Guest Post: Trust A Stranger at the Park?

Hi Readers! I’m in Minnesota to give a Free-Range talk. Always happy to spread the word because then things like this — see below — start happening! This post originally appeared at the blog Last American Childhood. by Rachel Federman. Enjoy!

A Free-Range Exeperiment by Rachel Federman
In the playground this morning I tried to apply a bit of Free-Range parenting to my usual routine (albeit with someone else’s kids). A lady with a newborn was trying to round up her boys (3 and 4) so she could put her laundry from the washer to the dryer in a nearby building. They of course did not want to leave even though they could “come right back” (which in kid-speak translates to Don Corleone saying, “Someday, and that day may never come”).
I stuttered, “You can leave them with me,” which was maybe a bit forward, given we hadn’t met or even engaged in any of the usual playground banter. She went silent for a moment, probably not thinking, “Hey, what if this lady playing in the sandbox with her toddler changes her plan for the day and abducts Max and Jackson?” But more like — “Can she handle all three?” (Especially when most days it’s clear to even the most casual observer I can barely handle one.)
She asked her kids if they wanted to stay. They did. She told them, “Rachel’s in charge.” The 3 boys seemed to intuitively understand they should now play together and stay local. They chased each other around the monkey bars and returned again and again to the water. My main concern was that one of them might run out of the gate while I had to be on the other side of the playground catching Wally before he dashed in front of high-speed swings. Nothing close to that even happened, in fact hardly anyone was even on the swings.
When she came back the mom of 3 said she worried only that someone might get hurt and then I’d have to attend to that on top of the others. I guess you could say it was lucky, but it was all so easy. So natural. The odds were stacked pretty high for us. How ridiculous to have to shuttle three kids back and forth from the playground to inside and back just to move a few pairs of shorts from a washer to a dryer. I did notice a few quizzical looks from other parents. The kids though couldn’t have been happier. When the second adult returned to her post, they scattered out again. Had it not been for the free-range experiment, I wonder if they would have played together at all. – R.F.
Lenore here: Can I repeat that one of the basic ideas of Free-Range is that community — connecting — makes us all safer and happier? And that when we  go to that dark place where the fearmongers want us to go — “Remember! Everyone is a a potential predator!” — we let terror govern our days instead of common sense. And joy.

49 Responses

  1. Oh, good for you, Rachel! I never ask for fear of being seen as a leech. But I would totally leave my kids with someone from my community. Of course, we’re at the park daily so nobody there is a total stranger, but anyway. Way to go.

  2. R.F. That’s lovely. Making everyone’s day easier and more fun by being, well, normal! How easy it can be if we step over the little walls we build for ourselves.

  3. I was about to write a comment wondering if the mom would have trusted Rachel if she’d been a father, but then remembered how often mothers I don’t know have sent me into men’s swimming pool locker rooms to tell their sons to hurry up. I always add, “She looks serious.”

  4. This is awesome! Thanks.

    Lenore! Where in MN are you? I live in MN and know we need more free rangers out here.

  5. Reminds me of the good ol’days.

    Lenore is right, communities need to start getting together again. Learning to trust one another. Who knows, this may go beyond Free-Range parenting, wherein we adults start taking cue from our own children who only see the joy in interacting with other children. So should we start seeing our neighbors next door, and even beyond our national borders. If some people think Free-Range thinking is crazy – but yet can open more doors to positive possibilities – then call me loony. lol

  6. One time, I asked another mom if she would watch my toddler for about 30 seconds (she was playing in the sand close to some swings and refusing to move) while I put my heavy bags down at the picnic table. The mom gave me a look and said she didn’t feel comfortable doing that.

    I always make sure to offer to help other parents at the park if they look like they could use a hand.

  7. The Karlssons outside their home in Spoland. They let the baby nap outside for several hours every day — winter included, as long as the temperature does not drop below 5 degrees.

    –from the New York Times column “The Female Factor” , and its titled “In Sweden, the Men Can Have It All” written by KATRIN BENNHOLD.

    Published: June 9, 2010

    I thought about you, Lenore, and this website. For lack of a better way of submitting this directly, I sent this via off-topic means. One last thing: They do not say “fahrenheit nor celsius on the matter of the temperature. Arrrrrrrrrr!

