Childhood as we knew it in America ended July 27, 1981. On that day, Revé Walsh and her 6-year-old son, Adam, went to a department store about a mile from their Hollywood, Fla., home to look for lamps.
Revé left Adam alone to play video games with some other children while she shopped no more than 75 feet away. When she returned for him less than 10 minutes later, Adam was gone. He was found murdered 16 days later. Though we did not know it then, Revés grief and the grief of her husband, John, would impact all of our lives.
Through John Walsh’s efforts, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was started in Washington in 1984 (where I was a staff member from 1988-89.)
Photos of missing children began appearing on milk cartons. An intensive publicity campaign brought the media on board; the subject of missing children was always close at hand. Parents, unable to differentiate between non-custodial parental abduction and stranger abduction, began to imagine child predators around every corner.
Fearful moms and dads reined in their children. A couple I knew restricted their two kids to the fenced-in back yard. The kids grew bored with their limited range and came inside. The little boy, itchy for a good romp, joined a soccer team.
The little girl wasn’t involved in sports, her activity level dropped, and she began a long struggle with her weight.
They weren’t alone; all of my friends’ children were closely supervised. A generation of helicopter parents was born.
When I was a child, our little gang roamed the neighborhood, and its woods and fields, covering miles a day.
Our streets were filled with kids and dogs, skateboards and bikes. We stayed out after dark catching lightning bugs and no one worried. It occurred to me the other day, ours was the last generation to enjoy that kind of freedom. Drive through a suburban neighborhood today, and it looks like a ghost town.
Our fear has contributed to two generations of kids who don’t go outside and a subsequent rise in childhood obesity and type II diabetes. Certainly I can’t blame fear solely for these problems. Video games, assorted iStuff and other technology require a sedentary operator, and TV as baby sitter is as old as the medium.
Did parents of the ’80s over-react? Check your local sex offender registry and get back to me. Did John Walsh’s determination to protect children from Adam’s fate become zealotry? I have met John Walsh, and his pain is palpable. I think he would do anything to save others from going through the anguish he has felt since Adam’s murder.
What deeply troubles me is how one man, now identified as Ottis Toole, could change the tenor of our lives with a single hideous act: the murder of a 6-year-old boy.
And how we as a nation would rather hurry our children indoors than deal with those things that turn a man into a monster.
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.