How to Talk to Kids About Police Violence
Yes, we need to talk to kids about Tyre Nichols and systems of oppression.
Some of you may have noticed that today’s newsletter is a little late, and that’s because I needed some time to report this one out. I’ve been angry and heartbroken since the video of Tyre Nichols’s murder was released on Friday, and over the weekend, I talked to both my kids about what happened.
The conversation was hard for many reasons, but as I’ve written here before (and in my book), it’s crucial that we talk to kids about racism and oppression and everything that happens in the world because of it. Of course, parents of Black children *have* to have these conversations; I have the massive privilege of raising children who don’t experience racism or need to be afraid of the police, but they do need to understand how broken our country is and that they should do everything they can to change it. (For more on the science that supports *why* parents should talk to their kids about racism and police violence, read this newsletter.)
Plus, it’s possible that kids will hear about what happened from friends at school or through the media, so it’s important that parents start conversations to address any misconceptions kids might have.
But how should we talk to our kids about what happened, and how might our framing differ depending on our child’s race and ethnicity? Today I interviewed Raquel Martin, a clinical psychologist who works to empower and educate people about mental health, anti-racism, Black identity development, and health disparities & inequities, and Isha Metzger, a clinical psychologist who directs the EMPOWER lab at Georgia State University. They shared many insights on how to have these conversations, even with young kids, and how to balance negative and positive messages. What follows are the key points they made. Be sure to also check out the resources they shared with me at the bottom of this post. I’m immensely grateful for their help.
Aim for a dialogue, not a lecture.
When engaging with kids on big, gnarly topics, parents sometimes launch into monologue mode, because there’s a lot they want to say. But Martin encouraged parents to make space for children’s thoughts and questions, too.
No matter how you talk about what happened, pause regularly to ask for input or questions. Ask your child what they think, or whether what you’re saying reminds them of anything, Martin said. Remember, too, that if they ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, that’s okay. Suggest trying to find out the answer together, or say that you need some time to think about it and that you’ll revisit the topic again soon.
Talk about racism. With little kids, frame it in terms of fairness.
Ideally, before talking to your child about Nichols’s murder, you will have already had some conversations about racism. If not, that’s OK — today is a good day to start! If you’re not sure how to talk to kids about racism, consider tapping into the concept of fairness, because if there’s one thing kids care about, it’s fairness, Martin said. You can say that racism involves some people treating other people unfairly because of what they believe about skin color.
You could even invent a child-friendly scenario to help illustrate just how unfair racism is, Martin said. You could say that racism is like telling people who were born with blue eyes that they never get to eat any cookies, don’t get access to any cookie-making machines and don't get to learn how to make cookies. How unfair would that seem?
Point out, too, that racism has been around for a very long time, and that although things have slowly been changing for the better, there’s still a long, long way to go. Highlight what society should be working towards: “Emphasize the fact that people are different, and that we should treat everyone with respect, and that everyone deserves kindness and everyone deserves basic human rights,” Metzger said.
Explain how racism leads to police brutality.
A simple way to describe police brutality is by saying that police officers are meant to protect us but that in some cases, they abuse that power. Some, but not all, police officers hurt people they should be protecting, and that is not okay, Metzger said.
Then you can segue into what happened to Tyre Nichols. You might tell your child that Tyre Nichols was a 29-year-old Black man who was beaten by police officers after he was pulled over in his car and that these beatings ultimately killed him. How much detail you provide is up to you (and the age and maturity level of your child). It’s important to emphasize, though, that what happened was absolutely unacceptable.
Martin said that it’s also important to talk about the breadth of racism-fueled police violence and misconduct — that it’s not just about murder. It’s about watching Black people more than white people, pulling over Black people more than white people, speaking more harshly to Black people than to white people, and beating Black people more than white people. You can explain that sometimes this kind of police behavior is fueled by fear — that some police officers might be afraid of what Black people will do because of their beliefs about Black people. Because they’re afraid, they may respond with more force when interacting with Black people, but this response is unjustified and unfair. You could say that some police think Black people are dangerous “because they got wrong information, and the wrong information just keeps getting passed down,” Martin explained.
Sometimes, kids may ask: But aren’t police officers allowed to use force? Isn’t that part of their job? Martin suggested that parents could respond that yes, sometimes police have to use force to keep people safe, but that this force should be reserved for situations in which it’s the only option. You could say, “Lethal force, hurting people, it's never the first thing you're supposed to do,” Martin said. “Just because they have these weapons doesn't mean they’re supposed to use them.”
