Talking about racism and the police with my 3-year-old son

Last week, I shared my recent experience with calling the police on behalf of an African-American man who was walking into oncoming traffic. The part of the story I left out was the conversation I had with my 3-year-old son, who was in the car at the time I made the phone call. After I hung up, my son asked, “Will the police come to help him, Mommy?” The question broke my heart and stoked my anxiety because I couldn’t say yes with confidence.

I replied, “I sure hope so, honey. It’s a police officer’s job to serve and protect everyone and it appears this man could really use some help. Unfortunately, that’s not always what happens.”

The conversation ended there because we were driving and my nerves were shot, but once we got home I realized I had missed an opportunity to speak directly to my son about the injustice brown and black people face at the hands of police. I had hinted at unfairness, but kept it vague and in retrospect, I could have taken my comment a step further by naming the man walking into traffic’s race and how that could affect the outcome of the situation.

Later that night, I perused my go-to source for talking to kids about race, Raising Race Conscious Children. As I hoped, author Sachi Feris published a post where she models speaking with her toddler about the police and injustice. I was on the right track with what I said to my son in the car, but as I suspected, I needed to name race within the context of the situation. I also spent some time on Raising Race Conscious Children’s strategies page to better prepare myself for the follow-up conversation I knew I needed to have with my son.

My son loves police, along with firefighters and paramedics. Any person who drives a car with a siren holds a special place in his heart, so we often talk about or play police in our household. Over Christmas, he received a Melissa & Doug “People who Work” set, which are wooden figurines that include a doctor, police officer, firefighter, etc. It also includes a black family and a white family who are labeled “neighbors”.

He asked if we could play police a week or so after I called the cops in his presence.

“You be the Daddy and call me for help,” he said, handing me one of the figurines. This was the perfect opportunity to try to explain the connection between racism and police conduct.

“You know sweetie, it is the police officer’s job to help people, but that’s not always what happens,” I said, repeating the message I had shared with him right after I had called the police. I grabbed the two male “neighbors”, one that was black and one that was white.

“Look, this man has brown skin that we call black or African-American. And this other man has peachy skin, like us, that we call white. Sometimes police treat people differently just because they have black or brown skin, and that’s not fair.”

“Okay, well you call me for help!” he said again. It was clear he was already drifting into his imaginary world. I tried once more to engage him and he let me know that he was not ready or able to absorb the information I was presenting. Or maybe he did in his own 3-year-old way and I just didn’t see that. Regardless, I let it go and we played out his police fantasy for the next 15 minutes.

I share this story even though it wasn’t a perfect interaction. I did not walk away from that conversation thinking, “you nailed it, Shannon!” Perhaps it’s just as important to show how messy these talks can be and that our kids aren’t always going to have a light bulb go off over their heads and shout “A-ha! I get it! Thank you, Mommy!”

My son is young, so I have to strike a delicate balance between sharing information about injustice and privilege while meeting him where he is not only developmentally but in that particular moment of that particular day. Sometimes, my son and I can talk about meaningful things for quite some time and I walk away thinking, “Wow! Did that just happen?” Other times, I try to engage him in a simple dialogue around what he’d like to eat for breakfast and it’s as if he doesn’t understand English.

Parenting is a long game and knowing that this is one of many conversations I will have with my son about race and racism, it was ok we didn’t go into much depth. The message was put out there for him to hear and build upon in the future.

Has anyone else had a conversation about the police or injustice with their children? I’d love to hear about it below.



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