Talking about prison with my three-year-old
by Sachi Feris
When my daughter was just a year old, I remember being struck by this interaction between a mother and her child at the playground:
I was standing in front of the bridge that connects the steps to the slide of the playground structure. My still-crawler was crawling across the bridge with glee.
Another child, a White child about three years old, was standing on the bridge, looking through the bars meant to keep children from falling, and holding a bar with each hand.
“Are you in jail?” the child’s mother, also White, asked.
My first thought was, “why introduce the concept of jail to a three-year-old?” considering the problematic explanation of jails or prisons defined as “where bad people go.” (See Madeline, Race, and the problem with ‘good versus bad’ for related post).
My second thought was, “I can’t imagine a person who identifies as Black would joke to their three-year-old about being in prison.”
Today, my husband and I had a conversation about prison with our three-and-half-year-old that began with my daughter “stealing” my husband’s coveted earphones and a joke about how if you steal something, you could go to prison.
“What’s a prison?” my daughter asked.
“Prison is a place where people go when they commit a crime—and it’s a place where you can’t leave if you want to, so it’s a very sad and scary place.”
“Like if you had to stay locked in the bathroom all day,” my husband added, “…would you like that?
“No,” my daughter affirmed.
“And in the United States,” I said, “there are many, many people who are in jail who shouldn’t be in jail but, instead, need help. For example, someone who was so hungry that they stole food…that person doesn’t need to be in prison. It’s wrong to steal but what that person really needs is a job so they can make money to buy food.” (Again, see Madeline, Race, and the problem with ‘good versus bad’ for related post).
“And,” I added, “if you are White and you commit a crime, like stealing something, the police might say ‘that was wrong, don’t do that again,’ and that’s all…but if you are Black and commit the same crime, they might arrest you and you might go to prison. And that isn’t fair.”
My daughter’s first concern was that someday she might go to prison. “But I’m White,” my daughter confirmed, “so I won’t go to prison.”
“Yes,” I told her, “you are White. And you won’t go to prison because you aren’t going to commit a crime. Would you want to steal from someone or hurt someone?”
“Right, so you won’t do anything that would mean you have to go to prison. But people who are Black have to worry about being arrested even when they haven’t committed a crime. And that makes me really mad and sad—and I don’t like living in a world where my friends who are Black have to worry about that.”
“Let’s play prison,” she proposed.
“No,” I told her seriously. “If you want to play prison, you can play by yourself. For me, prison is a very ugly and scary thing, and I don’t like the idea of playing prison.”
My daughter shortly entertained the idea of playing prison with her stuffed animals, but decided against this solo play.
Later that day, on revisiting the above conversation about #WalkingWhileBlack, she shared:
“And that’s why people make signs,” my daughter told me.
“You mean protest?” I confirmed.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I could help make a sign but maybe you could help me with the letters.” (In another post, I wrote about talking about #BlackLivesMatter with my daughter and what we could do to try to take action.)
If you are interested in prompting a conversation about prisons with your child, click here to learn more about the work of the Center for Court Innovation (and consider supporting their work!).
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and almost four-month-old son.