What do I say to my young son about Chicago's gun violence?

My 11-year-old son has the responsibility of watering all of the plants the backyard, in pots on the deck, and in the front.  He complains each time.  But he does it.  Lately, he asks, “Who’s going to watch me in front?”  We’ve never let our kids be outside in front of our house by themselves.  But these days, my son asks because he’s discovering what it means to be afraid. So I stand on the front steps watching him, correcting the way he waters the plants.

As Chicago residents, we know fear because of gun violence. This year, more than 1,500 people have been shot in our city.

In 2000, my wife and I drove through a shooting in Little Village on the way home from a wedding.  We ducked.  The shots were aimed at the car in front of us.  Besides this experience, my family knows the aftermath of gang violence first hand.

So we didn’t buy a house in Little Village.  Or in Pilsen.  We moved Southwest in the city.  And it’s been quiet so far around our West Lawn home.  But last week, just a few miles away in our zip code, a 16-year-old was shot at 8:44 a.m. He was supposed to be in his 1st period class at 8:15 a.m.  I knew who that young man was.

Last night, after running around Midway Airport, I came home to news that a 6-year-old—a little girl—was shot in Logan Square.  WTF?!

According to the Chicago Tribune, “Chicago Police said the home where the girl was wounded was a known gang hangout but the girl appears to not have been the intended target. The girl's family has not cooperated with Investigators and no arrests have been made.”

So what do I say to my 11-year-old son about this violence?

I tell him that violence exists.  I don’t want my son to grow through his teen years being unaware of the dangers in our city.  I’m grateful he’s learning to sense his own sense of fear.  He’s growing into young manhood—I want him to listen to his senses, to acknowledge the potential of ugly possibilities.  When young men—especially young men of color—grow up thinking they’re untouchable, bad things happen.

While I want him to be conscious of the dangers in our city, I do not want him to live paranoid of his surroundings.  I want him to live and play and dream.  I want him, also, to think.

In an after school video production class, my son made a public service announcement about gun violence.  It got to him.  My son and I have our deepest conversations when we work together.  One day while we were mowing the lawn, he started talking about gangs: how they’re bad, what they do, how they hurt, what they ride in.  My son says he doesn’t like big trucks because gangbangers ride in them.

I asked, “Why do you think kids join gangs?”

“Because they think it’s cool to kill and be killed,” he explained.

He knows violence is wrong.  This alone is a lesson that’s lost among our youth.  In a few years, my son will have a phone.  I don’t want him liking and sharing and endorsing violent videos and cruel memes.  His sense of fear, I’m hoping, will contribute to his sense of justice.  I want him to know what’s wrong.

And I want him to know what’s right.  This he’s learning by developing responsibility.  So many young men grow up feeling invincible.  That’s the bravado of youth.  But when this sense of invincibility combines with a lack of responsibility—this is when young men put themselves in danger.  And keep themselves there.

I want my son to take risks.  I want him to explore and wonder and attempt.  But I want him to learn to listen to his instinct when he's going too far.

I want my son to learn to be where he’s supposed to be and to get out when something starts to go wrong.  This is the youthful independence I want my son to know.

In casual conversations with more and more of my male students, I’m understanding this generation’s struggle with personal values.  So many of them—even the undocumented, the insecure, the academically or socially challenged, the ones who have not accepted themselves—are finding value in the material.  A new sense of comparative identity makes deep wounds in the self-esteem of so many young men today.  They point to what they can tangibly hold when they consider their self-worth.

Much of this is due, yes, to poor parenting.  A new reality has set in for the sons of many working-class sons in our communities.  They don’t want their sons to work.  They give their sons easy access to money, fancy cars.  Their sons humiliate and challenge each other in greater ways than past generations because of unlimited data plans and social media.  Their sons lose themselves searching for short-lived results.  When this combines with systemic inequality, the damage on our youth becomes impossible to undo.

I see what parents aim for: they want to give their sons what they didn’t have.  But I don’t think parents see the consequences of everything they give them.

Today’s teens in my community—the same community I went to high school in—have much more access to weed, liquor, cars, money, guns. I’m not talking about the gangbangers.  These are the “good kids.”

These "good kids" get angry at me sometimes for expressing my judgment about their actions or what they’re parents do.  But I snap back, “If you don’t want me to comment on your life, don’t let me know about it.”  These angry fellas get over it and keep coming back to hang with me during lunch.  And they keep telling me about their lives.

I ask them, “Don’t your parents say anything when you’re high or when you get home late every weekend?”

If my students come in high to class or late a lot, you better believe I say something.  And usually their behavior changes.  But life at home is different for many of these young men.

One 18-year-old student told me his dad said to him, “I’ve done all I could for you. I’m done.”  I told him, “No, he hasn’t.  Your dad needs to stop giving you access to unlimited money with that debit card.”

So as a 43-year-old father who makes lots of mistakes, all I can do is work to instill in my young son a sense that what he does matters to me, to our family, to everyone who loves him.

As my son gets older, I plan on keeping an eye on him and who he hangs with and how much data he’s using on his phone and when.  I also want to teach him how a he can share information about dangerous situations with adults he trusts and still protect himself from backlash.

When my son turns 13, I will have had 22 years of experience working with teens.  I’m trusting this will give me something of an advantage.  But we never know with teenagers.

My son, I recognize, is privileged.  He lives in a home on a quiet block with two college-educated parents.  He has his own bedroom, something I didn’t have until after I graduated from college.

But I am not ignorant of the dangers he will face outside of his protected reality.  I’m learning that sometimes the best thing an adult can do is listen to a young person.  And ask him questions to show him that what he thinks and wonders and worries about matters.

The unexpected happens.  I know.  I was mistaken for a gangbanger in my Chevy Caprice when I was 23 and chased by a carload of stupid teens.  Someone called the cops.  They caught them.  One of the guys was crying when the cops told him he was going to jail.

I cannot control the unpredictable violence in our city.  This morning a 3-year-old was hurt by gunfire.  A WGN news report said, “A man who identified himself as an uncle of the girl says the shooting is part of a long-standing feud but wouldn't elaborate.”

The silence kills as much as bullets.  If people can leave anonymous insults on social media, we can find ways to pass along information to law enforcement anonymously.

Law enforcement, of course, must fulfill their responsibility.

A few days ago, after hanging out in our backyard with his 12-year-old friend from across the street, my son told me, “Did you know [my friend] has a 13-year-old friend who joined a gang?”

I listened to the details.  I gave my son a hug.  “You’ll always be safe.  Always,” I told him.

Maybe that’s my inflated sense of invincibility as a man.

Maybe some will think I don’t understand the reality of those saturated in crime.  I don’t.  And I don’t want to.  That’s why I’ve worked as a teacher for the last 20 years to help young people see that there are more options than a violent reality.

That’s the vision I live to instill in my son.

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