Bryant Nash is a little guy, 8 years old, and a bit shy.
He likes video games and the Seattle Seahawks and the movie “Karate Kid,” and lately — since the tear gas canisters started exploding and rubber bullets started popping — he’s been asking his mom a single question.
“I don’t think he fully understands,” said Rosalind Mitchell, Bryant’s mother. “I think he’s just trying to understand.”
Since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen preparing to start college, was shot to death Aug. 9 by a Ferguson police officer, it’s a question widely repeated by the children who fill the nearby homes.
In the past week, as their town has become the center of a national controversy, Ferguson’s children have struggled to make sense of what they’ve seen: Vigils. Stores burned and looted. Men in military gear pointing weapons from atop armored trucks.
Some see it only on TV screens. But others — many among the throngs of adult protesters on West Florissant Avenue — have witnessed it.
And the result, say parents, is a combination of curiosity and confusion.
Parents are left grappling with questions over what to say, when to say it and how to address the mature topics — racial tension, profiling, police brutality — that their kids may not fully grasp.
And as the events in Ferguson continue, parents wonder: How, exactly, is it affecting the children?
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Located roughly 12 miles northwest of St. Louis, Ferguson is a town of large, leafy trees and tidy, one-story homes. Though it is no stranger to long-standing racial tensions, residents say, actual conflict has been rare.
“It’s just been a very quiet area,” said Katherine Wells, a 27-year resident of Lang Drive, near Brown’s home.
But by Wednesday, everything had changed. Law enforcement officers walked the streets in fatigues, toting large weapons. Buildings were damaged. Peaceful protesters were arrested.
And parents were left to decide how much of the conflict their children should experience.
Some parents, like Mario Pascal Charles, planted their children in the heart of the action, hoping to turn a troubling situation into a lesson.
“I told (my son) that a little boy got killed and we’re out here to show people that we deserve to be treated fair,” said Charles, who protested Thursday night.
Others are wary.
Lynn Morrison’s 15-year-old son was on the front line of protesters Wednesday night. He was sitting peacefully, she said, when police began firing tear gas and instructing protesters to leave the area.
When she headed back to West Florissant Avenue on Thursday for another protest, she left her son behind, sending him instead to a vigil in downtown St. Louis with his grandmother.
What Morrison’s son had seen the night before, she said, shook him, even if he wasn’t prepared to talk about it.
“I think he was scared,” she said. “But he didn’t want to tell me.”
Parents’ concerns are far from unfounded, say experts on childhood trauma and development.
Witnessing scenes like those in Ferguson can have lasting effects, manifesting as anything from excessive temper to aggression to lingering distrust of authority.
“These kinds of events, particularly when they’re close to home, they produce traumatic stress in children — particularly young children,” said Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist and fellow at the Fielding Institute for Social Innovation in Santa Barbara, Calif. “And they do it in ways that — we know from research — really do affect them for the rest of their lives.”
Others worry how police response to protesters will affect kids’ long-term views of law enforcement.
“I don’t want my kids to be afraid to call the police when they need them,” said Shaneka Johnson, 30, who has three children ranging in age from 5 to 10.
The possible long-term consequences of the events haven’t been lost on members of law enforcement.
Capt. Ronald Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol mingled with protesters after he was named by Gov. Jay Nixon as head of security operations in Ferguson. Others also made themselves available for conversations — sometimes passionate — with younger protesters.
“You’ve got to talk to these young guys out here,” said Ronnie Robinson, a major with the St. Louis police who walked Thursday amid the protesters. “You’ve got to find out what’s on their mind and what they’re concerned about.
“They have a voice, and they need to be recognized.”
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As America’s gaze remains centered on a single Ferguson intersection, nearby schools have been bracing for the aftereffects.
In response to the protests, the Ferguson-Florissant School District postponed the start of its school year from Thursday to Monday, and administrators have arranged for extra counselors.
“There’s a lot of tough conversations that have to be had,” said Jana Shortt, a district spokeswoman.
Teachers find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
Tom Lawson teaches American history, world history, government and criminal justice at McCluer High School.
He is ready for questions and confusion. But he hopes the situation can be used as a teaching tool, a way to foster constructive communication with students.
“I think schools are going to be that agent,” Lawson said. “I think they’re the ones that can bring the healing power and give the students an opportunity to express themselves.”
Indeed, kids can be resilient, said Stephen Gray Wallace, a school psychologist, family counselor and director of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Adolescent Research and Education.
Things like structure and routine will help them sort through their emotions, as will communication.
“Kids might be processing this for a long time, and it’s probably worth a revisit every once in a while,” Wallace said. “It’s good to try to keep track of how they’re feeling.”
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Here’s how 9-year-old Eryn Jackson feels: “I’m confused because he didn’t have no gun or nothing, and some people are doing something bad and they burned down the building because they were so mad.”
She stands in the parking lot of what just days before was a QuikTrip. It’s a place she and her father, Aaron Jackson, regularly went together. They’d get doughnuts, hot dogs and slushies.
Now the store is burned out, a boarded-up shell.
Eryn wants to know what happened, why a boy was shot. Her father has done his best to answer her questions, but she’s smart, he says, and picks up a lot on her own.
“Anybody that sees this and knows what’s going on,” Jackson said, “it’s going to have an impact on them.”
And with many questions still unanswered — and with sizable protests continuing — the situation appears far from over.
All of it has left a lingering uncertainty.
At the QuikTrip on Thursday, Aaron Jackson worried what nightfall would bring.
He went to gather his daughter, who had made her way to a patch of pavement in the parking lot and was crouched writing with chalk. Just yards away, thousands of protesters yelled and chanted and sang.
A week ago, Jackson said, his daughter had no clue about any of this. At 8 years old, she had no reason to.
But things are different now. The last week in Ferguson has left much changed.
“I’m pretty sure,” Jackson said, “that she gets it now.”
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