How to talk to my kids about the Police
July 26, 2015 8:50 PM   Subscribe

My 6 year old daughter asked me this today: "Mommy, [therapist] said the police are our friends. So if I get a ticket I wont go to jail right?"

Some background
My kids (3 girls - 3, 4 and 6) have been learning about occupations. Well, my 6 year old has been learning about occupations because it's part of her ABA therapy - she's on the autism spectrum. Her sisters naturally have been learning alongside her.
Also - we're black in a neighborhood where we definitely stand out. Demographics are mostly upper middle class white/Indian/Asian (we live in a tech surburb).
Anyways, that got me thinking. How do I explain this to them given the state of policing of blacks in the US? I definitely do not think of the police as my friends. I've never been in trouble with the law. However, given recent events, I'm really NOT ready to trust my life or the life of my kids to the police.
How do I have "the talk" with them at a level they can comprehend? I do not want them to be afraid of the police but I do want to communicate that they cannot trust the police. This is extra hard given my daughter's diagnosis, since she is being taught to reach out to "safe adults" when in distress.
Please help me before I up and repatriate our black behinds to Antartica!
Oh - I told her and her sisters that i'd get back to them with an answer shortly.
posted by ramix to Human Relations (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
With my son, at that age, I started with "Police are our friends". This is important - any sort of trouble the kids run into, they should be able to rely on cops. Yeah, you and I know the reality is often far short of the ideal (see also, coaches and priests, etc etc etc.), but, mainly that is the idea.

That said, you could teach them to always ask for their parents to be there, and to not talk very much until you or dad are there, no matter what happens. Legally, police can't talk to kids without a parent present, but, you know how good cops are about procedure.

Personally, I would save that bigger talk for when they are older and more likely to have... unpleasant experiences with the constabulary. That is when it is important to teach them the "Never, ever, ever talk to the cops unless I am there with you" talk. Probably 10-11 years old. Thats when I started having that talk with my son, and I think it has served him (and his friends) well.

I dunno about kids today, but I learned in Jr. High that the answer to any question from any person of authority I did not know personally was "I dunno" and "I want my parents". I maybe ran with a rougher crowd, but point is, wariness can be useful. I was well served by it, and so was my son.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:01 PM on July 26, 2015 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Legally, police can't talk to kids without a parent present
This is false, at least in my jurisdiction. In many jurisdictions, it is legal for police to interrogate a child of any age without notifying her/his parents.

I think you need to talk to your kid's therapist. The therapist may be well-meaning, but may not understand that, especially in light of the racial dynamics involved, your daughter cannot be taught that the police are our friends and will not hurt us. The therapist should, if s/he is any good, be willing to work with your daughter in a way that respects what you as a parent are trying to teach her.

But yes, I agree with you that your daughter needs to get a different message about the police than the one the therapist is giving her. One way of talking about police that I have heard other parents I know and respect using is to teach about police the same way you teach about animals. Many animals are friendly and cute. Some of them, like horses or seeing eye dogs, help us. But some of them are dangerous, especially when they get scared of us. And when you meet an animal, you can't know just by looking at it whether it's a friendly, helpful animal or an animal that might hurt us. So we have to be cautious until we get to know each other better or until an adult we know we can trust (like a parent or a friend) tells us it's okay.

Your daughter in particular needs to be learning how to interact with police in a way that keeps her safe, because she has the dual risk factors of being a person of color and having a disability. Your daughter needs to learn how to avoid drawing the attention of the police, how to ask for help, not to answer police questions without a lawyer even if the police are being nice or claim they're trying to help her, and how to interact with police in a way that minimizes the risk factors she is carrying around with her. You need to work with her therapist to find a way to teach her what she needs to know. (And frankly, if you approach the therapist and the therapist doesn't understand what you're saying and immediately change approaches, I think you need to think about finding a new therapist.)
posted by decathecting at 9:25 PM on July 26, 2015 [95 favorites]

(I am a juvenile defense lawyer IANYL TINLA. I work with a lot of children with disabilities. I am not trying to scare you, but you have every reason to be very, very worried. Feel free to message me if you want to talk further.)
posted by decathecting at 9:27 PM on July 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think you might want to start with a different premise . "Friends" is extremely intimate and benign. Thinking of police as "friends" is entirely misplaced. "Police have a job" might be a better place to begin. Their job is to keep people safe. Most of the time they do this well. Sometimes they make mistakes. Always be careful around police, because the job they do is very hard and they have to make fast decisions.
posted by Miko at 9:52 PM on July 26, 2015 [66 favorites]

White mom of white (now adult) kids here. I can't speak to the heart of your question, but I've never been comfortable with the notion of "Officer Friendly", so I raised my kids to avoid and/or be skeptical regarding interactions with police.

