Scared of police

A book series I loved as a child, The Moffats, includes an incident in which Jane Moffat hides from the Chief of Police, afraid that he’s there to arrest her. Eventually she’s found and confesses her fears, and he assures her that police are for her protection. Most children are constantly aware that there’s something they’ve done that they shouldn’t, so a rules-minded child like my daughter might also be afraid when she sees an authority figure. The opportunity to reassure her, “Police are your friends,” just came up this week. I didn’t take it. How could I?

Mookie was telling me about a friend who’s scared “of everything.” Like what, I asked. “The dark . . . monsters . . . she’s even scared of policemen.” Really? Scared of police? “Yes,” Mookie said. “But police aren’t anything to be scared of. They’re here to help us.”

This is how these opportunities arise. How do we talk to our kids about race? As the issue arises, and it will, all the time, if we’re listening. How do we talk about police brutality? The same way we talk about any other difficult subject: honestly, at their developmental level, and with faith that they can handle tough information if they know we’re here to help them. People with black children have to have these conversations as a matter of survival. My white child needs these conversations, too, for the survival of her soul. After all, what we teach in church and our home is that other people’s troubles are our troubles, and that unfairness is wrong whether we’re the ones who got the smaller slice of cake or the bigger one. That when we notice that someone’s being hurt, we have to do something about it, and that if we’re not noticing, we have to pay better attention.

So I would love to be able to say to her, “You’re right. Police aren’t anything to be scared of.” But I’d be lying. So I said, “Police are supposed to be here to help us, and usually they are. But sometimes they do really bad things.” I wish I could report the whole conversation, but I can’t remember the details. I know we touched on how people make assumptions based on other people’s color, and that police do that too, even though they shouldn’t, and how that means that some people have to be scared of the police, too, instead of knowing they can turn to them for protection. (Is her friend’s fear well-founded? She’s Latina; her parents immigrated here; maybe someone in the family is in the U.S. without papers. I stayed off that topic, not wanting a thoughtless comment from Mookie to give her friend any more real monsters to fret about.)

The subject will arise again, just as it arose when she was sitting on my lap when I learned that Darren Wilson wouldn’t be charged, and couldn’t help from gasping and sighing.

(“What’s wrong, Mama?”

“A teenage boy was killed by a police officer, and he isn’t even going to be arrested.”

“Why did he kill him?”

“I don’t know. We’ll never know the whole story, since there isn’t going to be a trial now.”

“But he was just a teenager!”)

It will come up because it just keeps happening.

(In a tiny flat in London, bent over with pain from the news from home: the decision by a Florida jury. “What’s wrong, Mama?”

“A man should have gone to prison because he shot a boy. But he isn’t going to go to prison.”

“Why did he shoot him?”

“I don’t know. He says it’s because he was scared. Some white people think that someone is dangerous just because he’s black.”)

Just like the time before and the time before that. The girl her age who was killed by a Detroit cop who burst into her home firing a submachine gun, whose killer won’t even be charged with manslaughter; the Cleveland boy a few years older whom the police killed only two seconds after jumping out of their car. It will keep happening. The opportunities to talk about it won’t run out, and I won’t always know what to say, what to ask her, how much to tell her. I just know that nothing in our values as parents and people allows us to tell her, even implicitly, “You don’t have to worry about this because you’re white, and blond, and female, and not poor.” It’s our world, and our worry, all of us.

When Jane went past [the Chief of Police’s] house, she was careful not to step off the sidewalk onto the lawn even one little inch. She tried to remember always to walk, never to run, lest the Chief of Police take her for a thief running from the scene of her latest crime. But she never walked too slowly lest she be arrested for loitering. (Eleanor Estes, The Moffats,  25)

I’d love to tell my daughter that that’s the amusing paranoia of a child. But it’s too close to the real experience of millions of her countrypeople: not paranoid, not childish, not amusing.


I am taking a break from cleaning my home office to type up a conversation I found written on a piece of paper there. I don’t know when this took place. I’m thinking last winter or spring, but I didn’t record the date.

Mookie: Mama, you know how I try to fly like a bird–like a tooth fairy?

Me: Oh yes?

Mookie: You know how?

Me: No, how?

Mookie: I jump up really high and flap my wings.

Me: And did you take off?

Mookie: No.  I need to practice more, I think. (pause) I wish I were a bird.

– – –

We went to Bass Lake this past weekend for our church’s family camp, and Mookie was very interested in hearing about people’s dreams. She walked up to one after another and said, “Tell me your dream!” Many did.

The next morning, as we were snuggled in our sleeping bag, she said,

Mookie: Every dreamer needs a dream.

Me (falling back on what I often use when I’m scared of breaking the spell, the Neutral Repetition): Every dreamer needs a dream…

Mookie: And I’m a dreamer.

