She seems to be okay when I let her, I was just wondering what you think. We have gates and fences around too… our kitchen window faces the backyard so I’ll do dishes, clean up the kitchen and do laundry, and just keep checking on her. What do you think?

You’re describing typical childhood up until 1990. And not just in suburban America with yards and fences, pretty much throughout. It’s how I was raised. I was running over to my friend’s house next door, alone but with permission (when I remembered), at the age of 3. And I spent hours in the back yard alone. If my mother checked on me every 15 minutes then I’m impressed. And we moved away from that house when I was 6, so I know I was young.

From the age of 2-7 months (in the seventies), my parents put my baby sister out in the back yard in her baby carriage underneath the crabapple tree for a nap for an hour or two every afternoon. Her only protection was a mosquito net. Mom said she knew she was awake when the carriage shook—the carriage was too far to hear even through an open window. We had neighbors on the left and right—no fences—and the back yard was completely open to a hayfield where the local kids roamed at will. Is she still alive? Sure. She was never abducted, even though we had the usual collection of questionable neighbors. She’s a chemistry professor now, actually.

When my son was 9—so we’re talking the late 1990s now—we lived in a pretty, historic neighborhood on a river with a river-side park (it was called Riverside Park, in fact). I was confident that he was careful and made good choices, so he had the run of the neighborhood. He knew his boundaries and to my knowledge didn’t test them. He had friends he usually roamed with. One afternoon he was down by the river alone and he ran into a photographer from the local newspaper who was taking pictures of the skyline. The photographer took a picture of my son, standing right next to the river on a rock, and the picture made it into the paper. After everyone exclaimed how pretty the picture was and how nice that Matt had been in it, what do you think I heard? “What was he doing by the river alone?”

He was being a normal kid, that’s what he was doing. He never, to my knowledge, fell in. In fact, when the river was at its normal level, falling in would have just led to wet clothes. There wasn’t a drop off. When the river was roaring, he stayed away from it, like everyone else.

So why did adults start to get so scared to let kids out all of a sudden? It wasn’t my generation specifically. My own mother became suddenly hyper-vigilant about all the same things too, and frequently questioned whether I was keeping her grandchildren sufficiently safe.

I believe it was the combination of the internet bringing what had been local news stories to national attention more quickly, and the rising awareness of our own fear which those stories brought with them. Because abductions occurred back then, they absolutely did. As a percentage of the population, they occurred more frequently than now. 

But news circulated more slowly. An abduction was likely to have been reported in the local paper and once or twice on the local news: that was all. How easy is it to miss one announcement on a TV program that can’t be replayed? And newspapers did their best to entice people to read them, but every story had the same type and presentation. Plus some people didn’t have time to read the paper cover to cover (busy moms, anyone?). While others simply turned away after a brief glance at a story about an abduction, perhaps afraid that to think too hard about it would be to become too afraid for the safety of one’s own kids. 

Let’s say it’s 1975 and a father reads a news story about an abduction in the paper after work one evening as his wife prepares supper. He experiences some fear and thinks “I don’t think the kids should play outside unsupervised anymore.” He calls his wife from the kitchen, where she’s been cooking, wrangling kids and trying to get the table set for dinner. “Dear!” he calls. 

“What is it, darling?” she replies as she sticks her head through the kitchen door into the living room, wiping her hands on her apron, the little ones engaging in their usual noisy chaos. 

And then this father thinks: “Does she really need more to do? Do I want my kids to be scared? Do I need to share this tragic story with her right now? After all, it happened across town. And nobody really knows what happened to the child. Probably she’ll show up in a few days and be fine, and the newspaper won’t bother to print that.” So he sighs, smiles at her and gets up to wash his hands saying “why don’t I give you a hand?”

And she says, “It’s almost on the table. You always have such perfect timing.”

And so it was. More or less. I’m not saying the kids that were abducted decades ago turned out to be fine—we know many of them didn’t. But would it have been better to have caused all the mothers and children to be more afraid for the duration of childhood? I don’t think so. Growing up in fear damages a child’s trust in their world. It doesn’t result in the healthy skepticism around strangers that we hope for, it creates anxiety.

Fear is a valuable emotion and it’s natural to have some as parents. It’s not an emotion that we’re meant to share directly with our children, however. We prepare our children for safety in the way that we encourage accountability, good boundaries and good habits. 

Don’t parent your child in a way that you don’t feel good about. But if this seems right to you, don’t let anyone else pass their fear to you.

What you’re thinking about doing is arguably the best way to raise kids. You do you.

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels.

Published by Anne Lindyberg

Anne Lindyberg has a master's degree in school psychology and advanced training in Satir Transformational Systems. She is a former school psychologist, mother of two adult children, and loves living in the cornfields of southeast Iowa with her beautiful Toller-Dog, Lila and Sassy the cat.

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