  8. How ridiculous to have to shuttle three kids back and forth from the playground to inside and back just to move a few pairs of shorts from a washer to a dryer.

    “Ridiculous” but I’ve been there and seen many other parents (almost always mom) have to make these kind of choices. And it’s crap and puts a real downer and stress on mom, the kids, everyone. Good for you for offering and thank you for a wonderful little anecdote!

  9. Good to hear that not all parents are crazy. Some old woman at the grocery store today stopped to give all 3 of my kids a piece of candy. It led to a conversation that had her showing me a picture of herself when she was a little girl. A lovely exchange with a very nice woman. She even kissed my daughter on top of her head when we were leaving and I didn’t flinch like I have seen some people do when this kind of thing happens.
    However, anytime this kind of thing does happen, I am conscious of the “dark’, crazy side of thinking, and I have to quickly, calmly tell myself that it is irrational and I will not go there. It is sometimes hard to escape the media driven fear filled society we live in and be FREE.

  10. This is great to read! Such a normal thing, and yet so rare now… It never makes any sense to me why there are SO MANY parents at the playground. Often I think to myself, why am I standing here watching my kids play I could inside getting dinner made (or god forbid, reading a book!)? Yes, this is what I have to choose between: homemade dinner or outside play. Insanity!

  11. The best way to get this to catch on is to be more forward– if you need to run back home to get something, ask the nearest/friendliest/least-frazzled-looking/whoever parent to watch them for . Providing your cell phone number might help seal the deal.

    Interestingly, due to a quirk of probability, the odds of you picking a predator are much lower than the odds a predator will pick you. For example, assume that there’s one at the park while you’re there with 8 other people. A stretch, but possible. If you ask someone specific to watch your kids, there’s a 1 in 8 chance you’ll pick the predator. However, if you put the question to everyone “who wants to watch my kids?”, the predator will presumably find this opportunity irresistible and will be the first to volunteer– a 1 in 1 chance.

    So if you want to be safest, pick someone yourself and ask. Who knows, if you do it enough at your local park, it might just catch on…

    — Steve

  12. What a great story and a good experience for the kids too. It’s possible to make that snap judgment to trust a stranger, and it will probably be safe, especially if other people are around.

  13. I had a stranger (a man) to babysit my car with three sleeping kids inside.

    I had to drop off my daughter at dance, usually at 8 she gets herself out of the car and I watch her walk in. That day though I had to talk to someone at the office, and all three boys 6, 3, and 23 months were asleep. Saw a man texting away on his cellphone, it looked like he was doing something important. He was dropping off his child also I assume.

    I asked him to babysit my car for five minutes. It was a cool day, so I didn’t have to worry about the car overheating. If it was hot, I would of woken them up as much as a pain that would of been. Free-range doesn’t mean putting you child at true risk of harm. i.e. heat stroke.

    I came back to a man still texting away standing next to my car all three children still inside. I thanked him, and well he probably felt good that someone didn’t treat like a predator.

  14. Years ago my brother and his wife with their two kids came for a visit. It was fall in New England, and there are fairs every weekend in late September and early October. So, we went to a fairly big one with them, and at one point we wanted to get lunch. We found a picnic table, and decided to grab it, because tables to eat at were at a premium.

    So, both hubby’s and my sister in law went to get the lunch for four kids and four adults leaving me to watch the kids, and keep claim on the coveted table. Not two minutes later, one of the kids (all under about 4 at this point) has to go to the bathroom. I’m thinking “oh.. sh(well, you know).

    Anyway, two elderly ladies were at the table next to us, and they said they would keep an eye on the kids. I figured… they’ve been there, done that… don’t need to do it again, and they were unlikely to abduct the remaining three. And I was right.

    Way better choice than the inevitable bathroom accident that would have sent us all home early.

  15. We all need to focus on the positives of community- the teamwork, the friendship, the family. Too bad all we hear about is “community outraged by killing” instead of “community organizes neighborhood picnic.”

  16. Great story!

  17. i am pretty free-range. but, having a stranger, in NYC, saying she could watch my kids, while tempting, is not always the wisest course. Where is Rachel located? NYC is its own animal. I would have suggested the same thing, but I can’t think of many moms who would take me up on it. It all depends, really; it’s not an open/shut case of who is neurotic and who isn’t.

