When I want to approach a complicated topic with my children, I've found it's best to start with a question.
When I picked up my daughter from high school last Friday, I asked what she had heard about the Jason Stockley verdict. That was the day Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, was acquitted in the 2011 shooting death of black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith.
She said that earlier in the day, an upperclassman had yelled out, "Black lives don't matter!" He was quickly challenged by peers, and the incident didn't escalate. She didn't find out more about the verdict until after school.
That wasn't a reaction I expected in this large, suburban high school where a quarter of the students are minorities.
"That was a terrible thing to say," I said. Some teenagers say stupid things, she reminded me. I handed her my phone and asked her to read an article about the verdict that discussed the multiple shades of "reasonableness" the judge had to consider -- what constitutes "reasonable" fear that justifies using lethal force by the police and the legal standard of guilty beyond a "reasonable" doubt.
One of the first things my daughter said was that the verdict wasn't fair. Children are highly attuned to the idea of fairness.
Parents cannot shield kids from videos that circulate on social media about police shootings. In this case there was audio of Stockley saying he was "going to kill this (expletive)," along with police video that showed him rifling through a bag in his police vehicle after the shooting and returning to search Smith’s car before saying he found the gun.
I reminded her that we didn't hear all the testimony nor did we see the evidence that was presented during the trial. There is, however, an undeniable pattern and evidence that the system favors the police when they use fatal force, and that black men are disproportionately treated worse in police encounters than whites, I said. The widespread use of videos to capture it and social media to share it has brought the issue to the fore.
We talked about what it meant that the judge wrote in his verdict, "Finally, the Court observes, based on its nearly thirty years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”
Would he make the same assumption about "suburban" heroin dealers, which we surely know exist, given the widespread heroin epidemic?
By their early and mid-teens, you want your child to begin to see the world in its contradictions and wrestle with the causes: We rely on an imperfect criminal justice system. People have a right to safely protest and should do so without hurting others or their property. Some people will be more outraged about vandalism than police aggression or injustice. And, yes, the police are there to protect us, but that's not how everyone is treated.
A friend described how she responded when her five- and seven-year-olds asked what happened in the news. They were sitting on the sofa, and she was scrolling through the news coverage on her phone when they looked over her shoulder and asked. Her children are white.
She told them that a police officer had killed a man, but he was not going to jail for it and that people were hurt and upset about that. The inevitable follow-up was: How can that happen?
She said to them that sometimes people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. She compared it to bullying, a concept younger children have already heard about.
"Protests are a way of (talking to) a system that is bullying people (and telling it) to stop," she said. The difficult thing for her is also making sure that her children don't fear the police because of what they are hearing and seeing. "I want them to know if they are ever in trouble, they need to go to the police officers."
If it's a difficult conversation for white parents, it's even harder for parents of black and brown children. Or those who live in communities where the threats to them are less theoretical and more immediate concerns. The Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri published a video last year encouraging dialogue, establishing a sense of safety for kids and promoting positive coping skills when dealing with media coverage of community racial trauma and civil unrest.
The point of such conversations is to help children understand the world better, learn healthy coping skills and resilience, figure out how to deal with competing information and to develop more compassion.
When I asked my younger child, who is in middle school, what he had heard about the case, he said not a single teacher or student had mentioned it. All he knew was from bits and pieces he had seen in the news.
There's a place to start.