I was sitting around the other day talking with my younger cousin (he's 15, I'm 19), reminiscing about our childhoods. Actually, we were reminiscing about the fact that neither one of us felt we'd had one."I didn't really have no childhood," he said. "My childhood was over at ..." Meanwhile, I was saying, "Mine was over at ..." Simultaneously, we both found ourselves saying, "Nine years old!" Nine years old. In the neighborhoods where I spent my youth -- that's when childhood ends for a lot of kids these days.I sat down and thought about what (and who) it really was that took my childhood away. The first thing that came to mind was the cops. I remember, when I was 11 years old, being handcuffed, thrown to the ground, picked up by the handcuffs, and violently thrown over the hood of a squad car. I was crying because I thought they were breaking my arm. A lady who stayed in the projects leaned out her window and yelled to the cops: "Stop that! He's just a kid." One cop looked up at her and shouted back: "This ain't no kid. This here's a future gang-banger."You don't see police in my neighborhood telling kids to stay off the streets and certainly not to "be good," because they don't view the kids as capable of being good. They hop out of their cars and slam a 6-year-old or a 14-year-old to the ground with the same force they'd apply to a 25-year-old murderer. I've seen cops, within a child's hearing range, debate the life expectancy of that child: "You think he'll live to see 20?" "Maybe 18, at the most."The second thing that led me away from childhood was learning the importance, no matter how young you are, of having "your own." Regardless of where he comes from, an inner-city kid can attain the respect and admiration of his peers by constantly having money in his pocket. Whether you get it from hustling, dealing dope, stealing, or robbing, as long as you can pull money out of your pocket at any time to buy whatever you want, you are somebody.In a society in which the people with the guns and the money are in power, a 12-year-old with a gun in one pocket and some hundreds in the other feels invincible. I can vividly recall the look on adults' faces as my friends and I approached to rob them. One guy kept saying, "I'm not giving my money to a bunch of fuckin' kids." But we did get his money. I guess that meant we weren't kids.Throughout the course of many robberies, I would pull out my pistol or machete not just for the money but also to feel myself transform, in the eyes of my adult victims, into something much more than a kid.The third thing I learned very early was how to fight -- and that I would have to. Sometimes I fought to defend myself, but quickly it became more than that. A world in which you feel you have no control and a complete lack of power breeds hopelessness. In this circumstance the exhilarating rush of adrenaline, combined with the fact that you have control over the outcome, makes fighting an unparalleled pleasure. At times it felt like the only way to vent my feelings.For everything it took from me, growing up in a city also gave me a unique gift: the art of creativity through rap. Rappers from all over come to various spots within the city to join together in ciphers (circles of people gathered with an instrument, a beat box, or just their voices) to improvise rap songs. It was within these circles that I found another way to vent -- not just anger, but sadness, despair, and also hope.Too many children in cities are deprived of their childhood like my cousin and I were -- making adult decisions at young ages, and often making the wrong ones. The time has come to start teaching our children to be children again.We must teach all children to dream of becoming mayors, governors, and presidents, not only waiters and secretaries (or drug dealers). We must teach them that their bodies are sacred, and teach children who get no love at home or at school not to look for it through sex and wind up shortening their childhood by having children of their own.If I could teach young boys only one thing, though, it would be how to cry. If instead of shooting someone who disrespected them, young males could talk about it, and cry if they felt the need, I guarantee that the murder rate would drop. If we could teach our sons that feelings of sadness, fear, and even weakness are OK and should be expressed instead of repressed, we'd be taking one step toward giving them back their childhood.