  18. Yesterday was a long road trip with my newly-potty trained daughter. We stopped to use the bathroom, and just before we made it to the toilet, there was an accident. I asked a woman washing her hands if she could hang out with my daughter while I ran back to my car to get her a new pair of pants. The woman didn’t bat an eye, and was happy to help. I don’t know what I would have done without her help.

  19. *thumbs up, R.F.*

  20. On weds I was in a major car wreck on the way to take my daughter to swimming lessons. We weren’t hurt but the car is gone. A stranger took care of my daughter while I dealt with the EMTs and police. She took her to her car, spread our towels out on the hood, gave her some of her own kid’s toys and played with her. I didn’t ask her to do any of this; she just whisked her away and kept her busy so I could deal with matters. And when we were done, she insisted on giving us a ride home. She also took pictures of the car on her cell phone to send to me. This was just some random person who was going the other direction, saw the accident and stopped. She took 40 minutes out of her day to help a stranger. When I offered to do something for her in return, she said to pay it forward. She even insisted that my daughter keep the toys, something I feel bad about since she was clearly low income.

    The world really is full of good people who will prove it to us if we’d just give them the chance.

  21. Thanks for all the feedback and taking the time to share these anecdotes. I do live in NYC — in Manhattan — and it’s definitely its own animal. I haven’t found it a baby friendly place. I am curious what my reaction would be to someone making this suggestion to me. Would I take them up on it? I have a toddler who won’t literally cannot sit or stand still, who slips out of playground gates, stays at a task no longer than 1/2 second, flies rather than walks really. I wonder if this sounds like an excuse. I just couldn’t leave him in all fairness with anything short of an infantry unit. Or at least this is what the people who do occasionally care for him (for 10 minutes) tell me. How much of this is due to his supposed sensory issues and how much is my own doing (and of course other factors, have to remember Lenore’s point that parents are not the ONLY INFLUENCE on their kids’ development).

    Even among friends though, neighbors and other “non” strangers, isn’t there so much less of a sense of community? People by and large don’t seem to watch each other’s kids, walk each other’s dogs, bring each other milk. Then again I wonder if I sound absolutely antiquated saying stuff like this. It just strikes me there is such emphasis on the nuclear unit, such protectiveness not just around kids but around time and “what’s good for me” or “what’s convenient for me”. And maybe the solution for me should be to start doing this stuff for others, in ways that require some degree of sacrifice, not a 2-minute playground diversion.

  22. I cannot agree more that free range often means the sense of community to protect children. This why parents used to feel safe letting their children riding bikes around the neighborhood because they could trust all of their neighbors to watch over the kids if need be. I still remember a story (I might have mentioned it already) when my sister was about 3 and she decided to go meet me at the bus stop, while my father was working at his computer. He received a call from a neighbor who noticed she was wandering around with her shoes on the wrong feet and maybe he should come get her. The neighbor could have called the police and possibly CPS but instead she knew my family and called them and resolved the matter without a problem.

  23. I’m in MN, too. welcome!

    Good for you for helping out that Mom. It was probably the most relaxed she’d been all day knowing that someone was giving her a hand. And, she’s also likely to pass that good deed along to another Mommy another day!

  24. Way to go, rachel. I’m happy to say I’ve been involved in similar circumstances many times, both on the taking and on the receiving ends. Fortunately too, we’ve even dared to trespass the discipline barrier satisfactorily: just this weekend, my 4 yo was playing at the park with a new friend he just made. They grabbed a couple of sticks and started to whack the rose bushes (they were princes tearing down some flesh-eating thorns, you see). My husband went over them and seriously told them to knock it off, they shouldn’t ruin those flowers. “Timmy”‘s mother came towards them, looking dead serious. “Here we go, we stepped out of line”, I thought. But no. She faced her child and told him “When a grown up speaks to you, it’s bad manners to ignore him! Did you hear what he said? Knock it off!”.
    I don’t know about you, but I would like it if people around my children felt compelled to help me teach them to behave.

