Etan, Where Did You Go?
I was in my early 20s when Etan Patz first went missing. Children – anyone's – were the last thing on my mind. His disappearance kind of went in one ear and out the other. I didn't even know how to pronounce his name. I thought it was “Eaton.”
I remember another editor at Good Housekeeping, where I was working at the time, mentioned his name and agonized over how horrible it all was. I gave her a blank stare.
Almost four decades later, everything has changed. I now have a child of my own and though he's a teenager, that doesn't stop me from worrying.
No one in their right mind would call me a free-range parent. I was a helicopter from the word “go.” I would barely let our son go down the hall to his bedroom by himself when he was a toddler. Thinking now of what these parents have gone through – How did we let him walk to school by himself? What were we thinking? We're the worst parents in the history of children – I can feel their guilt.
I want to tell them, you didn't know. It was a safer time. Nothing like this had ever happened before. How could you possibly have prevented it? And now, it's moved from their fear and pain, to ours.
Thankfully, the crises involving my son have revolved more around getting off the couch (and computer) than hiking off by himself to Dunkin' Donuts (it's just down the street, though you do have to cross that demolition derby, High Ridge ). But you can't ever stop thinking about danger, as a parent. At least, I can't. (And they tell me it doesn't end with college.)
These parents were deemed “negligent” by the local Child Protective Services, who investigated them – investigated them! – for not taking proper care of their kids.
All this at a time when other parents are locking kids in basements, starving and scalding them, and making them run so long in the heat that they die.
I was outraged, like most everyone else. But then I started thinking about what “free-range” parenting is all about
I remember how I grew up, running through the woods and the neighborhood in our suburban Connecticut town. We were lucky – three families with kids all the same ages lived within four houses of each other and we did everything together. We rode bikes around the turnaround (two of the families lived there) and hiked (even cut through the dirt road where the school bus lay on its side, risking our parents' wrath; they were terrified it would flop over on us), made dolls out of corn husks and acorns scavenged from our yards, playing outside until the fire horn blew (which it did every night, at eight). Then we all scattered for home.
Allowing my child to do that? I won't even let him walk home from a friend's, who lives five houses away. (Did I mention he's almost 14?) I wouldn't let him play on the front lawn when he was little, unless I was outside with him. We live on a very busy road, but we also have a tiny front yard that's very close to it and I could just see a car stopping and snatching him up, then speeding away. When he was older and wanted to play there with a friend, I watched through the window (or on the porch) the whole time.
I know, I know, I'm the height of helicopter parenting. But when you love someone, I guess, you don't want to take any chances.
And maybe that's what the public was so incensed about. How dare they trust to fate with their children?
What of Etan's parents? It would be simple to blame them. Well, they let him walk by himself. I've done it, too, even gone so far (forgive me) as to think, they deserved it. But of course they didn't. They loved their child and were teaching him to fly.
No question, the world is a more dangerous place than the one I grew up in. But maybe letting them take some risk is the right thing to do. Though it has happened again (look at John Walsh's son), it's unlikely that something as devastating as what we suspect happened to Etanwill happen to our kids. We just have to be smart, not suffocating. After all, we can't follow them on their first date (right?). Or when they learn to drive. (Though I did follow the bus on my son's first day of school. In kindergarten.)
I know I need to let go. I've been doing it in stages. But it's so very hard when you have been there every minute of this small person's life, tying shoes and cleaning ears, memorizing sight words and looking for spelling mistakes, checking his lunch box, when he comes home, for the crackers he didn't eat, knowing that crackers are the only things that he'll eat.
Newspaper editor Clemens Wergin wrote in The New York Times recently about how sheltered our kids are in this country (he's German) and how his eight-year-old wandered off the day they moved in to scout out the neighborhood in Bethesda, horrifying neighbors. Even worse, he and his wife didn't even know she'd left home.
I tried to put myself in his place, to think about being brave enough to let my son wander through our neighborhood alone (he never would, he's not interested in anything that doesn't involve a computer).
Do we, all, as parents, have the Patzes in the backs of our minds? How could we not? But what's that expression? Give them roots to grow and wings to fly. And then, hold our breath.
I am getting better. I now let him play soccer on the front lawn with his friends (OK, so maybe I do peek out once in a while). He's even allowed to lock his bedroom door. But I know the day is coming when I'm going to have to watch while he leaves, without looking back.
I'm trying not to look, too.