Kid Slipped Away From You? Share Your Story!

After yesterday’s story about a 5-year-old who slipped away from his mom and rode the subway alone — emerging just fine — here’s a great idea that came from a comment below:

Let’s share our stories of when WE lost our kids for a short time. So much is made of any time a child goes missing – including those statistics you hear about hundreds of kids disappearing each day – that it is good to remember that 99.999% of the time they pop right back up. (And that perfectly fine parents lose track of their kids from time to time.)

Here’s my story: A couple years ago our family of four was on 34th Street – yes, the street with the miracle, but about a block from Macy’s.  We’d been looking for backpacks at K-Mart and, finding nothing great, had emerged onto the sidewalk and were trying to decide where to look next. I took our older son, then 10, to a shop across the street and thought my husband was hanging onto the younger one, who was 8. My husband thought I took both. So when we met back up and there were only three of us, I became (yes, Free-Range me) hysterical.

“WHERE IS IZZY?”

We looked and looked and I shouted his name at the top of my shaky lungs. Believe me, it is no fun having strangers stare at you as if you’ve lost your mind…or kid. Several horrible, harrowing minutes later, he came walking down the street, asking us, “Where were you?”

We asked him the same thing. Upon somehow separating from us all he’d gone back to K-Mart to look for us. He’d searched all three floors, including the bathrooms.

I told him he was the only human to EVER find the bathrooms at K-Mart.

Then we went back to backpack shopping and that was that.

Now let’s hear your story, to remind ourselves that even one of parenting’s biggest fears – being separated in a public place from your child – usually ends up with a big sigh of relief. And, when possible, ice cream.  – Lenore

Boy Rides Subway Alone, Makes News — And He’s Not Mine!

Gotta admit, this boy has mine beat. A 5-year-old hopped on the New York City subway yesterday and rode it 34 stops, emerging, according to the cops who found him, happy – even ecstatic. (His mom, whom he’d slipped away from, was, of course, hysterical. THEN happy, even ecstatic. ) 

I started this whole blog last year after I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone, wrote a column about it and was immediately pounced upon by the media who saw me as a parenting lightning rod.

To my shock, they were right. Millions were the people who believed that any mom who deliberately let her single-digit child out of her clutches must be insane/negligent/unloving/criminal/shot at dawn. Take your pick.  

Since then, of course, we folks who believe that children are more competent than society gives them credit for have found each other here. It’s not that we want our kids to go dashing out of arms as the subway pulls into the station. But we do believe in preparing them for the outside world and then letting them explore it. We have confidence in our kids, our community and our own parenting skills. Simple as that.

I can’t toast this kindergarten commuter because even I, “America’s Worst Mom” (thus dubbed after my subway story), think tots should stick near their mommies until their mommies let them go. But I am pleased to see how safe the subway was, even for a 5-year-old – same age that many kids around the world start going to school on their own.

Once the pendulum starts to swing back toward less terrified parenting, more and more kids will be getting themselves to places on their own, and more and more parents will think this is fine and dandy (and not just because it  frees up several hours each day).  Until then, underage subway riders will continue to make the news, even when – to everyone’s shock – they are just fine, thank you very much.  – Lenore

Are Most of Us “Bad Parents?”

It’s official: Imperfect parents are the next proud, new minority to come out of the closet. Or, rather, out of the toy chest – the one NOT filled with Swedish, hardwood, hand-lathed toys. The one filled with games missing cards, Barbies missing hair and educational toys missing batteries because (sorry, kid)  they were just so LOUD! What does the duck say?

Nothing! Not one single quack. Mute piggy, too! Mute chick! Moo-less cow!

And what does the parent say?

“Yay!”

In an article meriting front page status in the Wall Street Journal (http://tinyurl.com/c5rkzj), reporter Ellen Gamerman writes about a bumper crop of new books and websites by parents confessing their kiddie crimes, from using paper towels instead of diapers, to letting the dog clean up the baby vomit in the way only dogs can. (Good dog!)

The stories are great and the interest is greater. The online magazine Babble gets 1.8 million visitors a month — a number that tripled, according to the article, when the site began its “Bad Parent” column ( www.babble.com ). Truu Mom Confessions (www.truumomconfessions.com) is popular for the same reason: true moms, confessin’. And now really big name writers like Ayelet Waldman (www.ayeletwaldman.com) and Michael Lewis are writing books about their imperfect mothering and fathering, respectively, in part because they are sick of a culture that expects parents to spend all their waking moments enriching their children’s lives and being enriched by same.

