It’s breakfast time when the news anchor goes lives to Louisville, Kentucky, where a reporter is talking about the days of unrest after a grand jury failed to bring charges against police officers for the murder of Breonna Taylor. As the reporter talks about marching in the streets and nights of arrests, protest b-roll loops in the background. Faces filled with pain and rage march by and the camera lingers on a homemade sign:
“A cop killed Breonna Taylor and was only punished for the bullets that didn’t hit her.”
The cereal o’s get soggy in bowls of milk. Kids entranced by the screen ask questions, or they don’t. Suburban life is briefly haunted by America’s ongoing trend of refusing to punish police for killing black people.
The anger of racial injustice, demonstrated on city streets and examined by the media, has spilled into our homes and the spaces where our children live and play. For parents of conscience, who are seeking a better country for their children, the current circumstances may feel like a teaching moment.
Some parents see the news of police getting away with killing someone in their own home as the perfect time to start a conversation about morality and justice with children. Others may hesitate, seeing fear cloud the eyes of their TV-watching or radio news-listening kids. Plenty of parents have no choice in having the conversation, as they’re put on the spot with hard questions: Why are people mad? Why hasn’t anyone been punished?
For all parents, talk of police violence, justice, morality, and racism are deeply fraught. Kids aren’t adults. Their thoughts are complex, sure, but they lack experience. Without the adult frame of reference, this discussion ground is littered with traps. Parents have to tread carefully lest they want their kid to panic every time they see a cop or be introduced to concepts like extrajudicial murder which they will not be ready to comprehend. Going into these conversations half-cocked and unprepared can lead parents to tie themselves into logical knots, or leave them stranded in cul-de-sacs of moral relativism that will undermine their parental authority.
There is a way to make these conversations easier. The solution lies in making sure that your family life is structured around a strong set of values or moral code. It’s even better if those values have fairness at their core. Because in order to discuss justice, there must be a foundation of justice in the family.
Children learn about justice from home. That means the way you set rules and discipline in your house matters. If you oversee your children with arbitrary rules unrelated to values and enforce them with impunity, without meaningful oversight or accountability, what’s to stop your kid from connecting you with the larger injustices in America?
It becomes easier to talk to about why powerful people should be punished for heinous crimes when you can hold up how the rules are created and enforced in your own family as an example. It’s easier to address why police need to follow the same rules as everyone else when rules are applied equally in your own home without special provisions for the more powerful people.
Religious traditions and spiritual values can be leveraged here too. Every major religion and philosophy has teachings dedicated to justice and righteousness — none would suggest the killing of a black woman in her sleep was justifiable. None would suggest that there is not a penalty for taking the life of another human.
Your insight should grow with your child. When they are small, the fundamental question is one of fairness which any Kindergartner worth their salt will be happy to discuss. Fairness is justice. But it’s also really important that we not only know the rules, we also know what is right and wrong beyond the rules and act accordingly. Yes, moms, dads, teachers, and police have power and authority, but with that authority is the responsibility to do the right thing, morally, and not just follow the rules.
In middle school and high-school, children can begin to process more complex themes. Most children this age can start wrapping their minds around bigger questions: Who gets to make the laws? Who are the laws meant to benefit? Are all laws moral? What can and cannot be mended by legal justice?
For older kids, the lack of punishment for the police who killed Breonna Taylor can be made central to the issue. It’s not just about the police doing the wrong thing and getting away with it, but how laws are changed. Parents can talk about how protest is a way to change the rules for those in power. They can address how the rules can be used to abuse power on one hand and to punish the powerless on another. They can stress the importance of voting and how Americans ultimately have a say in keeping those who make the laws accountable.
Is there a flow-chart or outline that will suit every child? No. Parents will need to follow their children’s lead and answer questions honestly, in the most age-appropriate way. And more importantly, admit when they don’t have answers.
Questions about injustice are hard. Not just because they make us feel awkward and uncomfortable, but because we sometimes have no frame of reference or ready knowledge. When you’re stumped by a question, it’s important to acknowledge that. Then follow it up with the magic words: “Let’s find out together.”