Talking with African American preschoolers about the police?
February 13, 2015 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Part of my job involves reading books and discussing them with preschool students. Sometimes, when those stories feature the police, the tiny kids will talk with me and my coworkers about how cops are "there to arrest you" and about family members who are unfairly in jail. How should we respond?

We don't want to talk about cops as infallibly good or helpful people (since no group of people is infallible or always helpful). More delicately, we want to be thoughtful about contradicting the preschoolers' families (since some of them have told their kids about their negative or scary experiences with the police).

At the same time, it's crucial for kids to understand that cops are a resource and that they can help and protect them, especially in emergencies.

All of the preschoolers are African American and all of them live in Chicago, in a low-income neighborhood that has had a high crime rate and a fraught relationship with law enforcement for the last sixty to seventy years. The people in my program come from diverse racial backgrounds and from across the U.S., but tend to be young (18-30) and female.

We see and talk with the preschoolers twice a week, but only for about two hours each time, so we don't have the kind of immediate authority or intimacy with them that a full-time classroom teacher might.

Finally, most of the kids are 3-5 years old, which means they're just now grasping fundamental concepts like colors, emotions, how to wash their hands, how to open a carton of milk, whatever, and can't think about law enforcement in a complex or sophisticated way.

So, when we're talking about the police, what should we emphasize? Avoid? What kind of articles, research, books, videos, etc. have helped the tiny kids you know think about this issue?
posted by newtonstreet to Education (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sometimes, when those stories feature the police, the tiny kids will talk with me and my coworkers about how cops are "there to arrest you" and about family members who are unfairly in jail. How should we respond?

I'd say to the child something like "tell me about that" and listen and then ask them how they felt. And I'd probably take each story from them as it came.

But I'd probably ask how the kid felt, like if their Aunt was in jail, and hearing their stories when they come up, rather than directly say "sometimes police are on your side, sometimes they aren't." Because maybe that's both a hard concept to talk about with a 3 – 5 year old, and also something they're already learning outside of story books.
posted by zippy at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2015 [12 favorites]


Honestly, I think their parents understand the realities of what the cops are in their lives better than you and your colleagues could (unless you live in the same neighborhood and are of the same demographic). I think you can and should engage them in conversation, listen to what they are passing on from their families and their experiences, and maybe share some basic information (calling 911, what the job of the police is, etc).

At the same time, it's crucial for kids to understand that cops are a resource and that they can help and protect them, especially in emergencies.


That's not necessarily true for all people and it obviously contradicts the experience of many of their families. I think you should stick to listening to them, asking questions, and providing basic facts.
posted by bearette at 9:40 AM on February 13, 2015 [57 favorites]


Yes, agree with both zippy and bearette. If you try and teach them that "cops are a resource," the end result could be that they no longer feel comfortable asking questions and talking about emotionally challenging issues with educators. These kids already live in a world where many authority figures are dangerous - you don't want to add educators to that list.

I know you're trying to help, but in the big picture it's more important for them to feel safe with you and other adults than it is for them to (possibly falsely) think they can rely on the local police for assistance.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:48 AM on February 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


Can you whiff it entirely and just avoid reading them stories with police in them?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:48 AM on February 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


At the same time, it's crucial for kids to understand that cops are a resource and that they can help and protect them, especially in emergencies.

I'm with bearette--why, exactly? I have a five-year-old son and have not taught him this, partly because I don't think it's entirely true and partly because there is not actually any situation I can think of where it would be beneficial or important for him to trust the police. (The only situation I can imagine is getting lost in a crowd, or a natural/manmade disaster where we're separated--and even then I'd favor him finding another parent with small children.)

Without knowing exactly what your job is, I suspect it does not involve making these sorts of judgment calls in place of the parents and teachers who DO live with and raise these kids.

Finally, most of the kids are 3-5 years old, which means they're just now grasping fundamental concepts like colors, emotions, how to wash their hands, how to open a carton of milk, whatever, and can't think about law enforcement in a complex or sophisticated way.

