A Child Outside on Her Own—the Horror!

Why Have We Become So Frightened For Our Offspring?

I walked down a fifth-grade school hallway the other day and found a fellow mother nearly in tears. “Andy,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “I can’t find my child. I’ve looked everywhere.” School had ended over half an hour earlier. “We’ll find her,” I said, with a calm, authoritative voice I borrowed from some television detective.

This isn’t the beginning of a tale of an agonizing vigil. There was a brief hunt, and a helpful teacher unearthed the girl from an after-school program her mother thought she hadn’t planned to attend. Scolding, hugs, thanks to all who helped—a happy ending achieved in 10 tense minutes.

No, this is about the feeling that her mother and I barely kept at bay as we walked briskly through campus—that feeling of terror threatening to take over with every determined step. Why did we both feel so scared? What is the source of this panic parents feel whenever a child of ours isn’t right where we thought she was?

Long ago and far away, it took a series of phone calls and a thorough search before we were convinced that something dreadful had happened to our children. These days? We are convinced immediately. Most of us are loath to let our kids hang out with friends anywhere they might be visible to strangers. Of course this makes sense in some high-crime neighborhoods. Yet even in the safest parts of town, we live a fortress lifestyle. As far as our children are concerned, the drawbridge is always up.

I can’t help but contrast this with my own childhood. I thought nothing of biking a mile to the next town over, where a few coins went a long way at the candy counter of The Smoke Shop. Maybe I told my mother I was leaving when I went on this urgent errand. Maybe I didn’t. I recall long afternoons gathering with my friends and heading down a hill behind the house across the street, following the creek that wended its way through our neighborhood. We’d play Explorer, put creepy crawlies on each other’s arms, run away when the big kids marched through. Did adults ever come down to the creek? Of course not. The creek was our Narnia; it never occurred to us that adults even knew of its existence.

So when and why did childhood go into lockdown? I can only hazard a few unscientific guesses. The increase of two-income families—something this working mom is grateful for—results in a far more programmed, less free-range life after-school. The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has left some very troubled folks either homeless or housebound—sometimes right down the block from the rest of us. The 24-hour newsfeed, both online and on our flat screens, ensures that the Madeleine McCanns and Natalee Holloways of the world have enduring star power. Then there’s Hollywood adding to our collective neurosis. Although rare as a winning lottery ticket in real life, serial killers are a dime a dozen down at the multiplex.

The result? When we see a pre-adolescent happily biking around the neighborhood—well, we seldom see it, but when we do, we think, “Where are his friends? Where are his parents? Why is he alone?”

Actually, let me amend that. We’re fine with alone. Kids alone in their houses after school and on weekends, pigging out on snack food, slightly bored, heading into their fourth hour of the Disney Channel or Call of Duty—that’s okay. So what if years of this lead to antisocial behavior, depression, or obesity? The important thing is that we know where they are.

I don’t see us ever returning to a “Go where you like and be home by dinner” mindset, but something’s got to give. Very young children need a watchful eye, but kids in those middle years need to learn to play on their own, explore their world, and have some adventures we know nothing about. Who knows? If they get ever affordable enough to be a staple in every backpack, cell phones—which, let’s face it, are pretty effective tracking devices—might finally be a kids’ Get Out of Jail Free card.

I’m reminded of this imperative when I look at pictures of one of my little girls—not the one who is still little and under my thumb, but old photos of her much older sister, who years ago slipped out from under my grasp. After a lot of love and probably way too much hovering from her parents, my oldest child now lives five states away, on a college campus just large enough to get lost in.

I hope she does that frequently.

Andrea “Andy” Sarvady is an educator and author of four books and numerous articles on parenting, film, and pop culture. She and her husband Glen live with their three children in Atlanta, Georgia.
Primary Editor: Fuzz Hogan. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo courtesy of clickykbd.
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  • infosherpa

    My Mom’s standard line to me and my brother: “Go get dirty!”
    We did.

  • mk4524

    I’ve thought of that and how I was afraid to let my children go anywhere on their own and be able to explore the neighborhood like I did as a child. It’s my opinion that after the flood of missing children that appeared on milk cartons and newspapers, I was afraid this could happen to my children. One day I thought about it and the statistics really ran against anything happening to my children. I think the author is correct, the chances of my children being abducted were almost the same as my chances of winning the lottery. In time, I noticed a lot of the milk carton children had been missing for a long time and then I began to hear that some of them were abducted by non-custodial parents. But I think it did sell newspapers and it sure glued me to the 6pm news.

    I felt I cheated my children by being what I felt was manipulated by the press. What sold newspapers and made the local news wasn’t something that was good for my children. As the author stated, movies make a lot of money by leaving us with the impression the nearest serial killer is that person who lives around the corner.

    Myself, I had grown up in South Central Los Angeles. More specifically, I grew up in Watts (within those limited boundaries of the actual Watts). I explored the neighborhood, the local parish pastor used to give me Pacific Electric tokens that showed up in the collection box and I used those tokens to take the Pacific Electric to all those exotic destinations like San Pedro, Long Beach, Bell Flower, Pasadena, Hollywood, Santa Monica, etc. I had no cell phone and my parents sometimes worried when I was gone a long time but it gave me a chance to learn that there was indeed a life outside the so-called ghetto.

    I was born before World War II but after the war, we had neighborhoods filled with children so it was easy to go out in the street and find friends and it was easy to find friends at school. At that time, parents didn’t drive us to school so we could follow our friends to their house.

    We moved out of Los Angeles when my children were really young and into a neighborhood that had very few children. My particular problem was that because of distance, play dates had to be arranged. Now that my children are grown, they’ve lost that experience of meeting other children who were neighbors. I can’t redo the past but I’ve given it a bit of thought.

  • Ken Murray

    Very interesting. I’ve often thought about this change. I used to bike to school from about 4th grade through high school, several miles each way, daily. Neither I nor my folks thought anything of it. Hey, and I got exercise, too. I can’t believe that placing children in tight packaging makes their lives better.

  • Eric W

    Definitely the author’s theories resonate with the “stay in the armored SUV” method of transportation. Somehow parents try to keep their kids completely separate from the culture outside. Clearly not a way to allow them to grow up, deal with life, and have the occasional educational adventure. My solution: bike to school – see the world between TV at home and programmed activity at school. Worried about what’s out there? Bike with them.

  • mkt42

    “So when and why did childhood go into lockdown?”

    That question will of course have multiple answers, but there is one where the when is easy to look up and the why is partially known: when trick-or-treating at Halloween transformed from an activity where “the most candy wins” and kids travelled as far as they could, to one where the news headlines warned parents about apples with razor blades in them and LSD-laced candy bars. IIRC this was round the early 1970s. Nowadays there are neighborhoods which actively discourage neighborhood trick-or-treating and instead have the children go to a community center or school for candy hand-outs. notes that there have been relatively few cases of razor-bladed apples and most of them appear to have been hoaxes; in only about 10 cases has actual injury been discovered. Snopes however dates the phenomenon earlier than my memory does, to the 1960s and says that in 1968 New Jersey was so worried that the legislature passed a law specifically addressing booby-trapped apples. Maybe it was an east coast phenomenon before hitting the west coast.