Traveling with (Virtual) Mom

Summer beckons, with its eternal promise of freedom.

Unless you are Harry Wilder.

Harry is a 19-year-old British student who plans to travel across Australia, Thailand and South Africa this season…with a GPS tracking device called the “Traakit” in his pocket. The Traakit will let his mom pinpoint his location to within 15 feet and see him as a dolt…excuse me, dot on a map. For geeks, let me explain that the system seems to use co-ordinates from four satellite readings, which get fed into a computer program that also allows his mom to phone or text him no matter where he wanders.

For non-geeks and those of us just wondering what this world is coming to, let me say that the mom, Rachel Wilder, is only doing this because she believes that her high tech hovering will keep her son “safe.”

As she told The Daily Mail, “I can tell which street he is in so I can make sure he doesn’t wander into any dangerous areas.”

Because I’m sure she knows every single street on three different continents, right? “Oh he’s heading up Keet Street in Ekurhuleni province, is he? Place gives me the creeps!”

But anyway, say she does somehow “see” him going someplace “dangerous.” What can she do to “help”? Send a guided missile? Shake in her shoes? Pray?

She’ll probably do two out of three —  at least until we get iPhone -detonated long-range missiles. (Please don’t tell me there’s an app for that.) But the fact is, worrying from afar is still what it has always been: A great way to go gray without helping anyone one iota.

What’s different is that with the Traakit, this mom can have the ILLUSION that she is keeping her child safe, which just happens to be the mass parental delusion of this century: That we can and should watch our kids every second of every day, with whatever device we can afford (cell phones, anyone? Nannycams? ) and that people who do not do this are putting their kids in dire peril.

That’s a lot to ask of parents: 24 hour surveillance, for – well, I guess the new standard is 19 years.

The Traakit was invented by the boy’s uncle (see? I’m calling him a boy when he’s 19 years old –probably because he is still firmly tied to his mom’s GPS strings). This may explain why Harry himself professes to find it not at all annoying, or infantilizing, or babe-demagnetizing to have his mom watching his every move (from his pocket!) even though he is old enough to fight for his country.

Or at least rent an R movie.

Harry even defended the device by saying that his friend had died a few months earlier falling off a waterfall. As if the Traakit would have prevented that! Better his friend had been carrying a life preserver. Or rope! But the logic seems to be: If only that boy had stayed connected to his mother, he’d be alive today.

That’s not GPS. That’s magic.

Nothing wrong with magic, of course. I’d like some myself. I’d like it even more for my kids. But if Harry really wants to have a magical summer?

Time to give that Traakit to a nice, hungry dingo. (And run.)

— Lenore

Kids are the New ’50s Housewives (Stuck at Home “For Their Own Good”)

What do today’s kids and ’50s housewives have in common? Way too much, as I suggest in my essay for today’s Washington Post parenting blog.

As I point out in my piece, in the 1940s women were working in factories, doing all the jobs men did — and earning their own keep. After the war, they were suddenly told: What on earth are you doing out here? The outside world is too dangerous for you, you sweet, silly creatures!  We’re only saying this for your own good. You can’t make it out here. Go home!

Which sounds remarkably like what we are telling kids today. Kids who, just a generation ago, were perfectly capable of making their way in the outside world — babysitting, playing in the park, walking to school — are now being told: What on earth are you doing out here? The world is too dangerous for you, you sweet, silly creatures! We’re only saying this for your own good. Go  home! (Or, alternatively,  “Go to soccer practice, which we will drive you to and pick you up from.”)

Betty Friedan started the women’s liberation movement with her book, ‘The Feminine Mystique,” arguing that it is wrong to treat half the  population as less competent than the other half, even under the guise of “caring.” As in, “I care so much, I’m not letting you live a full life.” Moreover, it was driving at least some of the housewives crazy with boredom!

My book, “Free-Range Kids,” posits the same thing, only about children:  How is it that another group of previously competent human beings — children — have  suddenly been told that they’re incapable of doing  anything on their own anymore? Especially since, as my book goes to great pains to show, the crime rate is back to the level of 1970? (And it is lower now than it was in the rest of the ’70s and ’80s.)

There is no real reason kids today cannot be as free as kids a generation ago. That’s why, like the housewives of the ’50s, they  need a liberation movement, too. Free-Range Kids is proud to sound the trumpets.

And even willing to burn a few baby knee pads.  — Lenore


P.S. And on a completely different topic, I am about to be interviewed, 1 – 2 p.m. EST, on Parenting Unplugged Radio:

IM any questions during the broadcast to:

“See you on the radio!” L.

