• Type:
  • Genre:
  • Duration:
  • Average Rating:

Breonna Taylor

George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. What do we tell our children?

Alia E. Dastagir USA TODAY | Published 8:45 a.m. ET May 31, 2020

Should we tell the children? How?

Those are among the many questions parents are asking after the recent deaths of George FloydAhmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Many white parents wonder whether to talk with their kids at all, while parents of color swallow their  grief and fear to have “the talk” once again.

These deaths are part of a more complex story, one some parents have been telling for generations, and others have long felt they’ve had the luxury to ignore. But experts in child psychology and race-based stress say these conversations are essential for all parents to have, and they underscore that there are developmentally appropriate ways to talk to children of all ages about racism and police brutality.

“Silence will not protect you or them,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and author of, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. “Avoiding the topic is not a solution.”

Racism persists, experts say, because many parents avoid difficult conversations.

A child holds an American Flag as protestors march through the streets on May 29, 2020, in St Louis, Missouri.

“One of the most important things to remember is that you may not have all the answers and that is OK,” said Erlanger Turner, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who studies mental health among racial communities. 

USA TODAY spoke with Tatum and Turner about how to talk with children about racial violence:

Why is it important to talk with children about what happened to George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality or racism in the news?

Beverly Daniel Tatum: Even young children may see or hear about highly publicized incidents like the George Floyd case – perhaps overhearing the TV or the radio –  and may ask questions. Or if parents are upset by the news, the child may perceive the parent’s distress and ask why mom or dad is upset. In either case, an age-appropriate explanation is better than silence. Older children with Internet access may see online images on their own. Initiating an age-appropriate conversation can give children a helpful frame for understanding difficult realities. If parents are silent, children will draw their own often faulty conclusions about what is happening and why.

Erlanger Turner: Many adults are hurt and angered by these events and their children may notice changes in their mood. It is helpful to have a healthy conversation around what happened and also talk about ways to cope when you witness social injustice. 

Does COVID-19 warrant avoiding these conversations, given many children are already struggling with fear, anxiety and uncertainty? 

BDT: No. Not talking about upsetting events only fuels fear, anxiety and uncertainty.  Being able to talk about something with a supportive adult can reduce fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Parents may avoid the conversation because they don’t know what to say, but it is a mistake to think that their silence is helpful.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

ET: I don’t think that anxiety and fear about COVID-19 should stop a parent from talking about police brutality. This issue has been increasing in concern over the last few years as the number of black and brown people killed by police continue to rise. I think if you do talk with your child don’t leave them in a high state of worry. Make sure to end the conversation by engaging in a pleasant activity after the difficult discussion so they won’t stay worried or afraid. 

How do parents start these conversations and how does that change depending on the age of their children?

ET: I think the first place to start a conversation around racism and police brutality is with honesty. Take ownership of your feelings and be comfortable sharing those feelings with your child. Then you can begin to allow them to share what they may already know about racial differences. I think that it is always good to allow children to share their opinion and understanding before you offer information.

For younger children conversations about racism should be limited to basic facts about how people are treated differently due to the color of their skin but also acknowledge that not everyone treats people differently based on race. For older teens, parents can consider exposure to news or social media posts as discussion points about this issue. 

BDT: Regardless of the age of the child, it is important to balance acknowledging the reality of racism, or unfairness, with messages about the possibility of change, and the community of allies who are working together to make things better.

If a child of color asks if a police officer is going to kill them, what do you say?

BDT: The answer will depend on the age of the child.  If it is a young child, a parent can be reassuring.  “No, honey, you don’t have to worry about that. Police officers don’t want to hurt you.”

In response to an older child, it can be reassuring to say something like: “I know that it is scary to think that something like that might happen, and I really don’t want you to worry about anything like that. I know that most police officers want to help people, and most police officers never fire their guns. But sometimes they do get nervous and make mistakes. So it is important for you to know what to do if a police officer ever stops you…”

Black parents often refer to this as “the talk” they have to have with their adolescent sons to increase the odds they will survive an encounter with a police officer if and when they are stopped.

ET: That is a tough question. Depending on the age of the child, they may have some awareness of youth that have been killed by police. Obviously you don’t want to respond in a way that is going to make children be more fearful for their safety. In my opinion, I think that you should let children know that most police officers work to protect them and their community. 

people in blue shirts and white hat standing on street during daytime

If a child says they are afraid or angry, what do you say?

BDT: Acknowledge the child’s feelings. The parent may have similar feelings. “I know it’s upsetting to hear about and see these things happening. It upsets me too when bad things like this happen. Racism is very unfair. But it makes me feel better to know there are lots of people who want to change things.” Being able to offer specific examples of community change agents would be useful. Being able to talk about what family members are doing to speak up against unfairness is especially useful. Actions always speak louder than words.

