Every night, my husband, son, daughter and I join hands in a prayer circle before bedtime. We made this a habit every night since the COVID-19 outbreak placed us in quarantine. Each of us says a prayer out loud.
“Lord, Black Lives Matter. And please keep us safe from police.”
That was the prayer of my 9-year-old daughter, who asked God for protection from those whose primary responsibility is to keep us safe.
My husband and I wait until the kids go to sleep to watch the news. We have every childproof safeguard in place to monitor what our daughter sees online. How does she know what’s happening?
My daughter was playing the popular online game Roblox this past weekend while 12,000 demonstrators peacefully marched in our home city of Newark, New Jersey. Her competitors are friends she knows in real life whose accounts we’ve vetted. One player posted “Black Lives Matter” in the chat feature during the game, which started a discussion that she showed me right away. Some kids agreed. Others wrote that they didn’t care.
It was time for the talk. I planned to have discussions with my children at some point about what it means to live as citizens of color in America and how to respond when various threats arise. I just didn’t anticipate having the talk at that moment, especially when I’d just had to have a separate discussion about the coronavirus and why we haven’t visited grandma in more than two months.
We’re raising our children to have a strong sense of self and knowledge of their Caribbean, Hispanic and Asian ethnicities. But I didn’t think I would have to broach this subject — how the color of their skin could work against them despite their rich cultural heritage — so soon.
“I asked my daughter what her first thoughts were about police. She said they were going to arrest her. When I asked why, she said she didn’t know, but that’s what they do.”
But my daughter needed to know why mommy has been getting teary-eyed more than usual lately. I needed to hear what she thinks and how she feels about the little bit of exposure she’s had to what’s happening. Her innocent prayer signaled that it was time.
I found myself ill-equipped for having the talk with my children. Like many parents, I went to the internet for strategies on how to engage and educate them. Based on what I found and what I was comfortable with, my husband and I decided that the best approach would incorporate a non-hostile message of honesty, love and grace. In addition, we recognized that we needed to identify support resources (such as counseling or therapy) should our children need them.
My daughter’s school, led by a Latina principal, set the table for the discussion. The school canceled homework and all other virtual activities to give families a Mental Wellness Day on June 1. Her class has been reading the autobiography of Ruby Bridges for the past few weeks, so that was a perfect and heartbreaking starting point. The events that happened when Ruby Bridges integrated a white school in New Orleans are still happening right now. Today, Ruby Bridges is 65 years old.
I explained that Black people in America and around the world have been treated unfairly for centuries. Many people who look like us feel angry and tired. We just want to be treated as what we are. Humans. That’s why many people are in the streets with signs. That’s why we have to speak up and demand civil rights. Instead of listening and trying to understand, some people who are not Black and many people in power are dismissing and trying to suppress what we have to say.
Nickelodeon also helped with our intimate talk. That same day, the children’s cable station disrupted programming and listed a Declaration of Kids’ Rights on screen. When my daughter asked why the disruption was for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, I took a deep breath and told her the truth in one sentence. A police officer put his knee on another man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he couldn’t breathe anymore. Her face scrunched with disbelief and disgust.
I asked my daughter what her first thoughts were about police. She said they were going to arrest her. When I asked why, she said she didn’t know, but that’s what they do. I explained that there are good police and bad police. The discussion about changes needed in the law enforcement and justice system will come later. This conversation was just the first of many.
To help us lay the foundation for our discussions, it’s important for me to continue planting the seeds of self-worth, self-knowledge and cultural awareness. Those seeds are watered by reading books that talk about cultural differences and celebrate them, giving my children creative outlets like art that reinforce self-love, and watching kid-friendly television programs with them, like “Sesame Street,” which hosted a town hall on racism for kids on June 6.
I will also continue to take my kids into the voting booth with me so they understand the importance of civic engagement and how their vote is one of the most important tools they have to share their voices.
My friends of color are also struggling to bring up the topic of race and the nation’s tense climate with their little ones. How early is too early to bring this ugly truth about America to their innocent minds? How can I make this conversation age-appropriate?
“My son will need to know that people may not treat him fairly. He may not be seen as beautiful, intelligent or equal. He may even be perceived as a threat without having said or done anything.”
My 5-year-old son is just grasping the concept of addition versus subtraction. How am I supposed to explain what he should do if he sees someone following us around in a store? How do I get him to understand that, no matter how successful he is, there will be people who will feel threatened by him because he is a Black male? It’s my priority to protect my children not just physically but mentally. He’s too young to break that fragile wall of innocence.
I thought about all of this as I watched my 5-year-old take his first swing on the playset my husband and I built in our backyard. Playgrounds remain closed due to COVID-19. We’ve tried to make life as enjoyable for our kids now as it was before quarantine.
My little boy laughed and swung so long that he fell asleep on that swing. As he sat there peacefully napping, I couldn’t help but wish that I could keep him in a protective bubble forever, but I can’t. I will have to have a discussion with him and my daughter about what to do if they are ever confronted by police.
My son will need to know that people may not treat him fairly. He may not be seen as beautiful, intelligent or equal. He may even be perceived as a threat without having said or done anything. And the worst part is that some won’t even acknowledge their part in a widespread system that will hold him back from being the amazing human God put him on this Earth to be.
I am raising my children in a world that may write them off by color before they even open their mouths. Or worse. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer while playing in a park with a toy gun in 2014. Seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was shot in the head by a Detroit police officer during a raid on the wrong house in 2010. Gianna Floyd is missing her father. During a recent TV interview, her mother said she had told Gianna that Daddy died because he couldn’t breathe. George Floyd’s daughter is 6 years old.
The night following our talk, my daughter thanked God for her life, her family, her friends of all colors and her right to be heard.