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I live in a neighborhood once known for its murder rate. Thirty years later, it's a quiet, racially diverse, mostly working class spot where I have felt very safe, very happy and very lucky. We know and like our neighbors, and I feel like we have real roots in the community.
Last May, there was an armed robbery a few streets over. The perp ended up being pursued by a witness, a chase that took him right through our backyard. Police came. They didn't tell me much. I tried to forget about it. That is, until my child, who had just turned 5, was playing in the backyard later that very day, and the perp CAME BACK. He told my son he was looking for something. My son screamed and called for me. The guy fled. The police returned, this time with dogs. Were they looking for a weapon, I asked? For drugs? They were tight-lipped. "All you need to know is that we didn't find anything," one of them told me. "If there were something here, the dogs would have found it."
"As long as there isn't a gun that my child is going to find," I said.
Again, I tried to put it out of my mind.
How the hell am I supposed to feel about where I live?
Then last week, my son was playing at one end of our garden while I was reading at the other. He screamed. "Mamma! A gun!" Before I could tell him not to touch it, he was running out of the bushes toward me, gun (loaded, it would turn out) in hand. My heart nearly stopped. This time, the police gave me more attention. They believe the gun is what the guy had been looking for, and they believe that having it will help them crack their case.
So, bully for them. But: How the hell am I supposed to feel about where I live? And am I irresponsible for giving my son the freedom to play on his own in our private, fenced-in back yard while I, say, prep dinner inside?
One of the reasons we chose this house is because of the enormous back garden, a rarity in our part of town. I grew up as a free range kid, and, to the extent it's possible, I want my own child to be one. But seeing a handgun in your running 5-year-old's hands rather takes the shine off a spot.
I suppose my question to you is: How freaked out should I be? How else should I be thinking about this? And how do I switch off the "what if" part of my brain that has the worst case scenarios of both encounters — my son's with the perp, and my son with a gun — on constant loop in my mind?
Finally, am I making too much of a single incident?
Having Nightmares On Elm Street
Dear Having Nightmares,
To answer your question: of course you are freaked out! And you have a right to whatever level of freakedoutness you’re feeling.
Simply reading the words “gun,” “loaded” and “5-year-old” in the same paragraph would be enough to give most parents a jolt of panic. Never mind actually watching your actual 5-year-old son merrily skipping towards you with a loaded gun. As for the police conduct in this situation, I’m glad they have faith in the efficacy of their canine unit, but the fact that your son was able to find a loaded weapon that the dog/s missed … about the kindest thing I can say is: oy.
I suspect their decision not to tell you what they were looking for was an effort to avoid alarming you. But if they knew you had a young child who played in that backyard, it strikes me as negligent not to inform you that they were looking for a firearm. So some of this unease has to do with a genuine concern about what we might call “community relations.” You should be able to feel that you can rely on the police. And some of it has to do with a genuine concern about violent crime in your neighborhood.
Here’s where things get more complicated and personal.
...your child is mostly going to react to this incident based on his parent’s reactions, both verbal and non-verbal.
You are clearly and understandably preoccupied by this episode, and your imagination has kicked into high gear. I get that. One concrete question worth posing is this: What are the crime stats for your neighborhood? How much violent crime is there? In other words: Was this incident an outlier? Also: Have you talked with your neighbors? Are you at all involved with a neighborhood association? It might be helpful to talk with others who share your concerns, and who might offer some perspective on the local history.
But at the bottom of this, the question is how safe you and your husband feel. There are some people who would react to the incidents you’re describing by basically saying: forget this, I’m out of here. (You can put my wife in that category.) There are other people who would react by saying: Okay, that was frightening, but it was a one-off.
One thing I can tell you, with some assurance, is that your child is mostly going to react to this incident based on his parent’s reactions, both verbal and non-verbal. That is to say: He will not be haunted by it, unless and until he is given cause to feel he should be haunted. I’m not suggesting that you suppress your concerns about this incident. But I am saying: You’re no doubt more worried that he is.
That being said, you should not feel like a prisoner in your home, or have to feel anxious about your son playing in your yard. That’s simply unhealthy for you and your boy.
It sounds to me like this incident should be the occasion for a discussion (or a series of discussions) with your husband. The idea of raising your son with the same kind of free-range experience you experienced is lovely, but it may be that you and your husband have other priorities as well. Now is the time to discuss those priorities, and to figure out if and how this episode may have shifted those priorities.
Author's note: Okay readers, what do you all make of this? Am I being cavelier? Has anyone experienced anything like this? Tell us what you think in the comments section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.