Talking to my 4 yr old about the murder of a 12 yr old

Over the weekend a twelve year old boy was shot and killed by police officers in a park in Cleveland. In a playground. Where he was playing with his friends. He had a toy gun, so some do-gooder onlooker called 911, and said “it might be a toy, but he has a gun,” or words to that effect. When police showed up, they didn’t identify themselves, they didn’t say “hey kid with the gun, drop the gun,” they didn’t give him a chance. They used their very real guns to shoot him with very real bullets. And now he’s dead. C and I listened to a news report about it on Monday. We both heard the news at the same time. C looked up at me. “Can you tell me what happened to that boy mommy?” “The police shot him,” I said.

“Why’d they shoot him?”
“Because he was playing with a toy gun.”
“I don’t know.”

We have some waffles.

He asks again. “Mommy can you tell me about that boy?” I try to put this into context. I try to put it into context but not so that it makes sense. I don’t want to make it make sense because it does not make sense. I do not want to assist in the creation of a narrative in which police officers being afraid enough of a twelve year old boy with a toy gun that they shoot him dead makes sense. I give C the facts. They don’t make sense to him. They don’t make sense to me either. I am careful not to explain the situation in a way that grants otherness to the murdered child, or sanctuary to the offending officers, or safety in the world at large. I tell him not to play with toy guns. I tell him to be respectful of people. I tell him to avoid police. I tell him if his friends have toy guns, tell them not to play with them, tell them to avoid the guns as though they were toxic. Friends don’t let friends play with toy guns, especially not in playgrounds.

Children are getting killed out there.

C runs out into the street without looking for the light, without checking both ways. I grab the hood of his coat and he falls back. “Think it through,” I say, “don’t run around just doing things, think them through, decide what you want to do, decide how you want things to go. THINK.” That’s what I tell him. That’s basically my entire parenting message: think it through, make a decision, own the consequences.

I don’t know how to talk to my son about race. Living where we do, he sees people who have difference skin tones than he does all the time. Our neighborhood, and his school, is filled with Chinese, Arabs, Central Americans, Mexicans, Italians, Russians, Norwegians, Africans, white people, black people: Americans and immigrants. Talking to him about how God made all people to look different from each other and made all people in his own image is easy. “We are all reflections of God and his love.” I can do that. The problem comes when trying to talk to him about prejudice, racism, bias. Those are not things that make any sense. When I tell C about things in the world, typically what we are doing is constructing a world view, constructing a narrative in which we place ourselves. I don’t want racism to be a thing in his world, but it is. I don’t want him to place himself within the context of prejudice, but inevitably, he will have to. Do I present the world to him as the way I wish it were or the way it is?

Lately there’s been an argument made that we ought present the world to our daughters as we wish it were rather than how it is. We are meant to tell them that they have the right and the freedom to wear whatever they choose, to wander wherever they please in whatever mental condition they find themselves, and that those who are responsible for their safety are the would-be rapist men who do not have the right to interfere in any way with a woman’s privilege to do and appear and behave as she pleases. This instructs women to interact with the world as they wish the world would be, ignoring the reality of how it is.

What do we tell our children about racism? Do we tell them to interact with the world as though racism does not exist? Or would this be akin to putting blinders on their small little faces so that when they inevitably encounter racism, and racists, they won’t even know what they are looking at? Now that seems irresponsible, both to the child and their friends and eventual lovers and families, and to the American landscape at large, letting my son go out there blind to racism and its perils would make him a defender of a status quo he does not recognize as perpetrating inequality.

Do I tell him that there are bad people out there who perceive those who are different from themselves as lesser? Is that where we start? If so, how do we recognize these bad people? What do we do when we encounter them? Do we yell “RACIST!” and point fingers and scream and call the police? If not, then what? Can I present to him a condition of the world about which we can take no immediate action?

Mostly when I tell him about things I tell him what we can do. But maybe even those things– people are hungry, so we participate in a food drive at school; children need clothes and coats, so we give away what we’ve grown out of; toys for tots, etc.– are not so much about action that we can take as a perspective that we can have.

I don’t like problems that cannot be solved by taking action.

This is the part where I’d come up with some small action to take that would appease me into thinking I’ve solved this problem for today, have some little part that I can do, and let it go, go crawl under my desk, take a nap.

But equality doesn’t work that way. The only way I know how to frame it, for my son, for myself, is in terms of love. Every individual on the earth is here because of God’s love. Every person in the world is a living example of God’s love. Every human being is a vessel of God’s grace. What we need to do is try to love everyone with God’s love, knowing that we never can, trying, failing, trying again.

C woke up in the middle of this post and took a picture with me before going to play legos.
C woke up in the middle of this post and took a picture with me before going to play legos.
Photo on 11-26-14 at 6.51 AM
I convinced him to have a smile.


3 thoughts on “Talking to my 4 yr old about the murder of a 12 yr old

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