I was not an adventurous child. And yet somehow I took a train by myself when I was eight years old. My family was staying outside of London for a couple of weeks one summer, and I was sent off on the train to visit a friend. I’m pretty sure I was put on the train at one end and taken off at the other, but as I recall it, when I went back home, no one was there to meet me. Maybe I got off a stop early, maybe I was returning sooner than expected; in any event, my arrival at the station necessitated a phone call in a London call box, which involved pressing buttons and manipulating foreign money. I remember being a little frightened, but finding an elderly man to help me make the call, after which someone appeared pretty quickly and got me back home. In those days, it seems, a young girl could ask a strange adult male for help and be pretty sure of getting it. Or at least no one ever suggested otherwise to me.
Growing up, my father’s position as an Episcopal missionary took me to places I’d never have been otherwise; places my own children will probably never be. But what I remember most about those adventures are the small things: the vacant lot we played in next to our Tokyo house; the taste of peanut butter spread on a cracker with my mother’s keychain pocketknife on the trans-Siberian railroad, where the food in the dining car looked inedible; the phone box I couldn’t work in London; the couch in our drafty borrowed house in Shropshire where I lay felled with the flu; the blueberry pies we ate at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Like most kids, I found my own childhood unexceptional; my memories are simply small talismans, now, of a life I’m far distant from. What I don’t remember is anyone worrying about me, or letting me know they were worrying, as I traveled alone through London, or cared for my baby sister in a small hotel room in Moscow, or rode a bike through the crowded Tokyo streets. I don’t remember worrying about myself.
My daughter Mariah, now 14, is not an adventurous kid, either. She hadn’t ridden a bike through our mid-size city (far smaller and safer than Tokyo) without a parent until early last summer, when our French exchange-student visitor Clothilde had urged her to explore a little. Clothilde — two years older than Mariah, and far more independent — was surprised at how routinely we hopped into the car for short errands. In her suburban Paris home, kids take the metro or the bus, ride bikes or walk, to get where they’re going. And they go on their own, without their parents nervously breathing down their necks. Clothilde seemed surprised by our willingness to chauffeur the kids around town to meet with friends, walk around the mall, pick up the groceries. And yet we drove her (and now drive her younger brother) to elementary school, barely over a mile away, every morning. She can’t find her way around town on her own because she’s never had to; because we’ve never allowed her. And we’re not alone: the line of cars stretches around the block at our neighborhood school every morning, full of parents and children like us.
How did we get from my youthful independence to Mariah’s insulation? Unlike Clothilde, we live in a culture of safety, a culture where we fear our neighbors, a culture where we’re afraid of the slightest risk. My children’s elementary school is locked during the day; no one enters without being “buzzed in” by secretaries who watch the front door on closed-circuit TV. Parents sign waivers when their children go on school-sponsored field trips, promising not to sue in case of an (usually unspecified) incident. There hasn’t been one in the nine years we’ve been parents at that school, though they “locked down” the entire school during the sniper scare last fall (most of the shootings took place over 50 miles away), and even more recently after a minor parental altercation (lots of yelling; no punches thrown) near the grounds.
But then, parents of our time, parents who buy the car-seats and bike-helmets and suffer stranger-abduction fears and teach lessons on good-touch bad-touch, require these controls. And even though I know that the risk of stranger abduction, horrible though it is, is minuscule compared to family or custody-related abduction, and even though I know that most child abuse occurs in the home, and even though I know, as much as it hurts, that above all that none of us is safe and that pretending we are — or can be — may be the biggest risk of all, I still worry; I still rely on those same controls.
Last summer Mariah flew by herself for the first time. I walked her to her plane at Dulles Airport on the day the Episcopal Church’s general convention was voting on the consecration of Gene Robinson, now the first openly gay bishop in the church. I remember glancing at the monitors as we traipsed through the long corridors on our way to the gate, wondering what history would be made that day; hoping it wouldn’t involve my daughter. While I’ve heard the statistics that say she’s more likely to be killed by a vending machine falling on her than in a terrorist attack, putting her on a plane took an act of courage on my part that giving her 50 cents for the snack machine would not. It took an act of courage on her part, too.
As we sat in the waiting area she said to me, “I can’t believe I’m really going to do this. Am I really going to get on that plane by myself?”
I assured her that she would, and when she walked down the jetway she did so without a backward glance. I stood at the window looking at the plane, unable to pick out her window, to find her seat. My stomach was in knots until the call from her grandmother, six hours later, announced she’d arrived safely — though I’d tried not to let my anxiety show at the airport.
I want to give my children the kinds of memories I have, ones fueled by small things like peanut butter and pie and drafty houses. I don’t want her to grow up worrying about the big things, like snipers and terrorists and kidnap victims. I hope she’s never heard Elizabeth Smart’s name, though I fear she has.
When I met Mariah’s returning flight, after her successful two-week visit to her grandmother, I still couldn’t suppress a sigh of relief when I saw her walk off the plane safely. It’s hard to give up control, to acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that I can’t protect her — or even her younger brother — every minute, no matter how I wish to. I envy my child self her independence, her freedom of movement, her parents’ confidence in her. I’m still working on finding the same for my own children.