Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | August 27, 2014

The hardest parenting question yet

I had my last visit with one of my little friends who is turning 3 this fall. He is a sweet, charming and active little guy,thriving even though he is living in the midst of poverty and chaos. His mom tries hard and does the best she can. He has done well in our program, and I hope that we have made a difference for him. Saying goodbye was hard. I am not sure if I’ll cross paths with him and his family again, but I hope and pray I won’t read about him in the paper. You see, he is an African-American boy, who will grow up to be an African-American teenager and African-American man. I pray he will stay alive and not get shot by the police just for being black.

Just last week I had a session with a young mom and her son. She is white, he is black. I had already been thinking about the death of Michael Brown and all the other unarmed black men who have been killed by the police, and I wonder if she was reading my mind. She and I discussed the usual topics, his speech and behavior, how to get him ready for preschool, etc. Then, she very matter-of-factly asked me if she should start telling him that the police are not safe. “What should I start teaching him about the cops?” “I heard about that kid getting shot in St. Louis, I’m scared for my son.” There are cops in her neighborhood all the time, and she has often told her son that if he feels unsafe, or if someone breaks the law, the cops will come and make people safe. In her young life she had the insight to say to me that because she is white, she was brought up to believe police are safe. She has never had any trouble with the cops, and so her experience tells her to go to the police for help. “But what about my son?” He is black, and black men are getting killed by the very people who are supposed to protect them. “Should I tell him to be quiet, walk away and seek cover when he’s older and sees a police officer?” “Should I tell him that some cops are ok, but some cops are racist?” She said she’s been reading about the Michael Brown shooting, and has seen the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pictures. She was pained when she told me that she could not imagine telling her son to just put his hands up when he sees a cop, EVEN IF HE DID NOT DO ANYTHING WRONG!” “He’s only 2 1/2 Miss Beverly, what do I teach him to make sure he doesn’t get shot?” This is a parenting question I have never ever been asked. And it’s a question that I cannot believe I have to hear in 2014.

I was deeply saddened by her reality, and felt utterly hopeless because I did not have any sage wisdom or thoughts to share. I get many parenting questions – about potty-training, toddler development, discipline, temper tantrums, feeding, and the like and usually I have responses based in years of experience and/or research. But I have nothing for this question. Absolutely nothing. Nothing but despair, anger, rage, sadness and fear for this young mom and her son, and the hundreds of other little African-American boys I have worked with over the years. Nothing but despair, anger, rage and sadness for myself as a human being. As human beings we should all be feeling these things, shouldn’t we? Some of my former little guys are approaching 16, 17, 18 years of age now. What will happen to them?

So I listened. Closely. I lIstened to her pain, her confusion, her desire to make the best parenting choices she can make. I thought long after this visit about her experience versus mine. I am white, my kids are white, and I live in a predominantly white neighborhood. My kids see the police and they comment about how police are “helpers,” as that is what we have taught them, because that has been my experience. My worries for my kids encompass their school life and academics, will they feel accepted and have good friends, will I be able to save for college for them? I do not worry about them getting shot by a cop. I do not worry about their safety in their school or neighborhood. I cannot imagine living with that fear, and parenting through that lens every single day. When you parent through a lens of fear, there is a harshness and toughness in the approach, and I have always “gotten it” that some families have to parent that way for mere survivial. No judgement here, just a fact. But now I get it even more.

I think I have been missing this fear for awhile. I think I do a decent job of understanding my families in poverty and the struggles they face parenting their kids with little resources. It is always constant learning for me as a social worker, but I did not see this one coming. Was it because I didn’t want to see it? Much like many of us do not want to see the blatant racism in our society? Was it because it is too painful to see? Can you imagine walking the earth and believing that just because of what you look like you will either be pulled over, profiled, harassed or killed by a cop? Or “just because I fit the description?” as it did to Los Angeles TV producer Charles Belk. See http://huff.to/1q2tI5r
http://huff.to/1q2tl5r

I cannot imagine looking at my kids and wondering how I will keep them safe from the police because of what they look like. I am trying to imagine it now, because it is affecting the families with whom I work. And I need to figure out a way to be mindful and helpful on a clinical level. But this is so much bigger than one clinician. We have to have a national conversation, plan and response to the blatant and ugly racism in our society, because our little boys are dying.

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