  25. We recently purchased a triple tandem bike, and so had a kid ask me if he could ride on it the other day at the park. I said he needed to ask his parents and get some shoes on. He ran off to ask, but apparently the dad didn’t hear the conversation, but the mom came over to see if I really meant it (she was shocked her son had asked me). So, the kid borrowed a helmet and hopped on the bike.

    The dad saw his kid being abducted by bicycle and started running and yelling until the mom assured him it was okay.

    I wonder how many kids have been convinced to hop on a tandem bike and pedal away by a kidnapper. :)

  26. I’m so glad this sort of thing works so often!

    Back a dozen years ago my wife was out in front of our house, which was on a busy street, and noticed a woman struggling to deal with two leashed dogs while holding a toddler who was old enough to be a handful but not old enough to be free by the street without holding hands. She offered to help and was surprised and pleased to be handed the child to hold while the stranger got the dogs untangled. (During which time, of course, she would have kidnapped said toddler if the world was as unsafe as some believe.) This surprising exchange led to conversation, which led to planning to get her toddler together with ours for a play date, which led to our families forming a best-friendship that still exists even though we’ve moved far away. It truly is the little acts of kindness, and the little acts of trust, that can have the most surprising and wonderful consequences.

  27. Yeah, I had an lovely old guy chatting to my daughter on the underground a few months ago, and she was a little grouchy and he offered her a mint sweet, warning it might be a little strong… now I hestitated for just a millisecond, then thought ‘What am I doing? Like he’s going to go around giving out poisnoned mints to babies for the fun of it?!’

    And you know what, sucking on that mint totally cheered her up. And me too.

  28. I love these stories. Amazing how easy it is to miss out on friendships or even just great little moments like the mint from the old guy on the underground in Claudia Conway’s story because of assuming the worst possible .0001 % chance. Who wants to live like that? Then again I say that but am totally guilty of outrageous “what if?” thinking on a daily basis. When a safety seal is broken, I immediately assumes the drink is poison but drink it anyway (forcing reason to be stronger than instinct).

    I am so curious about the helpful comment regarding NYC from rae liter, about our perceptions around danger. (Remember the NYtimes article a while back on New Yorkers being terrified of country houses?) My cousins from South Carolina wouldn’t step foot in the NYC subway. What did they do instead to get around the city? Just about the most dangerous thing you could do beside hang-glide down from the 102 Floor observatory of Empire State– drive.

  29. Rachel: I suspect that much of NYC’s reputation as a horribly dangerous place is based on (not necessarily fully-articulated) racial, religious and sexual fears/prejudices. Your cousins might have thought that putting a lot of thick metal between themselves and all the Scary Brown People, Joos and Ho-mo-seck-shuls was Being Safe.

  30. “What did they do instead to get around the city? Just about the most dangerous thing you could do beside hang-glide down from the 102 Floor observatory of Empire State– drive.”

    Yikes! I was in NYC for my honeymoon and no way on God’s green earth would I ever drive in that city. Then again, I don’t like driving in my WI city either.

    My only concern with asking a stranger to temporarily watch my kid would be that I wouldn’t want to burden someone else who is trying to keep track of their own kids. However, I do agree with the basics of your post.

    As for strangers giving your kid candy, an older Russian woman gave my son a sucker at the Y a few months ago. it never even crossed my mind that the candy would be poisoned; I was more concerned with him taking a big bite and having it stuck in his throat (well that and too much sugar!).

  31. I happen to live in a small town in Canada that is doing it’s best to be community minded. We have a community email that is AMAZING! I once emailed to ask if anyone had any suggestions for how I could make a fense to keep my daughter contained (seeing as I’m pregnant and sick of chasing her all the time). Within a week we had a nice man actually build us a fense for only $100. It’s beautiful too…couldn’t keep cows in, but I’m sure it’ll work for my 1 year old. In addition I once asked if anyone happened to have any of that super sweet birthday cake because I was craving the icing so much…nobody had any but there was someone in the city (15min away) who said she could bring some back after work with her. I also have 4 offers from people here who will watch my daughter for us when I go into labour. It’s one of my favourite parts about living here. It’s pretty funny when people see you in town and can put a face to the emails that cracked them up (like the one for cake).