When my kids were your daughter's age through elementary school, I told them that if they were lost or needed help to "find another mommy/mom to help you". The idea was that kids couldn't reliably choose a police uniform from other types of uniforms, not to mention the fact that they would likely have to go looking for a police officer, whereas there was probably a "mom" immediately nearby. In addition, I was a foster mother many years and I learned that getting authorities involved in even rather minor issues can ramp things up to an unnecessary and not helpful DCFS call in no time.

This doesn't really address the racism issue, I know, but might offer a way to ensure your girls know how to get help while minimizing police involvement.

When my kids got to the age where their interactions with police were more likely to be initiated by the police, rather than by them needing assistance of some kind, I started talking about the specifics regarding what to say and how to say it. (Very brief version—politely decline to answer all questions.) I flat-out told them that if/when they are being questioned, "the police are not your friends". They are trying to solve a crime and it was important not to become the victim of a police mistake.

Again, this side-steps the racism issue, but it does communicate the idea that they cannot trust the police.

It's a shame that in 2015 you have to have this talk with your girls—I thought the world would have gotten better by now.
posted by she's not there at 10:41 PM on July 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

I see a couple problems here: 1. you're uncomfortable with what your therapist told your daughter (and not a small bit angry, because it's b.s.), 2. you're not sure what to tell your daughter in its place to keep her from being harmed (and that's making you feel frazzled and time pressured), and 3. you're angry at society for being racist and ableist, that you need to have this conversation at all.

You have my internet permission to break with this (presumably white?) therapist. Her view is irresponsible. I can't imagine my own rage. Explaining how to navigate the police state as black women is likely to be a lifelong conversation between you and your kids, so don't worry if you don't have everything together right now, the perfect answer for them. You can even share your anger about the police, maybe sharing recent news events as you think is appropriate with them. I find that being real and vulnerable with kids has been the only way to teach them about charged subject matter like this. Nothing's to be gained by holding back, especially when police violence is escalating and they need to know without being traumatized. Seeing you as a strong protector might be a great way to bridge the two. There are lots of ways to do this. Here's a bunch of black different approaches published after Ferguson -- there are other people struggling just like you.

For research in the continued discussion with your kids, in calmer times, the material at Flex Your Rights is excellent for you to get a handle on the realistic and legal way to approach police encounters in these times - it distills all these issues pretty well into recommended actions, do's and don'ts. I know it's used in youth groups with young adults but your girls are pretty young to see this stuff. However, I think you can talk to them more skillfully with this in mind.

Also, the police's job is not to help or protect people - they have no affirmative duty to do so. If they do, well, that's extra credit.
posted by sweltering at 11:31 PM on July 26, 2015 [11 favorites]

This is a good question. I don't think I handled this issue super well with my (white) daughter because instead of having any formal discussions, I just talked a lot of crap about the police in front of my kid and she absorbed my attitude, in some ways problematically. So I guess I just want to voice that I think it's good you want to make a conscious decision about this.
posted by latkes at 7:26 AM on July 27, 2015

When they are too young to be anywhere with out an adult I think you give them the "go to a police man or woman if you are lost" speech.
Once they are old enough to be on their own then you give them the real talk about authority figures. This isn't just about black or white, either. When I was 11 year old girl I was kidnapped and assaulted by a policeman. I never told a soul.
"Police are our friends" is a stretch. "You can ask the police to help you because it's their job" makes me feel more comfortable.
posted by ReluctantViking at 9:37 AM on July 27, 2015

OK, my answer from the other thread:

So, the way I understood it as a child:
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, and not talk to them unless you need help, just like you have to be careful when talking to police officers. It is their job to help when you are lost etc.

If you do need help, tell them why, and tell your name, age and address. You always have to be polite. You not have to answer any questions other than your name, age and address.

For your child, I would add stating that they are Autistic. You want the cops to immediately know that they are dealing with a little girl (black children are all to often judged to be older than they are), and that she is Autistic.
If she does nothing other than default to repeating her details and that she is Autistic, that is probably the most appropriate thing to be saying to police officers in most situations.

In my own life:
When I was four, my mother and I were randomly stopped by customs officers, and held for several hours. I wasn't too concerned, as my mother had told me that this was sometimes a thing that happens [well, to people who looked like her], and it all happened just like she said. She turned something that could have been scary and traumatic into something predictable and beaurecratic. In all those hours, I refused to tell them anything other than my name, age, and 'occupation' - kindy kid, which made it into a good anecdote at least.
Appropriately preparing children for such situations in a matter of fact way does make it less stressful.

(ReluctantViking: That is heartbreaking.)
posted by Elysum at 12:26 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

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