Are We Too Obsessed with Our Kids?

“Why Are People Obsessed With Their Kids?” is a fascinating piece by Vanessa Richmond at AlterNet, which in turn quotes from a fascinating (long!) piece in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore, all about how parenting has become the focus of our lives, when it used to be just a PART of life. Not a definition. Not a calling. And not something you really had to study hard to succeed at, like AP Biology.  An excerpt from Richmond’s piece:

Most people today don’t grow up caring for young siblings or other kids, and don’t know how to do even basic things like bathing or soothing babies. First-time parents can’t count on grandparents anymore in most cases. And all of this means parenthood has become mystifying.

You are a danger to your kids

Into any scary, mysterious void come snake-oil salespeople. In this case, magazines and experts, like in Parenting magazine, arrived on the scene about a century ago, and turned child care into a science.

The public bought the idea that they were essentially a danger to their own kids and had better pay money for advice, that they’d better try really hard to do a good job, and they’d still inevitably fail. (Even though, as Lepore points out, kids are actually safer now than ever. In 1850, more than one baby in five died before its first year, by 1920 that had dropped to one in 20, and today infant mortality is at one in 200.)

The article that reinforces a basic Free-Range Kids point: Society has foisted upon us  exaggerated fears and, in doing so,  made us trust our own instincts less, and their gizmos and advice books more. That’s good for anyone with anything child-related to sell — and bad for anyone actually raising the child. Especially anyone who would like to give that child a little freedom, but is being told: That is not what “good” parents do. Good parents are overinvolved, all the time. And they buy  a lot of stuff, too.

— Lenore

Sunrise, Sunset — Grammar School Style

Readers, I hope you’ll allow me a weepy moment. New York City schools get out late. For us,  graduation was Wednesday. That’s when I wrote this, which I also posted on  the Huffington Post New York page :

10 AM. In an hour my younger son graduates from grammar school. He’s the “boy who took the subway by himself” last year and made headlines worldwide, but last night he was just a boy desperately poking me at about 3 AM, trying not to wake his father up.

I followed him into the darkened living room and as we sat down on our foul, old L-shaped couch, he was so relieved to be in mommy’s arms that the tears came pouring out. “My ear!” he held his head. “My ear hurts so much!”

He’d already taken a Tylenol (Free-Range kid!), so I said, “Well, let me tell you a story,” racking my brain for the oldest diversion of all.

The only thing is, I’m terrible at making up stories. As I stalled for time, “Let’s see…let’s tell you a nice story…” he piped up, “Can you tell me what happened with Hansel and Gretel?”

Now, this was not out of any sudden fondness for the classics. It was because he’d seen a cell phone commercial where two lost kids say to heck with breadcrumbs and use their phone’s GPS.

So I started telling him the story, or at least the highlights I could remember. Then, when he moaned in pain again the second the tale ended (and I really couldn’t remember if those kids got eaten or not), I racked my brain again and dredged up Cinderella — mostly the Leslie Anne Warren version, with Good Witch Glinda’s voice subbing for the Fairy Godmother’s. Sue me.

Then came Snow White, with a tiny detour into why “fair” was once considered the most beautiful shade of skin (Europe/long time ago/ethnocentrism), and what a stepmother is (“Usually much nicer!”). Why dwarves would all live together was left unexplained. Why they’d keep a dead girl in a glass casket, ditto. He thought the story was cool. At the same time, though, he was very hot, so got into a tepid bath.

From behind the shower curtain he said, “Didn’t you once give us a fairy tale book?” He was referring to my favorite book from childhood.


“Why don’t you go get it?” He knew exactly where it was in his room: the shelf with the books he never touched.

So then we spent the next hour or so, him in the tub, working our way through the Borthers Grimm indeed – the wolf eating Little Red Riding Hood, Rumplestiltzkin tearing himself in half (that’s the ending!), and the real Hansel & Gretel, who, as it turns out, only ended up in the woods only because their parents abandoned them there. The family didn’t have enough to eat, so for the parents to live, the kids had to starve. (Which is why today, when parents today moan, “Times have changed,” I wish they’d add: “Hooray!”)

Anyway, finally, it was time for bed again.

“I feel sooooo much better!” my happy boy said as he lay down.

And now it is ten in the morning. My son is probably already in the auditorium, practicing the National Anthem and whatever “Children Are the Future” song the fifth graders will sing to reduce us Camcordering parents to tears. I can deal with that.

What was hard was seeing the kids frolicking in the schoolyard at drop-off: the boys suddenly crisp in their khakis, the girls suddenly gorgeous in their graduation dresses.

Soon, and forever more, that schoolyard will be filled with anonymous, interchangeable kids, fiercely beloved by other parents, not me. But for one last morning, there was my miraculously recovered little boy, chasing his friends, posing for digital pictures, eager to get out of his dress shoes.