Why One Mom Lets Her Son Walk to the Bus Stop Now

Hi Folks!
Here’s a short, sweet post by Seattle reporter Denise Gonzalez-Walker, who did something radical: She met her neighbors. It changed the way she’s raising her son:

By Denise Gonzalez-Walker


I recently finished a temporary job that gave me new perspective on the Free-Range philosophy. Working as a U.S. Census canvasser, I went door-to-door in my community, verifying addresses and other mundane information, like if someone had turned their backyard into a new condo development.

  Think about it for a minute: Would you be willing to knock on every door in your ‘hood?

  My area of the city is “colorful,” with everything from tidy cottages to messy shacks with broken-down cars in the yard. It’s where my family lives. Where my son catches his bus.

 But I’ve always wondered if I should trust my neighborhood. The census job gave me chance to find out.

 A few women I met acted as if I was nuts. Who knows? The bogeyman himself might be lurking behind that next door, waiting to snatch me, torture me and kill me, they’d say. I hated those exchanges, which made me feel anxious and paranoid.

 My 11 year-old son also worried about me at first. Talk about turning the tables! When I came home from my first day of training and relayed that a census worker in another state had been killed on the job, his eyes grew big. 

“Shot?” he asked, “Stabbed?”

 No, I told him, the worker had died in a car crash while driving between locations.

 By the end of my job, our group of canvassers had visited 32,000 homes. The calamities, in total? One minor car accident and a dog bite. In other words, reality matched what the statistics say about the risks of walking door-to-door and — gasp — meeting people in your community.

 By knocking on those doors, I came to trust my neighborhood a lot more. So when my son asked me if he could start walking alone to the bus stop two blocks away, I didn’t hesitate. “Sure,” I said. “But be sure to watch out for cars!”


“Free-Range Kids” Book Talk

The other night I gave a book talk — second in my life — at the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope, Brooklyn. If you’d like to hear some of the highlights, here you go. Two little videos of me doing my Free-Range thing:

Meantime, a very happy three-day weekend to all! — Lenore

The Crime of “CSI”

It’s nice when science takes the time to confirm one’s own sneaking (or even not so sneaking) suspicions. In this case: That TV crime shows are driving us crazy with fear.

In a report titled, “CSI: Mayo Clinic,” Mayo psychiatrist Timothy Lineberry and his team studied two sets of data: One, a list of crimes, victims and circumstances as seen on CSI and CSI: Miami over the course of two years. The other: a list of crimes, victims and circumstances in real life, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control over the course of two years.

You may think the stories on crime shows are “ripped from the headlines,” but Lineberry found that the shows usually forget to rip the ones involving minorities, for starters. (For that matter, so does TV news. But if the victim is young and white, you will soon see more of her family than your own.)

Meanwhile, TV crime shows also forget to mention how often alcohol is involved, probably because a drunk guy with a gun is not nearly as compelling as, say, a charming psychopath. Or criminal mastermind. Or, as I saw on Law & Order the other day, a Serbian war criminal roaming the streets in search of a young girl — any girl — to drag off and rape.

That’s not going to affect whether you let your daughter walk home from school, is it?

Most significant of all, in terms of warping our perceptions, is that the shows forget to tell us that most homicide victims know their killers. Most violence is not random. Most of the time, murderers are not hiding in the bushes – or mall, or playground  — just waiting to pounce. But on TV, the guy with the machete/chainsaw/van is usually some fiend out to nab the next sucker walking by. 

That one little fact has had a huge impact on the way we live.

It wouldn’t, of course, if we were better at separating perception from reality. But seeing crime after crime on TV, it’s hard not to feel at least a little nervous. After all, our brains are hardwired to react to dangerous situations. It would be nice if they filed dramas under “Don’t worry!” and TV news under, “Tabloid crap (and weather)!” But in fact, it all gets thrown in the hopper and stays there a very long time. (Anybody have a hard time picturing Hannibal Lechter?)

So when we’re trying to figure out, “Is it safe for me to take a little walk tonight?” we end up flashing on a pile of maggot-covered bodies, courtesy of CSI. Bodies of people murdered by strangers. Result? ”Maybe I’ll just stay in.”

Parents are even more affected. Never mind that while there are about 50 children kidnapped and killed by strangers every year (according to numbers from the Crimes Against Children Research Center), there are about 1,000 killed by family members or acquaintances. Since most of us aren’t exposed to crime in our real lives very much (thank goodness), all we have to go on is what we see on TV.

