The story of Etan Patz, a six year old who disappeared in 1979 on his way alone to a New York City subway ride to school, is a headline you’d now be shocked to see, not only because of the every-parents-nightmare nature of it, but because nobody would let their child walk solo on a city street.
Today, the Department of Child Services would arrive at the family’s door of the assumed forsaken kid and instantly remove him to foster care.
How times have changed. If a teenage girl is seen walking by herself nowadays, it feels like: What’s wrong with this picture? Somebody should be chaperoning that poor abandoned soul. It can be mind numbing how much we arrange playdates and shuttle our children to and fro, door-to-door. How we all sit hyper-observant at the park, gripped by fear, that some pervert lurking near a trashbin might vanish with them. Even supervised after-school activity, necessitates our due-diligence about the expected full-time surveillance.
A stark contrast to the era when our parents said, “don’t come back until the street lamps come on.” Yeah, that’s right, kicked out for the day. If you actually went to someone’s house whose mom would allow gangs of kids to trample in muddied and maraud the food bins, she’d be laying on the sofa with a cold rag on her forehead, a cigarette in the ashtray and watching Days of our Lives. There was no “snack time” and friendly supervised play.
I’m not romancing the past, but let’s face it, present life demands full engagement to be a responsible parent. It’s exhausting, this Matrix we’ve created. We are appropriately horrified by stories like Etan Patz’s, but because of them, we tend toward a disproportionate response, to believe that every grown up in sight without a child in tow is a pedophile or kidnapper. The idea of children riding bikes by themselves down the street to meet friends is quashed by images of chopped body pieces found in a crate on the outskirts of town.
No doubt, our kids already miss the freedom and boredom we had. And though we deride our own parent’s lack of participation, survival and creativity came out of those unsupervised hours. Our children’s summers, for sure, won’t be filled by ambling over flower-covered hills to re-unite with a best friend, arriving at the park for a pick-up game of baseball, or for a full day of swimming at the public pool. It will be parsed into strictly regulated minutes by grown ups instructing them on how to be visibly safe, engrossed, and happy.
I don’t know, maybe we’ve dipped in too deep again. Like my one of previous posts, have we over-corrected to the point of immobilzing natural growth, curiosity and imagination, having taken every ounce of quiet away from ourselves in the process? Perhaps we’re doing the best by this generation with the hovering, the indoor playgrounds, the plastic, the smart phones. But with summer looming, I wonder, are we ultimately doing more harm than good?
Pam Alster, former stand-up comedienne, Lifetime TV writer & suburban mom brings a decade of living on the dark side to light in her forthcoming debut novel Robin’s Blue. www.pamalster.com