I Lost My Son
It wasn't fun.
I reminded myself how very rare child kidnapping is. In his new book, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon mourns the loss of what he calls The Wilderness of Childhood and all the exploration that took place there "entirely free of adult supervision." He thinks we've closed off the wilderness because we fear the wolves, who to us take the form of child kidnappers. And yet
This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of stranger abductions in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known.
Right. Except that now my kid was lost in the woods. I started to run. Sweat trickled down my sides and my throat constricted as I called Simon's name. At one point I came out onto a small spit of beach. Simon wouldn't have gone into the water by himself, would he? One of our hosts was wading through a waterlogged spot, her sneakers soaked, for a better lookout. I felt bad that she was getting wet and immensely grateful that she was moving purposefully. She said something reassuring. I couldn't answer.
I turned around and ran back down the path, toward where I thought my husband Paul had gone. I was still calling Simon's name, but I hated the sound of my own voice, shrill and unhinged. Then Paul answered, from back in the woods off the path: He'd found them. He emerged with Simon in his arms, crying, and the other boy more calmly in tow. In her book, Palin says that her only "heartache" about getting lost was her disappointment that a Hershey's bar she had with her melted while she slept. Simon, though, kept saying tearfully, "I couldn't see you anywhere." I grabbed him and could barely restrain myself from saying I would never never be out of sight again.
I don't mean to suggest that this was a uniformly terrible experience. A few months later, Simon remembers getting lost with some grimness, but I wouldn't say he's scarred—more embarrassed, probably. He's still apt to take off in the supermarket, say, or across an open park. And yes, that's probably a good thing. Chabon writes that "Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity." But now, he warns, "the sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations."
Chabon worries about the effect of this change on the development of children's imaginations. I see that. And if we want to bring back the wilderness of childhood, children will get lost there. So maybe the lesson is that once they are found again, you have to let go of the vestiges of panic and repeat the mantra that nice-looking picnickers almost never kidnap children and that 6-year-olds generally have the sense not to go into the ocean alone. But I can't forget the gap between my notions of parenting and losing Simon for just part of an afternoon. Chabon's wild childhood (he roamed in a two-acre strip of woods in Maryland) turned out fine. Maybe after Simon's does, too, I'll recover my certainty that a little peril has benefits.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.