I will never forget Adam Walsh. The image of the sweet, smiling, gap-toothed six-year-old boy in his baseball uniform is forever emblazoned in my memory.
It was 1981 and I was ten years old, living in Miami. I vividly recall the terror of Adam’s abduction from a shopping mall in Florida. One minute he was watching video games at a Sears while his mother shopped for lamps about 75 feet away. Less than ten minutes later, he was gone. Adam’s severed head was found in a Florida canal a few weeks later.
The story traumatized me as a child and woke up an entire generation of parents to the reality of kidnapped children. Soon after the tragedy, my mom took me to our local Publix supermarket to get me finger printed and assigned an I.D. card. I remember looking at the ink on my thumb and wondering if this would really protect me. I was now terrified to go into public bathrooms alone and almost had a nervous breakdown when I lost my little sister, Debby, for about fifteen minutes at our shopping mall. I was 14 years old at the time, and Debby was four.
My mind drifted back to the Adam Walsh story a few years ago when the New York Times reported on parents’ anxiety over letting their children walk to school. I still choke up when I think about him, but now my visceral reaction comes not from being a frightened child, fearing for my own safety or my sister’s, but as an anxious mom.
As the article discussed, many parents are made to feel negligent these days if they let their ten-year-olds walk a few blocks to school rather than being driven or escorted by parents. It’s now customary for a gaggle of grownups to be waiting at bus stops, with not only their young children, but with their tweens and teens as well.
Are we suffocating our kids by not letting them amble along on their own? Are we quashing independence and creating anxious, needy children forever tethered to their parents? Or are we just being realistic and cautious?
I struggle with this in my own neighborhood. When I see children walking to and from the bus or school in my leafy suburb, I too, get nervous. On the one hand, it reassures me that other parents feel confident in the safety of our neighborhood. On the other hand, it still makes me tense. Bad things do happen in my town.
My children are now eight and six years old – perfectly able and happy to walk to their friends’ houses, explore in our neighbors’ backyards and ride their bikes down the street.
I don’t always chaperone them or monitor my kids outside. I desperately try to strike that balance between letting them roam on their own (I keep my windows and doors open so I can hear them as much as I can) and being responsible.
But I do live in a chronic state of subdued fear. The gardening trucks, delivery vans and random cars that drive through my neighborhood spook me. I’ve chosen not to look online at sites that highlight where child molesters live by zip code. When I once did scan a site that had been emailed to me, I found that scores of convicted molesters did live way too close for comfort.
Wat do you do with this terror or this information? It’s easy to obsess so I choose to fight the fear as much as I can. I talk to my kids a lot about strangers and how to run away and scream if anyone approaches them. We’ve talked about bad people and how to be safe. I don’t want to scare my children and I want them to embrace their imaginations and feel free to explore and navigate their own worlds.
Ultimately I do want them to be able to walk to school or from the bus on their own. But I know that I will do this with a knot in my stomach and a prayer in my heart.