ET: If a child tells you that they are angry, that is appropriate. Don’t force them to hide their emotional expression. However, be sure to help them identify ways to express their anger in a healthy manner which may include journaling or exercising to release the energy from their body. 

If a child is afraid for one of their friends, what do you say?

BDT: “I can see that you are worried about your friend. What do you think we could do that might help him or her?” Depending on the situation, this could be an opportunity to talk about what it means to be an ally, and how to stand in solidarity with another person.

ET: If a child is afraid for one of their friends, talk with them about those emotions. Allow the child to express why they may be afraid and help them identify how they can check on their friend’s safety to ease their anxiety or fear. Part of what increases anxiety is the fear of the unknown. If you have a plan of action it will reduce some of those fears. 

How can parents talk about law enforcement in a way that is honest but also doesn’t discourage children from seeking help from law enforcement when appropriate?

BDT: Most police officers become police officers because they want to help people. And there are times when we would really want a police officer to help us – give some examples – if there’s been a car accident, or if someone took something that belonged to us, etc. But sometimes a police officer does something bad, like today. When that happens, we might start to think that all police officers are like that.  But it’s important to remember that that is not true.

ET: I think that it is very important to talk with the children about law enforcement. For example, you can talk with them about how they protect rules in society such as making sure that people don’t drive too fast so they won’t harm themselves or others. Providing clear examples about the ways that law enforcement helps society will allow the child to better understand. You can also be honest about situations such as police brutality and let children know that some police officers break laws. If you have a trusted officer in your community it may be good to also allow the child to talk with them in person to reduce their fear.  

Should these conversations be different depending on the race of the child?

BDT: Children of color are likely to experience racist encounters as they get older.  They need to be helped to understand their own worth and feel affirmed in their identity as young people of color despite the negative messages they may get from others.  Parents of color want to raise self-confident and empowered children who are not demoralized by other people’s racism. This requires lots of conversation about racism and how to resist it in an ongoing way throughout their children’s lives.

White children are often racially isolated as a consequence of segregated schools and neighborhoods, and consequently limited in their understanding of people different from themselves.  White parents who want to interrupt the cycle of racism must learn to talk to their children about it and model their own anti-racist activity.

ET: According to research, white parents often don’t talk with their children about race or may emphasize “not seeing color.” The concept of colorblindness or “not seeing color” is more harmful than helpful and does not honor an individual’s identity. … For white families, research suggests … conversations should focus on raising anti-racist children and encouraging more friendships with children from others races.

Many of these deaths garner attention because footage of it goes viral. What should we say if our child asks to see it? 

BDT: There are many adults who don’t want to see such footage. I would not show it to a child at all. Once an image is in your head, it is very difficult to get it out. That said, it is reasonable to describe what happened and talk about why it was wrong. It is also likely that children with Internet access can view the footage without an adult’s permission or assistance. Talking about it after the fact will help children process their feelings.

ET: You should not show your children these videos as it may increase the likelihood of them experiencing symptoms of trauma or having nightmares. What we know from research on witnessing disasters is that individuals may be at a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder even through indirect exposure to these events. 

What do we say if, in the course of this conversation, a child says something racist?

BDT: Inquire about it with curiosity, not judgment. “I’m wondering why you said that…”  After hearing more about what the child is thinking, you can offer correction by providing new information. “You know, a lot of people might think that is true, but I don’t because….” 

ET: I think the first thing to do is to not get defensive. You want to foster open communication with your child. However, I think you should explore why they have that opinion, where did they learn it from, and tell them why what they said was wrong. It might be helpful for you as a parent to think about ways that you may have unconsciously expressed racist attitudes. 

How can parents explain the uprisings in a way that doesn’t condone violence but also doesn’t minimize the sense of injustice fueling them?

BDT: Children understand the concept of unfairness as well as the experience of frustration. Years and years of unfairness – racism – results in intense anger and frustration. The conversation can then be about what we must do to fix the continuing unfairness.

ET: I think it is important for parents to be honest. Share your hurt, anger, or disappointment with your child. You should also talk about different ways to protest social injustice such as calling your local politicians office or even visit their office to talk with them about policy change to reduce injustice. 

Resources for parents

Mother of EMT slain by Louisville police speaks out: Breonna Taylor ‘didn’t deserve this’

Tessa Duvall and Darcy Costello, Published 2:57 p.m. ET May 12, 2020 | Updated 10:07 a.m. ET May 15, 2020

Photos of Breonna Taylor were displayed during a vigil for her outside the Judicial Center in downtown Louisville, Ky. on Mar. 19, 2020.  Taylor was shot and killed by LMPD officers last week.  The family chose the vigil site because it is across the street from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. —  Two months after 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was gunned down in her home by Louisville Metro Police officers serving a warrant, her family and attorneys say they still have received no answers on why the young ER tech and former MT was killed.

