“Sometimes, the police break the law.” -- Me, to The Girl, this week.
The Girl is ten, and The Boy is thirteen. TB seems in a sort of hurry to grow up; TG is enjoying being ten. But they’re both old enough to notice some of the things going on in the world around them. And they notice when a parent reacts emotionally to a news story.
Robin Williams’ death generated parental reactions, but it was easier to explain. The kids know about death, and we explained that he was a very funny actor we grew up watching. It was sad, but it didn’t shake a worldview.
The police shooting an unarmed young black man in Missouri was a harder case. How to explain that to a sane, happy, blisteringly intelligent ten year old whose world still mostly makes sense?
The Boy was born just a few months before 9/11. I remember TW being glued to the set as she nursed him. At the time, I was grateful that he was too young to understand what was happening. To protect my own mental health, I actually tuned out the news entirely for a few weeks. TB was tuned out by virtue of age. TG hadn’t been born yet.
My first “political” memory in childhood was Watergate. I had no idea what it was or why it was always on the tv -- sometimes preempting cartoons! -- but I knew Dad was glued to it, and I was miffed that it bumped Batman. (As it happens, IFC is running old Batman shows this week. TG enjoys the campy humor and the theme song.) One night I asked Mom what it was all about. She explained that the president’s friends had done something wrong, and he knew about it, but he didn’t tell anyone, and that was wrong, even for the president. She even mentioned that the president isn’t above the law, which is why he isn’t a king.
That was pretty heady stuff for a five-year-old, but I remember it. I liked the idea that even the president had to obey the law. It seemed fair. Forty years and a Ph.D. in political philosophy later, it still does.
Now I find myself explaining to my kids that even the police have to obey the law, and that sometimes, they don’t.
I don’t want to terrify them. Our next-door neighbor is a cop. Placing risks in perspective can be tough as a kid. And I want them to have enough room to reach their own conclusions over the years, even if they don’t align with mine; I don’t want to be the Dad who shoves his politics down his kids’ throats. So I focus on the stuff I consider foundational, like the idea that police are subject to the law. I told them that if someone random attacks you, you call the police. If the police attack you, who do you call? That’s why it’s extra important that the police follow the law.
It’s a tough balance. At ten and thirteen, they’re still looking for good guys and bad guys, and for all the right reasons. They want to be on the side of right. That’s a good instinct. Nuance can be a tall order for a fifth grader.
So I see my job as allowing bits of truth to get through as they seem capable of making sense of them, and providing context after the fact when unwelcome things get around the filter. Plant the seed now that authority figures are only human, and just let it grow. I didn’t hide that I was upset about what happened to Michael Brown in Missouri. Start with a basic respect for common decency, and go from there.
In the meantime, I want them to have enough of a visceral sense of safety that when they get older and that sense isn’t present, they notice. And enough of a visceral sense of fairness that when it’s violated, they notice that, too.
I followed Robin Williams’ career for thirty-five years. I’ll miss him. I never met Michael Brown, but his loss bothers me more. As they get older, I hope the kids will come to understand why.