I’ve heard enough. I’ve heard enough of the outrage expressed by people I know and by people I don’t about how the young man who drove away from a cop or ran away from a cop or the young woman who played on her cell phone for too long in class and refused to put it away were the problem. They should have known better. They should have respected authority. They should be punished for defying authority.
As white woman in my 30s, I’ve spent the last three decades being told to stand up for myself, to acknowledge when I am hurt or afraid or depressed. I’ve been told that if I am afraid of a police officer and I don’t want to stop on the side of the road in an unpopulated area, I can continue to drive and refuse to pull over until I feel comfortable. Find a well-lit area, I’m told. Find a place where other people can see the officer approach your vehicle. I’m told that this is my right because I deserve to feel safe, because an officer might try to take advantage of a young woman alone.
I’m told that I need to stand up for myself so that my voice is heard when I’m in a board room or in situation where I feel compromised. And if I am depressed, I am told that there are resources available for me. I am not pressured to be tough, to be strong and to move on like nothing has happened. If I snap because I’m having a rough day, people assume that something is wrong and want to help. They don’t assume that I’m a problem.
For the last nine years, I’ve lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Before that, I lived in New Orleans. I’ve seen poverty in my community and at my work. I’ve volunteered in schools, mentored kindergarten students and high school students who, if accepted to college, would be the first generation of their family to make it past high school. I saw a four-year-old boy belittled and laughed at by his teacher for not knowing his colors or numbers because no one at home bothered to teach him. I later saw him expelled for playing “neighborhoods” on the playground and then watched as his teacher failed him. Did you know that a child who fails kindergarten is 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school?
I know that I didn’t live it every day. I didn’t walk into a classroom of kids who were struggling at home and who might not have a parent who had the time or resources to devote to them. I know I don’t know the whole picture. No one can. No one walks with a child from the moment they wake up in the morning till the time they rest their heads–if they are lucky enough to have a safe place to do that. I know that I lack some experience and that I will be told that I just don’t understand.
What I do know is this. There is so much outrage in this world. There is outrage about how children in elementary school and middle school and high school are growing up too fast. We want them to slow down. We want them to wait to have sex. We want them them not to play violent video games. We want them to be innocent for a while longer.
But then, a child does something wrong. I’m not arguing that a child doesn’t make mistakes. Many of the children we see in the news with a horrible headline have made some kind of mistake. But just a few moments before the outrage occurred, and a few minutes before the mistake we also wanted that child to be a child and children make mistakes. Children don’t have all the answers and they are often scared and feel alone. Their brains are still developing; they are still learning to navigate in an incredibly complex, ever-changing world. That’s why they can’t drink legally and some can’t drive and why they can’t vote for elected officials. We don’t expect children to act like adults because they aren’t adults. That is, we don’t expect them to act like adults until they make a mistake. When they make a mistake, we want them to act like adults and we want to hold them accountable as if they were.
And then, if they are different or they have an attitude or they wear their pants too low or their clothes too tight or they have too many tattoos, they don’t get the same response as I did as a white child at a good school. We assume that they are a bad kid. We assume that they just want to break the rules and fight authority. They need to learn respect. That is the phrase that I hear most often. They just don’t understand respect of authority.
And that would be fine, really, if authority treated all children the same as they treated me when I was a child. The same way they treat a petite while girl from the suburbs with middle-class parents. Parents who would be outraged if I was thrown backwards from my desk and dragged across the floor before being handcuffed for disobeying a teacher.
Before I get any further, I want to say that most police officers I’ve ever met have been kind and respectful to me. But my experience isn’t not the experience of everyone I know. And I’ve been told more than once by African-American friends that they try to limit any interaction with the police. I had a friend get punched in the face by a white kid at an LSU football game. My friend stepped between the white guy and his girlfriend as the white guy tried to hit her. The police in the stadium arrested my friend who was black instead of the guy who was assaulting his girlfriend. They made a snap judgment. It was the wrong one.
But the world doesn’t treat all children the same way that I was treated as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed petite girl from the suburbs. I was lucky. My parents loved me and supported me. They paid for my field trips and helped me with homework. They chaperoned school dances and my mother, God bless her, drove me an hour each way to ballet classes. I was really, really lucky. And that made it easier. It made it easier to respect authority because authority figures had always loved and cared for me. I was respectful to police and teachers and leaders in my community because I was taught love and respect. Those lessons imprinted on me because I was a child and children are learning.
Researchers say that we learn so much when we’re little. We touch a hot stove and it burns us, so we don’t touch it again. We steal and we’re punished so we don’t steal again.
What if the lesson a child learns when they are young is that an authority figure won’t take care of them, won’t protect them and might hurt them? What is the lesson that they learn and carry with them into adolescence?
I know that a child’s home life or their economic status or their community’s policing policies can’t always be to blame when a child acts out. At a certain point, children are responsible for their actions. But when an adult is the other party in a situation, the adult is responsible for acting like an adult.
So this is all that I have left on the subject: Not every child grows up in a stable home and is loved and taught respect. When we aren’t taught at young age to trust authority figures it is much, much more difficult to trust them as we grow up. Children are responsible for their actions, but if we want to build stronger communities and help children learn from their mistakes, we have to have compassion. We have to love them. We have to understand that not every child grows up trusting the police or their teachers. We have to admit, particularly those of us who are white and privileged, that the way an authority figure responds to us may be very different than the way they respond to someone who looks different or wears different clothing or speaks a different language or drives an old car or lives in poverty or many, many other circumstances. And not all of those differences are wrong because they help authority figures do their jobs sometimes if there is truth behind the assumptions, but we can’t simply make assumptions with children. When we do, we perpetuate the understanding in a child that an authority figure can’t be trusted. We only get stronger and better if we have compassion and understanding. We can only build a better future if we remember that children are children and we are the ones responsible for being the adults.