There’s a moment when children confront an unfairness so big it changes the way they look at the world.
It could be a significant trauma – abuse, a loss – or a simple awareness that the rules don’t apply to everyone the same way. There’s a moment when we question what we’ve been taught or assumed to be true in a way that shakes the ground underneath us.
For the past several days, some children in Ferguson, Mo., have seen a slain teenager on the street, killed by a police officer – a childhood symbol of protection. They’ve witnessed police in riot gear in clouds of tear gas, night after night; heard barking dogs used to try to control the unrest; listened to angry shouts from protesters and police. They have heard shots fired, a building burned, glass shattered.
“I know that in the coming days, weeks and months, children will continue to re-experience this,” said Dr. Marva Robinson, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists. And not just those living nearby, but also those who have been watching the news with their parents, she said. Children could have nightmares for years to come. They may be hypersensitive or hypervigilant around law enforcement.
From their parents, they may be hearing about how their community is treated unfairly, targeted or hated. Instead of new backpacks, they may carry a sense of devaluation, anxiety or fear with them as they head back to school.
What is the eventual impact of being exposed at a young age to violence and a feeling that the police can’t or won’t protect you? You build up a wall of mistrust. You are closed off to persons of authority. You find it hard to trust the guidance of school professionals or others who may want to help you. You see them as part of a system that killed someone who looks like you or doesn’t care about children with your skin color.
“If they were innocent before this, the seeds are being planted in them of feeling dehumanized,” Robinson said. Those seeds bloom into a cycle that perpetuates scenes like what we are seeing in the St. Louis area.
Isn’t the loss of this innocence yet another injustice, which should outrage us and motivate us to do something?
The onus on parents will be to drown out the negative with the light of the positive. Reinforce to children that they do matter. Tell them and show them that the world is bigger than what’s happening right now. Teach them that they can be the change that stops incidents like this from occurring again.
The responsibility of the local community will be to step up and increase mentoring so children have role models to emulate and road maps for how they can get there.
The imperative for law enforcement will be to work to change behaviors that target people unfairly. Make it a priority to identify the patterns that lead to this sort of escalation. Listen to the grievances from the community that you are there to serve with an open mind, and address those concerns.
Handle the investigation into what happened to 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed last Saturday, with the utmost fairness and transparency.
Those of us further removed from the situation also have obligations.
How many of us have taken a sustained interest in a child outside our own family?
I’ve had to take a look at my own life and priorities after spending time in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting. These recent events may seem to have a weary familiarity to the cynics among us. It may look like these forces at play are much larger than us, these problems much deeper and bigger than we could ever hope to change.
That’s just rationalization to sit back and wash your hands of a messy, heartbreaking situation.
This isn’t just a tragic story unfolding in a suburb of St. Louis. There are children who lose faith in, and who are failed by, institutions and adults in every city.
I met Ronaldo Ward, 32, of St. Louis, outside the QuikTrip convenience store the morning after it was burned by rioters. There’s a question he says he rarely hears from people quick to criticize the community:
“What can I do to make it better?”
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age.
On Twitter: @AishaS.