Yesterday I saw a friend's picture of the fall foliage on a tree-lined residential street, and off in the distance was a little boy riding his bike down the sidewalk. My immediate thought upon viewing this photo was not of how beautiful the changing leaves were, but rather, “Wow, he’s too young to be alone like that.” This was a visceral reaction to changing times, and it surprised me to realize my own thought. (The boy was indeed fine, both of his parents were nearby and closely supervising him. It was only this single out-of-context shot that caused my concern.)
I grew up in a time and place where kids could ride their bikes all over the neighborhood alone or in pairs, for hours at a time. Riding to school or to a friend’s house a few streets away was so commonplace that no one gave it a second thought. But that was 30 years ago. Sadly, we can’t give kids that freedom anymore.
Just this week, a 7-year-old girl named Somer Thompson was abducted in North Florida as she walked home from school with her sister and twin brother. She was only out of sight for a few moments, but it was long enough to end in tragedy. She was soon murdered, her body found in a landfill in Georgia. How did such an innocent situation turn into something so dangerous?
When I was 7 years old I was walking to school by myself every day, a distance of half a mile. I’d usually meet up with friends along the way, as so many of the other students walked or rode bikes to our neighborhood school. That was the norm. Even on the days my mom wasn’t working at her job, she never accompanied me on my walk, even when I begged her to do so. But soon enough, the walks to and from school became something to look forward to. It was freedom! The 10-15 minutes it took to make the trek down our dirt road was a tiny bit of independence that we kids had carved out for ourselves. We were trusted enough to get ourselves where we needed to be without adult supervision.
Never once was I approached by an unseemly adult. I was cautioned what to do in case that ever did happen, but I never had to employ those skills. The worst thing I ever encountered was a stray dog that tried to follow me home. A nice lady in a car saw that I was scared of it and she positioned her car between me and the dog until I got to my street. She did what we kids thought adults would do: she protected me.
Normally, walking back home in the afternoons through the school field was a time to talk with friends, to run off some extra energy, or to kick in some ant piles. We never feared being taken.
The terror poor Somer must have gone through sickens me. The guilt her siblings will no doubt live with will take years to overcome.
I hate that we have to take away childhood freedoms and joy in order to keep children alive. But we have to, because kids today aren’t just being robbed of life experiences, they’re being robbed of life.