After another unimaginable elementary school mass shooting; we need to talk to our kids about the police that are supposed to protect them, but often fail.
When I was growing up, the first number I knew by heart was 9-9-9. That’s how we call the police in England. We make it easy to learn (just like 9-1-1) because societally we tell ourselves that if the unimaginable happens — a horrendous car accident, a robbery, an act of random violence — men (they’re usually men) in blue uniforms will come and save us. We tell our kids this, from as young as 2 or 3-years old.
But as we’ve seen from the scarring tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, this isn’t always the case.
The facts, as we know them, are so disgusting and enraging — so beyond the pale — that I can hardly type them out. Repeated calls to law enforcement during an active mass shooting from children barricaded in classrooms in a Texas elementary school were ignored. This shameful timeline says it better than I can in words.
A week after the tragedy, we’re learning details that unfathomably add to the already horrendous reality.
A nine-year old begged for grownups on the line to “please send the police now.” Instead, we now know that 19-officers waited in hallways outside classrooms for more than 45-minutes, before agents eventually confronted the gunman. (A delayed non-response that Steven C. McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, later called a “wrong decision”.)
The dark details that have emerged from that scene of human tragedy are beyond comprehension for many of us — though utterly familiar to Black and Hispanic parents, who have been talking for years about police failures and usually ignored or worse, lambasted, when they try to do so.
(Indeed, many of the kids and parents’ at Robb Elementary are Hispanic, blue-collar families, a community across the country that has been sounding the alarm for years about the mismatched power between law enforcement and the community they are tasked to serve).
I realized on thinking about Uvalde this past week that even my own life experiences had done little to dampen my blinkered belief that if you’re in trouble, you can call the “good guys,” and they’ll come to help.
To wit: After 9/11 — and in the UK 7-7 (the attacks on the London Underground and Tavistock Square) — police targeted anyone appearing vaguely Muslim. My surname became a liability. I was pulled out of lines at airports, frisked on jetways, had my shoes removed and had to sit and relace them while concerned passengers boarded around me. My brother, two years younger and a shade darker than me, was repeatedly targeted on the subway system in England, made to open his backpack, jostled about, publicly demeaned. We’re lucky that was the extent of our encounters.
Before the shooting in Uvalde, a parent friend of mine was in the midst of a fight with her mother-in-law over Paw Patrol, that animated show about search and rescue pups in uniform, defying gravity and anthropomorphisms to save the day.
My pal has long been wary of law enforcement; as a queer woman, she’s seen police historically antagonize and penalize her community, targeting rather than protecting. This feeling was amplified after the murder of George Floyd — the last straw after many documented acts of fatal violence against unarmed Black men.
As a result, my friend has been adamant about not exposing her kid to any show that she felt glorified law enforcement of any kind — as she put it, they don’t deserve to be sanitized, adored, put on a pedestal that we as a society automatically give them, without needing to earn that trust.
But this wasn’t something that was easy for her mother-in-law (a kind, caring lady by all accounts) to understand. And that’s understandable, even if it feels inexcusable. It can be uncomfortable for us to challenge our own relationship to the police. Especially as a boomer, her MIL was brought up to respect authority in every guise — almost uncritically so. She thought my friend was being histrionic, and pretty much ignored her wishes. It’s a rift that’s still not quite healed.
That impulse to shield kids from the unpleasant realities and fallibilities of law enforcement is something comedian and dad-of-three DJ Pryor understands deeply. (You’ve probably seen viral videos of DJ talking to his adorable then-infant son back in 2019).
When I got on the phone with DJ this week, he was still reeling from the tragedy in Uvalde. He cried hearing about the inaction of police, and was pained having to field questions from his 11-year old son about why the police didn’t do anything more to help children like him. I asked him to share what he said in response. He offered up this wisdom for parents struggling to explain the role of police in society to their kids:
“Not all people dressed up in uniform realize their job is to be a servant of the people,” Pryor reflected. “I give [my kids] this analogy: You like dressing up, because it’s fun for you. Some police put on a uniform because it’s fun for them, and not because they have a servant’s heart.”
