I have an Extra Kid today—a friend of the Short Kid who lives in the neighborhood who was running amok and stopped in to play some PS3. When I asked if he needed to call home and update his family on his whereabouts, he said “nope” and went back to playing.
I struggle with this so much. I know nine-year-olds run amok in the neighborhood. I see them all the time. But it bothers me. The Short Kid runs slightly amok—around the house and across the street to the neighbors’ house—but not knowing where he is isn’t something I can handle yet.
In mid-November of 1987, when I was fifteen and in a small town about the size of where I live now, the nine-year-old son of our high school nurse—and classmate of my sister—didn’t make it home from school. It was already cold enough so we wore gloves and our winter boots while searching for him in the dark. Shuffling through piles of autumn leaves and lifting the lids of neighborhood trash cans looking for a child isn’t something you ever forget. You want to find him because you want him to be okay, but you don’t want to find him because you’re looking in leaves and in dumpsters, which means he’s not okay.
He was found by the police—not far from his home—murdered by a fourteen-year-old neighbor who was in my Social Sciences class. It’s hard for me not to write his name here, with a huge red font in all caps. When he was released, the little boy’s mother fought to have his name made public, but as he was a juvenile when the murder took place, they wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t want people to forget the name of the monster who killed her little boy. Twenty-three years later, I remember his name. I won’t ever forget.
A few days later, my very small cheerleading squad visited our school nurse’s home. We brought a fruit basket. Looking back, I don’t know why we felt that would help. We were fifteen, I guess, and just wanted her to know we cared.
I’ve never felt sorrow like I did standing in that house. His shoes were on the stairs. His artwork was on the fridge. All around us was the debris a child scatters throughout his home. We were standing in the middle of a little boy’s life, but the little boy was gone. Remembering the quiet, shellshocked grief of his fragile mother still hurts my heart.
Now, with a nine-year-old son of my own, I don’t lock my children in the house to keep them safe, but I also don’t have that subconscious voice that whispers it won’t happen here or it won’t happen to us. I can’t tell him to go run amok somewhere but be home for lunch, and not know where he is or who he’s with.
It’s a constant struggle, broadening my boys’ boundaries so they can grow and learn to make their own choices. Letting the Tall Kid start walking home from school several years back was an especially difficult challenge for me, but I stuck a cellphone in his pocket, smiled and went home to watch the minutes tick by on the clock. I know better than to let my fear run their lives.
But sometimes it’s very hard not to go to Extra’s house and shake his parents and yell at them that yes, bad things do happen and they happen to children like ours in towns like ours.
Our kids have gotten in huge, major “you are SO grounded” trouble for leaving our yard without asking permission or saying where they were going. It’s a safety rule, just like “look both ways before you cross the street” and “don’t swim/hike alone”. It’s not paranoia, it’s common sense. Minus murderers (and with meth rates the way they are, violent crimes are possible anywhere and everywhere), a kid can fall and get hurt or get trapped and then you have no idea where to start looking.
But then, a cousin of mine died in a stupid accident because he was working by himself and nobody knew where he was when a log fell and pinned him. By the time he was found, he was dead. If anybody had known when to expect him back and when and where to start looking, he would’ve been injured but not fatally. You are never too old to remember the buddy system and make sure somebody knows where you are.
I wrote and deleted my response about six times. So many things I want to say.
It’s just so damn hard being a parent. And to go through what you went through was traumatizing, and difficult not to transfer your fears to your kids.
There are bad people out there. All we can do is make our kids aware, make them street smart, and hope they’re smart enough to make all the right choices and keep their heads up and their eyes open. But all the preparation in the world isn’t going to protect them from all the bad stuff out there in the real world beyond the safety of their homes. You just shove them out the front door and pray. It’s really all you can do.
