Having Fun in the Neighborhood
Are Kids Less Safe Today?
I often think about the original owner of the 1959 house for sale across the street from ours. In 2010, the same year we bought our house, the owner passed away before I could meet her. I have always wished I could have spoken to her about what our mid-century, mid-town neighborhood, Patrick Henry, was like 53 years ago when she and her husband built their home.
Did she hear the sounds of children playing in the streets? Were children riding bikes, jumping rope, running a lemonade stand, building forts or doing any number of activities limited only by their imaginations? I began to wonder how the lives of families today would be different if we felt safe saying to our children, “Go outside and play and be back by dinnertime.”
Martha Cantrell—Raising children in midtown Tulsa during the ‘70s; Growing up in Tulsa in the ‘50s. Martha Cantrell raised three children, two daughters, Mary and Michelle, who are two years apart, and a son, Bryan, who is six years younger, in Maple Ridge near 29th and Detroit. The girls, who were in elementary and middle school in the mid-to-late ‘70s, played in and around the neighborhood together.
Martha said she didn’t question letting them play outside because she trusted the girls to use good sense. “Before the neighborhood bicycle path had been converted (it was a railroad track at that time), my daughter told me ‘I remember walking on the tracks one day and the train came,’ and I said, ‘What! I don’t think I knew you were down by the trains or I wouldn’t have let you go.’ They weren’t in any danger. They just had to get off the tracks.”
The sisters also frequented QuikTrip on Brookside, which was six blocks from their home at the time. “Channel 2 was interviewing kids on Pop Rocks candy,” Martha recalled. “They got on television and came running home saying, ‘We were on television!’ I didn’t find that out of the ordinary at all.”
During their middle school years, the girls would even venture downtown together. “They could walk up the street to Woodward Boulevard, get on a bus, take it downtown to the library, spend the afternoon at the library, get back on the bus, get off a block from our house and come home.”
Martha said they also played with the many kids in the neighborhood. “When our kids were growing up, they spent a lot of time playing with the neighborhood kids, making their own games.”
Martha pointed out one way that her neighborhood has changed. “There were lots of mothers who were home with their children. There were older people in the neighborhood also, but they were home. There were three other women that were home with their kids just on my street.”
In the 1950s, Martha grew up around 27th and Peoria. “I had five brothers and sisters and we would run through the neighborhood. We’d be out playing after dark. A dozen or more people would come and we’d play all kinds of games.
“We didn’t even knock on each other’s doors; we just walked in. The doors were never locked. We left our keys in the ignition of our cars. It was what you hear about.”
While Martha acknowledges that there were safety problems then just as there are now, she said that they didn’t live their lives ruled by fear. “We allowed our kids a lot of freedom. Although I’m not saying that I would do that today.”
Nancy McDonald—Raising children in midtown in the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s. Nancy McDonald raised four children in the Patrick Henry neighborhood. JoElyn, Paul, Jason and Marva were in elementary and middle school in the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s.
JoElyn attended Patrick Henry; however, when Jason and Marva were in first grade and Paul was in fourth grade, they transferred to Burroughs “Little School,” which was a demonstration project on voluntary integration that was using a curriculum that Nancy liked. All four children were able to walk to Patrick Henry, take a bus to North Peoria and then walk home from Patrick Henry.
When the children returned from school, they would have a snack and go outside to play. Nancy remembers her children riding bikes, playing kickball, swimming, making dams when it rained, and producing “incredible” puppet shows.
The neighborhood was so busy with play that the mothers felt their children needed to take a break. “We got to the place where we had neighborhood quiet time,” Nancy said. “All the kids went into their houses, and we had lunch and we read.”
When the children were playing outside, Nancy said that the mothers didn’t sit outside and watch them. “We did what we needed to do,” she said, “[such as] get dinner, or ironing or whatever. I chose to do a lot of volunteer work.”
Nancy also remembers her children walking to get a freezies. “Five, six or seven children would walk together down the street [Harvard] and cross 51st. I went with them first to make sure they knew how to do this, and they did it. You wouldn’t think today about letting your children walk to 51st and Harvard. But that thought [kidnapping or other harm coming to them] never even entered our minds.”
Vanessa McLearen—Raising children in midtown today
Vanessa McLearen is raising three girls in Midtown: Jenna, 7, Mari, 6 and Lily, 4.
The girls play outside with their neighborhood friends on a regular basis. The neighbors across the street have four children, ages 6- to 13-years of age. The neighbors who live one house over have four children, two in elementary school and two who are older, said Vanessa.
In the beginning, Vanessa said they would call to ask if it was OK to play. “I would walk them from point A to point B. Now, the girls ask to go across the street to knock on the door, and see if they can play,” she said. “We’ve got such great windows, I can see them get from my front door to their front door... If I can’t see them, I know they are either at the neighbor’s house or in their backyard.”
Vanessa said that she would not be comfortable with the girls being any farther than this three-house radius. She does not allow the girls to cross the busy street alongside their home by themselves. “If we’re going to play with another neighborhood friend, it’s very intentional and I walk them over.”
