It never occurred to me that my childhood was a Dickensian horror of child labor, neglect, and endangerment, at least not until recently. Growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1970s, when crime exploded and societal unrest spread, my parents would often allow me to travel to the park on my own. I rode my bike to school, from at least the age of 10 or so, and probably younger than that. My folks would send me to the grocery store to pick up a few items occasionally, trusting that I would do it without a detour.
The only incident that ever occurred in these horrible episodes of child labor came when I was eight years old; I had been making this run often enough to become a regular at the store. The cashier, who turned out to be the manager, told me I didn’t have enough money for the bill and sent me home to get more – even though I had given him more than enough cash to cover it.
My father put me in the car and drove back to the store to ask the manager to check his cash register, which he refused to do, and called me a liar when I told him what I had given him for the sale. My father blew his top, stormed out, and wrote an angry letter to the company. For months, Dad refused to allow me to go back to that store, although I often went to the Thrifty drugstore in the same corner shopping center. A few months later, that changed when an executive from the chain showed up at our door to bring us the three items I had attempted to purchase, the cash I had given the manager, and a face-to-face apology to me. “That man will not be around to be mean to you,” he assured me.
After that, I was back on the job, with my father’s blessing … and his shopping lists.
For years, I had thought that experience taught me many good lessons about life. I learned that I needed to be very deliberate when handing over cash at a register and know ahead of time the change I was due back, a skill that is all but out of date these days with debit cards. When disputes arose, I had to be honest about what had happened, and not be intimidated into silence just because the other person was older and had more authority than I did.
I learned, maybe for the first time and certainly in the most memorable fashion, that my father would defend me ferociously from anyone else’s nastiness. I knew -- especially after that house visit from the executive -- that I was as legitimate as any other customer putting cash down on the counter, even if all I was buying was a pound of coffee. (It also taught me that it was far better to be the object of Dad’s protection than his anger while shopping … but that’s a story about irresponsibility best left for another day.)
However, I have now discovered that I learned the wrong lesson. What I actually should have learned was that my parents needed to be arrested for child neglect for allowing me to go the one-mile or so to the local store on my own, with no adult supervision. That was the conclusion of Port St. Lucie police last month when they arrested Nicole Gainey for allowing her seven-year-old son to go to the park on his own, a distance of a half-mile.
Just before that incident, a mother in Aiken County, South Carolina was arrested for allowing her daughter to play in a public park while she worked at a nearby McDonalds – where the nine-year-old would frequently check in. Deborah Harrell was fired after her arrest as well.
Without a doubt, we live in a dangerous world, but it’s no more so now than it was in the 1970s, and arguably less so. Crime rose through that period into the 1990s, when it began a 20-year decline. Violent crime has declined from 1991’s 758.2 per every 100,000 people to 2010’s 403.6 per every 100,000. Homicides with victims under 14 dropped 36% during roughly the same period. Almost half of all child kidnappings involve family members, and the highest risk for abductions comes at age 10 and above. The number of missing children who are abducted by strangers amounts to 0.01 percent, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
We just hear about it more now, and thankfully, we have many more ways to raise the alert when bad things do happen to children. Amber Alerts go out immediately, not just on television and radio but also on cell phones and social media. We have raised awareness to a high pitch, which is certainly better than remaining ignorant of the dangers of the world. We’re therefore better able to respond when something does go wrong.
That awareness, though, has tipped over into panic. Childhood should not be prisonhood. Parents should teach children responsibility and then gently allow them to exercise it. Some parents will have different approaches to that, and some children will learn responsibility at different paces. Some seven-year-olds might be able to go to a park on their own, and some nine-year-olds may not. Making those choices into criminal acts is absurd and risks frightening parents and children needlessly.
Worse yet, it threatens to keep our children from learning some of those important lessons that will serve them well in life. Instead of producing confident and secure teens and young adults, we may well find ourselves with a generation of shut-ins, combined with a subset who will act out their irresponsibility in more dangerous ways. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak finally allowed her two sons, 7 and 10, to walk the 500 feet or so alone to the local convenience store , admitting that she was “a wreck” during the 20 minutes it took for them to go and come back. “But they were 20 minutes that they talk about nearly every day,” Dvorak concludes. “And those 495 feet were probably some of the most important steps they took in their short lives.”
The same is true for the lessons I learned with my trips to the grocery store, and the freedom that my bicycle gave me long before I got my first driver’s license. Even the unpleasant experience in that grocery store taught me more than I’d know, and planted the seeds for a successful twenty-year career in customer service management. Far from being an act of parental neglect, those tentative first steps toward independence under their careful tutelage may have been among the most valuable gifts I received from my parents – and hopefully my granddaughters can have the same experience as I and so many of my contemporaries had in the complicated process of growing up.
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