As the school year winds down, South Sound students gaze out classroom windows in daydream mode. The summer of 2018 beckons with bike rides, neighborhood games and campouts under a canopy of summer stars “so near, strumming, strumming, so lazy and hum-strumming,” as poet Carl Sandburg wrote.
But there’s a counterweight to the blissful, youthful freedom, an undercurrent of summertime angst among parents. How could there not be, following news reports of a 15-year-old Bonney Lake girl who went missing for 3 ½ weeks? She disappeared from a transit center and was caught in a web of apparent sex trafficking before being found safe June 3.
Meanwhile, public interest has been reawakened in the Jennifer Bastian case, 32 years after the 13-year-old Tacoma girl was abducted while savoring a freewheeling summer bike ride at Point Defiance Park. DNA tests recently led to the arrest of her presumed killer, bringing a measure of justice to Jenni’s loved ones but also stirring old emotions.
“I remember my world changing when Jenni was murdered,” recalled her friend, Stephanie Hatch. She and other childhood companions spoke to TNT reporter Kate Martin for a weekend story about how the tragedy left them with tangled feelings of loss and guilt, made their families extra protective — and shaped their own approach to parenting when they grew up and had children.
It’s a microcosm of a national phenomenon. Largely gone are summer days when moms and dads would kick their kids out the door after breakfast for sweet adventures that lasted until dinnertime, then continued at least until the streetlights came on. That bygone era is captured in the amber resin of pop culture, from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” The stories are embellished in the movies and in our memories, but the life skills of independence, creativity and resilience imparted during those summers can’t be denied.
In Tacoma, 1986 was a turning point. That it had such indelible impact is understandable — especially because another local girl, Michella Welch, was also kidnapped and killed that year.
On a larger scale, however, U.S. communities have lost something precious since the dawning of the milk carton campaigns and “America’s Most Wanted.” Journalist Patt Morrison, in a Los Angeles Times essay last week, lamented that adults stole childhood from kids and gave it to themselves.
“We just have to renormalize the idea that kids are part of the world,” Morrison wrote. “They're not just vases to be put behind glass and kept inside because they're so delicate and so precious we don't want anything to happen to them.”
Hypervigilant parenting ignores the decline in violent crime rates, and that most harm done to children doesn’t come at the hands of strangers; of the more than 27,000 U.S. kids who went missing last year, only 1 percent were nonfamily abductions, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
And putting children behind glass often means computer and phone screens, where social-media bullies and chatroom predators pose more danger than strangers on the street.
Helicopter parents are here to stay, but a backlash is building with the “free-range parenting” movement. Utah turned heads this year when it adopted the country’s first free-range law; it spells out that parents can’t be charged with neglect for letting kids walk to the store unsupervised, wait in a car alone or other acts of parental discretion that lead to occasional overzealous responses by authorities. Politicians in Texas and New York say they’ll push for similar legislation.
What about a free-range law in Washington? It’s worth discussing if it empowers parents to do what’s best for their kids. We can think of few things better for them than fresh air, freedom and the hum-strumming self-discovery that summers were made for.