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How To Talk with Your Kids About Charleston

It can be hard to know what kids are ready to hear about racism and violence. When? How? How much? These are hard conversations, but necessary ones to build a society where everyone is truly safe and respected. For the next four days, Do Justice will be interviewing a different parent each day about the way that they have spoken about Charleston and similar racial issues with their children. 

Today we're hearing from Anissa Eddie, mother of two young sons in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

1. What phrases do you use when explaining racism and hate crimes--like what happened in Charleston--to your kids?

Our oldest son, Malachi, is six. We have not introduced the term racism to him yet. In fact, we are just barely starting to have conversations related to the topic. After the Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, I had my first intentional conversation on the topic with Malachi right before our family went to a Black Lives Matter rally. I told Malachi that a teenage boy was killed by a police officer and we were sad that he died. I said we were going to the rally to show people we were sad about what happened and to give support to the family and friends of the person who died. Malachi asked why the police officer shot the person. I said I didn't know for sure, but it seemed like it was a bad choice that could have been handled in a better way. I told Malachi that police are supposed to be helpers, but sometimes they make bad choices that don't help people. I said that when that happens, it is important to say that it is wrong and remind them that they are supposed to be helpers. We made a sign together for Malachi to hold at the rally that read "I want to trust that police will be my helpers."

2. How do you comfort your children and offer them hope when faced with situations like this?

Malachi has been curious, but not very upset by the situations we have discussed so far. I believe this is because the few conversations we have had have been presented as very distant from him, and are not seen by him as directly impacting his life. I have been hesitant to talk about things that might specifically evoke fear in him. For example, I did not talk to him about the shooting of Tamir Rice as I thought that could be too scary for him to think of a child getting shot while playing at the park. That would be a situation that would directly relate to his current life experience.

As I think more about it, maybe I didn't talk to him about it because the thought of how relatable it was actually scared me too much. Even though we do not have toy guns, our boys turn things like Legos and sticks into guns--it is almost unavoidable. We are very strict to not allow them to point any type of pretend gun at people, but they still "play shoot" imaginary zombies and monsters. As our conversations continue over time, my heart wants to constantly reassure Malachi that no one will ever mistreat him or wrongly judge him due to the color of his skin. I want to promise him that he will never have to fear physical harm because he is black and that he can always trust the police. But, these reassurances and promises would not be the truth.

The truth is that there is a very high probability he will be mistreated or wrongly judged because of his skin color. There is a chance he could be physically harmed because he is black, and he will most likely need to interact with police very cautiously. As his mother, I have the responsibility to convey these truths to him while at the same time trying to help him develop a strong self concept and an unwavering sense of self worth. This is a heartbreaking task that I am only just starting to embark on with my son (and one day, his younger brothers).  

3. What were your kids' questions?

Malachi was in Kindergarten this year, and his class talked in depth about Martin Luther King Junior. He was proud to report that MLK had done important work so that kids could all go to the same school, eat at the same restaurants, and drink from the same water fountains no matter what color they were. We reiterated the important progress that has been made, but also told him that there are still many unfair rules that do not treat black people with kindness. We emphasized how it is important to talk about rules that are unfair and work to change them.

Malachi also learned that black people historically came from Africa. Last week, he asked me how black people got to the United States from Africa. I hesitated for a second, but went on to give him a very introductory lesson about slavery. Those are the kinds of questions he has brought up on his own. I initiated the conversation about Michael Brown, and more recently, I told him about the church shooting in Charleston. I sat him down and told him that I had heard some news that made my heart very sad. I told him that a group of people in South Carolina had gone to night church (how we refer to Bible Study) and a new person came to read the Bible and pray with them, but after a while the new person took out a gun he had and shot people. I told him nine people died. He put his head down and was quiet for a minute. Then he asked if Uncle Jeremy got shot (my husband’s brother lives in South Carolina). I told him that Uncle Jeremy was not there. His next question was if any kids were there. I said I didn't think so and told him no kids were killed.

His questions showed that his immediate reaction was to create context using people he knew and age groups he could relate to. He then asked why the new person shot people. I said that the new person was white and he didn't like black people. I said the way he was thinking was wrong, and that he made a bad choice. I wondered if Malachi would ask more about why some white people don't like black people. But he didn't. If he had, we would have talked about how there are many white people who love black people. I feel that Malachi knows that from his relationships with friends and family, but I'm sure we will talk more about it later.

I told him I wanted to tell him about what happened so we could pray for God to hug and comfort all the people who were sad and hurting about what happened, and also that God would help the person who made a bad choice to have love in his heart. Then, we prayed together. Malachi prayed about it again later that night before dinner, but didn't bring it up after that. I don't know if it made sense to tell Malachi about the Charleston shooting or not, but I guess my motivation is to start having these conversations early so that they can gradually become more complex as time goes on.

My hope is that these early conversations will make learning about reality less shocking since the information will build in layers. I hope that Malachi will be contemplative about these issues and regard them as important to talk about. I want him to feel like asking questions is welcome, and grappling to understand the tough parts is expected. I want him to build empathy for others and learn how to pray for those who are hurting even at his young age.     

4. What are you hoping other moms are telling their kids, particularly moms who are raising kids whose race is different from your own?

I hope that other moms, especially white moms, are talking about these issues and pointing out ways of thinking that are wrong, choices that are bad, and actions that are unacceptable.

I hope they are teaching their children to see other people's pain and validate it.

I hope they are praying about these issues with their children and teaching their children to pray in the same way.

More subtly, I hope white moms are looking at their kid's classrooms, church groups, birthday parties, books, toys, etc. and examining the level of racial/ethnic diversity that exists in all those places and things. I believe that a significant part of racism is based in fear that comes from "othering" and lack of relationship. You do not have to directly teach racist beliefs and model blatant racist behavior in order for children to develop racist tendencies. Human beings naturally fear what they don't know and more easily discriminate against groups of people who have no personal connection to them.

I want white moms to be honest in conversation and intentional about incorporating diversity into their lives through modeling and relationships. I need to know that white moms are teaching their white children to be actively anti-racist so that the hope and sense of value that I instill in my black boys will be validated, not only by communities of color, but also by those in the white community who stand in solidarity with all people.  

[Image: modified from an image by Lennert Tange]


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