About two years ago, my then-13-year-old son and I were at home right around the beginning of summer vacation. I was on a frantic work deadline. He was bored and feeling cooped up. In a frenzy of stress, I suggested he get out of the house and take a walk to our local library — about a mile and a half from our home. He put on his flip-flops, grabbed his library card and iPhone, and set out. He’d only done this a few times before, all within the previous few months.
The route to the library is along a pretty busy street where drivers typically speed. And there’s one major intersection to cross. I figured he could handle it. He’s a bright kid, very responsible.
About an hour after he left, the phone rings. It’s my son on his cel phone. He says, “Mom, can you talk to this police officer? He wants to talk to you.” Say what?
Turns out, my son had been walking along, minding his own business, when a woman pulled her car over to him to ask if he was okay, if he should be out walking alone. Okay, granted my kid is short like me. But he has a mature bearing. And he’s white. Which seemed to put a whole different spin on this pedestrian accosting.
He told her yes, everything is under control, he knew where he was going, then continued on his way. A few minutes later, a sheriff’s patrol car pulled up in front of him. (Turns out the woman had called the police.) The officer asked him where he was going, and could he talk to his parents to make sure he was supposed to be out like this. Slightly dumbfounded by this unwarranted attention, my son called me and passed the phone to the officer — to confirm with me that I had actually consented to letting my child walk his neighborhood to the library.
Once he got home, it took us awhile to unpack all of this. Here I was trying to shed my tendencies toward helicopter parenting, only to discover that we live in a helicopter neighborhood — at least when it comes to innocent-looking white kids. Was that woman really doing the right thing by pulling up to my kid? Wasn’t she a stranger, after all, that he probably should have run from, in the logic of her world? In her world, yes, he should have run. But my son inhabits a more common-sensical world, one that I’m trying like hell to instill in my kids. I want them to feel a part of a home place, a sense of comfort and familiarity with their community. And I want them to learn resourcefulness and independence. (And for gosh sake, this is L.A. suburbia, not some bustling urban downtown.)
But I obviously stand in opposition to the fear-burdened suburbanites. Me, with an open and optimistic sensibility about our neighborhood, and that woman who felt compelled to call the cops when she saw a young person walking alone. Sliced another way, we were part of this larger battle between two oppositional parenting styles: the “free range kids” v. the “helicoptered” kids. I hate to overly reduce this to a social cliché. It was happening to us in the here-and-now, and we had to confront the implications of this incident for us, as a family.
We did take some practical steps. My son got a California ID card to show a sheriff in case this ever happened again. We went to the sheriff’s station to discuss the incident. I asked the deputy on duty, what would she recommend? Let him walk? Or don’t? She said, it’s really up to you, but if it were my kid, I wouldn’t. And then I wondered, is our neighborhood truly that dangerous? We live in an interracial suburban neighborhood, with its upscale and modest sections. But it’s always felt safe to me. We wouldn’t have moved here if it hadn’t.
I wondered, how are these fears and fretful perceptions shaping our very relation to public space — to the sidewalks and streets of our home communities? Are our psyches painting these as dark and foreboding places, when in the light of day they are simply streets, lined with trees and homes housing my neighbors?
This woman — and the police power that she marshalled in her over-the-top intervention — reflects a culture of suburban paranoia, fed by vapid neighborhood “blog sites” that seem concerned only with the latest local crime or mishap. When did the public discourse about our home places get hijacked by the paranoid naysayers, who have no faith in the possibilities for well-being in our own neighborhoods?
It has historical roots. But the sprouts and shoots that have come of this are ugly to me. They reveal a kind of civic and social mistrust, an assumption of the worst in human nature, right in our own backyards.
My son, meanwhile, is a spark of hope. When I asked him if he feels safe walking to the library, he answered a simple “yes.” I’m glad he’s paying more attention to reality than the toxic fictions around us.