And so we think, “It’s a jungle out there! Strangers are hiding everywhere, with duct tape. I will not let them kill my kid!”

In we yank our offspring. (And dare I suggest that at least a few of the older ones will end up watching CSI because they’re not out playing kickball?)

The only way to regain perspective  — read: sanity — is to counterbalance the crime shows with more and more reality. More walks in the neighborhood. More chats with friends outside. More chats with strangers, even, because most of them aren’t carrying machetes. Or, for that matter, duct tape.

— Lenore

Feisty Mom Comes Out Swinging — A Lovely Read

Hi All!
This letter, just received, has  me smiling. Maybe it’ll do the same for you! It’s certainly a nice one to cite when folks say, “Free-Range” is just a fancy term for “lazy.” Before you give your kids indepdendence you have to teach them a lot more than if you just kept them locked inside all day, as this lady proves!

She writes: 

“I am the mother of two “Free-Range” kids, ages 3 and 5.  They are adorable little blonde girls – any abductor’s dream.  So, rather than be freaked out about it when they were 3 I made sure they both new our phone number – AND could dial it from any phone.  I made sure they knew our address and how to get there, as well as the address of their grandparents, the names of their schools, etc.  I made sure they knew that IF we got seperated in a crowd and they got scared they should ask someone for help.  People in uniforms or working in shops were good bets because they were likely to have a phone that my girls could use to call us.

“When ‘stranger danger’ came up at school and my oldest daughter came home terrified and crying, I reassured her that MOST strangers are safe. After all every friend you have was once a stranger!  I reminded her to trust her instincts and that if someone ever asked her to do something she was uncomfortable with, that she should say no and to never let anyone force her into anything she didn’t like. 

“My daughter might be the shortest kid in school by a good 6 inches, but she’s tough.  She climbs trees and knows to go as high as SHE feels comfortable – NOT as high as I feel comfortabe watching. The two are very different!  She swims, she does flips at gymnastics.  In any fight between her and an abductor, I’m putting my money on her!

“And the germ thing – PLEASE.  They’re germs, they’re not going to kill you. Well most of them won’t.  We’re spoiled Americans, we have safe drinking water pouring out our taps, flushing our toilets and filling our swimming pools.  Sure, the guard rails of the NY subway might one day lead to an outbreak of the plague or, God forbid, swine flu, but then again tomorrow Publisher’s Clearing House could arrive on my door with a few million dollars.  The odds are about the same, and you don’t see me racking up my shopping bills in expectation of the windfall!

“By state law my children are not old enough to play at the park across the street from my house without me there.  Thankfully I don’t yet have to keep them on a leash even when I am with them.  I get looks from other moms because I let my girls play on thie big kid side of the playground instead of the baby/toddler side.  I encourage them to do ‘dangerous’ stunts, and applaud when they pull it off.  I also don’t rush over to coddle them every time they skin their knee.  They know how to assess the damages and ask for a Band-Aid if it’s serious.

“When my daughters turn eight, they’ll get their first Swiss Army knives, and not the tiny ones with a nail file and some scissors, but real ones, big enough to gut a fish with. 

“We have to start allowing our children to be people, we have to listen to them when they tell us that they can do it by themselves.  They know what they are capable of, and it is our job to listen.

“And yes, once I even let my girls eat a whole bag of candy in one sitting, and you know what, it didn’t kill them AND they’ve never asked again!!

“Good luck to all you other Free-Range parents, for letting  our children breathe!!”

Whew! That mom is more Free-Range than ME, good ol’ Lenore here (who has never gutted a fish, nor have my sons). And I applaud her! There’s no “right” level to this whole thing, just a willingness to accept that our kids are more capable than society says,  and times are  safer times than whatever you see  on TV. (Epecially whatever you see on Law & Order SVU.  — Lenore

A Girl Knocks on a Stranger’s Door

Have you heard of Common Cents? It’s a non-profit organization based in my burg, New York City, that encourages school children to “harvest” the pennies in their neighborhoods—that is, the pennies most of us have sitting in a jar that just keeps getting heavier and heavier. Cool idea, right?

The kids put notes under the doors of their neighbors saying that they are running a penny drive. Then, on the appointed day, they stop by to pick up any pennies their neighbors would like to donate. It’s like the Girl Scout cookie drive: Knock knock. Who’s there? A cute little kid doing some good in the world.

