The other day my son caught me off guard. Normally that is not the case, maybe something funny here or there, but typically I am not blindsided like this.
On our way to his church youth group, we saw a common sight, a police cruiser on patrol. Not engaged in pursuit or a stop, just present.
“Be careful, Dad, there is a policeman!” My son yelled with unusual urgency.
My response was a common one, that I was driving the speed limit and not doing anything wrong, so I was not worried.
But his urgent tone was concerning to me. It was rooted in genuine concern rather than sarcasm or play. I asked why he was so worried about the police officer.
“Policemen take daddies away, and I don’t want them to take you away.”
I was floored. At no point in his life has he been exposed to any negative talk about authority figures. In fact, his uncle is a police chief, and I spent a good part of my professional life working with police organizations, so his train of thought surprised and concerned me. It was coming from somewhere unknown, somewhere beyond our family and our household.
I questioned further, and further, and further until I could get to a reasonable explanation. It turned out that the idea that police officers could be harbingers of fear had come from school. The father of a girl in his class had recently gone to prison, discussions of which had dominated the playground talk (the elementary school version of the workplace water cooler) as of late. In these discussions the crime had been omitted, but what remained had been the fact that the police took her Daddy away.
My head was spinning. Not just because of the attitude regarding police but because I was having a difficult time forming a reasonable and cohesive response. Yes, the girl’s father had committed a crime, but he had also been convicted, served his time, and then released. While I did not want my son to think the police were bad, I also did not want the playground discussion to turn to how bad her father was, as I felt that his debt had been paid and the little girl had likely been through enough…call it Dad courtesy. I was confronted with parenting in the gray area, and this was proving to be a challenge.
I emphasized to my son that the police are there to protect people and that they only take a person away if that person has done something wrong.
As expected, he countered, “So her Dad is bad?”
I took extra care on this question. I asked him if he remembered the other day when he hit his brother, which really should have been more specific since he hits his brother every day. He was punished, he apologized, and we moved on. My son began to understand that her dad had made a mistake and was punished…and my son was able to move on.
He no longer thinks that the police exist to drag dads out of their homes for no reason, and I can rest reasonably assured that the little girl won’t be tormented on the playground for her dad’s actions.
As for the gray area, I’m sure this is the first in many conversations that land us there, and I’ll have to get more comfortable with navigating my children through it.