A Call from the Police About My Son (On Christmas)

Ho ho ho, my child was escorted off the Long Island Railroad today for riding without an adult. The police were called. He’s 10.

He – Izzy — has ridden this route solo a dozen times before. It’s a straight shot on a commuter train and, as always, he was being met at the other end by his friend’s family. But today’s conductor was appalled to see a boy riding alone.

For some reason, the conductor wouldn’t talk to me, even though Izzy called from the train when the ordeal began. The man had no interest in hearing me state what Izzy had already been telling him: We believe a child of 10 is perfectly capable of taking a half hour journey by himself.

So instead the conductor and his superior got off at Izzy’s stop and then, as the train just sat there (I’m sure no one was a rush to get to their families on Christmas day), they awaited the police. I got a call from the friend’s dad who was waiting to take Izzy home. “We cannot leave the station,” he said.

“Why not?”

“The police have to decide what to do next.”

A few minutes later a policeman got on the phone and asked what had happened. I explained that my son often takes this train and that, in fact, the first time he did, we had asked at the railroad information booth, “What age is a child allowed to ride alone?”

There’s no specific age, the agent replied. But personally, she thought 10 sounded good, if there was someone waiting at the other end.

The police officer listened and agreed this sounded reasonable. He said as much to the conductor and the boss and they got back on the train. My son was free to go. The policeman wished me, “Merry Christmas.”

But if I had been given a summons as a delinquent parent, or hauled into family court, or had my child had been taken away from me, this would not have been very merry at all.

Free Range Kids seems like a pretty innocuous idea: Give our kids the freedom we had as children. But in reality, we are up against not just a bunch of well-meaning folks who fear for them, but against some powerful authorities, too. When the policeman got on the phone, my heart stood still.  

What we have to remember, I guess, is that all civil rights movements have had to stand up to people in power who were legally right, but otherwise wrong. And we have to stand up to bad laws, too.

So my gift today was a lesson: I finally learned that Free Range Kids is a rights movement. We want to reclaim our children’s right to take part in the world, and our right, as parents, to let them.

It’s not exactly the gift I wanted. But at least I’m not under arrest and I get to keep my son. I’m extremely  grateful for that.

Peace on earth. Good luck to us all. – Lenore

Is there any way to lure kids back outside?

This post comes to us from Kenny Felder, a high school teacher and father of four in North Carolina who has been thinking about why our kids are always inside, instead of outside playing. To see the full essay, please go to http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/kenny/essays/safety2.html.

 By Kenny Felder

Here is a little science fiction story I made up today.  A group of children spend the entire summer of 2009 playing video games, watching TV, and doing…well, whatever it is that children seem to do for endless hours on Facebook. They never go outside, never interact with any other human being in person, and subsist on Doritos and Coke.

Their concerned parents take away the computers and televisions, thinking their children will find old-fashioned forms of entertainment. The children can’t think of anything to do at all: they stare at the walls and demand their video games back.

The parents decide to create a summer camp. They come up with wholesome activities involving art, sports, music, and nature. The kids aren’t interested. They want their computers.

Now comes the science fiction part. The parents use a time machine to go back and ask help from a bunch of parents and teachers from the 1950s: “Back in your time, kids had fun without 21st-century technology,” say today’s parents. “We want you to help us set up a summer camp so exciting that kids will want to do it.” After consulting and considering, the 1950s parents come back with a detailed plan.

  • Day 1: Woods Scavenger Hunt. The kids are taken into the middle of the woods and sent out on a scavenger hunt in pairs. They are looking for certain kinds of leaves, markings, and so on. The first pair to find everything on the list gets a prize. 
  • Day 2: Downtown Scavenger Hunt. Similar to Day 1, but this time, the things the kids are looking for have been left with shopkeepers, all within a 1-mile radius of the starting point. 
  • Day 3: Lake adventure, with canoeing and swimming. 
  • Day 4: Farming. The kids help out on a real farm, feeding animals and milking cows and riding horses.

…and so on.

The 2009 parents look over the list. “These are great! Exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for. The only problem is, we don’t have enough supervision. We can’t send a parent out with every pair of kids downtown. Our insurance wouldn’t cover interacting with real animals on a farm. How would it be if we had a scavenger hunt on the school playground, and then went to a barn and talked to a farmer about his animals?”

The 1950s parents look confused. “The kids will be bored to tears!”

“Yes, you understand perfectly!” explain the 2009 parents. “They are bored to tears with everything we’ve come up with! We need ideas that are fun and exciting, like your ideas, with just one little detail changed: they need to meet modern standards of liability and insurance. That means no kids in the woods, in town, on the water, or anywhere else where they are not closely supervised by adults at all times.”

The 1950s parents then deliver the punch line of the story. I’m torn here between two possible endings.

1. “Maybe we misunderstood from the beginning. Are we talking about 4-year-olds here?”

2. “Tell us again about these—what did you call them?—video games.”

Lenore’s note: Here’s my (lame-ish) punchline:

3. “We have heard of the movement, ‘Free Range Kids.’ Those kids sound like ours. But how are you going to convince others to join them?”

I think (Lenore speaking again) that is Kenny’s question, too. In this age of lawsuits and fear, and especially fear of lawsuits, Free Range Kids will be oddballs until society stops equating “independence” with “liability”  (and, often, “doom.”) How can we start that shift, not just in our own families, but outside them, too? Not that playing videogames is bad. Just that there’s a big, wide world out there for kids to explore and love, same as we did.

Should Santa bring baby an educational DVD?

Ho ho hokum.

