I didn’t intend to tell my son anything at all about Ferguson. I considered it something to share with children only on a need-to-know basis, and – as far as I was concerned – there was no reason for my 7-year-old to know what was happening.
He saw the footage purely by accident. After a day spent at a museum on our last day of vacation in Vermont, he curled up on his grandmother’s couch to watch a recorded episode of America’s Got Talent. When the show ended, the channel defaulted to the local six o’clock news and images of the Ferguson riots were flashing on the screen. “What is happening?” he asked me, his eyes fixed on the television. “What is going on?”
Not planning to have this conversation, I hadn’t given any thought to what I would want to say to him. But I did know it wasn’t a conversation to have around his little brother, who was playing Legos on the floor, paying no attention at all to the television. “Let’s talk about it a little later,” I told him.
As I tucked him that evening, I wondered if he had already forgotten his question and considered not bringing it up. I knew that would be my husband’s preference – simply gloss over it and say as little as possible. But he was back home in Pennsylvania, and I was here with my boy who had asked me, point blank, “What is going on?” So I asked if he still wanted to talk about it. He did.
“Well, the people you saw on television were rioting. Sometimes, when people are very angry and frustrated, especially if a lot of angry and frustrated people are together and maybe they don’t feel like anyone is listening to them, they show how angry they are by rioting. They start fires or break into stores and take things.” Maybe that is all I would need to say.
He was quiet for a moment, absorbing my words. “Why were they doing that then? I mean, what were they mad about?”
I could have given some vague, dismissive answer. I didn’t. I don’t know if that was right or wrong. Back when I worked as a therapist and before I had kids of my own, I firmly believed that parents should protect their children from “grown-up” issues. But there is a part of me now that thinks maybe it is also okay to expose them to the darker side of the world in small (age-appropriate) doses and let them absorb it slowly into their understanding of life, rather than let it come at them all at once later on.
So I explained that a police officer had shot and killed a young man. I told him that the police are allowed to shoot someone if that person is dangerous and likely to hurt the police officer or others, because the police are responsible for keeping the community safe. But this young man did not have a gun and people were very angry that he had been killed. They were especially angry because they thought that the police officer might not be punished for what had happened.
And I stopped there. Because there was one last part I could not tell him. I chose not to tell him that people are angry because the young man who was killed was black and the police officer who shot him is white. I chose not not tell him that it was not the first time – there have been numerous unarmed black men killed by police or vigilantes who perceived them as “dangerous” – and that people are furious that it continues to happen. I chose not to tell him the role race has played in Ferguson, Missouri. What good would it do to tell my 7-year-old that truth?
I imagined the questions that would follow:
“Could the police shoot Daddy like that?”
“Would they kill me or my brother?”
I could not let those thoughts enter his mind. My heart broke at the very idea.
It is one thing to explain to a child that sometimes people are judged or treated differently because of the color of their skin. It is another thing altogether to tell a child that those judgments sometimes result in death, especially when it has direct implications for his safety and the safety of those he loves. The first is unfair. The second is terrifying. I won’t let my children be terrified. Not yet. Not unless or until it is inevitable.
We instead talked about how sometimes the line between right and wrong is a blurry one. That is plenty for a little boy to try to wrap his head around.