Grammar school is over. I guess it’s as simple as that. I’m sure I’m not the first mom to get a little teary, especially after a night spent with the children of the ages – princes, paupers, starving kids eating a candy house. For a few hours in the night my boy and I were suspended in that very special time called childhood.

And this morning, we’re heading out.

— Lenore

Free-Range Kids Outrage of the Week: 10-year-old Forbidden to Cross Parking Lot

Hi Free-Rangers:
Here’s a note from a mom who just wants her son to NOT be treated like a baby or invalid. But…that’s against camp rules. Voila:

My 10 year old is going to an art camp being held at the museum. Each child is suposed to be dropped off and picked up, complete with sign in/out sheets, by a person with the appropriate identification card issued by the camp. No card, no pickup. And if you’re late, they fine you.

I have no problem with this if it makes someone comfortable or if they have young children…however, my boy is not younger and I am fine with him leaving after his last class and walking across the very small parking lot to wait for me at the library where I may or may not be late depending on work. [Italics mine — Lenore]

I sent a letter stating that he had permission to leave unescorted, as per their instructions. Would you believe they have charged some intern to walk him across the parking lot?! The point of my letter was that my boy was fine, I was fine, and that he didn’t  need to be a bother to anyone there. The library and museum area are about as safe as you can get around here: Plenty of people, lots of foot traffic, very small parking lot so not a lot of vehicle traffic. The grocery store parking lot is twice as big and he’s been returning the carts for years!

First day, I ask the intern why he’s with my son and he said he just wanted him to make it safely to the library. I explained that wasn’t necessary and thanked him. The next day, my son slipped out without him, met me right smack out front and then asked if he could meet me at the library. I decide to move my car to a shadier spot and find my son on the library steps with the intern who’s followed him. Geesh people. He’s TEN!

In the non Free-Range world, alas, ten is the new two.  — Lenore

CNN or C.A.N. — Child Abduction Network?

One reason Americans are so extremely terrified about child abductions is that whenever we turn on the TV or computer, there’s another one. As if these horrific crimes are happening 24/7, when actually the media is only too happy to fly across the country — or world — to set up camp wherever a cute, white girl has disappeared. Tight news budgets get thrown out the window  for a story like this. But because that story then shows up on our screen at home,  it feels like it’s happening right around the corner. All the time.

What happens when there is NOT a new story like this for the media to feast upon? Instead of traveling to another state, or country, they’ll travel back in time. The show 20/20 just did an hour-long look at the Etan Patz kidnapping from 30 years ago. And here’s CNN’s Nancy Grace page , from a few days ago: “Third Grader Stepped Off School Bus, Disappeared.”

Start reading it: ” With the weekend arriving and a long day finally over, 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan stepped off her yellow school bus on a chilly Friday around 4 p.m….”

Oh, by the way, CNN finally adds at the end of paragraph three: This was in 1985.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense to sometimes revisit a cold case in hopes of solving it. I do hope someone solves this one. But it begins to  look suspiciously self-serving when networks desperate for viewers keep coming up with the exact same kind of story, served up any which way they can. How about the cold case of an African-American teenager gone missing? Or a schitzophrenic adult? Or someone who isn’t winsome, white and under five feet tall?

A newly Free-Range mom dropped me a little note this morning trying to help all of us (herself included)  put our fears in perspective: The chance of a child being kidnapped and murdered? 1 in 1.5 million. The chance of a child ending up at some point with some form of depression? 1 in 4.

It is extremely depressing, disheartening, lose-your-faith-in-humanity-izing, to keep being presented with the most vile crimes on earth as if that’s what life  is all about. As if that’s just what you can expect if you’re bringing up a kid these days.

So what’s the alternative?

One of the chapters in my book is called, “Turn Off the News.” At the end it has some suggestions for how to get started  going Free-Range, including, “Get up and go out. Spend that hour you were going to watch ‘Law and Order’ on a walk with the kids instead. Look around at all the unspeakable crimes not being committed. This is called the Real World. (Not to be confused with MTV’s version, which is a crime all  its own.)”

When we depend on the media to shape our world view, we’re going to get a world view that looks a whole lot like the view from a harried, ratings-obsessed assignment desk: If it bleeds, it leads. If it’s sad, we’re glad! If it’s an abduction, ramp up production! 

Which they sure do.

But if a network thinks its job is to terrify us, maybe it’s time to turn the tables and terrify them: Let them watch their viewers mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again.

Someday, they may even do a cold case special on us. — Lenore

Huffington Post and Free-Range Kids

Perfect together, here, on their new “New York” page.

