Care and Feeding

My 5-Year-Old Is Way Too Obsessed With Police Officers

How do I teach him that cops aren’t “friendly heroes” to everyone?

White 5-year-old boy dressed up as a police officer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by McIninch/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My lovely, outgoing son is 5 years old. For the past year or so, he has been absolutely obsessed with police officers. He loves their uniforms, cars, and dogs. He tells everyone he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, and whenever he sees a police officer, he runs up to them and says hi. In our overwhelmingly white suburb, this is always well received; cops are usually idle and don’t mind letting him touch their cars or look at their outfits.

I’m a little conflicted about this obsession, for obvious reasons. I know my son views police officers as friendly heroes because we are white and well-off—and he loves Paw Patrol—and I’m struggling to decide how to expose him to the reality that for many people, they are anything but heroes. I have been neutral toward his obsession so far: When he says he wants to be a police officer, I try to bring up other jobs where you can help people (like an ambulance driver!), and rather than let him dress up as a policeman for Halloween last year, I made an alternate suggestion and he went with it. Nevertheless, I’m wondering whether it’s time to have a serious conversation with him about the role of the police and, if so, if you have any advice about doing that.

—Sound the Alarm

Dear StA,

If you have not started talking to your child about social inequities, specifically those related to race, class, and gender, now is the time to begin that dialogue. For him to understand what’s wrong with policing, he has to know why they function as they do in the first place.

Once you’ve explained the ways that racism, classism, and sexism define the world we live in, you can tell your son how police function to uphold those inequities. Instead of saying that police are not viewed as heroes by all, explain that it is actually quite rare that police are heroic. The harassment, abuse of power, and violence are essentially written into the laws that they are sworn to uphold; for police, bad behavior is not a bug but a feature. Study after study has shown that police are woefully ineffective when it comes to preventing and solving crime, and we do a disservice to our children by pretending that it’s the “bad cops” alone who are the problem.

Ask your little one what it is about police that he admires so much; he’s likely to mention some virtues that theoretically should define an institution that is designed to protect communities. Continue to nudge him toward people and groups who actually represent those values, such as firefighters, nurses, and teachers, while also explaining that there are bad actors in those roles as well but the difference between a “bad” firefighter and a “bad” cop is that the job of being a firefighter was not created in order to do harm to vulnerable people.

This may sound like a lot for a 5-year-old, but I assure you that he can handle it. Remember: Black children, poor children, and many others don’t have the privilege of learning these lessons later in life in the service of protecting their innocence, or because it’s so hard to talk about in what feels like age-appropriate terms. I’m heartened by the fact that you’re even contemplating this conversation. Please keep going!

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

I have a 6-year-old first grader doing all-online remote learning. It’s been two weeks, and she is having a really hard time with it. One day she was getting frustrated and started crying; she got up because she was upset, and the teacher promptly called her out by name to sit back down, which made her cry harder. I actually went on camera to tell the teacher that she was crying and needed a break. But on top of this, I’m getting burned out by this new normal.

We have numerous daily assignments that I find difficult to do during the workday. A few of us parents have asked the teacher if it’s possible to release the assignments early, but she said that wasn’t possible. So in between doing my own work and trying to keep my kid from having a meltdown, I’m also trying to do math homework and scavenger hunts. To complicate matters, I also have an 8-month-old I’m pretty much ignoring except when he’s hungry or needs a diaper change. (Because I’m a terrible parent, I’ve been letting him have obscene amounts of screen time, so he’s usually keeping himself entertained.)

Do you have any advice? Or just words of comfort that I’m not a screw-up? My kid hates school, my team is getting annoyed with me, my baby’s rotting his brain on crappy YouTube videos, and I’m pretty sure I’m already that annoying parent who’s grating on the teacher. Help!

—Losing It

Dear LI,

You are me, and we are you—all of us, every parent, everywhere. Remote school sucks. Working from home while being expected not merely to keep our children distracted so they don’t bother us but to actively engage in their “learning” process sucks. Everything sucks right now, and that’s not your fault.

You’ve got two very young children and a job, all needing your attention at once. It sounds to me like you’re doing the absolute best you can, and you should give yourself some grace.

You can and should be empathetic to the challenges that your child’s teacher is faced with as she tries to teach a group of ostensibly wiggly and weary 6-year-olds, but not to the detriment of your child. While none of us want to be “that annoying parent,” there are times when we can and must speak to our children’s teachers on their behalf. If multiple parents are having a problem keeping up with the pacing of this particular classroom, then it very well may be the case that the teacher needs to make some adjustments in order to allow families to effectively participate. Request a meeting and speak to her at length about your concerns. Encourage other parents to do the same. If you find she is unwilling to work with you all to make things work, you may need to have a conversation with the principal.

As far as your infant goes, make sure you’re choosing educational videos that both delight him and help to sharpen his little brain. Schedule short periods, five minutes or so, throughout the day when you’re pausing to give him some cuddles and affection—and don’t forget to make time to lavish your 6-year-old with a little extra TLC as well. (Hopefully she’s getting periodic breaks from class; consider aligning your downtime with her schedule if you can.)

None of this is your fault; we are all floundering right about now. Just do your best to keep your babies upbeat—even if that means explaining for the first time that teachers are not always right—and grounded by the fact that they have a parent who loves them and is doing what they can.