Pryor, who grew up in a housing project in Clarksville, TN, experienced the worst of law enforcement. As a young Black man, he was racially profiled, stopped, frisked, and saw his family targeted by police because of where they lived and the color of their skin.
Nonetheless, his grandparents still had strong respect for the police, framing them as "good guys," a binary view that started to ebb away by the time his mom was raising him. “Mom always said they weren't the good or bad guys, they were the ‘other’ guys," Pryor explained.
Today, Pryor tries to be pragmatic, in the face of systemic racism, with a grace I cannot fathom given his history. He strives for middle ground, and cautions parents to encourage children to pay attention to the how, not just the who: “I’ll judge you once you show me who you are, not just because you have a uniform on.”
So, what do we teach our kids about a world where the historic-saviors are, like so many of us humans, in reality flawed individuals, many of whom are trying to do the right thing, but countless others who are deployed in society with a badge and a gun, and create more harm than help?
I asked Ann-Louise Lockhart, pediatric psychologist and parent coach at A New Day Pediatric Psychology, in San Antonio, TX.
“Kids are very literal, they see the here and now. Important issues like police brutality and defunding are very conceptual and often beyond what kids can understand,” Lockhart said. “Instead, keep things practical and above all be curious about why your kids might be asking a question, because it might not be for the reasons you think.’
The Uvalde shooting happened a little over an hour and a half away from where Lockhart’s family — she has a 12-year old and a 9-year old — live. And while both her kids are inquisitive, especially her younger son, neither really wanted too many details.
“I told them something terrible happened in a school here in Texas. My son said, ‘I know, I heard on the radio’. He asked if a lot of kids were hurt, I said they were. And he said that’s sad, and that was it. He didn’t want more than that,” Lockhart explained. Parents might be ready to information-dump but following your child’s cues on how much intel they want is the best way to ensure you’re sensitive to their needs.
Lockhart posted a helpful script for parents on how to talk to their kids about tragedy. As for how to frame the police, she says one of the most important things we can do is not project our own feelings on any given situation onto our kids.
This is especially true when you’re a mom trying to talk about heavy stuff to kids of different ages. What might be right for your toddler isn’t going to cut it with your teenager. And it might not be the same conversation with your kids of similar ages, because their personalities are probably different. Information has to be tailored to your specific kid, rather than reading off a generic template. One rule of thumb across the board, says Lockhart: Be curious about what your kid is asking of you.
“Be intune with your feelings, thoughts and reactions to events and news and things that occur. Check in with yourself before you talk to your kids. That’s how we overreact because we haven’t regulated ourselves first,” Lockhart told me. “That way, when our kids start to ask us questions we’re of sound mind rather than reactionary — otherwise we tend to overshare.”
That oversharing can lead to information-dumping on kids about heavy specifics, such as details of a mass shooting, that they’re not ready to receive, or more importantly, weren’t asking for. She advises parents to seek out developmental guidelines to help gauge what’s age-appropriate information for children (like the CDC or American Academy of Pediatrics).
All of this is so heavy and hard, like so much of parenting. It’s uncomfortable not to be able to lean into a binary. It is painful to confront the tropes of toxic masculinity, as Jessica Valenti so rightly argued, and head-on face up to so many interrelated issues simultaneously. But living with this unmoored reality is something we’ve got to get used to, and talking about it openly is perhaps the first way in trying to find the right solution for our individual families.
I have law enforcement members in my family. Writing this will certainly hurt them. That isn’t my intention. But we have to have a real discussion moving forward about what we teach our kids when it comes to the police, and also be gentle with ourselves on our parenting journey around the language we use in these awful, tragic moments. We can “should” all we want, but there’s also got to be some grace. Our current reality demands it.
Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani lives in New York City with her 17 month-old baby and husband. She is a writer and Emmy-nominated television correspondent. You can follow her on instagram @caro_mt.