I Could’ve Been A Milk Carton Kid – Which is Why I Helicopter Parent

Me with my younger sister when I was six.
Me with my younger sister when I was six.

My friend Amy told me she lets her 10-year old walk around our Los Angeles neighborhood alone.

I tried to keep myself from gasping aloud. I gasped internally, imagining all the kidnappers circling her child in their unmarked, white vans.

Then she clarified that her daughter carries a Walkie Talkie affixed to her belt strap so she can communicate with her mother at a moments notice.

Can you do that? I wondered. Can you buy your kid a Walkie Talkie so she can shriek out “red-and-white mini-Cooper slowing near me on the corner of Prosser and Tennessee. Get here stat, mommy!” in case the nice Asian lady with a white bun in her hair has a child net she’s about to deploy?

My kids don’t walk the neighborhood without me. They’re 8 and 10. I have good reason to be a Helicopter Parent.

When I was 9, in 1969, I practically hitch-hiked from Claremont, California to Eureka by myself.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. But at seven I did ride my bike from home all the way to Griswold’s Smorgasbord off of Indian Avenue in Claremont because they had a candy shop there and I had fifty cents of lemonade-stand money burning a hole in my pocket.

My parents never organized play dates or signed me up for summer camp or loaded me down with after-school activities.

I went into the lemon grove next to our house and built forts and shot fake rifles and real bb guns at my brothers in our daily game of War.

I threatened to kiss an African-American boy who lived in the cul-de-sac behind us, which was tantamount to Original Sin during the White-Flight ’60s.

I climbed stranger’s fences to retrieve balls kicked into their backyards.

I found stray pitbulls, checked their tags and walked them home, even if they’d gone a mile or two afoul.

In the ’60s, there were rarely reports of child abductions in the news. Mostly because there was rarely news.

You caught the news at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. or not at all, and reporters had bigger fish to fry than child abductions so our parents WEREN’T AFRAID.

Imagine that? Very little bad news constantly soaking into and lining your brain tissue causing you to fear that behind every corner is death and disfigurement for your child.

Man, I would’ve loved to be a ’60s mom and not a helicopter parent, but I know too much now.

Even as Free-Range Mom crows about giving our children the unfettered freedom we — who have lived to remember — enjoyed, there are too many names we can’t forget that keep us — perhaps — overly vigilant. And my name could have been one of them.

I was six-years old living in Covina, California at the time when it was “the thing” to allow your younger children to walk home from school with the older children in your neighborhood.

I don’t remember much about the day, but I do remember the moment.

I was walking home in a cluster of children on a hot sidewalk in May? June? I was wearing a dress and white tights.

A car pulled up to the curb. It was a dingy brown and looked like a Cadillac Eldorado that’d seen better days.

The passenger window was rolled down and the man driving leaned across the bench seat and pushed the passenger door open.

“Sweetheart!  Sweetheart?” He was calling to one of the children I was with. I looked around to see wh0 but no one responded. I looked back at the man. Our eyes met.

“Yes, sweetheart, you,” he said.

He was talking to me? I stepped away from the group of children toward the car.

I peered down the length of that bench seat to where he’d resumed sitting erect before the steering wheel, glancing at me in a businesslike manner — as if I were a foregone conclusion.

“Come on, get in, your mom asked me to pick you up.”

He seemed so certain, unequivocal. I stepped off the curb, one foot in the gutter.

As I peered at him it occurred to me that I’d never seen him before. But maybe I had? He was an adult who seemed to know me and I didn’t always pay attention to adults. Maybe I had seen him before?

“Who are you?” I asked, one knee on the bench seat.

If he’d told me he was a friend of my mothers I would’ve gotten in the car. But he didn’t say that. He said, “I’m your uncle.”

I knew he wasn’t my uncle which, it turns out, forever changed the trajectory of my life.

I retracted my knee and stepped back up on the curb. I took one last look at him through the windshield of the car, not with dread, but a vague question as to why a man who wasn’t my uncle would say he was?

I turned and ran a little to catch up with the rest of the kids.

I know some time very soon I have to let my daughters walk through the world without me glued to their side. But I don’t think I’ll ever be completely ready.

Do you think it’s harder to parent today than it was a generation ago? And what freedoms do you allow your children at what ages?

17 thoughts on “I Could’ve Been A Milk Carton Kid – Which is Why I Helicopter Parent”

  1. Rosie Carrillo

    It hurts to think of kids not being able to be free to run, play and explore the world, as some of us were able to do. I was allowed at the age of 7 to walk a mile into the woods behind our house with my BB gun and dog. I would go to the river there, and watch the turtles in the water, listen to/watch birds and squirrels and hunt for mushrooms in the carpet of leaves. This would have been 1950 thru 1955. We never dreamed of serial killers/kidnappers or men running around with automatic weapons dressed in sniper attire. Those days are long vanished, and I mourn their passing. 🙁

    1. Hi Rosie — I mourn the loss of self-discovery for our children too. Statistics are likely in our favor of our kids being perfectly safe in the world, but the barrage of bad news outdoes it.

