Several years ago, I wrote that my mother's favorite after-school activity for me was "go outside and find something to do." I said it was then, and still is, the most valuable way a child can spend his free time.
Shortly thereafter, I embarked on a speaking tour that took me the length and breadth of the country. At nearly every stop, parents wanted to discuss that column.
"Times have changed," they would say. "You can't just send children outside to play anymore."
"Why not?" I would ask, knowing what was coming next.
"Because of all the weirdos," came the reply.
The weirdos referred to include child molesters and kidnappers and flashers and feelers and assorted other creepies from the underbelly of society, sickos who feed on innocence and beauty like vampires feed on blood. Yep, there are weirdos out there, all right.
But weirdos are nothing new. History is sprinkled with stories of children being killed and abducted, sold into slavery or abused and manipulated for evil gain. Charles Dickens and O. Henry wrote about it, institutions as respectable as the British Navy engaged in it, and gangsters throughout history have profited from it.
During the Great Depression, small-time hoods all over the country tried to make a quick buck by kidnapping the progeny of the rich and famous. Remember the Lindbergh baby?
The times have surely changed, but the dangers in most neighborhoods are not significantly different, nor are the precautions any less effective.
I was 4 when my mother began sending me outside to find something to do. The city was Charleston and the neighborhood was the waterfront district where struggling middle-class families like our own lived in small apartments carved from the interiors of once-stately homes and elegant row houses.
Before sending me out to begin my grand adventures, Mom sat me down and told me in calm, matter-of-fact terms about the weirdos. She told me how to recognize them and what to do if I did.
I was 5 when it happened. A fellow pulled up in front of where I was playing and, smiling and talking just as nice as you please, asked for directions to a business that was just around the corner. When I told him where it was, he played dumb and offered me a candy bar if I'd get in his car and direct him to it.
The candy bar was the tip-off. I turned and ran into the house, yelling, "Mom! Mom!!" at the top of my lungs. By the time I got inside, blurted out my story and towed Mom outside, the car and its slimy contents had disappeared.
"Good for you!" Mom said, and I felt 6 feet tall. She treated me like a hero the rest of the day, even took me to the corner drugstore for a soda and told the druggist what a brave boy I was. She also went house-to-house with me, warning the other parents that a creep was about.
The next day, I was back outside, playing with the other children. If Mom feared for my safety, she didn't let on. As a result, I took a tremendous sense of confidence and self-reliance away from the incident. It was empowering.
And Mom acknowledged that, indeed, I was a powerful, capable little person by sending me back outside to find something to do.
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