It’s easy to see why the time is ripe for all this truth. We are swimming in a culture that exults – and often scrapbooks – every parenting moment. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying parenthood. I sure do. Often. (Not today, maybe, but that’s because it’s spring vacation and both my boys are home and I’m trying to WRITE THIS SO SHUT MY DOOR, PLEASE, GUYS! OR GO OUTSIDE! IT’S BEAUTIFUL OUT THERE! WHY AREN’T YOU PLAYING?)

…what was I saying? Oh yes, much of parenting is marvelous. But there’s nothing wrong with saying some of it is tedious and overblown. And one of the reasons it has become so tedious is that we are expected to be involved with every baby step our kids take – literally and figuratively. (GUYS, IT IS SO SUNNY OUT! GO!)

So now “bad” parents are the ones who don’t get down there on the floor and play patty cake all day, every day, no matter how pooped they are. “Bad” parents are the ones who don’t help boil the solution for the science fair. “Bad” parents drop junior off at soccer practice but don’t necessarily stay to cheer every kick, and bond with the coach afterward. “Bad” parents may even bring non-organic grapes (or Drake’s Cakes!) when it’s their snack day.

In other words bad parents are the ones who parent the way OUR parents did – loving and encouraging us, but not hovering over every outing and stressing over every issue.

These days it’s called “bad” parenting but really, this all seems to be a rallying crying for, ahem, Free-Range parenting – parenting that is a little less obsessive and a little more ready to let kids fend for themselves. The kind of parenting that not only builds more self-reliant kids but also less exhausted, frustrated (BOYS, CLOSE MY DOOR!) self-neglecting parents, too.

Call us bad parents, busy parents, realistic parents, Free-Range parents – what we all share is the realization we’re not perfect and our kids don’t have to be either. That means we can sit back and breathe deep. And — who’da guessed? When you feel less overwhelmed you can even enjoy it a little more.

A little.

(GUYS! HOMEWORK OR BIKE RIDE? I THOUGHT SO. BYE-BYE!)

Ahh. — Lenore

 

 

Learning The Wrong Lessons from Sandra Cantu’s Death

It’s front page news out here in San Francisco where I’m visiting, but it’s probably front page news out by you, too: The tragic story of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, who was abducted and murdered last week in California. Today’s front page story is as inevitable as the media attention: “Case Forces Parents to take Tougher Look at Children’s Safety.” http://tinyurl.com/cfsyyw

It’s hard not to take a tough look after a killing like this. As the parents interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle say, they are hugging their children closer and talking to them about safety. This is good news. Children should be taught to run, kick and scream if someone is trying to take them away. Teach them NOT to be polite. Also, by the way, teach them they CAN ask for help from strangers.

But of course, these are not the only lessons parents are taking from this tragedy. At least in the Chronicle piece, many parents have vowed to no longer let their children go outside alone, ever. “I used to let my kids walk to the park, which is a block away,” one mother is quoted as saying, “My 11-year-old would chaperone. But after this, there will be no more walking on their own to the park. This is a long-term change.'”
 

It IS a long term change, but not one that makes sense. First of all, her children were not walking alone if the 11-year-old was walking with them, right? And so already they were exceedingly safe. But even walking alone is generally safe, something really hard to remember in the face of one little girl who wasn’t.

The chances of being abducted and killed by a stranger stand at 1,500,000 to one, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center. This is a number that does not go up or down a lot year to year. To keep your children inside or guarded at all times because of chances like that would make sense only if you also vowed never to take your children in a car, considering the odds of them dying in an accident are 40 times greater.

And yet, even though five child passengers are killed each day, you never see parents vowing, “I used to let my kids come with me in the car. But after this, there will be no more driving. This is a long-term change.”

This is not meant to be flip. Only that if keeping children safe from any possible death, no matter how remote the danger, is your goal, you literally cannot let them do anything. If they eat, they could choke. If they run, they could trip. If they go to school, they could fall down the stairs. Any of those could lead to death.

By all means, teach your children to be assertive. To fight, bite kick and scream  if they are in trouble. But beyond this, the lesson from Sandra Cantu isn’t, “Never let them go outside until they’re 17.”  It’s that there is no lesson. Only a very sad story that will replay itself in most parents’ minds longer and louder than all the other stories that don’t end this way. — Lenore

Would You Like Some Cyber-Candy, Little Girl?

NEW STUDY SHOWS HUGE INCREASE IN ARRESTS OF ON-LINE PREDATORS!!!!!

