The summer when my older daughter was 7, we spent a week with my parents in a rented beach house on the Oregon coast. My girls’ dad and I were still married then, so it was all of us. The house belonged to a colleague of his and we’d stayed there several times that year. The town, you could hardly call a town. It was just a few residential streets tucked between the mountains and the water. There was a general store and a restaurant and that’s it.
What I mean is: Neskowin was small and safe — and we knew it well enough to feel completely at home. Our little house was maybe three short blocks from the store, though they weren’t really blocks. Just quiet streets where sand-in-the-grass lawns came right to the pavement. No shoulders. No curbs. No sidewalks. You get the picture.
The summer my girls’ dad was 7, his family spent time at the ocean, too, as they did every summer, in his grandparents’ North Carolina beach house. Most of his best childhood memories are from those vacations. The summer when he was 7 — 1977 — was one of his favorites. Every morning he walked blocks and blocks by himself to get his grandfather a newspaper.
It was the summer of his independence.
He can tell you for sure that it was August of ’77 because he carried the paper home the morning the front page headline said that Elvis was dead.
And he wanted very much to give that extra-alive and all grown-up feeling of being a boy with a mission on his own in the world for the first time, the freedom of it, to our daughter in Neskowin. He wanted her to get him the paper on her own — and she wanted to go.
I wasn’t so sure.
In 1977, a kid walking to the store alone, or walking to school alone, or coming home from school and letting herself into an empty house to spend a couple hours sans adults until mom or dad got home from work was just what we did. It’s the way we all grew up.
Nobody called the cops or child protective services on your parents when they left you in the car for a few minutes to grab a few things from the store.
Now we helicopter. We walk them all the way to their classroom doors, well into grade school. We debate about whether it’s OK to leave them home alone even at ages 9 or 10.
We say times have changed, the world has changed since we were kids. And we’re right. The world has changed. But not in the way that you think.
Violent crime is at a 40-year low. Check it out. It’s been waning steadily every year. Story after story, citing study after study, all say that we live in the safest America many of us have ever known.
And yet, we are collectively terrified of giving our kids the freedoms we called daily life. We’re caught somewhere in the perception gap between our fears and actual danger, a generation who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s when America was at its most violent.
So I ask myself if we are parenting to our past instead of their present. Or if it’s deeper — if our collective over-protectiveness is about creating the illusion that we can keep insulating our kids from danger in a world where anything can happen. Because the terrifying truth is, anything can happen. Anytime. Anywhere. And scary as it is, it’s OK. It’s always been that way, and always will.
Letting go is hard.
I know I’m guilty.
When I said, “I’m not so sure” about letting my daughter make a newspaper run that day in Neskowin, I meant I was terrified. My dad, he was sure. He was positive that it was a bad idea. This is a guy who’d paced the driveway every time I drove home from college as an adult.
But my daughter had no fear. She was excited like her dad had been as a boy in North Carolina. She was proud and confident when she walked.
I know, because I followed her.
I can tell you that it was only to make my dad happy, like I told myself, but really it was a little for me, too. I gave her a three- or four-house lead and trailed her the whole way, private-eye style, ducking behind bushes, positive that some cop was going to nab me for stalking.
She held her head up and said hello to everyone she passed. It was a moment she should have had all to herself. But, still, I’m glad to have had a piece of it.