I told her what I could remember of my dreams from that night.

A few minutes later, and unrelated to anything I’d said, she started asking about Hogwarts, wistfully wondering if it were real.

Mookie: I want to go see it.

Me: We might not be able to. If Muggles go near it, it doesn’t look like a castle to them. It just looks like old ruins with a sign saying “Danger, keep out.”

Mookie: Let’s go look for ruins.

THAT’S OUR GIRL! I decided it’s not quite time to tell her about the Disneyworld or Universal Studios versions, though you can bet we’re going to splurge and go there when she’s older.

Birth mom and . . .

Mookie has been interested in how babies are made for a long time. I’ve answered numerous times, since my dear wife’s response is invariably to say “That’s Mama’s department” and hide in her cave. She claims it’s because I’m the go-to person on what she calls “the squishy sciences”–i.e., biology–and it’s true, when Mookie has physics or engineering questions, I refer her to Mommy (but don’t hide in my cave, because I’d like to know the answers too). I do like biology and know more about anatomy and physiology than she does, dating to my 3rd grade ambition of becoming a doctor, but we both know the truth: she’s avoiding That Topic.

So Mookie and I have often consulted “the body book,” a favorite of mine from back in that 3rd grade year, which I’m sorry to see is out of print because it’s terrific. She knows quite a lot about how our bodies work. Nevertheless, different pieces of the puzzle fall into place at different times. Last week, I made a comment about some trait she got from Mommy, and she said, “No, I didn’t, because she isn’t my birth mom.” That was the first time we heard her put together the concepts “mother who gave birth to you” (amply demonstrated by photos of me pregnant) and “mother from whom you get some of your traits.” Actually that isn’t necessarily the same person, but she doesn’t know about IVF and that one mom can contribute the egg while the other mom gestates the baby, and as it happens, that isn’t what we did, so she is right: the egg that made Mookie came from me.

Other questions she’s raised have been about adoption (“Did you adopt me or did you have a baby and it was me?,” which I think probably didn’t arise from her having two moms but from her knowing that many people are adopted, including some of her school friends) and what childbirth feels like (having received an honest answer, she is dead set against it and intends either to adopt children, or else have her friend S., whom she plans to marry unless she marries that nice boy we met in the airport the other day, be the birth mom). But one question she hasn’t asked is how two women managed to conceive a child in the first place. She has all the information she needs to figure out that she’s missing a step of the process, but the penny hasn’t dropped. One of these days she’s going to say, “Hey, wait a minute!” the way she did yesterday when she finally made the connection between Chewie the Wookiee and Chewie our late cat.

I wonder, though, whether the imbalance of having one parent who conceived and bore her, and one parent whose role is less evident, has been on her mind, because a few days after her “I don’t take after Mommy” declaration, while we were visiting family, we had this conversation.

Mookie: How do you make babies?

Me: [I offer silent prayer of gratitude that my dad and stepmother are on the other end of the house, explain the man-has-sperm, woman-has-egg thing again]

Mookie: And then the baby comes out of the birth mama. I’m never going to do that. Maybe S. could be the birth mama.

Me: Maybe. You’ll have to ask S. about that.

Mookie: Or I could adopt a baby.

Me: Great idea.

Mookie: What names did you have for me before you named me?

Me: You mean, what other names did we think of?

This was a departure. We’ve told her how we chose her name, but she’s never asked about it in the context of pregnancy and birth before.

Mookie: Yes.

Me: Well, you know we were thinking of names that began with __, after your great-grandma . . . [I tell her a few names we considered]

Mookie: Why didn’t you pick those?

Me: Oh, I would like one but Mommy wouldn’t like it as much. And Mommy liked _____, but it’s my middle name, and I thought you should have a different name than mine.

Mookie: I’m glad you didn’t choose that one. I would choose ______ [her actual name, which I’ll call {Mookie} from now on to add a little more confusion].

Me: Well, that worked out perfectly. We must have known.

Mookie: So how did you choose it?

Again, this is all old territory, but she’s never asked about it step by step like this.

Me: So we were talking about this name and that name, and then one day Mommy called me and said, “How about [Mookie]?” “[Mookie]!” I said. “That’s beautiful!” And we named you [Mookie].

Mookie: So you’re my birth mom and Mommy is my namer mom.

Me: Yes!

Mookie: [laughs]

Me: You’ll have to tell Mommy that when we get back home.

Mookie: I want to tell her right now!

So we are now her Birth Mama and Namer Mommy. Maybe it is her way of making sense of our different roles. But I still think she takes after her Mommy. Smart as a whip, stubborn as a nut on a rusted bolt, sweet as maple syrup.