation of families. Not so difficult.
Explaining death was actually harder. When our daughter was almost 4, my wife’s grandmother died. Unsure of what our daughter could comprehend on the subject, we decided that she had to know, but that we would rely upon the wisdom of Sesame Street whose production team decided to take the death of actor Will Lee to teach children about death through the eyes of Big Bird. In the scene, the adults have to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died and that he could never come back. They assured Big Bird that the other grown ups would still be there to take care of him, that they were lucky to have known and loved their friend, and when Big Bird demanded to know why things have to be this way, Gordon tells him “Because.” We talked in terms very much like these to our daughter to explain to her that her great grandmother had just died. At first, we were not sure if she had understood, but the next day, she took the large stuffed toy goose that her great grandmother had made for her when she was born and carried it with her for the next week. She understood.
So there is a principle at work here — when faced with difficult situations and concepts that may be hard to comprehend even as adults, talk with very young children honestly and in terms they can comprehend within their own experiences.
The news of the past two weeks has provided another opportunity. With protests against the grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases continuing, our children, now in early elementary school, have encountered another difficult to understand situation regarding justice and racial profiling. Both my wife and I are contemplating whether planned marches this upcoming weekend are events we want to go to as a family (my wife already went to a protest at Foley Square on the second day of protests). And on Sunday, I was walking the children home from having gotten haircuts when we saw this:
I fumbled a bit as I tried to explain why that small group of people were singing hymns as they walked up the sidewalk — and why there were 3 police cruisers tailing what was likely a group of Unitarians who had just gotten out of church as several religious leaders across New York City had pledged to do. So we sat the four members of our family, myself, my wife, our older daughter, and younger son, around our dining room table to discuss the situation. I did not keep a verbatim record, so this is from memory.
I began by asking my daughter if she remembered anything about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her MLK Day class last year. She thought for a moment, and she told us that he had fought to change bad laws and that he wanted all people to be able to sit “at the front of the bus” so he organized people to not use the buses anymore until that changed. We told her that she was correct, and that that was the Montgomery bus boycott which was part of a whole movement to change laws that were unfair to people.
The next part of the conversation was difficult. Our children go to public school in New York City, and they have classmates who are African American, but while we have told them about Dr. King and his work, we never framed it as an issue of racism. To break down their “innocence” on the existence of racism was hard to do, and I was reminded of the characters of Scout and Jem from “To Kill a Mockingbird” coming to realize that they lived in an unjust society. I’ve always liked Atticus Finch, so I jumped in.
“Honey, what we’ve never told you is why Dr. King had to do what he did. Have you ever noticed that some people you know have darker skin and others have lighter skin?”
They both said yes.
“The laws Dr. King fought against were ones that said that if you had dark skin, you had to sit in the back of the bus, or you could not go to the same schools as other children, or go to the same hospital, or shop at the same stores. A lot of people back then thought that people with dark skin were bad and should not be able to live with people with light skin, and they passed laws to force people to live like that. And a lot of people came together and fought those laws and changed them, and that’s why we honor Dr. King today — because he worked so hard to make our country a more just place.”
Our daughter asked if certain classmates of hers might have skin dark enough to be treated badly by those laws. We told her that was probably true — but then warned her she could not talk to them about it because it was up to their families to explain this to them when they think they were ready. We also explained that people whose ancestors came from European countries were often called “white” and that people whose ancestors came from Africa were often called “black.” Our son was perplexed by this and held up cup of milk and said “But THIS is white!” Pointing to his own skin, he said “This is kind of peach.” My wife very lovingly affirmed his observation, but tried to explain that was how people talked even if it wasn’t exactly accurate.
We still had to explain the march we had just seen, however. “Even though Dr. King changed a lot, everything isn’t all better. Last summer, there was a man named Eric Garner — you should remember his name, kids. He was approached by some police officers because they thought he was doing something he should not have done.” Our kids asked what that was. “They say he was selling cigarettes on the street, and you aren’t allowed to sell cigarettes unless you are a store, and he wasn’t allowed to do that. The police wanted to arrest him, but they were too rough with him, they used too much force, and this is very sad, kids, but Mr. Garner died even though he wasn’t fighting the police. And a lot of people, a lot of people, think the police should not have done that, and your mommy and daddy agree with them.”
At this point, our daughter began to look very sad, but we kept explaining.
“And just this week, it was decided that the police who were there when Mr. Garner died won’t have to have a trial in court to answer for what happened to him. And that’s made a lot of people even more upset and angry, and they have been protesting this all over the city.” I felt like I was stumbling, but decided to explain why this case was so difficult for so many people. “The reason why this is all related to Dr. King is that a lot of times, some police are not very nice to the people with darker skin that they meet. In neighborhoods were a lot of black people live, some police are too rough and stop a lot of people who are just going about their day and that’s wrong. So people are saying that those police need to change, and that it isn’t good that a lot of people feel like they cannot trust the police. Do you remember how we’ve always told you that if you are lost or in trouble you can go into a store or up to a police officer and ask for help? Well, you still can, but there are a lot of parents in this city and all over the country who wonder if they can because they don’t think the police will help them. We need that to change.”
I could tell that our daughter was wondering if any friends of hers were affected by this. Our son was dumbfounded. He told us that “Some police officers have dark skin. How can they treat people with dark skin badly?”
My wife affirmed his observation, and she agreed with him that it “didn’t make sense.” She also told both of them that most police “are good people who took the job because they wanted to help people, and they do help people every day. But some of them do the wrong thing and we should not let them do that, so it is important to say something when wrong things happen.”
I also told the children that it was okay for them to still trust police, and that they should trust police and listen to them. But at the same time they had to understand that “not everyone is going to have the same experiences that you have. You have to know that because you live in the same city and the same country as people who really do wonder when they can trust that police will protect them. And we should all make certain that we do whatever we can so people aren’t treated badly because of their skin color.”
Our daughter agreed and said that the mayor should do something about it. My wife agreed with her, and explained that he was trying to do something about it. “Did you know the mayor’s wife is black, so their children have dark skin. The mayor was talking to the city about how he and his wife have had to talk to their children about what to do if a police officer ever treats them badly, and there are a lot of other parents in the city who have the same talk with their children. All the protesters this week are saying it shouldn’t be that way — no parents should have to have that conversation with their children.”
So our children have their blinders to racism removed, and time will tell just how much it impacts their thinking, but we cannot pretend they are innocent of it anymore. And while it is painful as a parent to feel obligated to do so, it is far, far more painful for the 100s of 1000s of children of color in this city who grow up not knowing if they can trust the police to protect them or to persecute them…and for their parents who have to teach them the world is thus. We discussed it with our children so that they can begin to understand the unjust differences between their expectations in life and the expectations of their schoolmates. We discussed it because this cartoon by Ben Sargent describes those differences far too well:
And if our children are going to ever help change that, they need to know about it. They can understand it. We need to know how to talk to them about it.
Which is a lesson, as a teacher educator, I need to be more active in promoting among my own students who will some day be teachers and whose practice of good stewardship will be vital for their future students. Thinking about their own experiences, how they differ from so many of the young people in their care, and preparing to stand up for the dignity of those students inside and outside of school? I have read many over the years who argue this is not the job of teachers, much like many argue young children cannot understand such complex issues. Young children can — and teachers’ defense of their students is one of the most important tasks they can undertake. It is all vital, and it is all related.