How to talk to your kids about racism and social justice.

In the following conversation, a mom talks to her Black son about his fears and feelings after a shooting of a Black youth. She coaches her son’s emotions in order to help him feel and be safer – and shares age-appropriate context and information about the root causes of racism and discrimination.

Excerpted from When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids by Abigail Gewirtz, PhD. (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2020.

Even when scary events happen far away, they are likely to be far more resonant to some families because of their race, culture, or religion. And in those situations, parents find themselves with needed, but not wanted, opportunities to explain how their children, who are more likely to be exposed to these events, can keep themselves safe. I turned to my colleague, Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, for her wisdom in how to relay difficult social justice concepts to children. Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya is a well-known community activist and psychologist who uses an African Centered Wellness Model to empower black parents to model and teach violence prevention and holistic wellness to their children. The following conversation and debrief, as well as the opportunities for dialogue that follow, were developed together with Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya.

Willie, a fourth grader, attends an urban elementary school. Last week, the shooting of an unarmed boy by police in another town attracted national news coverage. Like Willie, the boy was black. When Willie overheard his parents talking about it, his mother was asking, “Don’t you think it’s time to talk to him about this?” He burst into the room where his parents were talking.

Willie: What is it “time to talk about”?

Mom: Willie, were you listening in? You know how we’ve talked about private conversations!

Willie: I wasn’t listening in! I just was walking past. And you two were talking loudly. (He smiles.)

Dad: Well. (Looks at Mom.) Guess it is time. (Mom nods.) Willie, we were talking about something bad that happened to a kid a little older than you last week in another city.

Willie: You mean when that cop shot a kid who was playing with a BB gun?

Mom: How did you know?

Willie: Duh, Mom. Don’t you think everyone knows? That’s all anyone’s been talking about in school.

Kids often know more about scary events than adults are willing to contemplate. In this case, Willie is up front about that awareness.

Dad: Please don’t talk to your mother that way. So, tell us what the kids have been saying?

Willie’s parents know they can set limits with him without stifling conversation.

Willie: Well, some kids said he was shooting the BB gun at the police and other kids said that’s not true, he was just playing in his own yard and the police just shot him. And some kids said he deserved it, and other kids said the cops hate black people.

Dad looks at Mom. He’s getting agitated, so Mom motions him to leave the room. It’s helpful to have two parents (or caring adults) in the room for a conversation like this. Tag-teaming allows one adult to leave temporarily if a break is needed.

Dad: I’m just going to get some water.

Mom: Sit down, Willie. Sounds like you’ve been hearing a lot of stuff and it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not. And you probably have some feelings about all this, too. I know I do.

Mom is shaken to hear such disturbing thoughts coming from the child she still thinks of as her “little boy.” But she remembers her first goal is to listen to Willie, not react, and help them both identify and regulate their emotions.

Willie: Could the cops shoot me? Or Anthony? He has a BB gun.

This is the central worry for most children: Could it happen to me? Willie is prepared to be direct about it, but many kids won’t. When that happens, the conversation must follow a more winding road.

Mom: It sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?

Willie nods.

Mom: I would be scared, too, if I were you. Most kids would be scared to hear about something like this happening to somebody their age. How did you feel when you heard about it?

Mom is normalizing Willie’s fears (“Most kids would be scared”) and validating them (“I would be scared, too.”).

Willie: In the beginning, I didn’t understand what they were saying— it was mostly big kids, and it was on the bus home from school. And then they said he had a BB gun, and then one of the kids said, “This happens all the time to black kids. Nobody’s safe.” And then I got really scared. And Darryl said his mom doesn’t let him play outside anymore. Is it safe to play outside?

Mom: You must be really pretty scared hearing all that. Where are you feeling it?

Mom is reflecting Willie’s fears and giving him an opportunity to identify how he feels, and where in his body he feels it.

Willie (points to his stomach): Butterflies. My feet felt really heavy— like I couldn’t move—like if I would need to run, I wouldn’t be able to. And I felt tight, right here. (Pulls his mom’s hand to his throat.)

Mom: Those are pretty good signs of feeling scared!

Willie: Why did that happen, Mom?

Mom: That’s a great question, Willie. We don’t really know everything that happened or why. All your dad and I know is what was on the news. It’s true that the boy who was shot had a BB gun, but it doesn’t seem like he pointed it at the police. We just don’t have details. A lot of people are working on finding out what happened. Although you heard about this, it doesn’t mean it happens often. Police are there to keep us safe, and mostly they do. Sometimes—not often—police make a mistake.

