By Pamela A. Lewis
Like so many recent samples of footage showing police officers interacting with community residents, this was one that could not be un-seen: the mother of an unidentified nine-year-old Rochester girl had called the police because the girl was behaving erratically and was threatening to harm the mother. The officers struggled to get the girl into the police car and scolded her for disobeying their repeated orders to calm down as she asked for her father. As the girl’s behavior escalated, police threatened to pepper spray her, which one of them eventually did, and the action was subsequently captured in newly-released footage. The clip sparked vociferous outrage, and added yet another series of protests to the aleady large collection against police brutality. Elba Pope, the girl’s mother, said she was preparing to file a lawsuit against the police department.
However, one exchange between an officer and the young girl stood out: “Stop acting like a child,” he told her. “I am a child!” she answered forthrightly.
That brief but sharp exchange hit every corner of the media landscape, reviving the discussion about adultification bias, where children of color are frequently perceived as not only older, but as more aggressive, defiant, and disrespectful by white authority figures. This perception can often result in severe disciplining or at times become a matter of life and death. Operating under this perception, teachers, parents, and law enforcement are less protective of and more punitive toward children of color.
Over the last several years, there have been numerous incidents, of which the Rochester case is the most recent, in which Black children have been involved in and subjected to violent interactions with police, such as being body slammed, thrown to the ground, and having a loaded service revolver pointed at them. In one incident an officer shoved a girl through a plate glass store window.
In looking at the phenomenon of adultification, researchers have found that Black children generally, and Black girls in particular, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like” than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14. Whereas white children benefit from the assumption that children are innocent, Black children do not benefit from this assumption, as in the tragic case of Tamir Rice, who was mistaken to be much older than his actual 12 years of age by police, who thought the toy gun he was playing with was a real one. The officers claimed that they didn’t know that Rice was a kid. We can go even further back in this country’s history to the murder of Emmett Till, of whom one of his six killers said the 12-year-old “looked like a man.”
Many have argued that these occurrences give greater support to the need for police reform (regardless of whether the officer is Black or white), as they are clearly ill-equipped to interact appropriately with communities of color, particularly with their youngest members. However, adultification bias is not confined just to the police, but is, as mentioned earlier, a perception problem on the part of (predominantly, but not exclusively) white authority figures vis-à-vis children of color, one which amounts to causing those children to be deprived of their childhood, and which raises the question as to whether we see all children as children.
Although the faith backgrounds (if they exist) of the Rochester police officers who pepper-sprayed the nine-year-old girl are unknown, it might be helpful to look at how our own faith tradition has regarded children, and to search the Scriptures for what they have to say to us, particularly to those who interact with non-white children and young people, about the status of children.
In the West, our concept of childhood is recent and culturally-determined. Childhood was not always the prolonged period of freedom and innocence that presently characterizes this stage of human existence. In the ancient world childhood was brief, and children reached adulthood at the age when today’s counterparts become adolescents. Along with women, the elderly, and slaves, children were seen as weak and burdens to society; abandoning unwanted children along roadsides or exposing them to the elements was an accepted and common practice.
Christ’s teachings concerning the treatment of children — that they should be valued and respected — stood as a striking departure from prevailing attitudes. Rather than considering them as nuisances who only get in the way and reveal adults’ secrets, Christ presents them as the greatest in the coming kingdom. He encourages people to bring their children to him, for “such is the kingdom of heaven.” This kingdom is a new moral realm, where adults and children are equal and have dignity, and to become as a child is the prerequisite for entrance.
Important to note, however, is the distinction between becoming like little children, as Christ had taught his followers, and Saint Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to stop acting like children (1 Cor. 13:15). When one stops acting like a child he puts away “childish things.” Complete trust and dependency are the distinguishing traits of the kingdom’s citizens; acting out and having the superficial and undeveloped understanding of a child, are, in Paul’s view, contrary to Christ’s kingdom. We are to be childlike, not childish. Even as adults, we can be “both/and”: vulnerable, guileless, and trusting as children typically are; but we can also put aside “childish” behavior and limited understanding of God and of the world and grow into a fuller adulthood.
So what did the police officer mean when he told the 9-year-girl to “stop acting like a child”? Whether or not he was aware that she was a child, he wanted her to calm down, to control herself, to stop — in his view — behaving in an unbridled and immature manner. But the nine-year-old, despite her agitated state, was fully aware that she was a child, and that she was not at that moment being treated as one, as she had been hand-cuffed and threatened with pepper spray, actions which are usually visited upon adults. Who was the real child in this interaction?
If self-control is one of’ the hallmarks of adulthood, the adult officer lost his self-control in order to exercise control (and power) over the young girl by pepper-spraying her into submission. In that moment, the officer ceased being an adult, yet was far from being childlike.
Adultification bias is another insidious manifestation of racism, which deprives children of color of being themselves and of passing through the vital stage of childhood that is essential for becoming an adult. It stunts the emotional and spiritual growth of the child and of the one who adultifies that child. Those who teach or work closely with children, especially with children of color, need to be vigilant of their words and actions, much as I needed to during my years as a classroom teacher. This responsibility is all the greater for Christians, whose supreme model in Christ called attention to the “least” among us and taught how they must be treated. All children are precious in the sight of God. If we forget this, may we then hear a voice saying, “I am a child.”
Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City. She writes on topics of faith.