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May 20, 2009

The knowledge of what we have to fear

I remember that afternoon clearly. It was the day my understanding of strangers became real and I really began to understand why it was that parents fussed so much about keeping you within line of sight.

As my sister and I worked with our mom to clean the pink room we shared on the second story of our farmhouse in Thorncreek Township, we were listening to the radio. An alert came across the air about how a child in Fort Wayne had been abducted.


What did that mean?

Mom explained to us that a child had been taken by “a stranger” – that obscure term. Why we should fear strangers didn’t seem real until that moment. Did strangers really take kids? In that moment we learned it did happen and it didn’t just happen in far away places, it could happen in a city we visited quite often.

Over the next few days, I remember seeing the girl’s face in photographs on the television. It was April Tinsley. The fact that a girl just a little younger than my sister and I could be taken was terrifying to us – and to parents and children everywhere, I’m sure.  Just when the frightening aspects of abduction had settled in, the news reported that she had been found dead. If just being missing was scary to a child, the idea that a child had died was even more horrifying.

I’ve never forgotten that feeling of realizing in that time and place there were real monsters in the world – monsters that would take kids and that would hurt kids.

I’ve never forgotten that and the recent publicity of the case has brought those concerns back to the forefront – and given an opportunity to explain the fear of strangers to my own children.

No, we don’t want our kids to be in fear – but they need to know that there are some really sick people in the world, people who take kids, who hurt kids and worse still, who kill kids.

I’ve heard statistics that kids are more vulnerable to abduction today than they were decades ago, but times certainly have changed. When my mother was a baby, it was not uncommon for mothers to tote their sleeping babes to the market and park the baby buggy outside while they did their shopping inside the store. You’d never, ever do that today. Kids used to be able to ride their bikes around town or to play in parks alone and now, if I see a child below a certain age anywhere on their own, I worry it isn’t safe. Last week, I slammed on my brakes, turned the truck around and went back to the bridge near the YMCA because I saw a boy (too young in my eyes) preparing to “balance beam” his way across the handrail over the bridge. By the time, I got back there, he was walking on pavement. Crisis averted!

I have great difficulty allowing my children to play outside of this invisible parameter I have set up in my mind – and can’t imagine allowing them to leave the safety of our home or yard to go anywhere on their own. I’m reluctant to allow even the slightest deviation from my own virtual safety net. Public places with many people milling around is sensory overload! I feel like the president’s secret aides – eyes darting around in all directions to make sure my kids are safe at all times. We’ve had one breach in this safety net and it was during a recent community event when I thought my daughter was safe with a friend of ours – and she got separated in the crowd. She found a police officer and they alerted me. I am proud that she kept a cool head and did the right thing. But, the whole situation was so jarring for both of us that we will not be attending that event as a family in the future. Too many people, too much chaos and in my sense of balance -- to much of a safety risk.

You might read this and think I’m the most paranoid parent ever – but I can tell you I’m not. I know parents who will not allow their children to be anywhere they cannot physically see them at all times, will not allow them to ride in a car with anyone else, will not allow them to be anywhere on their own, ever. Not with peers. Not with other adults they know well. No one. Period. All of this, I’d say, goes back to the day I realized there were real creeps in the world – and the day those parents realized there were creeps in the world.

It is unfortunate that we’ve all been damaged by the consequences of realizing bad people do actually exist, that not everyone follows the codes and morals we take for granted. We all fear the actions of people who may or may not exist within close proximity of us – because those people have existed in the close proximity of others. Knowing all this has possibly made us safer, but also made us frightened, wary of any adult with an interest in our children, and made us less likely to actively help our children become truly independent individuals.

I saw a program on television the other day about a woman in New York (I think) who was labeled as the “Worst Mother in the US” because she had allowed her child to ride the subway alone. Her rationale was that if we don’t allow our children to take big leaps, we aren’t contributing to their ability to become self-sufficient, independent human beings. Even the child said the opportunity to ride the subway by himself was a major learning experience for him. Still, we question the mother’s judgment about something that wouldn’t have been a big deal decades ago.

Now, we have so much information at our fingertips to prove those strangers, those creeps, are closer than we care to think: look no further than the sexual predator database and you might be alarmed to find them right next door, down the street, in proximity of stores you frequent, working at places you might eat at, everywhere.

The difference between now and then is the knowledge of what we have to fear. The balance we all have to find is how much of that fear we impart in our children to keep them safe and how much we keep to ourselves.

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