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Opinion

How to raise African-American boys like Trayvon Martin to be careful, not paranoid

The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has opened a dialogue on broader issues. One is the unique challenge parents face in teaching African-American children to be safe but not fearful.

By Susan DeMersseman / April 2, 2012

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin (shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman), holds back tears standing next to Trayvon's father Tracy Martin during a rally demanding justice for his killing in Miami April 1. Op-ed contributor Susan DeMersseman says of her own son: 'As an African American male, if he feels he must go toe to toe over every...situation, he will not survive.'

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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Berkeley, Calif.

No matter the outcome of the controversy surrounding the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida late this February, the tragedy has opened a dialogue on broader issues. One is the unique challenge parents face in teaching African-American children to be safe but not fearful.

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Over the past few weeks, Americans are hearing from the parents of African-American children and even national figures about what special cautions go into raising their children.

My son was just seven when he climbed into the car one day after school, sat in silence for a minute, then said, “Something really unfair happened at school today.” He was so calm that I expected to hear about something that happened to someone else.

He had left his lunch tray outside while he went into the bathroom. When he returned he found that someone had stepped on his tray. The orange juice had spilled and the hot dog had been “smushed.” As he carried the remains to the garbage can, some juice dripped on the back of a classmate’s sweatshirt.

He apologized, but the girl’s little friend decided this was something worth telling the yard supervisor about. The yard supervisor, probably busy and distracted, sent him up to the principal.

What bothered my son the most was that the yard person didn’t listen to him. “I kept telling her it was an accident and that I said ‘sorry.’” No one was in the office, so he waited for a while, then went next door to his classroom, in a self-imposed time-out.

My son’s goal at that age was to grow up and be a comedian on TV, so he was no stranger to consequences. Spilling juice on someone, however, was not something he would consider amusing.

I did my best job as mother-detective and discerned that the situation had unfolded pretty much as he described it. I asked if he wanted me to do anything about it, and he thought for a minute. “I guess not,” he decided.

“You don’t want me to call about the yard teacher?”

“No,” he said. “Her son is nice, but she’s strict as a whip.”

It was clear from the reaction that, for him, the incident was unfair, but it was over. He seemed to understand, at his young age, that there would be some random unfairness in life.

And I was deeply grateful for that mature realization. As an African-American male, if he feels he must go toe to toe over every such situation, he will not survive.

In the urban community where I work as a psychologist, I am concerned about many of the young men I’ve worked with. They seem so ready to jump into conflicts over the smallest things. Some of it seems related to a sense of self worth so fragile that the smallest insult or perceived insult seems worth risking everything.

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