The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

St. Louis psychologist offers game plan to parents on Ferguson

Charice Leonard, left, and Jonathan Struckhoff are AP Honors arts students working on a mural honoring Michael Brown and the town of Ferguson, Mo., during class at Riverview Gardens High School. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“Parents should prepare to have a discussion about what’s been happening in Ferguson and try and stay ahead of the narrative. And talk honestly about America and its struggles with race.”

That’s the advice of Marva Robinson, a licensed clinical psychologist and president of the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists. She’s been working with families who have been affected by the months of protests and widespread anxiety after Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old was shot and killed by a white police officer this summer.

The Jennings School District, which includes the eastern edge of Ferguson, Mo., announced that school would be canceled on Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of the verdict, the St. Louis Dispatch reported Friday.

“With the heightened anxiety and activity, we thought it would be better for students and staff to extend the holiday at this point,” Superintendent Tiffany Anderson told the paper.

Since August, for more than three months, young people have “been living in the aftermath of the shooting — the civil unrest, the militarized police response that shocked the country, the delayed school opening and disrupted activities,” writes The Post’s reporter on the ground Wesley Lowery, who captured that  uncertainty so clearly by writing that worry over what’s next,” covers the metro area like a second skin.”

High school students, are most likely living and discussing the issue every day. But younger children may find the whole thing scary and confusing.

For the little ones, sticking to their normal routine is comforting and parents should modulate their own anxieties, she said, to avoid transferring that energy onto their children.  But it’s also important for parents to start the conversation about what’s happening, she said. That way young children are not blindsided when they see a flash of police in riot gear on television or friends or teachers at school mention it.

1. Parent gets ahead of that narrative – While it’s important not to overexpose really young children to the television news, they are going to be witnessing history. Kids will think back to where they were when the verdict was announced, she said. They will talk about it with friends and at school. “So it’s important to sit down and talk about it,” Robinson says.

2. So what do you say?

“I would think its appropriate to say in America — where we live — we struggle sometimes with issues of treating all people the same way based on skin color. A young man was killed and some people are hurt and angry about that. They are protesting and trying to change it. And that’s part of how we make change in America.”

Then maybe show them children’s books about American leaders who fought for social change, like Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller. Anyone who they may already know from school lessons, who worked to give a voice a community who felt they needed more rights in the American system.

3. Set up diverse play groups

“I always recommend diverse playgroups between families and for schools to have organize these across district line. That way we don’t dehumanize each other, and it becomes just another friend. We need to socialize children early on and show them that there are people who are different from one another.”