Help Me Talk to My Son About the Police
April 12, 2016 9:59 AM   Subscribe

ParentFilter: My five-year-old son has a lot of questions about the police. (Also the army, but mostly the police.) He wants to know who the police are, why do they come, who goes to jail, are the police the good guys, do they get the bad guys -- that sort of thing.

On the one hand, he's asking because he wants to know if he and the people he loves are safe (we basically are), or if anyone is coming to take us to jail (they're not). But/and, as white parents raising our kid in a mostly brown-black neighborhood, we don't want to give our son an answer that fundamentally reflects his blond-and-blue-eyed status -- we want to give him information that also reflects the experience his friends and their parents (of all races) might have.

Any ideas about how to do this in a way that a little kid can understand?
posted by janet lynn to Human Relations (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Virtually every police department has an outreach program for kids. But at 5 years old, you're probably better off with a cartoon-level experience.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:05 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I found this article by googling 'how to explain police brutality to children'. Maybe that'll be helpful?
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:05 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

We're in Baltimore and my son was 6 when the uprising happened last year. This on the tail of hearing about Michael Brown and other police brutality cases led us to the same spot. It's complicated and it has ended up being where several streams of our conversations have flowed together. I've also realized that it's going to be a complicated conversation that takes place over years. Basically, I've taken the tack that police (and firefighters and soldiers, etc.) are brave people who choose to do a job to help others and to keep them safe. They are human beings, though, and are prone to making the same mistakes as the rest of us. We've had quite a few discussions about race over the years and have talked about stereotyping, so I have examples of when he and I have made mistakes about others based on their appearance. Police might make mistakes like that too, especially when they are in a very scary situation and their feelings get very big and they aren't able to stop and think about what they are doing. Sadly, their mistakes sometimes lead to people being hurt or killed, so it's important that we all keep an eye out for each other and that police get very special training and support to ensure they are helping people the way they and we want them to.

The other piece of this is that I think it's important to answer exactly what the child is asking. Just like with birds and bees talks, I stop and ask "Why do you ask?" or "What made you think of that question?" so I can be sure to give him just enough information. Too much is overwhelming and hard to understand. Good luck and I'll be following this thread for ideas as well.
posted by goggie at 10:17 AM on April 12, 2016 [24 favorites]

I grew up hearing about The Time My Dad Got Arrested, which is in fact The Time My Dad Objected to Police Brutality and Was Charged with Resisting Arrest, But Avoided Conviction By Invoking Massive White Privilege (advice from family member in law school, Italian suit from stint teaching abroad, etc.) There's a lot of complexity in a story like that.
posted by yarntheory at 10:32 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

My mom taught me that the police are given a really, really big responsibility and they sometimes forget to be "nice" because they deal with scary and dangerous people but they never know who's going to be scary ahead of time. So prove that you aren't scary: always move super slowly, show them your hands, say "yes sir," put your car keys on the dashboard, etc. Then usually they're pretty nice.

She also taught me that you have to tell the police who you really are but that you shouldn't answer other questions without a lawyer because again the police think you might be dangerous and so they aren't necessarily "nice."

I was also allowed to watch a lot of Perry Mason, and later on Law & Order. You should probably not do this (at least not L&O.).

My mom's dad was the source of most of this; his family was dirt poor in the South but then some of her cousins ended out being sheriff's deputies. Then mom found out about libertarianism, and heard my other grandpa talk about the Red Scare and being a POW in Spain and yeah there are issues with "authority" in my background.
posted by SMPA at 10:37 AM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Ask your son's teacher if you can help coordinate a meet your local police officer event at his school. All children need to be taught that police and firemen are okay people. The last thing that you want in an emergency is for your child to flee from the people who are trying to save him. Leave the negative stuff for when he is older.
posted by myselfasme at 10:41 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Basically, I've taken the tack that police (and firefighters and soldiers, etc.) are brave people who choose to do a job to help others and to keep them safe. They are human beings, though, and are prone to making the same mistakes as the rest of us. "

This is what we've been telling our kids too, and that if the police are making a mistake you do what they tell you and you tell a responsible adult such as a parent or teacher what you witnessed at the earliest possible opportunity. We are lawyers and a lot of our friends and relatives are lawyers (including some defense attorneys who do a lot of police brutality cases), so my kids are pretty clear that when someone gets arrested that's just the beginning of the process, not the end, and that when things slow down you get to talk to a lawyer and lawyers are there to help you if the police made a mistake.