The neighborhood girls also play together in the front yard. “All of them are in gymnastics right now…they do a lot of cartwheels and last night they were all out in our front yard playing jump rope and sidewalk chalk.”
The girls are in and out of the house a lot, getting a snack, a drink, or going to the bathroom, said Vanessa. “Or, someone will come home and say, ‘Mari got hurt. She fell off the trampoline!’ They’re pretty good to alert you if something is not right.”
Vanessa doesn’t want her girls to live in fear or to have a sense that somebody’s going to snatch them away. “We just try to stay safe and stick together and there’s some strength in numbers.”
As far as safety goes, Vanessa said that slumber parties are a bigger concern. “The thing I’m the most aware of and trying to think about in advance is rules for sleeping over at people’s houses. If I don’t just know somebody really, really, really well, I’m not going to let my kids go over and have sleepovers…Other males in the household would be my biggest concern.”
Lisa Korb and Yolande Platvoet—Raising children in the burbs. Lisa Korb is raising three girls in Owasso: Bailey, 3, Jordan, 5, and Kelsey, 9. Lisa said she goes through a calculated thought process to determine what is OK to let them do outdoors. “I want them to go ride their bikes and get exercise.”
Lisa said there are a lot of construction workers in her neighborhood, so her biggest concern is for Bailey, who has to stay where she can see her out the back window.
The two older girls have a little more freedom. “Jordan is allowed to cross the street to the neighbor’s while I’m watching her. She and the neighbor kid will go back and forth and play.”
The oldest, Kelsey, and a friend are allowed to ride their bikes to another friend’s house in the neighborhood about a quarter of a mile away. “They’re all in fourth grade together,” Lisa said. “The likeliness of somebody abducting my child is probably less than the likeliness of getting hit by a car, but the fear of somebody abducting my child is greater. That’s just a huge fear…what if somebody took her, then how do I get her back?”
Yolande, mother of Rueben, 5, and Anika, 3, said she feels safe because she knows the neighbors on her street; although, she is concerned about the strangers driving by looking at the lot for sale on her cul-de-sac. “That’s the only thing I’m worried about, them disappearing [by a stranger abduction].
“I keep them in view or earshot. And I have told them if anybody tries to talk to them from a car or anything, they should run to me, “ Yolande said. “I find it’s early for Rueben to run to his friend’s house, which is two houses down, without me watching him. I’m hoping to be there in a couple of years.”
Lisa added some observations of how things have changed since she was a child. “When Kelsey was 3, she was going to daycare and they talked about inappropriate touches. I don’t know if that would have ever happened 30 years ago. You didn’t talk about that kind of stuff.”
Yolande added, “I don’t think it was appropriate back then to talk to a 3-year-old about that.”
Yolande, who was raised in South Africa and has lived in Europe, said she thinks there is more panic in America because of the news. The TV blares, “News at 6. Listen to why you won’t let your kids play in the streets tomorrow. And you listen to the story and find out that it was nothing to worry about.”
Det. Cpl. Aaron Tallman—On the Real Threats to Our Children’s Safety. Det. Cpl. Aaron Tallman works in the Tulsa Police Department’s Exploitation Unit, which investigates missing-persons and runaway cases, coordinates Amber Alerts and maintains sex offender registrations.
Cpl. Tallman, who has a 9-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, lives in Owasso at the end of a cul-de-sac. “We’ve got boundaries,” he said. “You can go from here to here. And that’s line of sight. They can ride the walking trail behind my house…not out of sight.”
Cpl. Tallman said a lot of variables come into play when considering the range in which parents should allow their children to roam. He said parents should analyze the threats and determine which ones are the greatest.
“We’ve got a lot of construction in our neighborhood,” he said. “So, it’s not just the 50 or 60 houses of unknown occupants, it’s the transient construction workers coming and going. I think someone that comes and goes and moves around freely within the structure of the neighborhood…would be a primary threat.”
He also considers the individual child. “My 9-year-old is more aware of her environment than my 11-year-old is. Can my 11-year-old have greater access because he’s 11? Sure. Because he’s a boy? Sure. He’s 5’ 4”, 105 pounds, big kid. But does that mean I can just let him get on his bike and take off to school? I don’t think so.”
Cpl. Tallman said that when his children ask if they can go out and ride their bikes, he finds something to do outside, such as washing the car, so he can keep an eye on them.
“You’re not wrong to think ‘I’m paranoid to put my kid out there.’ I’m paranoid. And, I’m ok with it,” he said. “I see some that are not, and I see that it’s not good.”
Cpl. Tallman said he cautions people about letting kids play anywhere unsupervised just because of the problems they can get into that don’t necessarily involve abductions.
“If your kid is 4 years-old and you live on a busy thoroughfare, don’t leave them out there for fear of them getting run over chasing a ball into the roadway,” he said. “If you’re on eight acres, you’ve got a gate, can you let your kid out into the front yard? Absolutely, [that’s a] different deal.”
