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PART 1: Police, Prisons, and Abolition: A Guide for Families Conversing Critically with Kids

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

In this three-part series, Families for Justice hopes to provide relevant resources, thought pieces, and conversation starters curated for those parenting, caring for, and supporting children as we critically examine the institution and function of police and policing, systems of incarceration, and abolitionist alternatives that further models of safety, community care, and repair of harm deeply rooted in racial and transformative justice.

While a wealth of resources has emerged in the past year to explore these topics with intellectual vigor for adults, these resources are rarely directed towards parents, families, or those in caring and supportive roles who would like to critically engage with young people. At Families for Justice, we hope to provide an antidote to that by sharing out resources that can support you and the young ones in your life in furthering learning, dialogue, critical reflection and engagement around these important issues as we collectively – with love and vigor - work towards greater justice. You'll find Part 2, which is focused on prisons, here.

Part 1: Police and Policing - Countering the Mythology

The institution of police, rooted in anti-blackness and inextricably linked to our nation’s long history of colonization, slavery and maintaining white power structures is still an institution that is left largely unquestioned. The normalization of the role of police and policing as necessary, if, at times, problematic, is backed up by dominant cultural portrayals and narratives furthered in our media wherein police are “protectors,” “heroes,” a powerful “unquestioned authority,” and their violence is minimized or even rationalized as required for “public safety.” The children in our lives are initiated with this mythology about police and policing from their earliest years.

And, while horrific displays of racist police violence in recent years have sparked protest and widespread condemnation and calls for reform, the institution itself has remained intact, and, often, has even been bolstered. The mythology continues.

So how do we talk about all of this – with kids? How do we critically examine the messaging about police and policing we further with the young people in our own lives? How do we notice, call out, and question myths we have propagated – either directly or unintentionally - and open up critical learning and dialogue with children? How do we talk with our young people with clarity, compassion, and honor their questions, their fears, their anger, and their experiences? How do we challenge the normalization of police as an institution – and the troubling history of racialized control and violence it is built upon – in our parenting and in the larger community? And how do we take action to make change?

The following resources seek to engage these questions and are selected to meet you where you are on your journey and to support in your growing edge too.

1. If we don’t have the conversation with our kids, someone else will!

The valorization of police and policing is embedded into all aspects of dominant American culture: the media we watch, the toys our kids play with, the books they read, the curriculum at our children’s schools, the cultural messaging they receive, the discourse of our politics. Quite literally, the conversation about policing is already happening with the young people in your life, how are you participating?

This section features two parts, Parents sharing their experience with three short articles highlighting parents examining and confronting messaging about police with their families, and, Beginning to critically talk about police and policing, with two resources to support in starting a critical dialogue about police with children.

Parents sharing their experience:

  • “I don’t glamorize police in my household and I am teaching my child why” – Black mother and activist, Arisa Hall, explores how even in an activist household the dominant glamorized depictions of police officers slip in, noting that from Little Blue Truck books to Paw Patrol the “indoctrination begins as babies.” Hall makes an argument for the urgency of countering these messages and why we must be intentional about representations of police from our children’s earliest years.

  • Parents, maybe it is time to stop glorifying the police to kids” - Parent, Kearie Daniel, examines the layers of white privilege that enable white parents of white children to not question the “superhero” status police are given, a reality that is not true for her as a Black mother as she knows the harm her own children could face at the hands of the police.

  • A 7-year-old student’s telling answers on a worksheet titled ‘Police Protect Us’ - The article highlights the experience of educator and activist, Jesse Hagopian, who was pepper sprayed by the police and the way this shaped his son’s understanding of police and policing. The article features Hagopian’s 7 year old son’s answers to a worksheet he was sent home that normalized, and valorized, the role of police entitled “Police Protect Us.” An important reminder both of young people’s brilliance and resistance as well as the ways dominant messaging about police (ie police as protectors) children receive at every turn – even if these messages are not coming from their own families and the role we must have in countering them.

Beginning to critically talk about police and policing:

  • Kids are wondering about police - The Portland Childcare Collective developed four simple and effective slides for beginning to talk about police with children and directly address their questions and complex feelings with sensitivity and a critical eye.

  • What defund the police means in terms simple enough for a child - Using the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and activist calls to defund the police as an entry point, the article explores in accessible and clear ways how to talk about the institution of policing – and different models of change from reforms to abolition - with kids. It also features a link to a great “kid’s explainer” video from CBC Canada Kid’s News that features a teen journalist conducting interviews and tackling the question “What does defund the police mean and why are some in favour and some against?”

2. History of policing

As we engage critically with the young people in our lives about the current manifestations of police and policing and the impact on BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ folks, and those who are economically poor it is important to understand the larger historical framework and examine the ways the institution of policing is rooted in anti-blackness, directly tied to the legacies of enforcing slavery in this country and continues to maintain white supremacy.

Here are three resources to support our own learning as we approach these conversations, and to work through with young people in our lives.

