“Hey Mom, I’m going to walk the dog to the end of our street,” she says, grabbing the new leash from its hook on the wall and laughing as our German Shepherd mix starts bouncing and running in circles. “I’ll be back in about five minutes.”
I nervously glance out the front window and survey our quiet street, looking both ways for signs of anything dangerous or suspicious. My responsible and intelligent daughter, who will start middle school next year, instantly recognizes the telltale signs of my motherly worries and rolls her eyes dramatically.
“Geez, mom,” she says. “Don’t forget to look up and check the sky while you’re at it. If the bad guys down here don’t get me I could always get abducted by aliens.”
My daughter likes to tell me she thinks I’m overprotective but I don’t necessarily agree. I’ve discussed the general topic with a wide enough array of other mothers to figure out I’m probably somewhere in the middle, between the “helicopter parents” that won’t give their children room to breathe and the far more permissive families that allow their children to roam freely in daylight hours.
I’d like to think my level of worrying is pretty normal, and I know I’m not the only parent holding my children a little tighter after the tragic murder of 8-year-old Hiawayi Robinson, whose body was found behind an abandoned building in Prichard Sept. 18.
Maybe by the time this column goes to print we’ll know more about the circumstances that led to the death of that precious child, but upon writing we still don’t know much of anything. All we really know is that a family in our area is grieving the loss of a beautiful child who was killed by an unidentified assailant.
My heart has been with the family and friends of little Hiawayi over these difficult weeks and I can’t even imagine their heartache. I think it’s safe to say the loss touched us all, and we as a community continue to struggle to understand how something like this could happen. I think it’s also safe to say the recent tragedy poked at our deepest anxieties, serving as a painful reminder that sometimes nightmares really do come true.
Last week Prichard authorities said they noticed a major difference in the way people were parenting their children, with parents being more attentive to their children’s whereabouts. There were reports of fewer children playing outdoors and more parents taking children to and from school.
It’s no surprise parents in our area are all acting a little extra protective lately, but I nevertheless sympathize with my daughter’s ongoing pleas for increased freedom. When I was her age I was able to ride my bike pretty freely until dark and travel to the convenience store a mile away from my home without adult. I was a couple years younger than my daughter when I started babysitting my younger siblings as well as neighbors’ kids.
All of this was pretty consistent with the way other children in my community were raised and it always felt very normal to me. I can still remember days when absolutely no one knew where I was, many of them spent reading or writing in my secret spot. I loved spending afternoons in the woods adjacent to my neighborhood, where I’d curl up at the base of a large oak tree reading a novel or writing angst-ridden prepubescent poetry.
Neighborhood kids played in those woods all the time but it was a large area and my favorite tree was well off the path of the main trails. It was an excellent place to hide and as long as I kept myself quiet and still, other kids would walk right on past without even noticing me. I was comfortable enough that a few times I even managed to fall asleep while reading and nap for a while.
I can only think of a single occasion when an adult stumbled upon me hanging out alone in the woods. The young man who still lived with his parents a couple blocks away just smiled and exchanged pleasantries before continuing on with his business in the woods, whatever that might have been.
It might be different if we lived out in the country, but as it is I shudder at the thought of either of my children napping alone in the woods, although it seemed so normal when I was a child. Was the world just safer then? Sometimes it feels like it certainly was, but statistics would sharply disagree. Child abduction rates have plummeted since the time when I was growing up in the 80s, and abductions by strangers are exceedingly rare although our anxiety levels would suggest otherwise.
What’s especially interesting is the way we tend to obsess over our fears of potentially dangerous “others,” when the biggest dangers are usually much closer than we ever imagined. Our children are far more likely to be harmed by our own distracted driving than any perceived threat from strangers.
That said, it’s a fact there are truly dangerous people in the world, some of whom are out to harm children. Remember that young man who found me alone in the woods when I was a young girl? He never harmed me in any way, but somewhere along the way another child was not so lucky. A couple years ago I happened to stumble across his name and photograph on a sex offender registry, citing his conviction for sexually assaulting a child under the age of 12. You just never know.
So what’s a worried parent to do? Like most, I struggle mightily with this question. I guess we just continue trying to find that sweet spot between keeping our kids’ safe and allowing them the freedom and autonomy to grow into healthy young adults. When you figure out the magic formula, please let me know!