Are our kids at more risk when playing outdoors than in the past? Cpl. Tallman said there have always been “bad guys,” we are just more aware. “We’ve got missing kids going as far back as people can remember…cases that are 30 years old. I think we have as many child molesters as we did 40 years ago,” he added. “I think we just hear about all of them now versus not hearing about as many. I think parents are much better at coming out with information of a child being victimized than they were 20, 30 years ago.”
However, an actual abduction is still very rare, Cpl. Tallman said. “It’s like the lightening strike.”
So, what is the biggest threat to our children’s safety, today, as far as exposure to crime? “We have a greater degree of molestations. A majority of them are inside the family…that’s also taking into account dad’s best friend who is over at the house all the time. But, the numbers are very, very low for both abduction and molestation.”
Cpl. Tallman said the way to protect our children is through open conversation with them. “Don’t be afraid to talk about it. That’s the biggest thing. If you can talk about these things to your children, it’s easier for them to talk to you about it.”
Learn to talk to your children in developmentally appropriate ways about their bodies and privacy. “Jump right in and say, you know what, your private areas are your private areas [that includes] the doctor, me, your mom. The nurse at school doesn’t need to be checking’ anything out…you have an issue, you come home.”
Cpl. Tallman added, “Your children aren’t going to be molested by the spooky guy in the corner. The problem is the uncle, the stepfather, the stepbrother, aunt… Nine times out of 10, your molesters are going to be known to the victim,” he said. “We’ve dealt with pedophilia in the priesthood…teachers and coaches also get a lot of attention.”
Cpl. Tallman also recommends staying vigilant at all ages. “The hover mom, the hover dad, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I like to see parents more involved than not involved. If my child is going to a birthday party, I go in the house. I’m looking around because when they’re younger, they’ll do the kid party and the family party at the same time. [When they’re older], I’m not a big fan of dropping them off and leaving.”
Cpl. Tallman also said he is not a big fan of sleepovers. “It’s not the person that is with you that is going to get you in trouble. It’s the person that is with the person that is with you that you don’t necessarily choose to be with.”
Cpl. Tallman grew up in Woodward, OK, around 1979. “I’d get up in the morning, hop on a bike and be gone until it was dark. Everyone knew everybody. Everybody knew my dad. Everybody knew I was my dad’s kid. So, I couldn’t get in trouble because it would beat me home. The community watched out for each other’s kids,” he said. “The sense of community is gone. That changes everything.”
However, Cpl. Tallman admitted that, as a child, he probably put himself in harm’s way because of the extreme freedom he enjoyed.
“Were there days when we were out there shooting off bottle rockets when we should have been playing basketball? Absolutely. Instead of going fishing, were we taking my little brother and tossing him in the creek and being mean to him? Sure, we did that, too.”
Cpl. Tallman said, for him, it is different now. “I’ve seen the end result of how things can go horribly wrong. I’m more of a structured guy now. I wouldn’t dream of letting my son just get on a bike and take off,” he said. “Every time there’s an Amber Alert, Fox News flashes across the news screen. So, once a week, once a month, we’re reminded that our children can be taken from us by a bad person just like that. We hear about molestation by teachers, priests, doctors on a very frequent basis. Who do you trust? Well, who do you trust?”
From the viewpoint of a child trauma counselor Roy Van Tassell is a clinical supervisor in the Child Abuse and Trauma Services (CATS) program at Family & Children’s Services, which treats sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, and other traumas.
Roy believes the environment in which we are raising our children is more risky than it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Roy provided two examples: approximately 60 percent of marriages in Oklahoma end in divorce, which means there are more intra-family abductions and more single parents who may have to use a second-choice babysitter at times. Also, substance abuse is much more common.
Roy pointed to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. “More children are exposed to violence now then even 20-to-25 years ago,” he said. According to this study, more than 60 percent of the children surveyed were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly or indirectly, i.e., as a witness to a violent act; by learning of a violent act against a family member, neighbor, or close friend; or from a threat against their home or school (as published on NCJRS.gov).
“Children under the age of 6 had the greatest increase in their exposure to violence.”
Roy said that clear communication is a key to protecting our children. Use real world examples, instead of abstract examples, when talking with children about dangers, Roy said. For example, “What if you’re at the pool and someone says they want you to go to the bathroom—is that ok?
“Instead of teaching your children to say ‘No,’ teach them to say, ‘You’re not my parent, get away from me.’” This helps others around to know the difference between an everyday parent-child disagreement and a stranger abduction.
He also said that this should be an ongoing conversation that you continuously have with your child. For example, while you’re at the park, talk about what to do if your child should become separated from you.
Roy advises teaching your children about appropriate relationship boundaries so that they understand when a negative experience in not their fault. “The majority of our children that we treat are for sexual abuse,” he said. “Sometimes no matter what we do, our children may become overpowered and harmed. As a part of talking about safety issues like crossing the street and not answering the door and so on, also talk about: ‘And, by the way, these are your private parts. If we teach safety skills, children accept less responsibility for blame and respond better to treatment.”
For more information, see https://www.ncjrs.gov/childrenexposedtoviolence/
See www.missingkids.com for more safety tips.
To check out court records on individuals in contact with your children, go to OSCN.net.