Those are my seasons greetings to Baby Einstein and the rest of the infant educational complex. If you’re wondering what to buy baby that’ll guarantee ’em a good time, a bright future and possible admission to a college that Obama went to, so-called “educational” videos are not the way to go. Here’s what Harvard’s Susan Linn has to say:

 “Baby educational media is brilliantly marketed and a complete and utter scam.”

Linn is a psychologist and founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. It was her organization that got Baby Einstein to drop the word “educational” from its web site because, guess what? There is no evidence that its tapes are educational. In fact, Linn argues that DVDs for babies actually do the opposite of stimulating them.

“What we know about babies is that they learn through active exploration of the world, through all their senses. They don’t learn by sitting and watching a video.” They learn by playing – with you, with their toes, maybe with the case the DVD comes in. Despite Baby Einstein’s best efforts to make you think your kid is going to slump at the bottom of the bell curve without a $14.99 boost from the wonderful world of kiddie media, it’s just not so.

How much screen time does the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend for children under the age of two? Ze-ro. Nada. None. It would rather kids interact with the world.

Of course, there is one way in which baby videos are undeniably instructive. They teach children to sit there drooling and staring at the tube. Now if only they could teach them to grab a beer and hog the remote, I guess their work would be done. — Lenore

 P.S. For that “Free Range Kids” book I’m writing: Does anyone have a story about a silly safety device they bought, or any awful educational toy they thought would enhance their children’s lives…that didn’t? Thanks! L.


Do kids really need school shooting drills?

A school district in Massachusetts is weighing whether to go ahead and teach students as young as 10 how to fight back against terrorists and Columbine-type shooters.

I guess officials there have not read the statistics.

A child’s chances of being killed at school are .00003% (not counting the ones who die of boredom). So teaching the kids how to use their books and backpacks as shields – or weapons – seems about as useful as teaching kids to duck under their desks in case of a nuclear attack.

On the other hand, there are some simple safety skills that really could benefit kids, if the schools would teach them. I was talking to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children the other day and they’ve studied how young people have gotten away in attempted abductions (which are extremely few and far between). These same skills can help kids get away from bullies and dicey acquaintances, too. The techniques boil down to yelling, throwing your hands in front of you like stop signs, screaming bloody murder and — this is key — running away. Also kids must learn that they have the right to say, “No!” to an anyone who wants them to do something disgusting, dangerous or unpleasant. (Besides taking out the garbage.) 

Seems like if we really want to keep kids safe, it makes more sense to teach them the basics of self defense than how to whomp an Uzi-wielding maniac with the Heritage of Ancient Civilizations, Part II: Greece and Rome.

Although, granted, sometimes those books do seem absolutely deadly.  — Lenore

Stunting Our Kids With “Safety”

Why do we treat our tweens like toddlers? Because the rules say we have to.

The other day my son had to leave middle school early for the big day: Getting his braces. I planned to meet him at the orthodontist near our home and wrote a note asking for him to be excused at 1 oc’lock. Naturally, I left phone numbers where the school could call me or my husband to confirm this wasn’t some scam on my son’s part, and I left my e-mail address, too.

My son brought the note to the principal’s office where he was promptly informed: No dice. Your mom, or dad, or babysitter (!) has to personally come fetch you.

So fetch my 12-year-old I did. But when I got to the school office, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why do you need me to escort him? You let him leave at the end of the school day by himself.”

At first the secretary laughed. “Tell me about it,” she said. “When my son needs to leave school early I have to go get him, too, and he’s 17. A football player! He should pick me up!”

We had a moment of solidarity and then I muttered, “What a ridiculous rule.” And something snapped. The secretary was no longer on my side.

“It’s for his safety,” she admonished me.

“Why is it safe when he leaves by himself at 3, but not at 1?”

“The school is responsible for him,” she clipped.

“Yes, but I’m willing to let him be responsible for himself. That’s why I wrote the note.”

“He could have forged it,” she said.

“That’s why I included my phone number.”


“He could have anyone answer the phone for him.”

“But I left my husband’s number, too,” said I. “And an email address.” Would any kid line up two adult voices willing to cover for him, even as he hacked into my e-mail? If he’s that smart, he doesn’t need school.

“Why you wouldn’t want to ensure your son’s safety, I don’t know,” the secretary said, now cold as a shrimp cocktail.

“But we were just talking about how this isn’t about safety! Like when you have to go pick up your 17-year-old football player!”

Actually, I left that last little bit un-exclaimed, because I had already turned an ally into an enemy, just by poking a bit behind this scrim of “safety” that really has very little to do with safety, and very much to do with schools not wanting to get sued.

Not that I blame the schools. If a kid leaves early and gets hit by a car on his way the orthodontist (who, by the way, only puts on braces during school hours in order to leave after-school hours for all the follow-up appointments), maybe some parents would sue, even if they had asked the school to let the kid leave on his own.

But that’s when we have to start thinking about changing everything we’re up against. A society that encourages and rewards crazy law suits. Schools that treat growing children like babies (even 17-year-old football players). And especially adults who use the word “safety” the way 2-year-olds use the word “No!”

It is a word that stops all rational conversation in its tracks. “Safety” brooks no give-and-take. It is the trump card we play when we don’t want to have to bother thinking a little harder about which rules really make sense, and what effect they’re having on our kids, whom we’d really like to see grow up and act responsibly already.

So my son and I headed off to the orthodontist together, but while he was within sight of his school he sprinted a full city block ahead of the middle-aged lady schlepping behind him. Seventh graders know they don’t need their moms to pick them up from school. It’s humiliating!

 Maybe someday the schools will figure that out, too.