I was a teenager when 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared from a SoHo street corner 33 years ago today, and that news changed my life. It was clearly not the first time a child had ever disappeared, but it was the first in an era of 24 hour news and cable TV. Some events come to stand for all the others, and the Patz case shaped the generation I was part of, and the generation we would go on to raise.
The Patz disappearance came less than a year after the disappearance of five teenagers in Newark, and just before news broke that someone was killing children (there would be 21 deaths in all) in and around Atlanta. Adam Walsh would be kidnapped and killed in 1981 after his mother lost track of him in a Florida department store. Paperboy Johnny Gosch would disappear while biking his usual delivery route in Iowa in 1982. The creation of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children codified the alarm, and Adam Walsh's father, John, became haunting soundtrack to parenting when he appeared in living rooms regularly as the host of "America's Most Wanted."
I remember my own fear back then. It was not paralyzing or debilitating or even clear and conscious, but it was ever present and new. Something had changed. My Mom ordered that my favorite necklace, with "LISA" written in gold, be exiled to a drawer. She didn't want a stranger to call me by name and lead me to think they were a friend.
As Lenore Skenazy, the writer who champions against irrational fear in parenting told the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, "When Etan was first missing, the working assumption on the part of the parents was that some forlorn woman had seen this angelic child at a bus stop and had taken him to raise as her own. It wasn't until later, when police said that sometimes it's actually not a woman who captures a child, but a man who intends to ... murder them. When that hit the airwaves, it was a match that sparked a fire that's been raging ever since."
My younger son is now the age I was when Etan disappeared. He has never known a world without children's faces on milk cartons (Etan was the first), nor one where he was allowed to wander the neighborhood unsupervised, expected to show up at dinnertime. The age of all his firsts -- staying home alone, taking the train alone, biking a mile across town -- was far older than mine had been, because I was raised in a world that had not thought of danger, and he was raised in one that thinks about it all the time. He never wanted a name necklace, but if he had I would have said no.
Last month, when detectives swarmed a SoHo basement on what seems to have been an erroneous tip that Etan was buried there, Associated Press reporter Meghan Barr interviewed Cass Collins, whose sons had been in a playgroup with the little boy. They are now grown (after all, that blond imp on the milk carton would be nearing 40) and one, Collins said, was anxious as a kid. News of the new search led mother to apologize to her son. "I said to him, 'If you got a sense from us that the world is a scary place, it came from Etan Patz,'" she told Barr. "That's where it came from. And I'm sorry if we did do that. Because it's not a good thing to imbue in a child."
And yet we have imbued it -- all of us, a whole nation, not just those whose children played with Etan. We keep our children inside, by our sides, teach them of stranger danger, drive them when they should be walking, limit them when they should be free. And we do it based on a magnified -- and false -- view of a dangerous world.
To wit -- of the 800,000 children who disappear each year in the US, only 115 do so as Etan did, at the hands of strangers, rather than the more typical disappearance as part of a custody or family dispute.
Or this fact: British writer Warwick Cairns, author of "How to Live Dangerously," has calculated that if you wanted to guarantee that your child would be snatched off the street, he or she would have to stand outside alone for 750,000 YEARS.
Still, we are certain it could happen any moment. We live as if it WILL happen WITHIN a moment. And the irony -- the tragedy -- as Skenazy points out regularly on her website freerangekids.com, is that we are probably harming them more than protecting our kids with all our metaphorical bubble wrap. We are teaching them that the world is more dangerous than it actually is, that everyone and anyone is out to get them, that they need an adult close to keep them safe. Then we wonder why they are taking anxiety medications in record numbers, and bringing parents with them to job interviews, and extending adolescence into their 30s.
New York City police announced an arrest today, which is also National Missing Children's Day -- one created by Ronald Reagan after Etan disappeared. We could use it to reopen a chapter, and frighten ourselves anew, and hold our kids (too) tight and warn them (too much) about the big bad world.
Or we could use this to open a new chapter. To teach them that sometimes bad things happen, and that reasonable people take rational precautions. But that the world is a place of adventure, and we want them to have oh so many of those.