In the coming days no one knows what exactly is going to happen when the Grand Jury in the Darren Wilson case hands down its recommendation regarding whether he should be indicted for the killing of Mike Brown. I daresay we all hope for peace and justice, and we all hope that everyone will remain safe.
I have been a pediatrician for just over thirty years now. I moved to Missouri in 1986 and practiced in East St. Louis for ten years. For the past eighteen years I have practiced in St. Louis at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center. I have always worked in what are euphemistically called “underserved communities.” This usually means people who are poor. This usually means people who are black. This usually means people who are both. I have seen parents endure terrible hardships to keep their families together. I have seen grandparents heroically taking on the care of children years after they thought they were done with childrearing. I have been humbled by seeing kids who have done remarkable things under circumstances that, as a kid, would have sunk me.
Sadly, I have also seen families who have not been able to withstand the pressure of being poor, overworked, and marginalized. I have seen families fall apart. I have seen kids who have developed behavior problems because their brains have to be on high alert because of various ongoing threats in their environments. I have seen parents unable to continue to be parents because of the constant strain of wondering how they can feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads while working two or three minimum wage jobs that do not make ends meet.
I have also read posts on Timelines all over Facebook saying that these people just need to "get a job,” “calm down and go home,” “pull their pants up.” These commentators have all been white. They do not understand, and do not wish to understand, what it is like to live another reality, one where you are always, automatically suspect, one where you will not be shown houses in certain neighborhoods, one where your family had no alternative but to send you to a crappy public school. They know that they are doing better than the African-Americans who live a few miles away, and they actually believe they deserve it. They believe that their relative success is all due simply to their work ethic and their good choices. They do not believe in White Privilege, i.e., that being white in America confers certain advantages over non-white persons, because, when you have it, it is nearly invisible, and if you know you have it, your first reaction is to feel really guilty about it. So they deny it because it’s initially too painful to accept it.
But it’s true, and I know how I benefitted from it. I grew up in a safe, white, middle class suburb on Long Island, with excellent schools (our high school had a full time Russian language teacher), lovely parks and beaches, dependable pubic services, where my dad had a good-paying job as an aerospace engineer that he got as a result of a college education on the GI Bill. All that prepared me to go to an excellent college where I got scholarships and to medical school to do the work I am privileged to do today.
I could tick off, one by one, how many of those advantages are withheld from the kids who come to my office, as well as from their parents and families. The strange thing is not that Ferguson is happening; it’s that it’s taken this long to happen.
As I said above, I am a pediatrician. And in that role, I just want to make one plea to anyone who reads this about what may happen in the coming days: I would ask everyone who may be involved in public displays over the next few days to be aware of how this will affect the children in your lives.
Children are not just small adults. As we learn more about child development, we know this to be true on every level: physical, psychological, cognitive, emotional. What children need – and the younger they are the more they need this – is stability, predictability, and a feeling of safety. As a species, humans are altricial, that is, we are born more immature than just about any other mammalian species our size. That means that babies need nurturing, caring, feeding, swaddling longer than do infants of other species. The payoff, of course, is enormous in terms of intelligence, creativity, and the ability to love. Part of that process, though, requires that children know who will be tucking them in, who will feed them, who will bathe and dress them, when that will all happen, and who will love them. They need this to be the same from day to day, as much as possible. They need all this because they are trying to figure out how the world works. As infants mature from beings who, at about two months, smile at everybody, to babies who, at around six to eight months, begin to know who loves them and to choose them over strangers, to toddlers who will run off and jump and climb and fall at the slightest provocation, children have unique needs are various stages of life. What does not change is that they always need to be supervised, and they always, always need to feel safe.
So to those who will choose to be part of a demonstration, I respectfully hope that you will choose not to bring your children. While I completely understand the desire that your children should be witnesses to history – and I have no doubt that Ferguson will be part of the litany that now includes Selma and Montgomery – young children will not remember this. Their brains are not wired to retain clear memories during the first few years of life. Everyone in St. Louis and around the world knows that the only thing we can predict about the upcoming days is that they will be unpredictable. And that is not an atmosphere that is healthy for kids. If they see their parents yelling, being yelled at, being assaulted, they will experience only fear and threat, and that is never healthy for a child. I know you love your kids, and you are doing this to make a better world for them. Please leave them with a responsible adult. Please make sure you get home to tuck them in. Please tell them the stories of these days when they are old enough to understand the sacrifices you made for them.
And to those in law enforcement, if you encounter demonstrators with kids, please be aware of how your interactions will affect these children. One thing that has amazed me, both before August 9 and since, is that when I ask African-American kids who come to visit me in my office what they want to be when they grow up, a significant plurality of the boys say, “Police.” So many of these kids already see you as people of power. Please do all you can to make sure that your interactions with them and with their parents leave them with a sense of respect for you and what you do, rather than fear.
I truly believe that both demonstrators and law enforcement want to assure that everyone remains safe in the coming days. I truly believe that both demonstrators and law enforcement are doing what they do to make the world a better place for our children. And I truly hope that everyone will keep their kids at home where they can be safe and be best prepared for this better world to come.