I can guarantee you, that is the headline you are about to hear on TV and read in the papers. And, terrified for your children, you will keep watching or reading, which serves the media darn well. They have lured you in and are holding you captive.

Sort of like…online predators!

But the folks who actually DID the study would like to clear things up.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and his co-director, Janis Wolak, took a look at the number of arrests of on-line predators from 2000 to 2006. The number of guys caught soliciting undercover cops posing as minors grew from 644 to 3,100 – a big leap indeed, but mostly attributed to more cops assigned to cyber-tart impersonation. Meanwhile, the number of guys soliciting actual youths grew, too.

To 615.

Now, look, no one wants these predators to exist at all. Be gone, you jerks! But we are talking about fewer than 4,000 perps, all told, compared to tens of millions of minors on line. In fact, over the same years studied, Internet use among minors leapt from 73% to 93%. So now all but 7% of off all American “junveniles” are on line, and 615 guys were picked up for propositioning them (odds of 39,000 to 1).

Still, it rankles to think of some creep luring a 10-year-old to the playground with the promise of Hannah Montana tickets, right?

Of course it does. (Especially if you’re Hannah Montana’s publicist.) But that is not what’s happening.

“The facts do not suggest that the Internet is facilitating an epidemic of sex crimes against youth,” said the report, point blank. First of all, the majority of the folks arrested were chasing those cop decoys. And as Finkelhor said in a little e-mail to me, those cops “act far more enthusiastic when the proposition comes down than most teens are likely to act.”

We’re not talking entrapment here – per se. But if a youth isn’t actively appearing psyched for sex with strangers, his/her chances of being stalked are microscopic. Quoth the report: “There was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.” So your kids can have a Facebook page and it’s not like hanging a red light over their virtual door. That’s why we’re letting our older son get a Facebook page, in fact.

 Moreover, the creeps thought they were soliciting adolescents, not little kids (and not – duh — cops). Many of the perps were age 18-25. Not to let them off the hook, but a 19-year-old propositioning a 17-year-old just isn’t as disturbing as a middle-aged guy with tuna breath promising some kid a GameBoy in exchange for a “cuddle.”

Finally – and I know it sounds like I’m from the Internet Predator Defense Society, but bear with me – the study also found out that most of the offenders were “open about their sexual motives in their online communications with youth.” So they were upfront about their goals.

 Let me be equally upfront about mine. I am not pro-predator. Hard to find someone who is.  But I am not pro-hysteria, either. And any report about online predator arrests increasing is going to generate even more fear among parents already convinced their children are in mortal peril from the moment they wake up (if they haven’t gotten their head stuck in the crib slats) to the moment they go to bed (if they haven’t been abducted on their way home from Mandarin).

I’m sure soon we’ll be seeing more stuff we can buy to keep our kids “safe” from this newest overblown danger. And more books and articles pleading with parents to “please watch your children at all times!”

Back to that plea for 24/7 parental surveillance.

The fact is: We live in the safest times ever for children. Until we accept that happy fact, we will fret and overspend and drive everyone crazy, including those surprisingly resilient people: our kids.

Yes, the ones barely looking up from their screens.  – Lenore

Up With Recess! (And Down with Homework)

In case you had a sneaking suspicion that when schools chip away at recess time, they are doing their students no service, along comes this nice little study to say: You’re right. And while we’re at it: Grrrrrr.

Thanks to No Child With A #2 Pencil Left Behind, more and more schools are sucking time out of play and handing it over to classroom larnin’. Nothing wrong with larnin’ of course. (Except spelling it that way.) But this study, released last week, found that kids who took a brisk 20 minute walk on a treadmill actually read at a GRADE HIGHER level than when they picked up a book after sitting around for 20 minutes.

Here’s the study: http://tinyurl.com/cm8odq

And here’s the fabulous website stophomework — http://stophomework.com/ —  which is dedicated to bringing sanity to how we fill our children’s time. As Sara Bennett, the founder of the site and author of The Case Against Homework, points out:  homework not only takes time away from free play, in the grammar school years it does not give anything back. For kids below middle school, “there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement,” Bennet says.

 Still, I know my kids bring home homework every day, and have since kindergarten. It’s the worst part of their day (and mine!). And all it means, says Bennet, is that “Kids spend an awful lot of time doing something there’s no proven value to.”