Even better, once a whole school has run its drive, the kids themselves research and decide where the pennies – now hundreds of dollars — should go. To a homeless shelter? Food pantry? School supplies for kids with none?

The whole process gets them thinking about the world and participating in democracy. But to me, the best part is that it gets them out in their communities, connecting with their neighbors. (Yes, the way I used to do when my mom sent me out to collect donations from our neighbors for the March of Dimes.)  

Anyway, it’s the harvesting part that I want to tell you about.

One little girl had done her bit and given all the neighbors in her apartment building the note that explained the project and that she’d be coming by. She happens to live in public housing.

On the appointed day, she was knocking on this door and that, and when she went in the stairwell to climb up another  flight, she was surprised to find, Scotch-taped to each step, a penny!

She followed them up, up, up till she got to the next floor. There, a line of taped pennies led down the hall. They stopped at a door. She knocked on that door and – an old lady answered.

“Why did you leave a whole trail of pennies?” asked the girl.

Replied the old lady, handing her a jar: “I didn’t want you to miss me!”

Now, if you’re like most folks (including, I must admit, me), you probably worried that the pennies led to a Hansel & Gretel-type situation. And I suppose if your kids are going to do a penny harvest, it’s best for them to go in pairs. (Click here to go to find out more about  Common Cents.)

But a little old lady like this reminds us all: Most people not only ARE good, they want to DO good. And, as Common Cents and common sense both  suggest:  this only happens when we  connect.

 — Lenore

Yes, more media!

Quick alert (before everyone goes, “Enough already!”):
As mentioned right below here, I’ll be on Nightline tonight talking about dumb baby safety products (that is, dumb safety products, not safety products for dumb babies). But — news flash!  I’ll be talking about them again on Good Morning America the next day. (Saturday.)
That’s it. Have a great weekend and write comments that are more interesting than this!
— Lenore

“Nightline” goes Free-Range Friday night!

Well, with a couple of caveats, that is.

First of all, the segment could be postponed indefinitely, should any “real” news develop.

Secondly, the piece is about a Free-Range tangent,  the whole issue I call the “Kiddie Safety Industrial Complex” —  that is, the multi-billion dollar  industry that has given us superstores full of baby products that didn’t even exist a generation ago.

Things like the baby bathwater thermometer that warns you if your baby’s bath is “TOO HOT!” (Never mind the fact that, unless you have no central nervous system, you could probably figure this out with a wrist in the water.) And things like “Boogie Wipes” — special Kleenex for kids. For their oh-so-special “boogies.”

Really — just writing about this product revolts me, but the messages behind it are too weird to ignore:

1 — That it is so “difficult” to blow our children’s noses that we need new, pricey (10 cents a sheet!) assistance.

2 — That kids are almost a different species from the rest of us, hence require a whole houseful of kids-only  products.

3 — That we really WANT to raise kids on grape-scented, saline-soaked nose wipes. As if the world isn’t chock-full of overwrought, over-scented, unnecessary junk already.

And that’s not even getting into the  way the safety industry creates a picture of  the world as super-dangerous (“Is your baby about to be SCALDED?!” “) so we will freak out and buy anything they’re selling.

Anyway, I’m happy the Nightline folks are looking into this topic, thanks to a great piece in And I’m happy that they came to interview me. And happy, too, that  the  correspondent, David Wright, is really funny and a dad of two young ‘uns. So I suspect  it’ll be a good piece.

Till then — good luck with those “boogies.” Even though we seem to be the first generation in history that needs a whole lot of  help dealing with them.  — Lenore

Toddler gets picked up by stranger…

…and ends up a journalistic superstar! (Albeit several years later.)

Susan Toepfer, former editor of  Quick & Simple, OK, and the juicy bits of  People turns out to have been…a Free-Range Kid! So Free-Range that she and her friends got picked up by a stranger when she toddled off (literally) with some friends.  Read all about it at the new blog, True/Slant!

While you’re there, True/Slant’s parenting blogger, Karen Dukess, has a lovely review of Free-Range Kids, which she calls, “The Parenting Book That Beats Valium.”  (I think I’m going to have a T-shirt made!)  Her piece ends with a cool little story about why her own third grade son is hesitant to walk to school, even with his fifth grade  brother. 

True/Slant is a new amalgam of top-notch writers blogging about topics far and wide, but it does have one flaw: It is hard to sign up to leave a comment. You have to join first. Persever a bit, however, and it’s worth it. They would love to hear from you!