As a developmental psychologist... the "concepts" of how to wash hands and open milk cartons are actually motor skills. Precisely due to their limited verbal and motor skills, you probably expect these kids to understand a lot less about the world than they do. That doesn't mean that they're ready for an adult discussion of racial bias in our police force, but they've certainly picked up on racial distinctions and some of the social and power dynamics that go with them.

My overall advice would be that you really don't need to discuss this particular thing with them. You're lost, they have other people better equipped to discuss it, and there are tons of benefits to story time that are not "learning whom to trust in an emergency." Focus on those!
posted by cogitron at 9:52 AM on February 13, 2015 [10 favorites]


These kids are young. Articles, research, books, videos, etc. won't sway them. They know what they see & feel, and they trust that.

The best I could suggest is to make sure your books show officers from all different backgrounds. If you can bring in an officer one day who just plays with them and acts normal (not stiff or lecturing) then this might get both sides to see each other differently.

If it is within your scope to do so, of course.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:54 AM on February 13, 2015


Nothing you say is going convince these children one way or another about the police. You do not spend enough time with them for that.

If you want to present a positive image of police officers, then select books that present this image. If a child says the police are about this, bring it back to the book - stay on the book. What did the police officer in this particular story do? What did the police officer say in this story? Stay on the book.

But, do not think for a minute that you can change their world view - or that their world view is mis-guided. Policing in the low income urban neighborhoods does not exactly have a stellar record over the last few years.
posted by Flood at 10:05 AM on February 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is none of your business and you should avoid the subject entirely in the class materials you choose.
posted by jbenben at 10:14 AM on February 13, 2015 [13 favorites]


As for family members who are unfairly in jail -- I'd say to just stay out of discussing criminal justice completely, and focus on helping the kids with their feelings and being sympathetic. "I'm sorry that your [family member] is in jail, that must be tough, how do you feel about that?

And however they feel, let them know that it's okay and understandable -- they may be sad, angry, frustrated, or scared, but they may also be kinda happy that they get to spend more time with [other family member] now and feeling guilty about that, or any other combination of emotions.

can't think about law enforcement in a complex or sophisticated way

Law enforcement comes down to fairness, though, and that's a concept for which little kids have plenty of complex ideas that they're learning to process and adapt. (Though I stand by my earlier recommendation to not actually discuss law enforcement specifically.)
posted by desuetude at 10:18 AM on February 13, 2015


Here's the thing about this. Let's say one of your kids calls 911, and let's say the police arrive and see two parents in an altercation. Then the parents get arrested and the kid is hauled off, either by a family member or off to a temporary shelter. To the kid (and to most folks here) this is not a good outcome. Bad things happened. Now, in the grand scheme of things, maybe mom and dad didn't kill each other that night, and that's ultimately great. But to kiddo, bad things happened.

So frankly, I wouldn't go there. Another thought would be to ask parents what THEY want you to teach children about the police. I think you'll get a bunch of different answers based on a bunch of different experiences.

I think teaching children to dial 911 in an emergency is great. I think talking about fire fighters and EMT/Paramedics is great. I'm a lot more nervous about bringing the cops into it, because so many of these kid's experiences will NOT be helped by the "Officer Friendly" stuff your materials are probably selling.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:21 AM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think it'll be helpful for you to try to explore these issues in the context you're describing. In Chicago especially, the CPD has a very, very bad track record with communities of color. Like, terrible, illegal abuse of power track record. Teaching kids that this isn't the case isn't valuable to them. Stick to other subjects that don't involve law enforcement.
posted by quince at 10:34 AM on February 13, 2015 [10 favorites]


Nthing avoid the subject.
posted by resurrexit at 10:34 AM on February 13, 2015


They might not be sophisticated, but these kids are definitely thinking about the police in a very complex way.

Listen to them. You do not have to work on the behalf of the police, unless they have engaged you as such. They have their own programs, their own approach. You're not representing them, you shouldn't confuse the kids by seeming to do so.