I also think it's helpful in the general sense for kids to understand the police not as an end unto themselves but as part of a system that tries to make good decisions. Police make sure the immediate situation is safe, and then they give all of their evidence to the district attorney, who investigates whether there was a crime and decides what to do about it. And there are defense attorneys who help even bad criminals. And there are judges and juries who decide what should happen if someone has committed a crime. And so on. And how all these people are subject to community oversight in various forms.

(We are still presenting an idealistic view of how everyone in these systems is trying to do their best, both because the people that we as a family know in these systems really are, and because I figure there's plenty of time as they get older and start to understand nuance for them to learn the many bitter truths about the failures of the justice system that their relatives and friends are engaged in fighting back against.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:50 AM on April 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

I like what goggle suggests. I also agree I'd be straightforward and simple --

1. I would say that police are supposed to protect other people, to keep things safe, and to solve crimes. That's their job.
2. Explain that police officers are people, so they aren't all the same, just like not all the teachers in school are the same. Some are nice, some are mean, some are smart, some are not as smart. Most police officers do their best but they do make mistakes. Also, police, like everyone else, are sometimes not as fair to everyone as they should be. So, most of them try to be the "good guys" and "good women" but not all, and they aren't always right.
3. In terms of why the police come, the answer to that is usually when people call 911 for help, the person who answers the phone sends out the police officers to talk to the people who called. Sometimes the police come because they see something happening and they think there is a problem or maybe a crime.
4. People go to jail when the police think they committed a crime. Also, sometimes the police make mistakes and take people to jail because they think they did something wrong even though they didn't.
5. In terms of whether police get the "bad guys," I'd really slow down to explain that although people shouldn't break the law, not everyone who does that is a bad guy. Sometimes people are accused of breaking the law when they didn't. Sometimes people break the law for a good reason (for example, to protest wrong behavior.) Sometimes people who break the law are sick, not bad.
6. I'd also say that there is a problem still in America treating everyone the same, regardless of their skin color. The police have problems with doing that too.
7. Lastly, I'd give your child a little advice. First, always be polite to the police. Never run away from them or argue with them. But if they start asking questions, you should ask them to wait until your parents get there. If a bad thing happens and you need emergency help, do call the police, by dialing 911.
posted by bearwife at 11:51 AM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

My five year old went through a stint where she was, after seeing the sheriff arrest a drunk and disorderly at our park, extremely afraid of the police and in particular the thought that the police were going to take us to jail. We had a good friend who is high up in the sheriff's department and we asked him if there was a way to engage her with some kind of outreach, and he said that the outreach is geared towards middle school and up, but he sent one of his younger officers to our house to meet her. He was awesome - he sat and talked to her about what his job was, about how he did his job, about how not everyone did their job the same way. She asked a lot of questions, including whether they would arrest her dad for drinking beer or me for not driving too well (telling! ugh!). He was very good about saying that not all police are good, the same way not all people are good, but that MOST police are good, just like most people are good. They talked about whether she could ask police for help if she was lost (yes) and whether she could call 911 to get help if she was in trouble or saw someone in trouble (yes). She, insightfully, asked if she could call 911 if she thought the police needed help or if the police were in trouble or if the police were causing the trouble (yes, yes, and yes). It was really interesting.

At the time, she was just starting to also ask a lot of questions about race. But I don't think at the time she was ready for a conversation about how that plays into things with the police or public. She's almost seven now, though, and given the conversations we have had about the Republicans, she understands nuance in a way she didn't at five, and we should probably revisit this.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:53 AM on April 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

The K-9 officers of our local county sheriffs department often take their dogs to elementary schools to meet the kids. I think that makes a tall person in a uniform with a gun more approachable. You can also ask at your local departments about mounted patrols. The horses will be huge for a 5 year old of course but they are super calm and used to random people coming up to pat them and talk to them.
posted by Beti at 12:40 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

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