I didn’t wear a helmet when I rode a bike as a kid. My siblings and I walked to and from school by ourselves starting in kindergarten. We were warned about strangers, of course, and to stay out of the street, but otherwise were given very little guidance or direction on how to spend our free time. My sister and I would often wander from friend’s house to friend’s house without so much as telling my parents we’d left home. And while I don’t think my parents or my friends’ parents were guilty of neglect, neither do I think that my generation is necessarily being too protective or paranoid about our children’s safety when we pick them up from a school that is only a few blocks away or hover over them at the playground.
Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home when I was in high school. Last summer a little boy in Brooklyn was abducted and killed the first time he was allowed to walk home from school alone. Last month a little girl in a town close to where I grew up was kidnapped from her bedroom and killed before her parents even knew she was gone. And last week the Freeh report looking into the Penn State/Sandusky scandal was released and it became more clear that even adults who aren’t crazy don’t always do the right thing by the children who need their help.
It is unsettling and scary. It is something that keeps me awake at night and has me looking at my neighbors in a different way. It makes me nervous for school and sports camps and sleepovers. It makes me think that I may never get to the point where I feel comfortable letting my children play outside by themselves. Even if we had a backyard. With a fence around it.
I’d love to be able to say, “I didn’t worry about that when I was a kid, so why should my kids have to?” Or “I trust my neighbors. We live in a safe place.” And let it be. But I don’t think I can. I don’t know if times are different now than they were when I was growing up. I don’t know if they are different than they were 50 years ago. I don’t know if the world is really becoming a scarier, more dangerous place. I suspect that in some ways it is. But I also suspect that we are simply more aware of things that happen. The information is more available. The news stream is difficult to tune out entirely. And so it is that I even know about that little girl in my home state, or anything at all about the Freeh report.
With that awareness, with that knowledge, comes responsibility, and if it means I appear to be hovering over my children at the playground, so be it. I’d rather deal with judgment than with tragedy.