    I don’t know how to set these email systems up, but I’m sure it could be done in more places. Oh, and we each pay $10 per year for the service, but it’s worth so much more than that! The free furniture and/or cheap items forsale work out to be well worth the $10:-)

  32. [...] talk to strangers” is often trotted out as rule #1 for keeping kids’ safe, offering to watch a stranger’s child for even a few minutes is a radical act. Rachel Federman shares her experience doing just that on [...]

  33. Just a couple of weeks ago I asked the lady ahead of me in line at the supermarket if she’d mind if I held her adorable baby boy, as she was rather inconvenienced by trying to unload her cart one-handed. I pretty much KNEW she wouldn’t let me, but I just decided to swallow my non-free-range conditioning and offer what would have been an ordinary helping hand a couple of generations ago. I specifically said “so you could unload” or something like that, to communicate that I was trying to be helpful, not “touchy” toward other people’s kids, or worse. After she politely but quickly said no, I proceeded to try to avoid eye contact with the child for the rest of the time I was there, just to avoid any fears she might have that I was scoping the kid out for some nefarious purpose (although I had my younger-than-her-age-looking 12 yod there, so again there’s that issue of “how many abductors run around with obviously happy preteens in tow when they’re up to no good?”)

    But baby steps. Maybe I came one step closer to making the world safe for non-threateningly helpful people. I probably didn’t make the mom more paranoid (although she appeared to be foreign-born so maybe there’s hope that she didn’t have the conditioning so badly herself) but there is a small chance of that, I guess.

  34. “(Remember the NYtimes article a while back on New Yorkers being terrified of country houses?)”

    Not being an NYT reader, I haven’t seen it, but the reference reminds me of an FB posting from a friend who lives in a city on the prairie, and was house-sitting for some friends who lived out a ways on the prairie. And he (large, strong, 30ish guy) said he was scared to be out there alone, and made some reference to intruders.

    I pointed out that home invasions 1) happen much more often IN the city and 2) except in really, really bad neighborhoods, rarely happen to people totally unacquainted with the kind of people who commit home invasions (by that I mean VIOLENT CRIMINALS, in case anyone wants to accuse me of some kind of stereotyping.) Home invasions usually result from very bad people who know you well enough to know how much money you have and where you keep it, drug deals gone bad, personal vendettas, stuff like that.

    Don’t know if it made a dent. Conversely, I know country people who are afraid of almost any part of any city over 10,000 people, in broad daylight. Some researcher needs to look into what part of our brain derives entertainment value from making up things to worry about.

  35. ebohlman you made me laugh out loud. very good point– I don’t think you’re far off at all (hopefully cousins aren’t reading this–no, I take that back, hopefully they are)

  36. Rachel, do you have a link to the article? It sounds like one I’d love to read, but I can’t find it!

  37. In fairness, the NYC subway had a much, much worse (deserved) reputation some years ago. It’s probably just “in the culture” that the NYC subway is a really dangerous place, especially for people who have ordinary reason to stay informed about it. And it’s not like Hollywood didn’t promote the idea. Yes, it was a dumb and counter-factual decision to drive because of fear of the subway, but I’m not sure we have to attribute any nasty motives for it.

  38. This last week my almost 3 y/o were flying and we had a layover. Since it was just the 2 of us I got us a day pass to an airport “club” with a kid room. Once I dropped off our bags in the room I could not get my toddler to come with me to get some food. A mom in the kid’s room volunteered to to watch my kid while I got us some food. My little one was already playing with her kids, so I went around the corner and got us food.

    The only thing I was worried about was my Lo not sharing her toys.

  39. That’s the way we need it. Sadly, I had exactly the opposite experience recently. I was at the park with my son and he started playing with a little girl a year or two younger than him who was there with her grandmother. The g’ma had to go to the bathroom (there was one close by but inside a building) and the little girl didn’t want to go in with her. I offered to watch her – heck, the kids were playing together anyway, I was sitting right there! – but she just ignored me and clearly made the decision that she was better off holding it than trusting her granddaughter to any ole random stranger who might just be looking for an opportunity to grab her.

