“The Shortening Leash” | Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin | Slate Magazine
This explains a lot for me.
I am the youngest of five siblings born between the years 1971 and 1985. All my life I’ve listened to my brother and sisters’ stories about walking to school and working paper routes and going out with their friends at an age that for me was tinged with fear of leaving the yard when I played outside because I wasn’t supposed to. My oldest sister walked to school as a six year old with only our nine year old brother to ensure she got there. When it came time for me to walk to school (between the ages of ten and thirteen) I was pointedly walked by my mother. The supposed fear being I wouldn’t make it on time because I was so slow. The reason I was so slow was mostly because I didn’t want my mother to walk me to school, I’d rather be almost late and need her to drive me so my peers wouldn’t see me, the kid, walking with her Mom (not that I didn’t like my mom, but my Middle School cred was so low already, I didn’t need that albatross hanging over me). I always felt as though I were capable and if I didn’t make it on time, then that was on me, I figured.
Also, I always felt safe walking. Even alone. I didn’t understand my mother and oldest sister’s attitudes that something terrible might happen to me if I were to walk alone somewhere. Whenever I snuck out and walked somewhere alone (or walked through the path in the woods – which wasn’t allowed – on my way home from school – which was allowed) I never ran into anyone unexpected, sketchy, or otherwise. Literally the only times I ran into “questionable characters” in the “unsafe” paths through the wooded areas of our suburban neighborhood was when my mother was with me. Never when alone, which led to never feeling unsafe when I went somewhere on my own. But wasn’t for a minute going to admit to my mother I’d nipped down to the shops when left home alone.
What I got at the store was decidedly kid stuff – a soda, an ice cream, stick-on tattoos, gum – it wasn’t about the stuff, the thrill was going there on my own. Like the girls in my stories. Ah, books! My mother’s mistake, she taught me how to read. All the kids in my books were allowed, at younger ages than I, to walk to their friends’ houses alone, or to the market, or to school, or to just be out riding bikes, or hunting with their dogs, or playing games with neighborhood children. There weren’t many neighborhood children when I was young, none I was friendly with, so that didn’t bother me, but there were shops and bikes and friends who where, technically, within walking or biking distance, and I did not understand why, unlike the kids in my books, couldn’t do these things on my own.
I always figured my siblings could have, if they had wanted to, at my age. And they probably could have. But I was born during the height of the Reagan administration, and, apparently, The Fear. (Until today I didn’t know the missing kids on milk cartons started in the 80s; I always assumed it was as old a tradition as milk cartons themselves.) As the fifth kid there were many things my parents were more lax about with me than my siblings, as well as more strict. We’d always assumed it was because they’d figured out the “kinks” of parenting by my time, but, despite growing up alongside the Internet, I’d never figured on the increased hysteria over child safety before. I was taught not to speak to strangers, don’t take rides from people you’re not expecting, don’t talk to people in chat rooms who’s names you don’t know. And I was always disgruntled as a kid because I knew the rules, but I was never allowed to live by them.
I didn’t know mass media was telling my mother it wasn’t safe for kids to go out alone.