Bleh. It’s something I think every mother struggles with, but any time you have an experience like that, where something touches you personally somehow, it becomes so much bigger, more real. For my family, it was the death of a child. My grandmother had lost three of her six children in the course of three years from unrelated illnesses (two of which probably could have been prevented present day) and it is a legacy of despair that has hung over my family for generations. You can put your baby to sleep one night and they just might not wake up. You can bring your child to the hospital for a minor surgery and they might never come home. That was a reality in our family. My father still can’t talk about his brother’s and sister fifty years later. Pictures of Christmases, him as a teenager with laughing babies on his lap are buried in a box under his bed. When we cleaned out my grams house after she died last year, we found report cards from kindergarten, locks of hair in baggies, crayon drawings of boats, and obituaries. I cry probably once a week for her. Her journals, FIFTY YEARS LATER were filled with grief and regret. I was almost paralyzed with fear starting when I was pregnant. First it was SIDS or some illness that controlled my thoughtsI was terrified every single night for the first year, every little sound, every cough would have me running over to put my hand on him to feel the rise and fall of his chest or his breath on my hand. Then it’s this whole thing. Talking to strangers, or going over peoples houses who may or may not have guns and may or may not keep them locked up, and then it’s driving with kids who may or may not be drinking. You wish you could lock them away sometimes, and wonder how close you can hold them without smothering them. Every little freedom you allow them is a milestone, and with kids ranging from 13-20, I swear it never ends. You can keep them home from a party to keep them safe and they could break their leg on the stairs. It can drive you crazy if you let it. The only thing we can do is try to make sure they are as prepared for the world as possible, and then hope. In reality, you can never prepare for something like that. Motherhood is so much more than changing diapers and carpooling. THAT’S the easy part, isn’t it?
I remember this story about your childhood from another time and I felt it just as keenly now as I did then. I was around with Clifford Robert Olson (and he’s an adult so I can name him) did his horrible deeds, one very near to where I lived. No matter what you carry it with you. My oldest is 11, I still don’t just let him wander, but he has more freedom than the 8 year old and 4 year old. Even still, when when I can’t see him right in front it freaks me out. He wanted to ride his bike to the 7-11 with a friend a while back and I said no. It is not super far away, but it is along a very busy road and at a busy intersection. Maybe that makes me overprotective, but I need to judge him based on what I know about him and I don’t think he’s ready yet. Sigh. Or maybe that’s just me.
I hope it’s possible Extra’s family would like to know where he is but he doesn’t think so.
About the only thing you can do is insist he (or any other kid) call home to tell someone where he is when he comes into the house. He can leave a message if nobody is home. If you hear him say, “She made me call.” then you can just feel sorry for the kid, but you will know you’ve done your best to make sure someone knows where he is. It’s also possible HE’LL learn that someone does care about him, even if it isn’t his family. That can be very important.
I’m so glad that my children survived childhood and are now adults, but your know what? You never,never quit worrying about them!. I know I annoy the hell out of my sons sometimes, and I do try to explain that you never quit worrying about them, but they just give me the “look”. They might think differently if they have children of their own.
FWIW, Shan, it sounds like you’re doing a stellar job maintaining the balance.
I was booted out every morning and expected home at dark. I would never ever let a child in my care experience my childhood. I’m lucky to have made it out alive. I will tell you I didn’t make it out unscathed. Predators pick on children that have too much freedom.
Make the kid call home to check in. Even if his parents don’t care where he is, you will be doing the right thing. And. You’ll be less heartsick over it.
I’m a stepmom with grown stepsons. Doesn’t change the fact that I have momma bear at heart.
A few years back two little girls around the age of nine and eight showed up in our driveway well after dark. It had been a snowy day, and they wanted to make money to buy their mom a present. (Won’t even go into the spaz I had over mom not knowing her girls were out on the streets)
Anyhoo, I stood guard at my front door and watched as they went from house to house. Dang it, couldn’t just let them walk around like that without being watched. Then, a truck pulled up to them. The girls wouldn’t get in the truck with the male driver, and my hackles were on overdrive. Took all of 45 seconds for me to have my husband running down our drive semi-shod and down the street, only to watch the truck screech off. A parent? Dunno and never will.
But…if those girls would have gotten in the truck I’d have been hard pressed to know even the color of the darn thing in that lighting.
I guess this all relates back to something in my own childhood. I was followed home by someone when I was about six. I was clueless until my mother came racing from our house having a banshee fit. It seems neighbors along the street called her as they noticed and felt they had to do something, even if physical was out of their means.
The world is an even tougher place now, and while one shouldn’t stifle, good common sense is still good common sense. Evolved to the times, but NEVER changed.
Your thoughts are spot on, Shannon, but I’m not sure the mother will be open to them.
Just reading this story made me want to go hug my two little ones. It sounds like you’re being smart and keeping your kids aware of the dangers without keeping them from living their lives. They’re lucky to have a mom who cares. I feel for those who don’t know what that feels like.