    Mind you, given what my kids generally look like, I can see why strangers wouldn’t trust me with their own kids. My boys are usually pretty dirty and banged/scraped/scratched/ bruised up from, you know, what’s that they call it? … Playing. And, who knows, maybe she say my son (did I mention he’s 4?) jumping from the top of the play structure down to the sand and thought I would let a younger child whom I don’t know do the same thing. After all, I couldn’t possibly have any judgement whatsoever. Look at the stuff I let my own kids do! LOL

  40. @Steve – “If you ask someone specific to watch your kids, there’s a 1 in 8 chance you’ll pick the predator.” Actually, the odds are smaller than that because when you do the choosing you are applying experience and gut feelings to your choice. That is, it isn’t a random choice, it’s weighted in your favour.

    @Casey – is this small town anywhere in Eastern Ontario? I swear to God I’ll sell my house and move there if if it isn’t too far from where we are now.

    @pentamom – first of all, I would totally have let you hold my baby in the store. I remember shocking someone in line at Starbucks when my older son was about 3 months old, because I let her hold him. What? She was admiring him and I had my hands full trying to get coffee and hand over money. It was a win-win situation. So long as he left the store with me, I didn’t really care where he ended up in-between.

    As far as home invasions go, I agree with you that they’re more common in cities than in rural areas but they aren’t necessarily committed by people known to the victims. In my city, we had a rash of break-ins and home invasions a few years ago with the aim of stealing cars. Our home was one of the ones hit and, since my younger son was still a baby and not sleeping through the night yet, it was by the grace of God that I didn’t run into the burglar when I came down for a bottle. To this day, I can’t be positive he was actually gone from the house at that point.

  41. Gail, unfortunately it’s in SK and you likely won’t have a lot of reasons to move here. It is nice though:-)

  42. Gail — no, certainly not necessarily someone known to you. But statistically, more common that way. Anything can happen, and sometimes it does. But it’s not rational to fear the one in a million chance you’ll be home invaded by a total stranger in a quiet neighborhood, unless you’re going around fearing everything all the time. That’s all I meant.

    And actually, the situation you describe is a burglary, not a home invasion. A home invasion is when they come in overtly, knowing people are awake and present, and directly threaten you.

  43. Just a word of caution, here. Years ago I called my children’s school to volunteer as crossing guard after a child was hit and killed by a car.

    I was told even if I was a volunteer, if a child disobeyed me and was injured – I could be held liable, I could be sued.

    I don’t know if this could apply to watching stranger’s kids for a moment in the park or not, but I would find out.

    Parents used to teach their children to respect and obey adults. Now they teach children NOT to heed adults (kidnapper and molester fears, of course. Sooo much “safer”). If the three boys on the monkey bars suddenly took flight across the street, ignoring your commands to stay put, and were injured – —

    Hate to put a damper on this thread…

  44. Casey – Darn!

    Pentamom – You’re right about the relative risk, of course, but mistaken about the terminology. At the time this incident occurred, the police told us it was considered a home invasion because we were in the home at the time.

  45. off topic but here is a good zits comic for you about helicopter parenting.

    http://www.arcamax.com/zits/s-740274-888702

  46. Hi, it’s a really nice post! I like reading it.
    Keep up the good work!

  47. Good story. I’ve done things like this before. If more people do it, it’ll start to seem more normal and acceptable

  48. It makes sense to help someone out, especially with small-ones!

    Christmas Eve just passed I was having a terrible day.
    There was a fatal accident that I was narrowly not a part of (luck mixed with good brakes) that took place right outside a regional airport. Due to location of accident plane was delayed by an hour. So, I missed my connexion. I arrive at the busiest terminal trying, along with many others, to find a seat on a flight to my final destination. At last a representative from the carrier took pity on me and got me one on the last plane out that evening… 7hours away.

    So, relatively unfamiliar city on Christmas Eve with only enough money for a coffee (bags also got lost). Oh, did I mention I was off to meet the in-laws, whose language I didn’t speak and who disapproved of me already? Rosy outlook really.

    Anyway, I’m just keeping myself amused (read, pacing) when I notice a woman with a small toddler trying to carry four bags. So, I go up and offer help and help toddler-wrangle through the terminal.
    It was four hours until her flight.
    I find a delightful woman and a cute toddler to chat with for four hours that if I hadn’t have offered to help I would not have had.

    She cheered me up no end =)
    And I like to think she appreciated the help too.

  49. It’s highly helpful for me. Large thumbs up for this blog post!

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