“The case deserves national attention because the police executed an innocent woman,” said Ben Crump, a high-profile Tallahassee, Florida-based civil rights attorney who is representing Taylor’s family in their lawsuit against police. “The fact that had the police followed their own policies and procedures, Breonna Taylor would be alive today.

“She wouldn’t be a trending hashtag.”

Her mother, Tamika Palmer, said police don’t appreciate the consequences of their actions.

“I’m not sure that they understand what they took from my family,” Palmer said Tuesday afternoon. “Not just me, but my family. This has affected so many of us, so many of her friends.”

On the same day Crump promised to ramp up the pressure, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer broke his silence on Taylor’s death through Twitter, calling for a “thorough investigation” and saying his priority “is that the truth comes out and for justice to follow the path of truth.”

“Police work can involve incredibly difficult situations. Additionally, residents have rights,” Fischer wrote. “These two concepts will and must be weighed by our justice system as the case proceeds.”

Taylor was shot at least eight times after three police officers entered her home on a no-knock search warrant in the early morning hours of March 13. Police have said the officers were there as part of a narcotics investigation, but no drugs were found at the home.

Bianca Austin, right, embraced her niece Juniyah Palmer during a vigil for her other niece, Breonna Taylor, outside the Judicial Center in downtown Louisville, Ky. on Mar. 19, 2020.  Taylor was shot and killed by LMPD officers last week. The family chose the vigil site because it is across the street from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, was with her in bed when police entered the home, and police say he shot an officer. Officers fired more than 20 rounds into the home.

Walker now faces criminal charges of first-degree assault and attempted murder of a police officer, but no drug charges. Walker’s attorney wrote in a motion that the shot was fired in self-defense and that his client has no felony convictions.

Taylor had no criminal record.

Her mother remembers her daughter as a young woman who adored her family above all else.

“She was born into my family, but she made her own with her own friends,” Palmer said.

She said Taylor had made plans to succeed. Taylor worked as an EMT for area hospitals but had even bigger dreams.

“She had plans, and she was following those plans accordingly,” Palmer said. “She had a whole plan on becoming a nurse and buying a house and then starting a family. Breonna had her head on straight, and she was a very decent person.

Tamika Palmer was overwhelmed by the sight of supporters who showed up for a vigil for her daughter, Breonna Taylor, outside the Judicial Center in downtown Louisville, Ky. on Mar. 19, 2020.  Taylor was shot and killed by LMPD officers last week.  The family chose the vigil site because it is across the street from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

She didn’t deserve this. She wasn’t that type of person.”

Crump is not a stranger to firestorm cases. He has become a prominent figure in cases championed by the Black Lives Matter movement, including those of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown Jr.

He is also representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed by two white men in Georgia in late February. The case has drawn national attention after a video of Arbery’s death surfaced online last week.

Gregory and Travis McMichael, father and son, were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault two days later.

But unlike the high-profile deaths of black men and boys shot and killed by police — such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio, Philando Castile in Minnesota or Walter Scott in South Carolina — Taylor’s death hasn’t prompted wall-to-wall news coverage or massive protests.

“There is no reason this should not get all the attention it deserves, because Breonna Taylor’s life mattered,” Crump said.

Crump said the coronavirus pandemic has had an effect on how the community and news media have responded to Taylor’s death.

With stay-at-home orders, there haven’t been the same wide scale protests in the streets like there have in other controversial killings of black Americans in recent years.

At the same time, Crump said journalists have hardly covered anything other than the coronavirus for two months.

Together, these two factors have given LMPD “a convenient excuse” to not talk about Taylor’s death, said Crump and local attorney Lonita Baker, who is also representing Taylor’s family.

“We’ve seen (LMPD) fail to respond to situations like this before,” Baker said. “It’s not the first time they don’t respond when they act recklessly. They hide between (internal) investigations and they take a long time to get those investigations done.”

A spokeswoman for LMPD declined Monday to answer Courier Journal questions about the case, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

“We held a press conference about this shooting when it occurred to detail what we were able,” spokeswoman Jessie Halladay wrote in an email. “The Public Integrity investigation remains ongoing, therefore it would not be appropriate for us to comment.”

In Fischer’s statement, the mayor said that because the case is still under investigation, “expansive comments are not appropriate until all the facts are fully known.”

Crump also called the arrest of and charges against Walker “unwarranted” and “a red herring and deflection to try to not answer the more serious questions.”

“Breonna should still be here,” Baker said. “She should be sitting right here in this room with us. Her mom should still have her. Her sister should still have her. Her aunt should still.

“She was very much a family person and she should still be a part of their family.”

Scroll to top