Ask them how they feel, listen to them. That's all you need to do, and it should be more than enough.
posted by RainyJay at 10:40 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hoo boy. If you are a preschool teacher who is a member of an outgroup in the midst of the south side of Chicago, I think the best outcome you can hope for is to teach them is that they can feel safe coming to you or another teacher if they ever feel unsafe. Leave the police out of it, stay away from initiating this topic with a ten foot pole, focus on feelings. "How did that make you feel? You can always come talk to me about your feelings. I care about you very much and I want you to be safe, happy, and healthy."
posted by juniperesque at 10:41 AM on February 13, 2015 [11 favorites]


Taking a look at prison numbers, and even a cursory watching of the news, I would suggest the kids are correct and aren't the ones in need of a reality adjustment.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:48 AM on February 13, 2015 [14 favorites]


This is one of those questions where I read it, thought about it, and made a mental note to come back to it, because if there's a good answer, I really want to know.

Having read the responses, I'm thinking the "answer" (such as it is) is some kind of compromise between zippy "listen to them" and jbenben "none of your business". Ie, brush it off if possible; if not, ask the child "how do you feel about that?"

Seriously. I can dig it that you want to help. But I think that this is a situation where you need to accept that you simply can't help.

A really interesting question, though; I'd like to shove it in front of James T. Kirk: "so you don't believe in a 'no-win scenario', huh? How about this?"
posted by doctor tough love at 10:50 AM on February 13, 2015


We see and talk with the preschoolers twice a week, but only for about two hours each time, so we don't have the kind of immediate authority or intimacy with them that a full-time classroom teacher might.

As a former teacher, this is what leaps out to me. You really don't have the authority or intimacy of a primary classroom teacher, so why are you trying to? Why take this difficult issue on in what sounds like a literacy-focused job rather than a life skills or personal safety education job? If you must read stories with police in them, I agree with the advice "stay on the book."

It's hard to understand what your job actually is without describing it, but it just doesn't seem as though you're equipped to be having this discussion, nor the right person to do so. Where are the teachers and school administrators are in this equation? Have you asked them this question? I would imagine they are the best guides as to what sort of discussion would be productive for their students, and probably would have some wisdom to share about centering your activities around student needs rather than what you're defining as "crucial" for them, which may reflect cultural bias on your own part. It's really the teacher's responsibility to determine the curriculum content for her or his own classroom, so they would be your best first resource.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe you could ask, "what would you do if you were the police?"
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:06 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you are part of the library bookmobile, partnering with the teachers and keeping the books diverse - mirroring community demographics- when you can, is helpful.

If a preschooler shares - and they DO share - model great listening skills. If they are not in distress, stay with the plan/your role for the two hours.

Would you change the content if one of them told you a parent slept on the sofa last night?

Families will abide. There will be times when preschoolers save the day by dialing 911 or need to reach out to a police officer.

Police force issues are addressed through training, internal affairs complaints and local civil rights agencies. Work with you elected officials to assure that these processes are supported, even if the person you voted for didn't win. They represent you.
posted by childofTethys at 11:31 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have experience as a mental health consultant and director for preschools and Head Start programs, so my answer is coming from that perspective.

It sounds like you work for Jumpstart (or a similar program) and your focus is literacy. Discussions about the police do not seem to fall within the scope of that job. The most appropriate action would be to choose books that cover different topics.

I think the answer to "how can teachers approach this subject" is quite different, and would need to consider agency policy, the agency educational framework, parental preference, and the individual child's maturity.
posted by MariJo at 11:36 AM on February 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Are the police officers in these stories white? Do you ever read stories about police officers who are of other races? Do you read stories about other emergency personnel like the fire department, EMTs, etc.? Could you have people of different professions come in and read stories? If so, maybe you could a non-white police officer in that rotation.

