"How can one sentence make a city go crazy?"
To my fourth-grader, the grand jury decision and its aftermath looked like a simple cause-and-effect situation. Initially, this prompted an obvious response: There's never an excuse to damage property, steal or hurt another person. Those are criminal acts committed by a few vandals and thieves.
But a complete answer of why this decision has angered so many people is more complicated to explain, although just as vital.
We watched the grand jury decision on television with our young children because they needed to see it. Both had heard classmates talking about it in school and on the bus during the day. Moreover, they had heard the background chatter of news reports since August, when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson.
They've read front-page headlines at the breakfast table that prompted obvious questions: Why did a police officer shoot this teenager? Why so many times? What really happened?
Often, we didn't have the answers, but told them that people were working to figure it out. We want our children to have faith in the bedrock institutions of our country. But they also must learn that, like the humans that comprise them, institutions and systems are imperfect.
The specters of police brutality and riots have been the backdrop to the start of the school year in the St. Louis area. There's been a collective sense of holding one's breath, a palpable current of anxiety.
Life is filled with teachable moments, but few as stark and close-to-home as this. We focus most of our energy on teaching our children the basic skills they need to learn -- reading, writing, arithmetic. But it's our history that teaches them how to understand their world. One of the critical lessons a parent can teach a child is how to understand a situation from different perspectives.
Race is deceptively uncomplicated in my children's young lives so far. They have relatives who are white, black and brown. Their middle-class lives bounce along in the typical bubble of school, after-school activities and parentally coordinated social gatherings. Brown's death and the aftermath have been a view outside that narrow world.
In a manner typical of her generation, the sixth-grader took a picture of the screen while prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced there would be no charges against Officer Darren Wilson. It was a moment that required her own documentation.
The kids didn't say much in the moment. None of us did. We sat there processing our own emotions, trying to make sense of what was unfolding. Despite the exhortations to always be talking to our children, sometimes it's better to listen.
And if no one is ready to say much yet, it can be enough just to be near.
My son's big question about the city going crazy came the next morning; he had watched a few minutes of burning buildings and rioting on television before we made him go to bed. It's now our job to help him see the bigger picture of how this particular decision fits into the history of this country, and the ongoing civil rights struggle for equal rights and protection under the law. More than three months of demonstrations and the boiling-over anger on the streets started with one young's man death, but it's about more than one person.
Certainly, we have told them countless times before that not every child has schools as good as the ones they attend. Not every child grows up with parents who can spend as much time taking care of them. Not every child gets the same opportunities as their peers.
This time, we have to say: Not everyone is treated the same way by police officers or courts.
In some cases, people are still not treated fairly because of the color of their skin. That unfairness can make people angry. When people protest, they want to make others pay attention to why they are upset and try to change the way things work. That's a right protected by the Constitution in our country. The challenge is allowing people that right while keeping other people safe. There are people taking advantage of people's anger and making a bad situation worse.
It's scary for children to witness chaos and unrest. We can reassure them that we will do our best to protect them. We can help them make sense of confusing and tragic events by reminding them of the social progress our country has made and how long it took to get there.
Within the darkest chapters of our national narrative, there are stories of hope and resilience.
When we tell our children how far we've come, we remind ourselves how much further they can take us.