Parents see protests as a teaching moment for their children

Parent: Children 'need to see that they can be angry and upset without tearing up the city.'

James Henderson grabbed his daughter Kya's tiny hand and reminded his youngest, Kendall, to hold on to him as the family joined a crowd of about 100 Saturday on a march to City Hall.

Henderson, 42, of Northeast Baltimore, said he wanted his children — Kendall, 7; Kya, 8; and James Jr., 15 — to witness firsthand the power protesters can have to bring change to a beleaguered city.

He was among the many parents who brought young children over the past two weeks to participate in the protests following Freddie Gray's death.

Many of the parents, both black and white, said they wanted to teach their children the power of their voices. Others said they wanted to use the experience to educate their kids about their rights — and to give them a chance to be a part of history.

"They need to see that they can be angry and upset without tearing up the city," said Henderson, a 2000 graduate of Morgan State University and a self-employed accountant. "That's why it's very important for them to be a part of this."

Sociologists and psychiatrists said taking part in the protests, provided the experience remains peaceful, could be an effective tool to help shape children's future civil engagement.

Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that while research is limited, it suggests that civic engagement helps shapes youngsters into involved adults.

"One thing we do know is, children getting involved in all sorts of civic activity, making speeches, writing letters, participating in protests [makes them] better citizens in the future," said Fisher, who has studied large protests.

The reasons parents take their children to protests "probably run the gamut," Fisher said. Some may bring a child as a political act while other parents may have no child care options.

Henderson said he remembers attending protests growing up in Pontiac, Mich., about 30 minutes outside Detroit. He and his wife, Nicole, spent time this past week participating in cleanup efforts, but Saturday was the first time their children joined the action.

James Jr. said he wanted to lend his voice to the call for justice.

"People are going through some pain over Freddie Gray," the boy said. "Some people have been rioting and looting and breaking windows. I totally disagree with that. That's not why I am here."

Dr. Victor G. Carrion, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University Medical Center, said caretakers should explain to children what they'll see at the protest and what it all means.

"We have an opportunity here to teach children about justice, about prejudice, about racism, about authority — these are all very, very important lessons," Carrion said.

But, he added, if a child isn't given the proper context for the event, standing in a protest could make the youngster feel scared or insecure.

In all cases, he said, "context is key. You have to give the background. You should do it in the way that is developmentally appropriate."

Whether participating is constructive for a child also depends on the behavior parents model, he said. Children who aren't given an explanation about what they'll witness, or whose parents behave in an angry way, could have a harmful experience, he added.

"If the child experiences their caretaker who is not in control of his or her anger ... this is going to increase the anxiety of the child," Carrion said.

At a rally outside the Western District police station April 26, Richard Crary crouched down next to his 6-year-old daughter to offer earplugs and a quick hug. Crary and his wife, Aimee Pohl, from Baltimore's Govans neighborhood, said the noise and the crowds could be "a little scary at times" for their daughter, but they felt the pros of her attending outweighed the cons.

Pohl said the child heard talk about Gray's death on the radio and had many questions for her parents, such as why the officers weren't immediately arrested and whether they could continue to be police.

"It's important to be here," Pohl said. "We didn't want the conversation to end on something horrible. We wanted the conversation to go to, 'That's why we go out and we demand justice.'

"That was an important lesson — to not just hear about horrible things that happen, but that you can do things about them."

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