You may find chapter 3 of the book Nurtureshock helpful (some of the chapter is available in the preview).
posted by melissasaurus at 12:00 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Seconding cjorgensen. You're in a position here to learn some things about the police. Not saying you're oblivious, by any means, but from the mouths of babes can come deeper truths.
posted by LonnieK at 1:45 PM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hey friend! I'm a Montessori preschool teacher. When stuff like this comes up, I try to speak in the most simple terms possible. The job of police is to protect people and make our world safe. If they are not doing that, they're not doing a good job. I find that when kids ask about complicated issues, complicated and ambling responses are confusing to them. Not only that, but if even one non thought out aspect is repeated to parents, you could be under a lot of speculation. Ive spoken to kids in this manner about terrorism (a student from the middle east) divorce, and slavery. Simple is best. Hope this helps.
posted by Kestrelxo at 1:58 PM on February 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


One more thing to add- Kids at this age are mostly taking their opinions from their parents, so asking "how they feel" about something like this often regurgitates their parent's responses. Kids have told me they hate Obama. Or that they say that their favorite book is The Bible. With touchy subjects, being sarcastic or biased doesn't help educate them to be responsible, aware adults. I really enjoy the "Positive Discipline" books by Jane Nelsen. While it mostly talks about discipline styles, it also taught me more about how to put things in a way that children can comprehend. Also, Discovery of the Child by Maria Montessori.
posted by Kestrelxo at 2:27 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


At the same time, it's crucial for kids to understand that cops are a resource and that they can help and protect them, especially in emergencies.

No, it's really not. Because for many of these kids, cops are not a resource, and cops do not help them, and cops do not protect them, especially in emergencies. And it is not only factually incorrect, but actually dangerous, for you to teach kids this. Their lived experience or the lived experiences of people who live in their neighborhoods and families say otherwise. You absolutely should not devalue or contradict that.

I work with kids who are in the criminal justice system. I have known a number of kids who have been arrested, brutalized, given statements that ended up incriminating themselves, or gotten seriously hurt, because they wanted to believe that police are there to help and protect them. Adults taught them to cooperate with police, and it got them really hurt, because the police don't interact with them in ways that are trustworthy or kind or fair or safe.

I wish we lived in a world where police helped and protected poor children of color and their families. We do not live in that world, just as we do not live in a world where you can put your hands in the lion cage at the zoo and not get your arm bitten off, or a world where you can trust adult strangers who ask you to help them find their lost puppy. I wish we lived in all those worlds, where life was 100% safe and kids could just focus on having fun and learning stuff. But we don't. And so we have a responsibility not to mislead kids about what is dangerous.

You have a responsibility not to lie to your students. These kids apparently have families and communities are trying to teach them how to interact with police in ways that won't get them arrested or beaten or killed, and they're learning those lessons, just as they are learning about reading from you. Please do not tell these children that police will help them when, in fact, a lot of the time, that's just not true. At least not until the world gets a lot better than it is right now.
posted by decathecting at 4:28 PM on February 13, 2015 [15 favorites]


I was told that unless I was lost (in which case I say: I am lost, and also describe my mother), all I should tell a police officer was my:
* name
* age
* address
* and occupation (kindy kid!)


You can skip the last one, as that is from the list of things you were legally required to tell a police officer in New Zealand, where I grew up. Other than that, it is, am I under arrest? No? I am leaving.
Sidenote: it was terrifying to not be able to find what I was and was not required to do for a police officer in the US when I visited.

This was enough information for a 3 year old, and conveyed when I should speak with a police officer, ie in an emergency.
posted by Elysum at 12:03 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


P.S. As an adult, I have worked for NZ Police as an adult, a friend has worked for Orange county's Sheriff office in California. NZ police are about eleventy billion times more just than US Police (about which I am proud of for NZ, but heartbroken for the US), and that was still an appropriate amount of information and paranoia, for dealing with NZ Police at the time, and in the community where I grew up.

I posted the above, as this did not cause me to be fearful, instead, it was very matter of fact, this is how you deal with police.
It was explained that just like most strangers are actually good people, but you can't tell which ones are bad, so you have to be careful with all of them, you have to be careful when talking to police officers.
posted by Elysum at 12:20 AM on February 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


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