#BlackLivesMatter #DallasPoliceShooting What Do We Say to Our Kids?

It has been a terrible, awful week for America. The shooting of two innocent men by police, and then the shooting of police officers in Dallas. 

I don’t want to know about this. I don’t want to see or talk about it. But it keeps coming up in my news feed. Yesterday, on a private Facebook group for physicians, a beautiful black doctor mom posted pictures of her children and said she was feeling scared for their safety in this world. Next in my news feed, a family member posted that #blacklivesmatter is a terrorist organization. A few down in the scroll, “Cops are racists who need to be stopped.”

I clicked it off, but later in the day, questions came from my kids after overhearing a conversation between two strangers. 

We can turn off the news, but it still seeps in through the cracks through a commercial or an advertisement or the remarks of a friend. We can’t keep away. Now the kids have questions:

“Mommy, did the police really shoot the wrong man? Didn’t this happen before? Doesn’t that mean the police is full of bad men?”

“Why would someone shoot and kill police officers in Dallas? Does that prove that police need to be afraid of black people? Won’t shooting police make it more dangerous for everyone? Why would someone do that?”

“I heard one person say the police have to change, but someone else said it’s the people- they have to be more respectful to the police. Who is right and who is wrong?”

Our kids are surrounded by the #blacklivesmatter #alllivesmatter #bluelivesmatter sentiments and what they hear affects them. They try to come up with simple answers to complex questions. But as kids, they think simple rules and extremes. Someone here is good and someone else is evil. I don’t want to discuss it at all, but I think I have to talk to my kids about this. I think we all need to talk about this with our kids. 

I’m a medical doctor, and as a doctor, I favor looking for ways to give them facts and science. Where does the evidence take us? What provable with research? 

In 2007, Malcolm Gladwell published a best selling book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It’s a book about snap judgments, decisions we make automatically based on intuition, prior knowledge, and sometimes bias. As I think about the recent events, my thoughts keep returning to the research in this book. We all make decisions everyday without thinking. Some of those decisions are small, and others big. We don’t think much about how we decide. We just have a feeling, or we simply “know.”

Our brains jump to conclusions all of the time, especially when we are scared. Even a little bit of fear can trigger firing of the fight or flight response in the brain, and that can lead to acting on impulse without thinking things through. 

This is what I discussed with my kids. 

An officer sees a vehicle that seems suspicious. He doesn’t know why. He pulls the driver over. The officer sees something in the driver’s behavior that makes him feel even more scared. He believes this is a dangerous man. The interaction escalates to fear, and then anger, by both the driver and the officer. The officer makes the snap decision to fire his gun. 

I told my kids that when these bad things happen, it’s because people are scared and reacting with a snap judgment. The officers who stop a driver because his taillight is out, they don’t shoot because they are hate-filled. They are scared. They see the driver, and their brain associates they way he looks or behaves with a “bad guy.” They don’t do it on purpose; it’s almost an automatic reaction during a time of stress. They have learned that bad guys in the past had a similar look or similar behavior. It takes a lot of training and energy to change those automatic reactions, but that’s what needs to be done. 

The people who shout and march in the street, they feel like they have to do something to create change because they are scared. They are scared someone will shoot their little son next, simply because a scared officer associates his look with “criminal.” They don’t trust the police. 

And the man who shot the officers in Dallas? He decided to take matters into his own hands because he, too, was probably scared. Scared and angry. He probably believed things would never change. And he was very, very wrong. His actions can make it even harder for the two sides to come together. But coming together is the answer.

It’s time to stop being scared of each other. It’s time to start talking about the automatic bias that leads to accidental shootings of innocent citizens, and to do that without saying that officers are bad. They are out there risking their lives to keep us safe everyday, and if officers are scared, it’s because they are in harms way and they know it. 

The truth to tell our innocent children is that it’s complicated. The answer cannot be found in hate or blame, the answer will only be found through love. The two sides have to stand together, and they cannot let fear and anger from those around them lead to divisive anger. Let’s follow the example #DallasStrong is setting. Love your brother. Stick up for what’s right. Don’t resort to shortcuts and blame. 

Some talking points to discuss with kids of all ages:

- Never hate. Never. 

- When you speak about these issues, speak with care. People are hurting and emotions are high.  

- Be compassionate to those who are hurting. 

- Don't be afraid of police officers, but absolutely treat them with respect, always. Remember that they have to deal with bad guys who want to hurt them. Show them with your actions that you're one of the good guys.  Make sure your friends do the same.

 - Stick up for your black and brown friends. Always. 

- Be aware of racial bias, and say something when you see it. But be respectful.  

- Understand that everybody has biases. Everybody makes snap judgments. Even you. Even me. The human brain is wired to take shortcuts. The important thing is to keep working on learning your biases. Thinking about them can keep you from acting on them.  

- Healing from this is a big job. We are relying on our kids to help us change our culture for the better. You are kind. You're up to the task.  


Posted on July 11, 2016 .