Etan Patz Did Not Die in Vain
How this one little boy changed parenting forever
In May of 1979 I had three months in mothering.
Overwhelmed with the emotions and exhaustion of first-time parenting, the news of the little boy who disappeared the first time his mother let him walk to the bus stop alone hit me like a cyclone.
I was a product of a generation that didn't lock their doors even at night. As a child, not much older than Etan, I roamed my medium-sized town at will and my neighborhood at all hours of the day and well into the night with no fear from me or my parents. I was rarely alone, but wouldn't have thought twice about it when I was. This was back before the days of subdivisions and gated communities. Back in the days before Etan Patz.
At first I thought the impact of this child's disappearance hit me so hard because I was a brand new mother. But as the days turned into months, the news was full of not only Etan, but also the Atlanta child murders, and then the disappearance from a department store of Adam Walsh. These combined, well-publicized tragedies changed parents. Instead of thinking such terrible things couldn't possibly happen to them, they started to imagine that indeed they could.
Truth was, these occurrences were still highly improbable. The chances of one of the monsters among us striking our own loved ones were still smaller than our being struck by lightning. Still, we changed. We didn't use babysitters unless they were referred by someone we knew. We put our children in approved safety car seats. We started buying helmets along with bicycles. We told our children, not just not to talk to a stranger, but specifically that a stranger was someone who had not been to our house. We called our body parts by their correct names and talked to our children about personal privacy. My perfectly good parents had done none of these things. Times changed, and they changed because of Etan Patz.
There is no way to know how many children have been saved from every manner of harm in the ensuing thirty years since that reluctant mother conceded to her son the freedom to walk to the bus stop. That she had to lose her child in order for the next generation of parents to implement so many safety measures is unfair to an unlimited degree for her and her family. But her nightmare has allowed many moms and dads to sleep better at night knowing they have done better than their parents did in order to keep their precious children safe in a world where monsters are sometimes not under the bed.
Sometimes they are waiting near a bus stop.