When the shit hit the fan in Baltimore last week, you most likely viewed it through a TV or computer, but Joe Jones had a front row seat. His Center For Urban Families sits directly across the street from the funeral home where Freddie Gray was eulogized, which is just a few blocks from the Mondawmin Mall where the violence erupted. A father of three and grandfather of three more, his life’s work is stopping the cycle of single-parent families that plagues inner-city America and he’s on a first name basis with much of the community that’s been affected by Gray’s death and the subsequent protests and riots. Jones has a lot to say about how you talk to kids when their first encounter with the country’s income and opportunity gap is the news media’s breathless coverage of kids throwing rocks and cops in riot gear, but his first piece of advice is the most simple: Don’t assume they don’t know what’s going on.
Figure Out What Your Kid Knows And Work Within It
Your kid is going to be exposed to way more information than you can ever control through their friends and teachers and everyone else they come into contact with. Your job is to help them understand the things they have questions about without unnecessarily introducing ideas or concepts that they aren’t ready to be challenged by. “When the child comes home from school or goes to bed, try to unpack what the school day was like,” says Jones, to learn what images or fears might have gotten into their head. “You don’t want to prematurely have conversations, but you also have the responsibility, and the right, to be your child’s first teacher.”
Establish A Pattern Of Open Communication Early
The issues surrounding events in Baltimore, Charleston and Ferguson may seem geographically or socio-economically distant, but the images they produced go everywhere. It’s fine if you don’t want to get into the specifics of how Freddie Gray or Michael Brown died with your 6 or 7-year-old, but don’t shrink from the conversation if they’ve seen something they want to talk about. “You want your child to feel like they can come to you when they don’t understand how to internalize and interpret what they’re exposed to,” says Jones. If you can help them understand something upsetting on the news now, that line of communication is going to serve you both well when they hit their teen years and a whole different kind of shit hits the fan.
“So many folks from a distance are scared of these guys and wish they would go away, but they’re part of the American family, too.”
When Talking About Riots, Don’t Make Assumptions About Who Did What
Media coverage of the violence in Baltimore gave the impression that the entire city was in flames when in reality rioting was limited to a few specific areas. What received almost no coverage was how quickly the communities effected got to work cleaning up, and who was involved. Jones notes that, when a rumor began circulating that the city’s gangs intended to “take out” the police, members of those gangs came to him and promised that they weren’t responsible for the rumor. In many cases, those same gang members helped protect local businesses during the riots and participated in the clean up following them. “When you think about gangs, you think about the negatives and you never think about them as being assets to their community, but in this case they really were,” says Jones. “The next day, they were out with everyone else with brooms and rakes, helping clean up.”
Try To Find A Silver Lining
Positive things often come from situations like this, but you can’t rely on the national media to stick around long enough to report on them, so here’s one from Baltimore front lines: When the gang members who Jones worked with during the clean up expressed an interest in more formally helping in the community, he made a deal with them: Go through the training that the Center For Urban Families provides to help them transition to law-abiding work, and he’ll help them develop community impact projects for their own neighborhoods.
At the same time, many of them will enroll in his fatherhood project, which helps estranged men reconnect with their kids. “So many folks from a distance are scared of these guys and wish they would go away, but they’re part of the American family, too,” he says. “They’ve been mired in abject poverty for so long, it’s up to all of us to create pathways out of the abyss for them. Help them develop a set of personal responsibilities and a purpose in life, so they can do what they say they want to do for their communities and translate those good wishes, skills, and aspirations to their own children.”