Meantime, there IS proven value to play. It just seems weird to have to justify it that way: “Go out and play, sweetheart – it is so educationally sound!” But if that’s what it takes to get schools to start rethinking homework, so be it.  – Lenore

What Happens When Kids Can’t Play

Hello, Readers! We have another guest post today, this one from developmental psychologist Dr. Helene Guldberg, a founder of the wonderful, British, on-line current affairs blog, Spiked (www.spiked-online.com). She’s also author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. The thing I found most shocking in this post is that you can’t even take photos of any kid other than yours at a birthday party in England anymore.  It’s considered tantamount to porn. Oy.

 By Helene Guldberg

Growing up on the outskirts of Bergen, in Norway, I was given a lot of freedom to roam outside from a very early age. Norwegians have a unique, maybe rather obsessive, love of outdoor pursuits and therefore, whether in sunshine, sleet or snow, we were always building dens, playing on building sites, and having all kinds of adventures in the woods or by the fjord.

As Free-Range Kids readers are well aware, children are today losing out on many childhood experiences that we took for granted. In Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear I show how important unsupervised play is for all aspects of children’s development – their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Children need to be given space away from adults’ watchful eyes – in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts. Today, they are increasingly denied these opportunities.

But the blame for this steady erosion of unsupervised play should not be pinned on parents. The root of the problem is not their fears but the fact that parents are continually discouraged from entrusting their children to other adults. In the UK, it is a crime to work with children without first being vetted by the authorities. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, passed into law in 2006, requires that millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children must undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks. The message this gives to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who comes into contact with young people.

Also, it is almost impossible in Britain today to take photos of one’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places if they are surrounded by other children. The rules governing the use of cameras and camera-phones in swimming pools, parks, at children’s parties, school sports days and any other place where children might be present are ubiquitous and strictly enforced. The kind of photos that have traditionally appeared in many a family album are now treated as being akin to potential child pornography.

Ultimately parents will only give children the independence they need if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not to harm their children, but to look out for them. When we grew up our parents assumed that if we got into trouble, other adults – often strangers – would help out. Today that trust does not exist – or, at least, it has been seriously damaged by government policy, media debate and a rising culture of suspicion towards adults’ motives.

Only by challenging the safety-obsessed culture that depicts every adult as a potential threat can we start to build a better future – and present — for our children and ourselves.
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Dr Helene Guldberg’s book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, is available on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/d2sxgm

Why I’m Not Taking the Advice of an “Expert” on Child Molesting

A comment on my post, “Of Peanuts and Pedophiles,” included a link to a Salon story on child sexual abuse. Voila: http://tinyurl.com/cc2qys .

It’s a disturbing piece, by a guy who worked for a year in a treatment center for juveniles who have raped and molested other kids. Hearing their histories gave him a, “peek inside a dark world I never wanted to see.” A peek so disturbing, he wrote, that he never even hired a babysitter after that. “The risk wasn’t worth the reward of a night on the town or attending an event for my own enjoyment.” From his (tortured) perspective, he couldn’t trust anyone – even a 13-year-old girl in pigtails- not to be a sexual sadist.

The young molesters he was dealing with not only raped repeatedly, they were arsonists.  And, no surprise, they’d all been molested when they were younger, too. You just can’t t get sadder or more upsetting than that, which is why I must reject the man’s advice:

 “Don’t trust your children with anyone. .. Trust no one. No babysitter. No friend of your child’s. No adult. No kid. No one.”

Look, I doubt I’d be able to trust anyone, either, if I worked all day in a prison filled with rapists. That was pretty much the writer’s experience. In working with incredibly troubled youth – kudos to him – his outlook got seriously skewed. If you ate dinner every night, year after year, with Hannibal Lechter, chances are you would beg us, in desperate tones, “For the love of God, NEVER order the filet!”

Personally, we’d understand where you were coming from. We’d even appreciate – a little, I guess – learning about the darkness most of us never confront.

But then we’d have to discount your counsel, because your experience is so far removed from everyday life. What you think of as “common,” isn’t.  Most kids are not rapists. (And, for the record, most grown-ups are not cannibals.)

Naturally, many people who read the Salon piece will see it as confirmation of their worst fears. They will clutch their children even closer, because it fits right in with the stories we see on the news and on the crime shows about the worst of the worst. This steady diet of doom is warping our view of the world just as working with mini rapist/arsonists warped the author’s. It can get to the point where his advice sounds like just good ol’ common sense: Where your kids are concerned, trust no one.

“I hope it will make parents PRUDENT not paranoid,” he wrote.