  • Policing in the U.S.A - 1942-Present timeline - A visual timeline of policing in the U.S. developed by Critical Resistance that charts the ways policing had been inextricably linked to colonization, slavery, and maintaining white power structures. Geared towards middle and high schoolers but could be worked through with younger kids as well. Plus, a great resource for your own learning so that you can bring historical context to your conversations with kiddos.

  • The history of policing in the U.S. (a section of Teaching Ideas and Resources to Help Students Make Sense of the George Floyd Protests by NYT) - A resource/curricula developed by the New York Times in the wake of the George Floyd Protests has an excellent section, linked directly here, that investigates the History of Policing in the U.S., the long legacy of police violence towards Black people, and the institutionalization of racial discrimination that has served to legitimize state violence towards Black people while having little to no legal recourse for justice or officer accountability. The section has useful guiding and reflective questions, includes a short video documentary about parents navigating conversations with their Black sons about police and policing, several links for investigating trends in racialized policing that have led to our current moment, and interactive activity ideas. The content was developed for teens but could be explored together as a family with younger kids as well.

  • Teach the history of policing - This compilation of online resources explores the history of police and policing from the Zinn Education Project and tackles the challenging, and necessary, parts of our history that is left out of dominant narratives. The resources are geared towards educators (but great for parent or family learning too) and feature sections with selected articles, books, podcasts and activist materials and some excellent primary documents. Additionally, there is a useful list of Young Adult literature and graphic novels on the topic, a roundup of relevant films and documentaries, and, at the very bottom is an embedded link to a short 7 min online documentary that gives a brief history of policing in America that is well worth a watch.

3. Police violence

Often it is an incident of police violence – the murder of Breonna Taylor or the shooting of Jacob Blake - that ignites and gives urgency to conversations about state violence and police brutality with our young people. Yet, these violences are not an aberration from the norm, rather they are central to the function of policing itself (refer back to our history section!). For many BIPOC families these are conversations that families don’t have a choice NOT to have, as knowing about - and developing strategies in the face of - the harrowing realities of police violence towards Black and Brown bodies is critical to family safety and survival. For many white families, though, endowed with the privilege to not personally experience violence at the hands of police, these conversations become a choice, and a critical one as we know white silence enables these systems of racialized, and racist, harm to flourish.

The following resources on exploring police violence with young people are divided into two sections: Beginning the conversation with tips to get the conversations started and useful reminders and resources for parents and caregivers as they enter into dialogue with young people, and My family is ready to dive deeper with additional resources for families seeking to deepen their understanding of the impact of police violence and begin to take action towards alternatives.

Beginning the conversation:

  • Reminders for white parents talking to their kids about police killing Black people - 7 useful pointers for white folks discussing police violence towards Black people with their kids.

  • Talking about police brutality with white and white passing elementary aged small humans 10 simple slides developed by Raising the Resistance with tips for starting a conversation about Police brutality with elementary aged kids with strategies for parents to use. Geared towards conversations with white and white-passing children.

  • Talking to children about race and police violence A short video from The Root featuring 5 tips from child psychologist, Dr. Faith Sproul, for talking with children about police violence towards Black people. Geared to parents/caregivers of Black children and the specificity of their experience that honors not only pain and anger but is also sensitive to children’s fear and necessary attention to safety. With this said, the tips are useful for any family engaging in these complex, and painful, conversations with young people.

  • Children’s book: Something Happened in Our Town – A picture book featuring two families, one white and one Black navigating the aftermath of a police killing of a Black man in their community that is an excellent conversation starter. The book additionally features an extensive guide for parents and caregivers approaching these conversations with sample dialogues and strategies to work through kid’s questions.

My family is ready to dive deeper:

  • The activist and abolitionist, Mariame Kaba and the organization she is founder of, Project NIA, has developed several excellent activity guides for exploring police violence with young people. In her Ferguson Syllabus: Talking and Teaching about Police Violence, Kaba leads with guiding questions to explore the nature of police and police violence with young people, and her compilation of activities include art, poetry and music as a medium for examining the current and historical manifestation of police violence and resistance led by young BIPOC people. The syllabus also features an excellent resource list of links for further learning.

This guide, also from Project Nia, Talking about Policing and Violence with Youth, outlines several activities with complete lesson plans including guiding and reflective questions and supplementary materials for exploring police violence with middle and high school aged young people that could be adapted for family engagement as well. Activities include a story about a youth encounter with police, poetry from the perspective of teens paired with questions for reflection, and an activity exploring root causes of police violence.

  • Youth voices – Encounters with police - Chain Reaction, a Chicago-based multi-media collaboration between youth serving organizations produced this series of audio and video stories of young people in their own words discussing their encounters with police in Chicago. There are also several stories pointing to the positive “chain reaction” when the choice was made not to call the police. Geared towards middle and high school aged young people and families exploring together.

  • Ending police brutality: SIS family action toolkit -This toolkit includes an excellent 8 talking points for families for exploring policing and police violence with kids, a useful a “word bank” language guide for understanding some of the key terms related to police, policing, violence and change, and creative activism oriented activities to do with the family to address policing, police violence, in ones’ own neighborhood and community.

Families for Justice is a network of people in Dane County working to dismantle white supremacy through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Read more about us on our main webpage.

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