My son is on a summer camp field trip today. He, along with 99 other campers, is going to a public pool 30 minutes north. According to the camp director, another local camp with about 50 kids will be there. Plus maybe the YMCA camp. And the pool is open to the public. And it’s going to hit 90 today. So, really, hundreds of individuals—children and adults—will be descending on this pool in the coming hours.
And my 5-year-old will be one of them.
All of this info came up when the camp director informed me that my son “wandered off” during their last excursion. Apparently, instead of joining his assigned group and heading to the restroom to change, he sauntered over to the snack bar to do some people watching. And no one noticed for many minutes.
Needless to say, none of this is comforting.
I’ve spent the past two days drilling into my son’s head that he MUST know who his assigned counselor is, and he MUST stay with his group at all times and he MUST NOT talk to strangers.
“But what if the stranger is nice?” asked my son, whose life lessons come primarily by way of superhero stories, where evildoers look evil and it’s obvious who the nice guys are.
I reminded him of The Berenstain Bears book we read, where Mama Bear teaches Sister Bear that you can’t tell which the rotten apple of the bunch is just by looking at it.
“It certainly is strange looking,” Mama said of the bumpy, odd-shaped apple. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. You can’t always tell from the outside which are the ‘bad apples.’”
OK, my son argued, but what could a bad guy possibly want with him? He has nothing of value to steal. “Well,” I replied, cautiously. “What if they wanted to steal you?”
He paused and thought for a moment. “But I don’t know anything. I have no secrets. What would they even want with me?”
And there it is, the lesson he’s learned from Marvel books and LEGO Ninjago TV shows: the very bad-looking bad guys go after the kind-looking good guys for no other reason than to steal their possessions or their secrets.
I was born in the mid-’70s. My childhood consisted of TV, movies, music from the radio, and playing outside well after dark. I thrived on a diet of The Brady Bunch, MTV, and Stephen King, my pop culture interests vacillating between the innocent and the depraved. I went to R-rated movies with my parents and sang along to “Like a Virgin” long before I knew what a virgin was.
Watching the local news with my grandmother, I understood little of what was said, but knew the world could be a scary place. It was the era of “Stranger Danger,” a concept that has since been debunked but still lurks in the back of my mind whenever I bring my son to a well-populated area.
In elementary school, we learned all about the creepy man who offers treats and a ride to unsuspecting boys and girls. He lures them with candy, offers to let them pet his cute puppy, lies to them about their parents being sick. “Your Mommy sent me to pick you up,” the man would say. “Get in my van and I’ll take you to her.” And the little boy or girl would climb in, never to be seen or heard from again.
I was raised on a foundation of fear, and this is the foundation upon which my own parenting style is built.
I panic when I take my son to a public park, keeping a stern eye on any adult who happens to wander near him. I grip his hand tightly, sometimes too tight, if we’re at a crowded amusement park. I yell at him if he strolls too far from me in the store and insist that he stay in my line of vision at all times.
I even considered keeping him home from the field trip today, just to keep him safe.
I admit I’m bordering on paranoia. I know strangers aren’t the enemy. When I was a latchkey kid growing up in the city, I played outside for hours, my parents giving me the freedom to frolic without strict supervision. When I went to my dad’s baseball games, he’d join his team on the field while us kids ran to the playground well out of his line of sight. I have wonderful memories of after-dark hide-and-seek with other neighborhood kids, solo walks to the busy corner store to buy candy bars, and yes, field trips to public pools with summer camp.
I knew, though, how to take care of myself. I’d seen enough news reports and horror movies to know not all bad guys look bad. I knew to keep my eyes open, to watch the world around me, to be observant. But also, not to let my eyes linger too long, not to make eye contact on the subway or engage in conversation with someone who felt off. I knew to trust my gut, and not to let my guard down.
I worry that by over-protecting my son, I may actually be hurting him. He hasn’t been exposed to the news; thanks to parental controls, his entertainment is curated so he can only watch shows appropriate for his age group. I have a playlist of child-friendly songs on my iPhone, and the backyard of our suburban home is securely fenced in.
There is no corner store to walk to. There is no subway to take. His father and I never even argue in front of him. He has no reason to be cautious, because he’s never been given any reason to be.
As far as he’s concerned, people are good, the world is safe, and bad guys look like bad guys. And this concerns me. I think about his upbringing and wonder if we’re doing right by him
What happens when he’s old enough to venture out on his own? How will he navigate the world without my husband or me to hold his hand? How will he respond to arguments if he’s been emotionally protected all of his life? Will he be mature enough to stand his ground, or will he crumble under the stress? Will his imagination be stunted by the lack of unsupervised free play? What will his memories of childhood be if he’s not allowed to climb a tree, build a fort, walk to a friend’s house alone, or go on a damn field trip?
Don’t get me wrong—my son is happy and healthy, and I’m so grateful for that. He’s outgoing and friendly. He makes fellow shoppers laugh at the grocery store and does silly faces for babies at the playground. He greets passersby with a kind hello, and holds the door open for me at restaurants. He’s sweet-natured and loving, and has an innocence about him that is enormously refreshing in today’s day and age.
I don’t want him to change, but I want to keep him safe. I want him to be independent, but I don’t want him to grow up too quickly. I want him to be prepared for the world, but I don’t want to scare him with tales of strangers who might lure him into a van with candy.
How do I keep him safe without hindering his emotional development?
How do I know I’m doing the right thing?
How do I walk this tightrope?