Willie’s “why” question puts Mom on the spot. She just answers in the most direct way she can, omitting details that might distress Willie further or confuse him at his age. For instance, she doesn’t get into how the boy was shot or if he was badly injured.

Willie: That’s a pretty bad mistake! How could that happen?

Mom: Again, that’s a great question and it’s hard to answer. The police sometimes get called and have to respond really quickly. Maybe someone called them and said, “There’s a man pointing a gun at someone.” The person didn’t tell the police, or didn’t know, maybe, that it was a BB gun or that it was just a kid holding it. The police have to respond super quick, and maybe they don’t see that the person is just a kid, and/or that he has a BB gun and not a real gun. And maybe when they yelled at him to drop the gun he turned around or he didn’t hear them or he was holding the gun in a way they thought was pointing at them, and they shot him. There are many possibilities. People, when they’re scared, even police officers, do make mistakes, because being scared sometimes stops us from thinking clearly.

Mom doesn’t want to shut down the conversation or make Willie feel there are questions he can’t ask. Her main message is that fear can cloud judgment. Of course, this may not be what happened, but in the absence of facts, she feels that the best way to begin to respond to Willie’s “how could this happen” question is to assume that it was a terrible mistake.

Willie: That’s pretty scary to think about.

Mom: Yes, it is, because these things are more likely to happen to black boys and men than to white people.

Mom sees here an opening to begin sensitizing Willie to the increased risks facing black and brown boys and men.

Willie: Why?

Mom: Unfortunately, there’s a long history of racism in this country, starting with slavery. You know, because we’ve talked about slavery. And even after slavery was over, there were rules that separated black people from white ones. They could not attend the same schools or sit anywhere they wanted to sit on the bus or at the movies. They couldn’t even use the same bathrooms or water fountains.

Willie: That was so unfair! Why did they do that?

Mom: It happened because the white people who were in charge of everything wanted to stay in charge and so they made up rules that would show favor and respect to people who looked like them, while at the same time making rules that would disfavor and disrespect black people or other people of color. It went on so long that eventually people started believing that people who were white were much better than people who were dark. And so now, sometimes people still make assumptions, even unconsciously, about black kids. Like assuming they’re more likely to get in trouble than white kids. Police are human like everyone else . . . so sometimes they do it, too. Although most white people who become police officers want to help kids and families, sometimes they do not treat everyone the same simply because of their race. In the case of our group, they may automatically assume that we will commit a crime or that we have already done something wrong. Our job is to make sure that when we interact with them that we show respect and give them no reason to think that we are dangerous. Listen, Willie, you’re nearly a young man and so there are some things you need to know to stay safe. First off, you must always stop when someone like a teacher or police officer tells you to. You must never, ever run away from a cop. You should keep your hands out of your pockets. Never make any sudden movements or quickly reach for objects that may be mistaken for a weapon (like a comb, brush, wallet, or cellphone). And we won’t let you play with BB guns because they look too much like the real thing. But if you were ever to use one, like when you get to be much older, our rules would be that you could only use it in a special shooting range, so nobody mistakes it for a real gun.

Mom and Dad have decided this awful incident will be the first opportunity to teach Willie how to to minimize his risk of being victimized by the police or other authorities. Willie watches a passing cloud out the window for a moment, not saying anything.

Willie (bringing his eyes back to his mother): OK, Mom, but is it safe to play outside?

Mom: Yes, it’s safe to play outside. But you know I don’t let you play in the street because of cars passing. I want to know where you are, and you always have to be home by six.

In this situation, it’s necessary for Mom to set limits with Willie. She’ll reiterate these family rules as he grows up.

Willie: But I still feel scared, Mom.

Mom: When bad things happen to people like us, it makes us think those bad things could happen to us, too. I get that you feel scared. I would feel scared, too, if I were you. But there’s another piece to this, too. Think about how often you—and all your friends—play outside.

Willie nods.

Mom: And think how often something has happened to one of your friends. Has one of your friends ever been shot by the police?

Willie shakes his head.

Mom: And have you ever heard of anybody in our town being shot by the police?

Willie: No.

Mom: That’s right. So it’s an uncommon thing and unlikely to happen.

Mom ends by helping Willie frame this scary event in context. Terrifying though it is, the likelihood of it actually happening to him remains small.

Willie: OK. (Mom hugs him.)

Mom used this situation as an opportunity not only to coach Willie’s emotions in order to help him feel and be safer, but also to share information about the root causes of racism and discrimination. She did this by briefly explaining, in words that Willie could understand, how our history of slavery and segregation casts a long shadow on our society.