Sebastian: Daddy, at so-and-so's party, so-and-so was playing with a toy gun and pointed it at me. You and mommy don’t like guns, right?
Me: Yes, that’s right, Sebastian. Your mommy and me don’t like guns. But, every family is different, and so some families allow guns.
Sebastian: So, if you and mommy don’t like guns, why do police have guns?
Me: Do you know what laws are?
Me: Laws are rules that people created about what you’re allowed to do and what you can’t do. They are supposed to help keep people safe.
Sebastian: Oh, ok.
Me: So, police have guns because sometimes, they need them to keep people safe when someone is not following the law.
Me: Do you remember what you learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. at school?
Sebastian. Yeah, he tried to help black people be the same as white people.
Me: Yes, good job; that’s called equality. He was trying to help black people be equal and treated the same as white people. He wanted people to not be treated differently just because their skin color was different. Does that make sense?
Me: Sometimes, police use guns on black people even when they are following the laws because black people are not treated equally like white people.
Sebastian, looking at his hands: Daddy, one side of my hand is white, and the other side is brown. And you are black.
Me: That’s right.
Sebastian: Does that mean you are going to get shot by a police, daddy?
Me: Yes, that is possible. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it can happen.
Me: How does that make you feel?
Sebastian: It makes me feel worried and sad.
Me: It’s okay to feel worried and sad. I feel worried, too, about getting shot by a police officer. If that happens to me, know that you have mommy, your grandma, your grandpas, your aunties and uncles, and so many other people who will help you and take care of you.
As kids often do, Sebastian then completely changed the subject to something else.
From the time Sebastian was born, I have believed strongly in not sugarcoating life and talking to him not using “baby speech,” but plainly, directly. and matter-of-factly. For some time now, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Sebastian says, “A daddy and a cop.” My heart flutters at the former, and I get a pit in my stomach at the latter. How do I raise a multiracial child to believe that if he is in trouble, he can ask a police officer for help while I also fear police and know the harm and death that these same officers have caused? How do I hold these two seemingly opposed ideas in the same space?
My belief is that I do so by not sugarcoating the realities of life. In this conversation with Sebastian, my heart felt compelled to connect police using guns to keep people safe to them also using guns at disproportionate rates on black bodies. I wanted to be the first person to tell Sebastian about this reality in my own words. Did he get it? Maybe? Likely in the way his six-year-old mind can. I knew in that moment, however, I did not want to soften my language around racism and police brutality.
I talked to Dr. Evans, my counselor, about this during our session this week because I wanted his ideas on what else to include in future conversations about this with Sebastian. One thing he offered was to help Sebastian see his agency in changing systemic oppression in policing. He said that next time I could tell Sebastian something like: “Even though this is how some police treat black people, we can still try and make a difference, and here’s how.” Also, I can read books to him that don’t have happy endings, so that he understands that life is messy and pain happens.
Ultimately, though, I believe strongly that we need not sugarcoat or make messiness neat and tidy for the sake of children (or, often, ourselves). Our job is to help them understand nuance, complexity, both/and, and to treat them like the knowledgeable, curious, observant people they are. We also need to validate their feelings and help them develop the courage to talk about hard and confusing feelings. When we sugarcoat difficult realities, we raise teenagers, young adults, college, and graduate students who fear difference, see oppression only as individual acts, are uncomfortable with nuance, and lack the skills to engage across differences. So, talk to the kids in your life about policing and criminality. Share plainly the realities. Engage their questions. And keep at it. We owe it to ourselves and them to be honest and persistent in our engagement with them about these topics.
So, what other ideas do you have? How have you had “The Talk” with the children in your spheres of influence?