Sunday, August 26, 2018
The mother who asked me looked around nervously and then back at me.
"Somebody said your wife took some of the kids across the street to use the bathroom," she said.
"I'm sure she did," I said. "Let me go find them."
Her concern was palpable and I could feel it pressing down on my head and back, pushing me toward the park's edge.
I had heard only five minutes earlier that the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) had taken at least two of the kids attending Bryce's birthday party across the street. We knew one of the neighbors who lived across from the park, a park where there are no public bathrooms.
As I walked toward the street, I knew the feeling -- the feeling all parents get when they're children are out of sight and you don't know where they are, and only a minute earlier they were right there in front of you. That sick, panicky feel in your gut, when your heart pounds fast in your chest and your mind takes you places you don't want to go.
Then I saw the Mama come out of the house with five kids, not two, and one of them was the daughter the other mother was looking for her. I turned back to her and the other mother saw her daughter, too. The relief was now what was palpable.
"Mama, you've got to check first before you take the kids away," I said, referencing the Kidpower practice of kids "checking first" with their grown-ups before they go somewhere or do something that may be a safety problem.
"I know, I know," the Mama said, guiding the kids back across the street to the park. "Sorry, I was just trying to get the kids who had to go."
I saw the other mother hug her daughter and then say to her, "You always need to check first before you go anywhere, do you understand?"
"Yes," the girl said and then ran off to play with the other kids again.
Checking first, it's really important, but then later it got us talking about letting our girls do more things on their own, like walking to the same park after school with other kids and with or without other adults. We'd never let them walk or ride their bikes to school from where we live. It's too far and we live on the edge of town with unknown homeless population that travels back and forth to a nearby ravine area where they camp, not to mention the the homeless who live in campers and motorhomes in and around the area.
It's not about us being callous and uncaring to the plight of those who live on the streets, but we are concerned about the safety of our family and others from those with mental health problems and/or drug problems, the fringe criminal element, who choose to live in the shadows in the edges of town.
That may sound overdramatic and paranoid, and maybe some of it is, but we've had our share of incidents in Santa Cruz that cause us to be more cautious. All you have to do is read the threads of Take Back Santa Cruz, a Facebook group that continuously posts about the criminal element in our city. I was downtown recently going to the movies with my daughter and a homeless man in a burlap robe was scattering leaves on the sidewalk and the street and then drawing strange symbols on the sidewalk in pink chalk. He mumbled to himself the entire time.
I grabbed my daughter's hand and hurried across the street away from him.
"What?" she said. "That man?"
"Nothing," I said.
As far as I know the man was completely harmless. Or not. I don't know, and while we need to be cautious, we can't live our lives in constant worry of what could happen. Even when something tragic happens, like the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.
As well as the recent story about the 8-year-old daughter take the family dog for a short walk alone and how someone called the police on the mother for letting her daughter walk alone. The mother just wanted to give her daughter a little more independence. To free range or not to free range -- that is the question.
We get it. Our girls are now 8 and almost 10, and we let them walk a short ways down our street and around the corner to get our mail, with us waiting by the front door, paying attention to the time they're gone. They do wait after school sometimes as well now, in the library or playing on the playground, but that also doesn't mean our girls are even ready to walk or ride bikes by themselves too far yet.
When I asked the girls if they would be comfortable walking by themselves from school to the park nearby, they both told me "not really." Beatrice the oldest would be more comfortable with it, but Bryce wants an adult there, the Mama specifically.
We want them to be safe while gaining independence, but there's no rush for us as parents, or them as children, to be wandering off too far by themselves any time soon. Beatrice was at a friend's earlier this year and then they went next door to another neighbor we did not know. When the Mama found that out, she reminded Bea that this was not safe and that she always needs to "check first" with us, her parents, even if the people she's with say it's safe and okay.
Because we don't know what we don't know and wouldn't have known where she was or if she was in harm's way if there was an emergency and we needed to get to her. That's why the childhood check-first is a constant that can never be compromised.