Martin made another important point, too: We should blame racism for what happened, not race or ethnicity. It’s not that people are treated unfairly because they have dark skin — it’s that people with dark skin are treated unfairly because of other people’s unfair and inaccurate beliefs. If we as a society blame race or skin color, Black children may internalize that they are treated poorly because something is wrong with them. But “it’s not them — it’s racism,” Martin said.
With older kids, talk about systems and rules.
When kids are in middle elementary grades and above, you can introduce the concept of systems, Martin said. Talk about how the police force is a system with rules and habits that police are expected to follow, just like schools are a system with rules and habits that teachers and students are expected to follow. In the police force, some rules and habits are racist. So even though only some police officers may behave in unfair and racist ways, many people are mad at the police force in general because, as a system, they should be doing more to change their rules and habits. “If it's not fair, then we need to change the rules, and they're not changing the rules,” Martin said.
I asked Martin and Metzger how to explain to a child why most of the police officers who beat Tyre Nichols were Black. Kids may understand racism as typically being white-on-Black, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Once again, you could bring in the concept of systems: The Black officers were operating within the police system, where they may have felt pressure to fit in and behave in racist ways. “At times, we oppress each other,” Martin said. Also, you can explain that people who are themselves treated badly sometimes lash out and treat other people badly too — “hurt people hurt people,” Metzger said. (Another thing you could point out: That the white officers involved in the murder were not publicly called out nor punished as harshly as the Black officers were.)
When talking to Black kids, explain what they can do to try to stay safe.
If you are parenting a Black child, you’ve probably already had a number of conversations with them about racism and police brutality. Without question, you know much, much more than I do about how to have these discussions.
When I asked Martin and Metzger for their input, they emphasized finding a balance between reactive (negative) conversations about oppression and proactive (positive) conversations about hope and change. When talking to Black kids about Tyre Nichols’s murder, Metzger said it’s also important to emphasize that what happened was unacceptable and that “that despite their skin color, they have the same rights and are deserving of equal treatment and protection,” she said.
Martin said that, growing up, her mother taught her and her brother the “three R’s:” Don’t reach, don’t react, don’t run. She said to be sure that your child has memorized a parent’s phone number by heart, too, because if they end up in jail, they won’t be able to use their own phone.
Metzger suggested also talking to Black kids about how to emotionally regulate themselves in potentially dangerous situations through deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
In addition, parents should educate kids that they do not need to consume media that scares or traumatizes them, Metzger said. “When it comes to the imagery, it is really important to say, ‘Okay, you don't have to consume that. You can unplug if it becomes too much.’” Encourage kids to mute hashtags, not press play on distressing videos, and take regular media breaks, she said.
Although difficult, these conversations can also be empowering, Metzger said, because by telling kids what they can do, we help them feel more in control.
Talk to kids about fighting racism and oppression.
No matter what the race or ethnicity of your child is, it’s crucial to talk to them about ways in which they can fight for change. Share with them the things you do to make a difference, such as giving money to organizations that fight injustice, donating your time to important causes, and attending marches or protests (and if you feel safe doing so, bring your kids along). Kids learn based on what we model for them, so if we show them that these issues are important to us, our kids will care about them, too.
Discuss concrete ways they can fight for change at school and in their community, too. Could they give some of their allowance money to a cause? Educate themselves by reading books about race and racism? Speak up and defend peers who are being treated unfairly at school? Remind them that movements are made up of individuals, and that every person makes a difference.
“It’s important, when we talk about speaking out and raising your voice against injustice, to talk about the fact that you do have a very powerful voice,” Metzger said.
Here are some resources Metzger shared that might be useful:
Here’s a free online C.A.R.E. package that includes tools and resources to help Black teens explore racial identity, racial socialization, relaxation, emotion regulation, cognitive coping, and behavioral strategies for coping with experiences with racial stressors.
Here’s a free Racial Trauma Guide that defines and provides strategies for coping with racial trauma.
Here are more online resources for parents, caregivers, researchers and clinicians, including books, podcasts and articles.
In this week’s Parenting Advice Hot Take, I’m discussing this Instagram post from pediatrician Phil Boucher, which has more than 700 likes:
Here are my thoughts.