Free-range children

Thursday, October 15, 2015

We've given our kids everything - haven't we? And in the process, we've watched something be taken away, too. Call it freedom, call it innocence, call it sense of safe well-being. It's hard to define, but you know exactly what I'm talking about, don't you?

Recently, you probably read of a Florida parents who were recently arrested because their 11-year-old was shooting baskets in their back yard for an hour and a half unattended. A Maryland couple were arrested for letting their two children, 6 and 10, walk from their home to a nearby park to play; the children were taken away to Child Protective Services. Today, people may be arrested for child endangerment if they fall asleep and a child wanders out to the front sidewalk.

We are shocked today to see a child outside without supervision - sometimes even a leash on. I don't know about you, but my first impulse seeing a young child is to look for the guardian. Did they slip away from a parent or sitter? So they need help? Where are they going to? Will they be safe? Why isn't an adult watching them? Should I call 911? Anything could happen!

But remember - when many of us were children, didn't we walk to school or the pool, or rides our bikes to ball practice, without a Secret Service-type escort?

Didn't we play outside until dark? Race around from backyard to backyard through the neighborhoods? Or make forts in the woods, explore in the parks, skip stones into the water? We were exposed to each other's germs, drank from dirty garden hoses, rode bikes without helmets. All without adults on our heels every step. Times have clearly changed.

Today there are 34 people in Buena Vista County alone on the state Sex Offenders List. At least 18 reside in Storm Lake. Every few months it seems there is a "white van" type scare in one of the communities around our region. In the national news, there are enough kidnapping stories and other incidents to remind us that a child cannot be on their own.

As parents we have become so paranoid - with good cause. Sometimes it seems we've become scared of our own shadows... but sadly, once in a while the threat proves all too real. We can't take the chance.

I'm sure there have always been freaks and abusers in the world, but it sure seems like there are more now, every day.

How in the world did we manage to grow up a generation ago, outside running around on our own?

It was community. Community stood guard.

Have you ever read about those modern railroad lines? - every 100 yards, a sensor is embedded in the tracks. When the train gets to each point, the sensor sends a flag to headquarters. The train had made it safely this far, all is well, we're passing it off to the next checkpoint.

That's how walking to school worked, when kids actually walked.

Everybody knew which kids lived in their 'hood and what route they took. Every so often was a house with a retired grandpa or a stay at home mom posted on their porch. If each kid didn't pass by safely where they were supposed to be at the time they were supposed to be there, a phone was going to ring checking on things. Kids may have walked "on their own," or so they proudly thought, but truth is, they probably weren't in any way alone. A whole town watched out.

Today, I suppose it would be considered weird to take an interest in the kids who live around you. Caring would be suspicious.

Does anyone remember "blue star homes?" Every other house used to be one, with a star in the window. If a kid needed help for whatever reason, they knew they could find it there. You couldn't think of doing such a program now, at least not without people taking years of sensitivity training, being licensed and annually recertified and several new expensive layers of federal and state government to administrate. Oh, and pee tests.

If a small kid wandered too close to trouble, neighbors would scoop them up until mom came looking. Now they call the cops on mom. Again, understandably.

I have read a lot about bullying. Professional counseling, policing and governor's resolutions are needed to entice kids to have some decency toward each other. A good spanking used to do that.

A system I recall was that bigger kids looked out for smaller ones. If somebody was picking on somebody smaller than themselves, the message was impressed upon them clearly, and usually well learned.

Things have become more serious and inescapable with the advent of social media. What used to be teasing is now harassment, up to and including death threats being made by Internet post and text message. What used to be a dust-up in a schoolyard is now a case of multiple assault charges, lawyers and a trip to kiddie prison in Cherokee. When did fingerprinting become a milestone in childhood? If a poor kid gives any thought to when and why those prints would be used, they must have nightmares.

Because we've become afraid for kids to walk to school or a park, we've unintentionally made a lot of them lazy. They can't imagine walking anywhere; someone will always drive them. It's no wonder kids don't play outside any more, and parks are empty.

We have much in connectivity, we have the ability now to know where a child is every second of every day. We've taught them never to say hello to anyone they don't know, not to trust, never to adventure away from their protective guard. We didn't want to; we've had to.

I fear for how those kids will grow up, parents. I'm afraid the world they've been taught to see is an intimidating, dangerous one. A place to hide from instead of explore. A place where people feel entitled to be rehabbed of their own bad habits and protected against every imagined risk or slight, because they've not been allowed to do for themselves growing up.

We will do what we have to, to keep our kids safe. But we will do it with a certain sense of loss, too.