Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Talking to kids about race: Tackling tough questions from Ferguson and Staten Island

Here are some tips on answering some of the tough questions that might arise in conversation with a child regarding the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York that have garnered ongoing media attention.

Today's guest blogger is Roger Harrison, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. He see patients in both the hospital and Nemours primary care settings. Among his special interests are conduct issues, ADHD and learning problems.

Last week, we explored the topic of talking with your kids about race. I observed that for many Americans, discussing race, racism, or events with racial overtones can be challenging, sensitive, and uncomfortable. This week, we will further explore the topic, sharing tips on answering some of the tough questions that might arise in conversation with a child regarding the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York that have garnered ongoing media attention.

As stated last week, there is no 'right' way to discuss race and no parent (or psychologist) will have the 'perfect' response to the tough questions. If your child is asking questions, they are ready to tackle this topic with you. Here, I offer several possible answers to some challenging questions.

Can you help me understand what's happening? Several unarmed Black men have died after having interactions with the police. Although the events are separate, they have brought up strong feelings for many people. We may never know what happened in all the cases because witnesses have told different stories. Many people are upset because they believe the police use excessive force when dealing with Black men. They want to make sure that the police treat all citizens the same way.

Why are they protesting? Many people in the community believe that the men were wrongfully killed by the police. We use peaceful protest to emphasize and repeat messages that we want our government and leaders to hear. During protests, people demand justice because they believe something unfair happened. We have had many positive changes in our country because of citizen protests. Unfortunately, not everyone who protests does it peacefully. Some people use the protests to steal, damage property, or try to hurt the police or others. Also, sometimes the police respond to protestors by being overly harsh. This usually makes people protest even more.

Is it because the men were black and the cops were white?  We may never know for sure. Sadly, in our country we have a history of Blacks and other ethnic minorities being treated poorly by police officers, even when they have not committed a crime. Many people have memories of being bothered by the police just because of their skin color. For a long time, it seemed that the police were never held responsible for these behaviors. Because of this history, many communities of color do not trust the police or believe that they respect them. Some police departments are working hard to change this opinion and build trust; some have not.

Why did the men (Michael Brown and Eric Garner) fight with the police? We may never know. Being a police officer is a dangerous job. Police can ask you who you are and ask to see identification. People should be taught to respect police officers and remain calm when talking to an officer. No one should threaten or assault a police officer. Likewise, police should be taught to treat all citizens equally and with respect. They should be trained to be sensitive to the communities that they serve. If a police officer kills a civilian, we want to make sure that deadly force was the only choice the officer had. Many people question whether these men had to die.

Did the police do a bad thing? Different people have very strong opinions about this. The police departments and many people defend the officers' actions. Two grand juries concluded that no crime was committed. The protestors and many others believe that the police actions were likely criminal and that they should be held responsible for what they did. They feel angry that the grand juries did not share this opinion. They continue to protest because they do not believe that our justice system protects all races equally.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »