An honest politician.

A stripper working her way through law school.

A farm-to-table fantasist who understands that our forebears ate from vacuum-sealed jars far more often than they did from the garden.

These creatures are rare. In fact, you may live your entire life and never see one.

But none of these beasts is as elusive as a child on a bicycle peddling his or her way down an otherwise empty suburban street to a friend’s home four or five streets over, with no parent in sight. That child is extinct.

Now, there was a time when you might regularly find one of these children on the streets of your neighborhood. They might have been alone. They might have been with a friend. And they were everywhere. I was one of them.

From the time I was six or seven, I regularly rode my bike to my friends’ houses up or down the street. I don’t recall being hassled. I don’t recall being afraid. And I don’t ever remember a time when some adult, whether my own parents or close family friends, worried about my safety. The world was our playground.

Like many of my friends, I was an independent kid. From the time I was three, I knew how to make my own sandwiches, and as I grew older, I learned how to make whatever else I might want to eat, whether it was tuna salad, instant pudding, or popcorn on the stove. As early as five, I was playing in the woods and the creeks on my own. I built tree houses, swung from vines, made fires, caught crawdads, encountered snakes, crawled in storm water pipes, and stepped in plenty of yellow jacket nests. Truth be told, I spent most of my childhood unsupervised by adults. I didn’t need help doing homework. I didn’t need help doing school projects. I didn’t need to be escorted from one activity to another. I didn’t need my parents around.

I don’t know how many of you were like me, but I doubt I was a rare case. In fact, I suspect I was the norm. Then again, I came of age in the ’70s, the great and glorious era of the latchkey kid. And as a member of the latchkey age, I was raised to be independent and street smart. 

By today’s standards, I’d probably be viewed as something of a savage. Even worse, my parents would be criminals.

Take the case of Meriana Martin, a mother of four who was recently arrested and charged with the crime of cruelty to children all because she dropped her children off at a West Ashley Chuck E. Cheese and went shopping. The eldest was nine, the next was six, and the youngest two were four. That could have easily been me.

Now, admittedly, Martin violated Chuck E. Cheese policy by leaving her children unaccompanied, but it’s quite unlikely that her children were ever in any danger, and there is no indication that her children were causing any trouble. Even though the mom’s actions were inappropriate., the criminal charge just seems to be excessive.

But evidently, this sort of thing is now par for course. A North Augusta mother was recently arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at a neighborhood park while unattended. CNN reports the mother was “charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.” That could have been my mom, my dad.

Sadly, these two women are by no means alone. In any given week, you’re likely to find reports about a mother who has left her children in the car while she had gone shopping — I can’t tell you how many times I waited in the car while one of my parents ran inside the grocery store to get a last-minute item — and together we all talk about what horrible parents they are. Instead of admitting that we too were left alone and turned out OK, we’ve allowed splashy, panic-inducing exposés on Dateline NBC to control us.

But if there’s one thing we fear more than child predators, it’s our fellow neighbors. The Joneses are watching, and they are judgmental.

And so, we live in a particular kind of modern American hysteria, the one where our children cannot step foot outside without adult supervision. Our children cannot ride their bikes down the street without us riding along with them. Our children cannot play at the park unless we’re standing right beside them at the jungle gym. In this terror-stricken age, childhood itself is at best a sweeps-week report from Chris Hansen and at worst a tragedy in the making. 

And if our nine-year-old selves were children today, they would have hated every minute of their helicopter lives.

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