When we moved to our house two years ago, the creepy man next door introduced himself. Wearing soiled clothes, he explained that he was 51, out of work, and living with his sick mother. From then on, we never caught a glimpse of her. When we did see him, he was lugging a 12-pack of beer, followed by a snarling canine that showed signs of being in a ring with a pit bull named Lockjaw. In his yard, he let dog poop fester and weeds run amok. Black smoke with an acrid odor sometimes billowed from his chimney. Late at night, he burned a single, reddish light in his window. And a year ago, we finally saw Mother - being loaded into an ambulance, never to return.
He inspired visions of Psycho's Norman Bates or worse. So, we looked him up on the child predator list. He wasn't on it, but he still spooked us.
We had come to our neighborhood for the safe environment of sidewalks and many families with young children. Yet, we rarely leave our back yard, and freak out if one of the boys slips out the front door just to play with snails.
The neighborhood isn't the only place we maintain constant vigilance. We stay at birthday parties to make sure our kids don't get hurt. We yell like movie-of-the-week actors when our children momentarily disappear in supermarkets. We send them off to school by uttering the caution, "Be careful."
We're not alone in our paranoia. There are parents that wander malls with leashes on their kids. Some folks won't let their children on the Internet. Others hover next to their wee ones during music lessons, leery of the grandmotherly teacher.
A lot of this is the result of our awareness - courtesy of a media that whips our insecurity into a fine meringue - of child abductions, cyber predators and molestations perpetrated by adults we once dared to trust. Because of these crimes, we need to educate our kids about strangers and support laws that keep criminals far away.
But we must also not take this mistrust of society too far. As we try to keep our kids safe, many of us are also telling them the world is largely dangerous. Worse yet, we're conditioning them to believe they cannot survive without us.
I'm not suggesting that we toss our 3-year-olds outside and let them fend for themselves. No, that's what our parents did. After school, we'd get home, grab our Schwinns and play until dark. Our moms and dads didn't know exactly where we were or with whom. I remember getting into fights, falling off walls I climbed, and still getting home without major physical or psychological damage.
I was about 7 when my parents loosened the yoke, but today my eldest - almost 8 years old - won't take his scooter outside or ask the teenager at the burger joint for an extra straw unless I'm with him. It's not because he lacks guts. It's because I've trained him to fear what might happen without me at his side.
I am overprotective. It makes me feel like a good parent when I'm watching over my kids. Yet it's dawning on me that what will take me to the next level of parenting is learning to gradually cut the strings. I'm seeing that my oldest son would benefit from knowing I have faith in his powers of survival.
So, I'm testing things out. I'm encouraging Benjamin to ride around the neighborhood without me for a half-hour. I'm also telling him to go to the other side of the supermarket for the cereal he likes, while I cruise the dairy aisle. I hold my breath a little when he does these things. Still, I want him to know I don't think the world is looking to swallow him up whenever my back is turned.
These are scary times and we want to be the heroes that shelter our children from harm. But we also want them to grow up strong and independent. Or else they'll be living in the back of the house until they're 35.
Now about that creepy neighbor. I dared to speak to him recently. I discovered he's a mild man who suffers from memory loss and seems scared of his own shadow. He probably has been this way most of his life - a product, perhaps, of parenting that made him fear the world. We brought him dinner one night and he was so thankful I thought I would cry. Yet he wouldn't let me in his home.
He's an extreme case, but a lesson nonetheless. We can fear what we don't know and teach our children the same. Or we can take small chances and feel stronger. That's something worth giving our kids.
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site, www.familymanonline.com.