What Should We Teach our Children about the Police?
I’m not sure there is a single answer to this question. Race, gender, class, and other factors impact the types of interactions individuals have with the police and how individuals should approach those situations. But even young children are beginning to form an understanding of the role and function of police. So what should we teach them?
For a long time, I was uncomfortable with the narrative that police stop “bad guys”, a common message given to and received by children. If this message was internalized, the children could reflexively see whomever the police were interacting with as “bad”, thus potentially justifying however the police treated those individuals. It also implies that the police are inherently “good”, something I’m sure we all wished was true but which recent evidence simply does not support.
So when I encountered children playing “police” or otherwise attempting to make meaning of their role in society, I took a different tack. “The police’s job is to help people.” I wanted the children to understand the role of the police in protecting and serving the public at large and hopefully help them understand that to the extent they went after “bad guys” was to serve this greater purpose. I also wanted them to be able to trust police officers in the unfortunate event they needed to solicit their help; should this happen, I’d want them to feel comfortable knowing they could approach an officer without fear of being seen as “bad guys” themselves.
But this message does not seem universally appropriate. Many subgroups of the American population do not trust the police, often with good reason. Should I really tell my black male students that they shouldn’t hesitate to approach a police officer if they are in need of help? That feels irresponsible — a reflection of a reality that makes me sick to my stomach. However, I’m not sure the inverse message — that the police should not be trusted — is proper either.
And what of the children in my class who might one day grow up to be police officers? What do we want to be their foundational understanding of the profession they will one day embark upon?
So… what message should we teach children, particularly young children (think ages 4-10) about the police? Consider that no message received during this period will be so set in stone that it cannot be unchanged or fleshed out as they develop a greater ability to understand nuance but also that these initial impressions will be powerful in shaping their ultimate understanding. What conversations have you already had with your children? Where else do they receive messages? What would you want their teachers/schools to teach them?