Discussions of police brutality, such as the media coverage of the trial of Derek Chauvin, is so widespread even very young children are asking “Why?” Britannica for Parents gathered expert advice for how to talk with children about the role of police in your community.

When it comes to some children, police officers may be seen as friendly. Perhaps they’ve been introduced to a police officer talking to their kindergarten class. They’ve likely seen the police officers in children’s picture books as friendly and kind. Think Sergeant Murphy of Busytown, mild-mannered Officer Buckle, or Policeman Small. These friendly police characters offer a striking contrast to the law enforcement officers featured in the news recently, such as Derek Chauvin, the police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who killed George Floyd and the police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who shot Jacob Blake in front of his children. How do current events and conversations related to police brutality impact the ways we talk with our children about law enforcement? These current events may cause parents to wonder about how to explain police officers to a child.

Young children, especially preschoolers under the age of 5, are just starting to learn about the world. The topic of police for young children can be complicated. So how do we go about explaining police officers to preschoolers simply and when should we have this talk? The answers to these questions are shaped by each family’s identity, opportunities, and experience. For parents of children of color, especially Black boys, there may be a heightened sense of urgency around conversations about police. For example, in many families of color, “the talk” is the sharing of specific instructions and guidance about how to avoid dangerous confrontations with police officers. In many White families, parents often have the privilege of choosing if and when to have difficult conversations about police and law enforcement. Often conversations with White children about police include a basic explanation of what police officers do. Yet the increased attention to police brutality in the media and the presence of police cars and protests and signs in many communities means that even very young children may be confused or curious about police.

Families where parents or other family members serve as police officers may have a very different perspective on media coverage and protests. Children in these families also need opportunities to talk about current events, ask questions, and express their feelings.

This article will focus on how to talk about the police with children. For ideas about how to talk with older children, see the “Learn More” resources listed at the end of this article.

Start Where You Are

As a parent or caregiver, what you say to your child will be determined by your own feelings, experiences, and understandings.

How do you feel when you see a police officer or a police car? How do you feel when the police want to talk to you? Does it make you feel anxious? Do you feel reassured? Perhaps you experience a complex mixture of feelings. Taking stock of your own feelings will help you prepare for conversations with your child.

What is your family’s previous experience with police officers? Do you have friends or family who work in law enforcement? Do you have friends or family who have been treated unfairly by a police officer? Do you have friends or family who have been arrested or incarcerated? These experiences will also have a direct impact on how you talk with your child about police officers.

Ask Children What They Already Know About the Police

When the topic of the police comes up, find out what your child already knows or wonders about the police. Other questions to ask young children include, “What does the word police mean? Do you have any ideas?”

See if your child can put their ideas into words. Ask specific questions to get a sense of your child’s knowledge and understanding. “What does a police officer do? What is their job?”

How your child responds to these questions will help guide your approach. For example, your child may already be aware of police brutality, perhaps through your family’s direct experience or by being exposed to media coverage and conversations around current events. Ask your child what they think and feel about what the police officer did. Just listening to your child is a very important step in having these challenging conversations.

Prompts like “What do you think about that?” or “Tell me more about that,” will help to encourage your child to open up and talk more freely.

Young children may not know much about what police officers do or they may have misunderstandings based on what they’ve seen in the media. It may be helpful to offer your child a basic description of the intended role of police in a community.

  • A police officer is a person whose job is to help keep people safe. The job of a police officer is to help people follow laws.
  • A law is a rule. For example, it is against the law to steal things. It is against the law to hurt people.
  • Police officers use police cars to help them do their job. They use their car to get to a location quickly.
  • Sometimes police officers arrest people and take them to jail.

Acknowledge Feelings

When talking about the police, children may express or show feelings of fear, anger, and confusion. As parents and caregivers, often our first impulse is to try to make those feelings go away. First, just stop and listen. Acknowledge difficult feelings by naming them. “It sounds like you’re feeling afraid of the police.” Or  “It sounds like you’re feeling confused about whether police officers are helpful and friendly or dangerous.”

How to explain police brutality to a child can be difficult because it’s hard to justify why the people charged with keeping us safe could hurt people too. It may be helpful to say, “Most police officers work hard every day, trying to do what’s right. It’s an important and difficult job to do.”

The systemic nature of the problem can be especially difficult to explain to children. You might say that, “Sometimes people are treated unfairly because they have black or brown skin. This is wrong and it needs to change.”

It may be helpful to use the word justice to explain to children what is fair and right. “Everyone should be treated fairly. Everyone deserves justice.”

Children who have seen news coverage may have questions or worries about rioting. Even very young children can understand the difference between a “protest” and a “riot.”  For example, you might say, “A protest is peaceful. People use their words to talk, sing, or make signs to show what they believe. People walk, stand, kneel, or sit in places where others can see them and learn about what they believe. A riot is different. A riot is when people hurt people or things, like throwing rocks or breaking windows.”

Reassure and Support Children

Let children know that good things are happening. For example, “Many people are working to make things better. Leaders and protesters are standing up and saying that police must be fair. They say this must happen right away. In many towns and cities, police departments are making changes. Many people are working on making sure that police officers will always be fair, careful, and safe.”

For more recommendations about how to talk with children about issues related to systemic racism. We recommend that White parents educate themselves about issues of privilege and systems of oppression through resources such as Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad.

If your family has directly experienced the trauma of police brutality, your family will likely need more support than the brief tips included in this article. The repetitive trauma of racism causes lasting mental and physical health issues. Child health expert Dr. Nadine Burke Harris writes about the long-term effects of childhood trauma in her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Organizations like the Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families provide mental health services to children and caregivers.

Most importantly, young children need regular reassurance from their families that we will love them, take care of them, and keep them safe. Be prepared to revisit these conversations about difficult topics often with your children. Your children’s trust and connection to their families will deepen when you show that you are open and available.

The original version of this article was originally published in Britannica by Ann Gadzikowski. 

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