"A conversation that is more central to my life at the moment, however, is the one that black parents are having with one another," says author Clint Smith

By Jen Juneau
June 03, 2020 11:20 AM
Girl protesting

Many parents, celebrity and non-celebrity alike, have come out to touch on how they are approaching the subject of George Floyd's death with their children one week after the 46-year-old truck driver's killing was caught on camera, quickly going viral and causing national outrage at Floyd's unjust homicide.

In an impassioned essay for The Atlantic, teacher, author and father of two Clint Smith — who has a 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son — discusses "Becoming a Parent in the Age of Black Lives Matter," revealing that his "children are both respite from all the tragedy transpiring in the world, and a reminder of how high the stakes are."

Smith points out that, as his kids are young right now, he "will one day have to find a way" to have conversations about not just the death of Floyd but topics that spotlight a broader picture about race in the U.S., such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic "that is disproportionately killing black people in America."

"Many are now familiar with the other conversations that black parents have with their children, the conversations in which parents attempt to tread the line of making their children aware of the realities of the world, without making them feel as if it is somehow their fault," Smith writes. "I experienced these conversations as a child, and will one day have to find a way to have them with my own children. A conversation that is more central to my life at the moment, however, is the one that black parents are having with one another."

Famous moms and dads like Ciara, Thomas RhettKatherine Heigl and Iskra Lawrence have discussed their fears for their own kids, as well as how they are speaking to them about the fight for equality and the importance of standing up for what's right.

But how exactly does one do that in a way that is both meaningful and communicative at a child's level? Here, PEOPLE offers a few ways to broach the subject with children, as explored on Good Morning America.

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Mom talking to son
| Credit: Getty
Mom talking to son
| Credit: Getty

Have the Conversations — Regardless of Age

"It is important to say conversation doesn't solve it by itself, but conversation, certainly with children, helps them make sense of the world," Beverly Tatum, author of Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race as well as a psychologist, tells Good Morning America.

Adds Tatum, "You can have these conversations in an age-appropriate way with 3-year-olds or 13-year-olds."

Sarah Smith, a Connecticut-based blogger and mother to three black children, tells GMA she is "scared for my son every single day that he leaves our house because I don't know what could happen to him" — but the conversations are something they have "every single day because [my kids] are African-American, living in America right now."

Say the Names of the Victims

Psychiatrist and mother of four black children Dr. Janet Taylor tells GMA that she would encourage parents to "say their names — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, all black people."

" 'One was being arrested. One was jogging. The other one was killed by the police [in her home].' We use those words and say that the protests are happening because [people] want justice, they want change and there are peaceful ways to do that," she explains.

"It's an opportunity to teach, when you have conflict, how to speak up and do the right thing instead of inflicting more pain," Taylor says.

Let Kids Know That the Issues Aren't New

The issue that the Floyd case has brought to light once more, says Tatum, is "not new information for African-American families" but rather "just a reminder that we haven't come as far as we need to go in order to really ensure everyone's safety. ... Racism is real. It's still with us."

"The conversations that we're having in our home honestly have been a little bit strained," a Chicago-area white mother of two named Laura Zimmerman says in a conversation with GMA.

"I think this is the time in our history when white people need to step up and really engage," she says. "I think we have to start realizing that this isn't about us. It's actually about getting rid of this huge blind spot within our society that there is still systemic racism."

Children holding hands
| Credit: Getty

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Spotlight the Importance of Efforts (and Beauty) on All Sides, as Well as Self-Care

"You can point out the differences in skin color, hair texture, things that our kids know anyway," Taylor advises. "We need to celebrate differences and we also need to point out that we can come together and make a difference and it has to be that way. Black people cannot be the only ones teaching Americans about racism. It's a combined effort."

While "communication is key" regarding the issues, she says alongside her tips outlined for GMA, it's also important to talk to "talk to our children about the anxiety that we are feeling, which they are feeling as well, and teach them how to resolve that, how to soothe themselves."

"Because what we don't want is our children to associate their anxiety with the images that they're seeing on the TV," Taylor says.

Be Okay with Learning Together — and Walking the Walk

"In order to understand the present, we have to understand the past, and it might mean that you don't know all the answers and you don't feel confident even talking about this with your children. But that means that you could do some work to learn the answers to these questions," sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America Margaret Hagerman tells GMA.

Adds Taylor, "Look at mommy-and-me get togethers. You look at playdates. People need to look around and think, How diverse are those playdates? As important as it is to talk about racism, our children are not born racists. That is something that develops based on what they hear, what they see."

"It's really important to teach our children as early as possible to be allies, to stand side by side with their classmates," she continues. "Stand side by side by your playmates. Speak up when you see someone who is not involved or not invited to a birthday party and to support. We can teach that at birth by examples as parents."

George Floyd
| Credit: Ben Crump Law Firm
George Floyd's memorial site in Minneapolis
| Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In a report released Monday, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner listed Floyd's cause of death as a homicide — specifically, "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression." It also said he "experienced a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s)."

Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd to the ground, has been charged with third-degree murder, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. He and the three other officers present were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department last week. Floyd's family is seeking a first-degree murder charge to be filed against Chauvin.

In his essay for The Atlantic, Smith — who is the author of Counting Descent and the upcoming How the Word Is Passed — shares that he "wrote a letter to the son [he] might one day have" in 2015, in which he said, " 'I hope to teach you so much of what my father taught me, but I pray that you live in a radically different world from the one that he and I have inherited.' "

"Now I do have a son, and all the fears, anxieties, and joys I wrote about five years ago are no longer an abstraction," Smith adds in the essay. "They exist in his curly hair, his soft face, and his voice full of songs and questions. I am not sure how different the world I entered is from the one he has, but the past several weeks — to say nothing of the past several years — have made clear how fragile the project of progress truly is."

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.