Six-Year-Olds Build Nuclear Reactor (Or So the Cops Think)

Another story of strangely advanced kids — or is it strangely inept cops? — this time from Germany. Enjoy! — Lenore

Fourth Grader Lost in Wilderness Doesn’t Panic

I spend a lot of time trying to convince skeptics that “Free-Range” does not mean, “Send Your Kid Down the Mississippi on A Raft.” So when I present this article, it’s only because it delights me so: The story of a boy who will be in fourth grade next year who got lost in the wilderness and didn’t panic.

Instead, he tore up his yellow slicker to leave little ribbons in trees as a sign to searchers: I’m nearby!

He also followed a stream figuring it would lead to a lake where there might be people.

And upon reuniting with his dad 18 hours later, what were his first words? “Happy Father’s Day.”

Bet it was.   — Lenore

Help, Daddy! A Grandma Smiled At Me! Will She Kidnap Me?

Hi Free-Rangers!
Just though I’d share this little note I got from Australia this morning. Makes you realize it’s a small world after all: A small,  paranoid, danger-halucinating world.
This is from a lady named Vivienne:

Walking in Ikea.
I am a pleasant-enough, smiley grandmoter of 9. A man with his daughter of about 3 or 4 parks her near me as he steps to look at a shelf.
I smile as I step past and the child screams.
“Don’t leave me Daddy! Someone is going  to steal me!”  I almost pass out with shock.
Today,  walking into a ladies toilet, a child passing by asks her Daddy if she can go in.
“No,” he says, “someone might take you.”   I don’t even dare suggest that I take her in.
 I can’t stand it.
It’s as if parents have joined a mad cult. What’s the pay off?
I had five free range kids. They’d walk down to the wool shed with lunch for Jim  and a mile to the school bus each morning . They walked to visit Granny three miles over five steep ridges, and they now  live all over the world, which was always my intent for them .
Is it that children are now regarded as possessions?
Lighten up.

We’re trying, Viv! — Lenore

Free-Range Kids Changes A Mom (And Two Childhoods)

Hi Readers — This letter, received today, made me cheer. For the mom, for the kids, for the movement!

From a mom named Mia:

I do very much wish to thank you for writing and sharing this blog.  It is changing my life and that of my children and I suppose you could call me a convert of sorts.

It feels like such a relief, a weight lifted from my shoulders, a permission of sorts to be the kind of parent I feel comfortable being.  And that kind of parent is not one who approaches child-rearing with fear and quilt, rarely able to take a deep breath and relax.  I am so weary of the excessive worry about every little thing – and the pressure, judgment  and competition from other mothers to see who can cushion their child the most.

I want to be a free range mom!  The thoughtfulness behind your articles and the intelligence of your reader’s discussions have emboldened me to change it up and let loose a bit around here –

A week ago I let my 11 year old leave the dentist’s office we were at (for his brothers appointment)  to walk alone, out of my sight, across the semi-busy shopping center to the McDonald’s and buy an ice cream cone.  He was so proud of himself .  And I felt such shame that I had never before allowed my son to feel this accomplishment and confidence.  Next time there is a dentist appointment for his brother he can stay home alone and I know he’ll be just fine.

Yesterday I let him make a boxed mac & cheese.  I wasn’t even in the same room where he was boiling water on the gas stove for the 1st time.  Just hollered out my answers to any questions he had.  He did it!  And his grin of pride was huge.

Also yesterday, I let my 8yo son go outside alone for the 1st time.  To go to friends homes and see if anyone could play, or maybe go to the park on the corner and find some kids there to play with.  He rode his bike and he stopped by often – for popsicles, to give home tours to new friends, to grab a ball, to get our puppy and participate in an impromptu 5-child dog walking trip around the neighborhood.  And with the age old twin calls of hunger and twilight, he was back home, grinning and enthusiastically asking if he could do it all over again tomorrow.

Ahh,  *now* I’m breathing and it feels like fun and happiness.

And with that, readers, a great weekend to all! — Lenore

Free-Range Kids Outrage of the Week: “Wear Goggles When Putting Up Posters”

As nutty as we think the restrictions on American kids and teachers are getting, England may even be a few steps ahead. In this piece from The Telegraph, teachers tell of regulations that require them to wear goggles  when putting  up  posters with “Blue-Tack” (i.e., sticky stuff). They were also issued a 5-page warning about glue sticks  (which they call the Pritt Stick). Meantime, school got rid of its “three-legged” races for the kids — too dangerous — while another got rid of its climbing equipment because the wood chips underneath weren’t the required depth.

Calling Monty Python!

Worst of all — for kids, for teachers, for anyone who wants our children to poke through the increasingly bullet-proof  bubble that is childhood — four teachers in ten said that some field trips had been “toned down or cancelled” because they just weren’t safe enough.

When you have to wear goggles to put up a poster, what is?

— Lenore