I was standing with my granddaughters, ages seven and four, on a crowded street corner on Columbus Avenue on New York City’s Upper West Side. These little girls live in rural-turned-suburban New Jersey, which couldn’t possibly be more different from where we were, a few blocks from my apartment.
“What beautiful children!” a passing woman exclaimed. “What are they?” Or words to that effect, meaning their ethnic background. The question was harmless enough, so I told her—half Jewish and half Filipino—she confided that her nieces are half Italian, half Chinese, and gorgeous too, and she went on her way.
“How do you know it’s okay to talk to her?” the seven-year-old asked. Both at school and at home, she’s already being warned against talking to strangers. At that age, in the early Fifties, I may have been traveling to dance lessons on the subway from Queens to Manhattan alone with my nine-year-old sister. By ten or eleven, I was allowed to go by myself—straight to dance or cello lessons and back, with two subway tokens and a dime to call my mother from the station. My own son, raised in Manhattan, traveled to school by bus without an adult from the time he was nine. It could have been sooner, but he was a cautious kid, as he is a cautious parent today.
I explained to the girls that if it’s daylight, there are crowds of people, and the person simply says something friendly and moves on, that’s okay, but if you’re alone and the person tries to get you to go with him, it’s not. I realized later that I should have mentioned that it’s bad if the person tries to get you to tell your name and where you live. But I’m confident their parents will make sure they know that.
What a different world these kids live in from the one I grew up in. I wandered all over my neighborhood by myself. I did once have a conversation with a flasher in Flushing Meadow Park, in the woods where the Van Wyck Expressway now runs. I was twelve and terribly innocent by today’s standards. I didn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing, and it didn’t occur to me to be scared until later, when I told my mother about it. Today’s kids are far more knowing, thanks to TV and the Internet and the spirit of the times, but also far more vulnerable.
My parents were overprotective in many ways. We didn’t dream of staying out past a curfew or not telling them where we’d been or calling when we’d been told to call, even in our teens. We didn’t pierce or tattoo or use makeup. We didn’t have cars at sixteen (thank New York City law for that) or even think about drinking alcohol at a party. But we weren’t taught, overtly or by implication, that the world is a very dangerous place. My granddaughters, who are in fact very sheltered and carefully nurtured, will probably learn sooner rather than later that we live in a world where all kinds of terrible things can happen. Kids get offered drugs in the schoolyard or kidnapped by noncustodial parents. Planes get bombed, pedestrians or shoppers get killed by snipers’ bullets or crashing cars. Big chunks of the planet get shaken by earthquakes and tsunamis. It’s not safe out there, and all we can do is love them, teach them, warn them, and hope and pray that nothing bad ever happens to them.