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Research Summary: Talking with Kids about Police Violence

by Nicky Sullivan, PhD

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4 minute read – Skip to the key takeaways

Police violence against Black Americans is a big problem in the United States. Black, Latine, and Native Americans are more likely than those of other racial backgrounds to get stopped, harassed, and killed by police. Research shows that this is partly a problem of individuals (racist police officers), but it’s also a problem of structures. Structures are bigger than any one individual, and can include everything from police department policies, like policies that encourage over-policing Black neighborhoods or protect the use of excessive force, to the cultural transmission of negative stereotypes about Black Americans, like through the media. Because police violence has to do with structures in addition to individuals, to understand it and act against it we have to be able to think and talk about those structures.

Our project

In some prior research of ours, we found that kids and parents were mostly explaining police violence as a problem of individuals, and weren’t spending much time talking about structures. So in this project, we wanted to see what would happen if we gave kids structural explanations for police violence. Would they be able to understand them? Would it change how they thought? Here’s how we tested these questions:

  1. Between October 2023 and February 2024, we recruited parents of 193 7- to 13-year-old children (kids of color and white kids) from across the United States to participate in our study using the EmbraceRace R3 Network.
  2. We read these children a short storybook that introduced them to the problem of police violence.
  3. Within the story, children heard one of a set of different explanations about why the police kept hurting Black people:
    1. Some children heard an individual explanation, emphasizing that the problem was that some police officers just don’t like Black people.
    2. Other children heard a structural explanation, emphasizing that the problem had to do with police department policies.
    3. Other children heard a different structural explanation, emphasizing that the problem had to do with cultural messages stereotyping Black people as criminals.
  4. After the story, we asked children questions about what they thought: why they thought the police kept hurting Black people, what they thought should be done about it, and whether the children themselves wanted to do anything about it. That let us test how the explanations children heard affected the ways they were thinking about police violence.

What we found

We found that the explanations children heard mattered! When children heard explanations that focused on individuals (racist police officers), they were more likely to think that the problem was just about individuals. But when they heard explanations that focused on structures, they thought that both individuals and those structures were important, and they seemed to understand both types of structural explanations. This suggests that even pretty young children can understand structural explanations and integrate them into their thinking!

Still, kids who heard structural explanations weren’t any more likely to suggest solutions that targeted structures. That might be because these are big, complicated problems. It could be challenging for children to come up with solutions on their own, so they might need help from parents or other adults to think about how we might go about solving these types of structural problems. 

One concern you might have is that hearing structural explanations might be demotivating for kids–if a problem seems really big and hard to solve, children might not feel like they can do anything about it. But that’s not what we found! Children who heard structural explanations weren’t any less motivated, and if anything they might have been more motivated to do something about it. And overall, regardless of the explanation they heard, children were motivated to do something to address police violence, and they were especially motivated to learn more about the problem and what they could do about it.

In this study, we didn’t see any major differences in these patterns between children of different ages or racial identities – but future studies with larger sample sizes would be better able to detect these kinds of differences. We also found that kids might have been more responsive to the structural explanation about cultural messages than the one about policy – they seemed to find it easier to generate an explanation about cultural messages than about policy, and were slightly more motivated by that explanation to do something about the problem. However, we don’t know for sure whether those differences are due to the content of the explanations or the specific ways we chose to describe those explanations to children. More research will help us understand these questions better and provide more specific recommendations for caregivers.

Key Takeaways for Caregivers

  1. Push your conversations beyond individuals, to structures and systems. When talking with kids, don’t just frame police violence (and other racial inequalities) as being about individuals. By the time they’re in elementary school, children are capable of thinking about structural explanations, and so make sure to talk about the role that structures (like policies and stereotypes) play in addition to just biased individuals. Click here for our helpful guide!
  2. Build on the conversation over time. Police violence is a large and complicated problem, so single conversations might not be enough to help children understand the whole scope of it. So rather than thinking about it as one conversation you need to have, think about it as something that you can keep coming back to, and building on prior conversations. 
  3. Children want to learn more about police violence! So talk with them about it, and even if there are times where you’re not sure what to say, use it as an opportunity to learn together. It can be especially helpful to think about ways to make things concrete. What can they do, or what can you do together, to push back against police violence?

Further Resources

Get involved!

EmbraceRace community members like you were a part of this study. Want to support more antiracist research like this? Sign up for our Rapid Response Research Network to participate in future studies! Because when we know better, we can do better. 

Nicky Sullivan

Nicky Sullivan is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. His research explores how children learn and think about race, and his current work focuses on how White families talk about race, inequality, and identity. Born… More about Nicky >
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