Keys to successful parenting for police officers

Parenting is hard... parenting while working shifts, dealing with the bottom rung of society, and being suspicious of everyone is even harder


My brother is a minister and I’m a cop. If anyone is going to get into trouble, it’s going to be one of our kids. Damn. Why is it that when you’re part of a high-profile, seemingly morally and legally righteous profession, your kids are more likely to break the rules and get caught?

First of all, they’re not. Cops’ kids (and preachers’ kids too) are not any more likely to screw up than the rest of the teen population. Here’s the thing though: when they do, it’s often a really big deal — to you, to them, to the community, and maybe even to the department.

So what do you do when your little angel gets on the wrong side of the law? Well, I’m a cop, so just like when we’re dealing with a crime problem, a two-pronged approach seems best. Lets look first at prevention and then at your response.

An Ounce of Prevention

• Don’t get so wrapped up in saving the world that you forget what (and who) is at home. Before I retired, I sometimes made the mistake of minimizing my own kids’ problems because of the tragedy I saw every day at work. “You didn’t make team captain? Big deal. You’ve got roof over your head, your uncle isn’t molesting you, and you get to watch MTV on that flat screen TV that my overtime details paid for. Quit your whining.” This, my crimefighting friends, is NOT good parenting. Instead, listen to them, and try to put yourself in their world. Remember what it was like to be a teenager? Well, it’s a whole lot more difficult now and kids need their parents to listen and help them problem-solve, not tell them how terrible the rest of the world is and how lucky they should feel. Of course, we want our kids to be socially aware and have compassion for the less fortunate, but we also need to realize and acknowledge that our kids’ trials and tribulations are significant to them, and therefore, important to us. It’s also great to be involved in the community, in the department charity, and in helping those underprivileged kids in your beat who need a good role model, but don’t forget about your own kids in the process.

• Don’t set standards so high that they are impossible to meet. Its now an oft-told family joke that I wouldn’t let my husband buy our daughter an iPod when she was in the fifth grade. Why? Because I worked in a community where kids were often given too much too soon and I was convinced that an iPod at age eleven would turn my baby girl into a crack whore. I was often too hard on her and those around her. When she was little, I was sure that everyone was a child molester. As she got older, I rode her so hard about her behavior (which was great 98 percent of the time) that finally her older brother had to step in and tell me that I needed to realize that she was a really good kid and I should lighten-the-heck up. Its no secret that cops tend to think catastrophically, but sometimes you need to take a step back. Are you always demanding perfection in your child’s behavior? If your kid is starting to rebel, have you asked yourself (and them) why? Do you even know what real rebellion is? Sometimes it’s hard being a cop’s kid. Read (or re-read) Dr. Gilmartin’s Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement and study the effects of the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster® on parenting. It’s pretty sobering stuff.

• Use the job as a teaching tool. A few years ago, I started a little informal ritual with my budding teenaged girl. I’d come home from work (or even call her from my patrol car) and tell her “stupid teenaged girl” stories from my day at work. I never told her names or other compromising details, but I did tell her a million ways that girls her age and older got into trouble with the police and with their parents in my community. Sometimes she’d laugh, sometimes she’d be mortified, sometimes she’d be downright baffled at the stupidity of her peers; but I think she always learned something from those stories. I made sure that I didn’t shelter her from the uncomfortable facts, and I also frequently asked her opinion. I tried hard not to issue any ultimatums (“you better make sure I never hear about YOU getting into that kind of trouble!”) and I also used those times to talk about things like date rape, drug and alcohol use, and other uncomfortable but necessary topics that we often avoid discussing with our kids. She and her friends now speak pretty freely in front of me because, as my daughter says, “my mom has heard it all.” That open line of communication is huge when you’re trying to navigate the teen years as a parent.

Have an active (not over-reactive) response

• Don’t overreact. There’s a very good chance your kid might get into a bit of trouble, or even a lot of trouble, at one time or another. Make sure your response is reasonable and appropriate. There’s a big difference between a speeding ticket and a DUI. This is where your police tactics and training may actually pay off. Prepare ahead of time, just in case. Mentally rehearse how you’ll react when you get some bad news about your kid’s behavior. Practice using your tactical breathing to gain control of your emotions and use your experience to recall all of the stupid things you’ve seen otherwise “good” kids do while you’re at work. Make sure the punishment really does fit the crime, and when dealing with the arresting officer, treat them how you’d like to be treated if it was you issuing the citation. Focus on getting through and remember what my old lieutenant used to say: “If it didn’t come out of the end of a gun, we can probably fix it.”

• Don’t make it all about you. When our kids get in trouble, its immediately going to be seen as a reflection on us. People are going to judge our parenting, our values, sometimes even our skill as a cop. (“He can’t even keep his own kid in line, how effective can he be on the street?”) It doesn’t help to scream at Junior things like “You’ve embarrassed me! How could you have done this to me?! How am I going to show my face at work after this?” That kind of reaction only reinforces to your family that your job is more important than they are. Yes, your kids have a responsibility to be law-abiding members of the community, not because of you or your career, but because it’s the right thing to do and it will significantly affect their future. Help your kid to see how their actions affect everyone, not just you.

• Support your kid... be a parent first, and a cop second. “Supporting” your kid, however, does not mean getting him out of trouble. When my oldest stepson called me to tell me he’d received a “minor in possession” ticket a few months short of his 21st birthday, my first reaction was to give him a butt-chewing he’d never forget. But then I remembered what a good kid he normally is, so I got the citation information and the deputy’s name and told my kid I’d get back to him. Did I call the cop and beg him to tear up the ticket? Not on your life. I called him, introduced myself, explained the situation, and asked him if my son had been polite and cooperative. He had been, so I apologized for my son’s temporary stupidity, called him back and thanked him for being a good guy to the cop and told him that better get himself to court and pay that ticket with his own money. (I also promised not to tell his dad; sorry Dave!)

Parenting is hard. Parenting while working shifts, dealing with the bottom rung of society, and being suspicious of everyone is even harder. One of the best things you can do for your kid is be there. Police work can be all-consuming, so proactively schedule time with your family, keep your promises, and make sure your kids know that they are more important than your job (or anything else, for that matter).

As Dr. Ellen Kirschman talks about in her book I Love a Cop, we often “police” our families in the same way we police at work, becoming overly critical and controlling. Examine your own parenting and the dynamics of your family and make some changes if necessary. Ask your kids for suggestions, model the behavior you want to see in them, expect them to be good citizens, and get to know them as people, not just as your kid.

Most of all, enjoy them; they grow up too damn fast.

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter

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