Hide-and-seek and me, we go way back …. Like using my fork, brushing my teeth or singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, I don’t remember learning the game – it was always just there. It was a favourite of every kid I knew. One memorable game could have ended in tragedy when my little brother hid in the dryer, and I turned it on. André was small and trusting, and I was still smarting from having been displaced by his arrival. All the people who love him are still grateful that I turned the dryer off and opened the door after only a few seconds of thumping and wailing. He came tumbling out, blubbering about how hot it was in there. It should be noted that he was playing hide-and-seek with me again just a few minutes later. That’s how awesome the game is. Or, possibly, how scared he was when I told him I’d put him back in the dryer if he didn’t play another round with me.
Now that I’m all grown up, I still play hide-and-seek occasionally – it’s a favourite of Fiona’s and Bridget’s. In fact, our whole family played it just a few days ago. We had walked to the park in the rain, in search of puddles to slop around in. Then, Fiona suggested the game. Ryan and I became big kids for a while. It was fun to cling breathlessly to a big tree, listening to the confused seeker traipsing back and forth, peeking occasionally and muffling my giggles. The best part was when it seemed like the seeker was looking right at me, but he or she couldn’t see me. Then, bursting out of my hiding place with a whoop, hearing peals of laughter and “let’s do it again, this time I’ll count” …. Ryan seems to be the most skillful hider, followed by Bridget. Fiona just loves to make noise, and can’t seem to stay hidden long enough for anyone to find her. I can’t help laughing, and I don’t time my peeks very well.
As fun as it was, I couldn’t relax completely. There were many moments when I couldn’t see Fiona or Bridget – or both – because, you know, hide-and-seek. The ghost of the fear I used to feel whenever they disappeared from view when they were tiny came back to haunt me. Fiona used to have a habit of hiding in the racks of clothing at Walmart. The logical part of me knew what she was doing, but my heart would leap into my throat anyway – instinct, I guess. Then, there was the time when Bridget got lost in a Chapters store. I don’t know how she slipped away, but I still remember the rising, nauseating, screaming panic I felt in the two or three minutes it took to locate her. I can still feel her hot, tearstreaked little cheek pressed against mine when I scooped her up, wanting to yell at her and not being able to because I was hugging her so hard. The terror of not being able to see your child trumps the calming narrative that plays inside your head. “It’s ok, I saw her just ten seconds ago, she can’t have gotten far but-I-can’t-see-her-she’s-gone-my-baby-is-gone-somebody-anybody-help-us!“
I didn’t say anything about it at the park. I didn’t want to give voice to my inner crazy - I didn’t want to transfer my worry to the rest of the family. But later, when the girls were tucked in and Ryan and I were hanging out on the couch with a bottle of wine, he asked me if I had felt nervous about letting them out of our sight, sometimes for several minutes straight, in the park. I admitted that I had, and he said he had, too. I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only scaredy-cat, and angry that this was a thing at all.
Really, this high level of anxiety doesn’t make sense. Crime against children is at an all-time low – at least, in our part of the world. Abductions are very rare, and usually happen at the hands of someone with whom the child is familiar. A child simply vanishing from a park in broad daylight is even more uncommon. However, that’s not the story told by the media, which splashes our nightmares as far and wide as it can, and milks every possible drop of drama out of every one. That’s not the story told by books or movies – because, as we all know, happy endings don’t sell like sensation. The influence of the media and entertainment, though, is only part of the problem. There is also the culture of fear-mongering and risk aversion in which our society has been stewing for years now. Any food could lead to anaphylactic shock, and even common medications have unexplored side-effects. Our homes are festooned with baby gates and child-proof locks and padded corners. Little Prince George is on his first world tour, and the biggest story so far is that his car seat isn’t up to the snuff-of-the-moment (car seat regulations being similar to the weather in recent years). From the big things like cancer and terrorist attacks to the little things like sunburns and food poisoning, today’s parents are, in general, the most frightened creatures in the history of the human race.
When I was a kid, I played for hours outside. Unsupervised. I could have drowned in the harbour. I could have flipped my bike and knocked myself out with only other youngsters to help me. I could have got into a van on an offer of candy, because that’s always how it was in the commercials. I could have fallen out of a tree and broken my neck. I could have been attacked by a hungry bear (we had alot of them around our town, particularly on garbage day). I could have crashed my snowmobile or fallen through the ice while skating. But I don’t remember any grown-ups shadowing us, or listing all the things that could go wrong as we dashed out the door, or making us stay inside because we were safe there. And I survived to raise the next crop – along with everyone else with whom I roamed, free-range.
Don’t get me wrong, stranger danger is real (and food danger and medicine danger and animal danger and-and-and). Kids should learn street smarts and assertiveness and common sense in general, and parents should be vigilant. But we also need to accept that there is a certain level of risk in everything – even if we never leave our child-proof homes. And not being able to play hide-and-seek in the park without that gut-gnawing dread tagging along is another tiny piece of paradise lost. I want to start taking it back. Maybe the first step is another game of hide-and-seek in the park …. Care to join us?