But if we trust no babysitter, no teacher, no play date, ever, the only thing left is for us to watch our children 24 hours a day. Literally. Never let them out of our sight.

That’s not childhood, that’s lockdown.

For the kids who committed no crime at all.     

— Lenore

P.S. By the way, people who trust no one, ever, ARE paranoid. Not prudent.

Of Peanuts and Pedophiles

You’ve probably read about the new, possible cure for peanut allergies. One very hopeful study at Duke ( http://tinyurl.com/cmbh39 ) found that by administering first a dust-size speck of peanuts to an allergic child, and then a slightly larger speck and so on and so on, you can sometimes train the child’s immunological system to stop violently overreacting.  It is wonderful to think that for some people, this may be a cure at last. But it’s also wonderful to think of the peanut story as an analogy to, of all things, stranger danger.

If a child is allowed to explore the world – a little at first, under loving surveillance, but more and more as the years go by — that child’s chances of overreacting to small, everyday risks diminishes. The child is gradually developing street smarts.

But what if that’s not allowed to happen, because the parents have been brainwashed by cable TV and what have you, into thinking their child is never safe out of their sights?

In my  book I write about a grandma who was in her allergist’s waiting room when a boy of about three came up to her and wanted to look through the magnifying glass she was using to read her newspaper. (Gotta love those newspaper readers!)

The grandma was delighted to show the boy, but instantly the kid’s mother swooped in and literally carried him off, saying, “He’s got to learn early NOT to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers” apparently including even little old ladies in waiting rooms. With allergies.

Think of that grandma as a tiny speck of peanut dust: The perfect introduction to the world of strangers. Just a tiny smidgen of the unknown, presented in a safe, controlled environment.

If we don’t let our kids interact with the world at all — if every stranger is considered a pedophile (and a quick pedophile at that, who can run out of a waiting room with a three year old under her arm), we are not doing our kids any kind of service.

We are making them, essentially, allergic to life. The world should be their oyster. Instead, it’s their their peanut.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                               — Lenore

When the Playgroup Mommies Think You’re A Slacker

Hi Readers! Today’s guest blogger is Jen Singer, who is so smart, funny and wise it’s a pleasure to inrtoduce you to each other! She’s got a new book out (don’t we all?): Stop Second-Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years, and her blog is fun, too: http://mommasaid.net/ . Here’s her take on playgroup parents with a different worry/scold threshhold:

BY JEN SINGER

You’re at your playgroup when another mom jumps up, runs across the room and picks up your toddler, who had just fallen down.

He was not crying.

He was not perilously close to a sharp-edged table or fireplace.

He was not about to toss a breakable tchotchke across the room.

He was just sitting there, and, so were you. But the other mom is not sitting. She is brushing off your toddler, who is not dirty, consoling him and giving you the evil eye, as if to say, “How could you just sit there?”

Welcome to 21st century parenting, where we’re supposed to soften the blow of every little bump and tumble our kids take, where we’re supposed to hover, just in case. Today’s parents have become part roadie, part bodyguard. And no time is the modern pressure to protect more prevalent than when your kids are toddlers.

Naturally, your toddler can’t be a full-fledged Free-Range Kid just yet. If he was, you’d find him wandering down the street, behind the dog and in front of the police. Toddlers, with their newfound mobility and lack of reason, need someone to keep an eye on them pretty much as long as they’re awake.

But sometimes we take our modern concerns for safety a little too far, hence the woman who is now setting your toddler upright, when really, he could have figured it out himself. So what’s a Free Range Momma to do?

  1. Find like-minded friends. Your toddler really doesn’t care much who plays with him. In fact, at this age, he’s into parallel play, which looks a lot like two strangers at a salad bar. Why not make playdates with moms who share your philosophy when it comes to whether or not your son needs to be dusted off from every little bump?
  2. Don’t apologize. If the other mommies wonder why you’re not jumping up every other minute to hover over your toddler, tell them why you think that it’s best that your child – as long as he’s safe – can handle a little adversity. Tell them that you’re trying to raise an independent kid, and it they still don’t get it, see #1.
  3. Refer to milestone charts. If the milestone charts say that your two-year-old is more than ready to carry light items across the room, tell the other moms why you’re not rushing to help him bring you the remote, a stuffed Elmo and a tissue box. He can do it! Really. And you can be a Free-Range Mom.

Jen Singer is the author of “Stop Second-Guessing Yourself – The Toddler Years” (HCI, April 2009).

jen-singers-book-cover