Fear of 'Bad People'

DERRICK Z. JACKSON

January 29, 1993|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

BOSTON — Boston. -- Much of the nation is incensed over that suburban Chicago couple that vacationed in Mexico while allegedly leaving their 9- and 4-year-old girls alone at home. The singular act was unthinkable. It also made me feel how, in only one generation, we have lost so much feeling for neighborhood that we rob our children of freedom.

I discuss this often with my friends. Were our parents naive, or is the world now really so much more dangerous that we allow our children far less independence than we had?

At 5 years old, I walked by myself the four blocks to kindergarten. At 8 years old, I often supervised my infant sister in the car, once letting her scratch up my face while my mother visited the dentist. I watched my sister on Friday evenings while my mother went grocery shopping, although I did not clean the carpet when she did a number two.

My parents did not leave me alone to go on vacation at 9, but did so at 12. I decided that summer vacation in Mississippi was dull. So my parents set it up so my 9-year-old brother and I could stay home in Milwaukee. We were alone but not lonely. We checked in daily with the neighbors and with a nearby uncle and aunt. We did so joyfully, because all these homes had playmates our age.

By 15, I was going down to Chicago by myself on the bus to buy camera equipment or to see plays. There is no doubt that this independence paid off later in journalism. This was the polar opposite of some college students I taught in the mid-1980s. In our first class, I asked them to go to Kenmore Square to interview people on any subject.

It was 6:30 p.m. on a September evening with daylight left. At first, some students balked. They were petrified at the thought of stopping a stranger in the outside world.

My 7-year-old son asks me if he can walk the dog three blocks to the park. A father who walked alone to kindergarten must now make decisions in a world gripped with fear, whether it is of drive-by shootings or milk-carton missing-child pictures.

Many people say child abuse by parents, teachers and priests has always been with us. It is just that the media report it more and so the courts prosecute it more. But any consolation is still lost in an escalating swirl of paranoia.

I already have found a razor blade in our children's Halloween candy. So either Mom and Dad must walk him around or let one of the neighbors chaperone him to carefully selected houses. We allow our son to walk by himself to neighbors on our block to see children his age. But at 7, he is already two years behind me in crossing a busy street without an adult hand.

Children can develop healthy independence if they can trust their surroundings. Most of us try to do the best we can. We patch together a network of friends, work colleagues and parents of playmates. It can work relatively well, but even the best efforts are much more fragile than yesterday, more subject to moves and more vulnerable to periods where the workload of the parents creates long periods of being out of touch with other parents.

A year and a half ago, we moved into a new neighborhood. The people on our block were friendly. We are in a network of people who watch out for each other's children and homes. In that network, our 7-year-old operates much as I did 30 years ago, bouncing from friend to friend.

But when he asked me about walking the dog, I paused. It would be his first time off the block alone. Mom and Dad and school programs on child abuse already have the poor child more fearful than we were at his age about ''bad people.'' I decided that I could not completely stifle his need for independence. I told him he could walk the dog. I told him with an extra beat in my heart.

?3 Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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