  2. Catherine Dong

    Hey, maybe my husband was that African-American boy – he grew up in Claremont, too. Although he’s also half-Chinese-American.:)

  3. and did you say anything to your parents when you got home? suspect it didn’t cross your mind?

    the sad fact is that the rates of child abduction etc haven’t changed since the days of your childhood, as you noted the reporting is what has gone crazy. we need to find a balance between arming our children with knowledge and strategies (eg you can run faster than a car can reverse, so run the other way) and preserving their innocence…

    1. Hi Lidia — I agree that we don’t want to unnecessarily frighten our children and that news stations aren’t reporting everything that’s good in the world. But just this last week we’ve had shooting rampages in and around Santa Monica a couple of miles from our home which has once again put me on high alert.

  4. Oh my gosh. Did you ever tell your mom that story? I was naive too and might have gotten in. I do feel like God has looked out for you all these years (religion aside). 🙂

  5. Hi Jennie — I didn’t tell my mom until years later when I was an adult. I think it was at a time she was accusing me of being an over-protective mom. Boy I pulled that story out like a scimitar. My poor mom.

  6. Meredith in SA

    I don’t watch the local news – for exactly this reason! Motherhood’s got me a DefCon 3 already; I don’t need any unnecessary provocations.

    Gosh, I would love to swear that MY kids will walk to and from school every day just like I did in the ’80s; that MY kids will bike to the store for milk just like I did; that MY kids will ride the bus to the mall just like I did (until 1989, when there was a drive-by shooting at the mall bus stop and Mom wised up). It gives me satisfaction to note that child abductions in the US are rarer now than in the ’70s and ’80s, and that most of the time the abductors and abusers are relatives or family friends (my abuser was an uncle).

    It’s easy for me to make assertions now, when my 2.5-yo girls are safely ensconced in preschool part of the day, and home with Daddy the rest of it. I’d love to say my kids will have plenty of independence in their youth. But if I’ve learned anything in the last 2.5 years, it’s not to make proclamations.

    I hope to be a parent who allows my girls to make enough small-impact mistakes – to fall down *just* hard enough – to improve their decision-making abilities and impulse control. I hope to teach them to trust their instincts and to take healthy risks and precautions.

    And I plan to get them in karate as soon as it’s age-appropriate.

    1. Hi Meredith — you and I are definitely on the same page. I want to take my girls to a Model Mugging class when they’re old enough.

  7. As 20-somethings, my Fiance and I struggle whether we want to have children. Some days we do. Somedays we don’t. The days we didn’t were after Sandy Hook and any major shooting. Children walking home and being shot makes us hold tight to each other and question whether we are strong (and brave) enough to bring in a precious child to the world just to have them potentially or tragically ripped away from us. As a child I wasn’t allowed to cross the street (bad kids lived there, my mom said) or go past the light pole on my block. My parents were SUPER protective of me and my sister….and now I am glad for it because my sister and I are still here and…hopefully well adjusted.

    1. Hi GeeVes — having children makes you more vulnerable than you’ve ever been. I can be quite morbid about all the terrible things that could happen to my children, but I can’t let that free-floating fear and anxiety tarnish each day I do have with my children. I’m a different person because of them and, I believe, a better person for it.

  8. I remember those days of playing in the lemon groves, and that little back house that you guys had. Since I lived right next to you across the open field,we would constantly walk between your house and mine without any supervision on a main road. We had so much fun. Never in a million years would I allow my kids to do the things that we used to do. , and am now reminiscing about all the crazy stuff we did with N and D. We learned a lot of problem solving skills that our kids don’t have a chance to learn now. It’s so sad that we have so much worry and distrust in parenting our children now. Love you, my silly friend!

    1. Hi Callie — I loved all of the freedom we had and feel so annoyed that we don’t feel comfortable turning our kids loose the way we were. I’m sure 99.9% of the time they’d be just fine, would learn the art of self-care and have many memorable adventures, but it’s that damn .1% that’s on the multitude of news platforms that pulls me up short. But you must know our friendship was one of the best memories I have of my childhood in Claremont. What a life!

  9. I’m a Claremont girl! I loved living there and was, like you, free to roam at will. I used to walk from my house to the Village Grill for burgers, fries and a coke. Remember that place?

    1. Julie — I do! Claremont was kid heaven. My favorite was the candy store at Griswold’s. I felt like Charlie in The Chocolate Factory.

  10. Wow, that’s really scary. Did you tell your mom? Creepy! I still helicopter my 16 and 18 year old – you can never really let yourself stop worrying about your kids. My daughter drives now and every now and then if she’s not home by about 11, I start to have major panic that she’s stranded on the side of the road somewhere with her throat slit. So I start texting her and before I know it she walks in, safe & sound. Nothin’ wrong with being a helicopter mom, you just need to know how to manage your own fears so that they can go out and live their lives.

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