My first grader’s school is conveniently located less than a mile from our home. Every morning and afternoon I strap the baby into his carrier on my chest and my son and I walk hand in hand to school and home again. I cherish our walks. My almost seven-year-old notices every little change along the way. If the leaves have changed from green to brown, if there is a new flower blooming, if the geese are on the ground instead of flying overhead, he enthusiastically points it out to me. The baby’s eyes dart up and down, left to right. He turns his little head back and forth as quickly as he can. The world is new and every little glimpse is sheer wonderment.
I long for the days when every minute detail had to be thoroughly examined and no inch of the world could be overlooked. The joy and amazement in their eyes has allowed me to remember that feeling. I am able to recapture that part of my life and I wouldn’t trade those ten-minute walks for anything. As we walk we discuss the events of the day. Books read, pictures painted, and songs sung are the most important events in his life. There are large stones along our route and each and every one must be stepped upon. The largest one is where he exclaims daily that he is king of the world. And in that moment, he is. We travel the same path as many other students from his school. Some hand in hand with their parent, others a little older are discovering their first hints of independence as they walk alone. I enjoy the little snippets of conversations I overhear as we pass by or they trail behind.
Today, however, I heard a conversation that broke my heart. It told of innocence lost far too soon. I don’t know their names, but I recognized the two girls from the fifth-grade class. They walked close enough behind that I couldn’t help but overhear the exchange. This was their conversation.
“Hey, do you remember that child molester that got out of jail?”
“Did your parents tell you about the call from the school about a guy in a maroon vehicle taking pictures of kids on the playground?”
“Yeah, that’s creepy.”
“Well, it was the same guy. I guess after he was at the school he kidnapped two girls.”
“Oh, my god. Do they go here?”
“No, but they found the guy. He’s back in prison now.”
“Good. Those girls are going to be scarred for life. They are going to have major p.t.s.d.”
“I know right.”
Their words become mumbled as they turned off to their final destination. As they walked away my first thought was why I hadn’t heard about any of this? I had to fight the urge to call them over and ask where on earth they heard all of that. What were their parents allowing them to watch on the news? Where did they learn that terminology? Had their parents sat them down and told them all of this? Did they overhear or were eavesdropping on adult conversations? It didn’t matter how they came to learn the information. What mattered was that they were innocent little girls that were not only learning about but discussing topics far beyond their years.
Are they far beyond their years, though? Have things really changed so much from when I was their age? In fifth grade, I remember discussing who had gotten their period and what movie we going to beg our parents to rent us at the next slumber party. I certainly knew of stranger danger, but I don’t remember knowing about pedophiles. I’m not sure if it’s because we have several 24-hour news stations, or the ease of smart phones to upload photos and videos to social media, or social media itself, but children are learning more and more younger and younger. It is becoming increasingly difficult to shelter our children from the ugliness of the world.
I have had the gift of being able to be a stay at home mom. I have been able to protect my children from so many things. I screen what they watch on television, I control who they interact with, I am extremely selective of what environments I allow them in. I used to always know who they were with and what they were doing. Now that they are in school I am no longer able to do that. They come home with language I didn’t teach them, questions about things I would not have exposed them too, and making friends I don’t approve of. I no longer have control of the bubble I had provided for them.
I have been told by more people than I care to respond to that I am doing them an injustice by not allowing them to live in the real world. I don’t agree. Childhood is such a short and fleeting time. They have the rest of their lives to find out just how much people suck and how unfair things are. They will spend their adult lives navigating and trying in vain to understand just how messed up the real world is. 35 hours a week they are away from me and I have no control over what they are seeing and hearing. They are certainly learning far more than reading and arithmetic. The hours that I have them with me I will continue to run interference. I know I will be forced to answer questions and attempt to explain things that I shouldn’t have to at their age, but short of never letting them more than an arm’s reach away, this is a hard fact that I just have to accept.