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Essay: Why my son thinks jail is a bad word

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

Two Black children sitting at a playground together.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Ajayi.

Jail is a bad word. Well, at least that’s what my four year old thinks. Every time a cartoon alludes to jail, he covers my eyes or tells me not to listen. You see, he’s noticed a pattern: if a show has “bad words” or “mature” content, I proceed to tell him it’s inappropriate and we can no longer watch said show. So if he covers my eyes, I can’t see the random animal or inanimate object being taken to jail (out of sight, out of mind) and his show remains in the appropriate rotation.

You might wonder why my son thinks jail is a bad word. Well, his mama just can’t figure out how to explain prison abolition and defunding the police or the wrongful imprisonment of his uncle or the continued anti-Black brutality carried out by police in a way that a four year old can understand.

So I stumble: “Eh uh... We don’t believe in jail... Well, jail is a thing but we don’t think people should go. People are not the worst thing they’ve ever done. People aren’t just bad or good… People are onions, you see? And police officers are people so they too are onions and they too are complicated and can exhibit good, bad and dangerous behaviors and jail isn’t a safe space for people and… The police officers killed another Black person today. And police officers killed Adam Toledo and Tamir Rice and Ma’Khia Bryant... and… and… and...”

TV shows aimed at preschoolers have a lot of bad guys and punishment and jail. The hero saves the day and throws the bad guy in jail. But my lived experience demonstrates that day-savers in cartoons are the “bad guys” in real life. So do I adopt the good guy bad guy philosophy and just tell my son cops are the bad guys. Full stop?

I don’t know if it’s easier in other towns and cities to have these conversations as children may be less likely to see cops. But, living in a Black neighborhood, we see police daily, sometimes several times a day. James Baldwin said, "Rare indeed is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality."

So how do I talk to my Black son, my very-much-still-a-baby, about the dangers of American policing without making him afraid of going outside? We pass a police station everyday on his way to school. How can I relay to him that police are dangerous for people that look like us, while his classmates may be taught to find safety and comfort in police officers? When many people view them as heroes? How can I explain to my four year old that he should call 911 if mommy and daddy are hurt, but he should not call 911 under any other circumstance? That even if we are hurt I am still afraid the ambulance we anticipate won't come?

How do I talk to my Black son, my very-much-still-a-baby, about the dangers of American policing without making him afraid of going outside?

Should I “not all cops”-splain my son? But how, when we can’t control which type of cop he’ll encounter one day? When it actually is all cops because it is, in fact, the system? How do I address educators in talking to my son about an institution that was founded on the continued desire to oppress Black people in this country post-slavery?

I don’t know, and everyday I am coming up with more eloquent answers, or at least more coherent responses. Until I can get it right, perhaps I’ll just cover his eyes.

Danielle Ajayi is a ParentCorps Specialist.

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