If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding

This year has created a lot of divides, and my family is no exception. I come from a mixed political family (Dad’s a Republican, and Mom’s a Democrat). While they don’t agree, they are logical moderates and have had a happy 40 years of marriage. I was taught that politics was not an appropriate topic at family gatherings since my aunts are extremists and childhood rivals, and their fights never end well. (Example: A brick was once thrown through a window after Thanksgiving dinner.)

I am married to an amazing man who shares my political views, but his family is the polar opposite. Before we met, he was estranged from them for years due to their extremist views. However, he is very passive-aggressive about it; he makes fun of them with friends but never confronts them. We have a 4-year-old daughter. I have kept the peace with my in-laws for the sake of family and my daughter having a relationship with her grandparents, but last Christmas, my husband’s extended family thought it would be funny to teach my daughter the phrase “Make America Great Again” and have her say it at the dinner table! I was shocked; I have made my views clear and cannot get over them trying to bring my little one into this since she is the only reason we tolerate their politics. (In reality, it is their white supremacy that I abhor.)

The coronavirus created a great excuse for space, but now my in-laws are looking for “granddaughter time,” and I just can’t seem to get past this. I have endured insults regarding my own political views and tried to keep my husband from his passive-aggressive retaliation, but I really don’t want to make an effort anymore. My daughter has a great relationship with my parents, and my husband adores my dad (another sticking point with his father). Can I cut off contact with this side of the family, or do I have to stick it out for my daughter to have a relationship with her grandparents?

—Is Family More Important?

Dear IFMI,

I’m speaking from my heart, and I hope you can receive this.

You aren’t the first, or the last, Democrat who has pondered whether to cut themselves off from such loathsome relatives. Alas, far too many white Americans have chosen their relationship with their loved ones over doing the right thing, and that is one of the reasons we are in this predicament: living under a bigoted, misogynist president who grossly mishandled a pandemic to the point of hosting what may be categorized as a superspreader event, a man who has encouraged white supremacist organizations and counts known white supremacists among his most trusted advisers.

These in-laws do not just stand diametrically opposed to what you believe in—they have made a spectacle of exposing your child to their nonsense. What value do they offer to your daughter? Family is so often associated with legacy and love; however, they are not the only sources of those things. Your daughter can understand who she is and where she comes from without having to be exposed to white nationalists who very well may plant seeds in her mind that may be difficult to destroy. She has your non-MAGA relatives to dote on her. Friends and community members can stand in the gap for the cousins and aunts or Pop Pop whom she may “miss out” on knowing if you and your man do the right thing and cut these losers off for good.

Talk to your husband and let him know you’d prefer to have little to no contact with these people, and that goes for your child as well. Fuck your in-laws. They did this to themselves. Perhaps if there were more social consequences for bigotry, it wouldn’t be so popular. Good luck, and I hope you do the right thing for you and your little girl.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety for about a year now, and the pandemic has made it worse. I won’t go into detail, but it’s pretty bad. I don’t have any friends at my high school (my best friends moved away, then there are the COVID protocols, and my dislike of direct eye contact, my introverted nature, and my poor conversation skills have made it very, very difficult to make new friends) so school is no longer enjoyable. Home isn’t much better. If I try talking to my parents about depression or anxiety, I get responses like “just be less sad/nervous,” or “pray more” (I’ve tried, with mixed results), or “focus on your interests.” (When I try to talk about my interests I get shut down with comments like “Why would you waste that brilliant mind of yours learning about that?”) If I tell them I’d like to see a mental health professional or a therapist or something, they’ll say that they will call the doctor, but then nothing happens.

I don’t know what to do. We’ve incurred some unexpected expenses recently, so I’m afraid of being a financial burden on my family, but I cannot keep living like this. I want to feel supported by my parents, not shut down. Do you have any advice?

—I Know They Love Me, But …

Dear IKTLMB,

First, let me say that I am so, so proud of you for recognizing you need some support that you aren’t receiving and for taking steps to try to figure out what to do to change that. I hope you can be proud of yourself for that as well.

There are a number of free and low-cost therapy apps and sites that will allow you to speak to a professional from the safety of your home. (I found a great list with some options here.) Pick out one or two that seem like a good fit for you and present the idea to your parents. Hopefully they will recognize that you have taken this step because this is a serious matter to you, and hopefully they will be supportive; perhaps knowing that therapy does not have to be a major expense will help them get past their hesitation to get you into some sort of treatment.

I would also recommend speaking to your teacher or another trusted adult who may be able to speak to your parents on your behalf. It is very important that they come to understand you are fighting a difficult battle, and you deserve their support.

Pop culture often depicts teenagers as being sullen, dramatic, and moody for a punchline, or as if misery is merely a component of that time in one’s life that cannot be avoided. But while the discomfort of shifting hormones and social complications are practically a given for kids your age, the level of unhappiness you are experiencing right now is not the toll you pay for being a high school student. Furthermore, many families lack experience when it comes to dealing with matters of mental health; unfortunately, that leads some adults to disregard their children’s feelings, or suggest that prayer and good intentions alone can “fix” things.

I’m not making excuses for your parents, nor am I suggesting that they are simply unable to do better than they have. Rather, I just want you to understand that it isn’t a failure to articulate your needs, or a lack of urgency behind them, that has led your parents to disregard your feelings. The world does not encourage adults to listen to children for understanding, and that is a serious problem. I hope you know that you are both heard and understood in this moment, and that I am rooting for you. Do not give up on yourself, and do not give up on feeling better—you can, and you will! Please keep us posted.

—Jamilah

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