Child Experts: What to Say About Verdict

Child therapists say the verdict creates an opportunity to talk to our sons about history.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — Moments after the jury acquitted George Zimmerman, a friend of a colleague described how his 10-year-old African-American son looked at him and said, “Daddy, I’m scared.” These three words gave him chills, he said, and illustrate a collective fear among young black boys about the value of their lives. It also brings into view an ongoing conversation many parents have with their black sons about how they may be perceived by some people in America and what that means for their safety.

For many, that discussion may need revisiting, and re-tooling, in light of Zimmerman’s acquittal. For other parents, it’s a subject they have never broached with their child in a substantive way. Almost one week after a nearly all-white jury doled out Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, parents may find themselves wrestling with one chief question: What do I tell my black son about George Zimmerman’s acquittal?

The Root spoke to a few experts who routinely help children and teenagers get through difficult times in their lives. These child psychiatrists and psychologists dished out recommendations for how a parent might initiate this conversation with their black sons, and also, how they might respond to some pretty critical questions and concerns this trial and verdict raised. There are no right answers, but here is some expert advice that might steer parents in a good direction.

A History Lesson on African-Americans

Beyond the things that many black mothers and fathers have already done — expressing reassuring things like “I love you” and “I’ll always protect you,” experts interviewed said parents must give their children a good old-fashioned history lesson on black men in America. The advice must be age-appropriate, but also can be detailed if parents trust their children are ready.

“The first thing black parents need to do is make their children culturally and contextually aware of their history in the United States of America,” said Dr. Kristen Carothers, an African-American New York-based therapist who specializes in child and adolescent psychology. Carothers described how this will help explain to a black male child — depending on his familiarity of the case — about why there was a huge social uprising over a white Hispanic man being acquitted of killing an unarmed black teenager.

Dr. Michael Chavis said parents should not speak about the verdict from a position of anger or hate, but understanding.

If the child asks how the negative perception of black skin, by whites, came to be, Chavis encourages parents to be honest and give the only answer one could: “I don’t have a real answer to that.” Chavis went on to speak about a theory that says that the white slavers and eventual segregationists possibly possessed some sort of inferiority complex, which they in turn projected onto African Americans.

“If you think of yourself as negative,” he explained, “you’ve got to give that negativity to someone else, because it’s hard to own it.

“This notion of dark men being evil is something we learned. If we learned it, they taught it. We didn’t come here thinking that about ourselves,” he continued. “That’s what we start to teach our children first, and then how to counteract that [idea] in their own lives.”

Calmness, Resilience and Protection

When something uncomfortable happened to Carothers as a child, she recalled, her mother told her about a traumatic event that happened in her own life.

“My mother told me the story of being a kid and seeing a Jet magazine with a picture of Emmett Till’s face on it and throwing the magazine out of the window out of shock,” Carothers said. “[That] let me know she had been through something similar that was traumatic and she was able to get past it.”