On Second Glance…

Sometimes the boogey man is just that, as these parents found out: http://img29.imageshack.us/i/securedownloadbon.jpg/

The Risk of Avoiding All Risk

In the town of Milford, Connecticut, in 2005, a grandma named Una decided to build a pool. That way her 14 grandchildren could play in it. Except, she worried: One couldn’t.

He was allergic to nuts and there was the possibility that if he and a nut happened to be in the pool at the same time – a tree nut, that is – he just might have an allergic reaction. So to keep him from sitting out the fun, grandma did what any modern-day American does.

She demanded the mayor chop down all the hickory nut trees near her house.

Yes, these trees shaded the street, the neighborhood, the neighbors…. But still, she said: What if? 

Which is exactly how the mayor framed it: What if  that boy did take a swim and did have an allergic reaction? “It really came down to taking a risk that the child might be sick or even die,” he said. And that is why there are now three stumps where the stately hickories used to be.

In his impossible-to-read-without-steam-shooting-out-your-ears book, Life Without Lawyers, Philip K. Howard explains why thinking this way is wimpy and, worse, wrong. In the name of eliminating one possible risk to one possible person, the mayor was blinded to the greater good: Shade for a whole street. Beauty. Oxygen. Home values!

Howard, a lawyer himself, points out that if the mayor followed his own zero risk policy, he would have to start eliminating all the other nut trees in town, too. And all the bees, because some people are allergic. And any kind of public pool or lake because, of course, someone could drown.

If that sounds outlandish, consider the myriad ways in which fear of risk – even tiny risk – is reshaping society every day.

Last year, for instance, after that whole recall of lead-painted toys from China, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This law requires manufacturers to prove that almost every part of every single product they make for children under age 12 contains less lead than a Frito. That includes things like socks, bikes, the insoles of shoes – things that very few kids lick, much less munch whole. Rhinestones got banned – they contain an eensy bit of lead. And the sale of pre-1985 children’s books was banned, too – even in thrift shops – because before that date, some printing ink contained lead. So if your child was an avid book-eater, Congress was there to protect ’em.

Like that Connecticut mayor, our lawmakers took a giant chain saw to a tiny risk and didn’t care what they felled in the process. Like, say, reading.

But it’s not just the government that’s gone safety-crazy. It’s us, too. Us grown-ups who used to walk to school, ride our bikes, or sell Girl Scout cookies door to door. Sure, there was some risk, even back then, of kidnapping, rape and murder. But reasonable parents found the risk reasonable, too: The danger was so small that they weren’t going to organize our lives around it. Walking meant active, healthy kids. Selling cookies meant independent, responsible kids — and extra Thin Mints around the house.

But today, even though the chance of danger is still very small (crime rates were actually HIGHER in the ‘70s and ‘80s than now), those same fun things have become “crazy risks” to a lot of parents. That’s why so many neighborhoods are so empty, even in summertime: The outside world is one big risk!

It’s not that I am a fan of unnecessary risk. I love helmets, car seats. I give fire extinguishers as baby shower gifts. But our overreaction to very unlikely dangers is turning us into a nation of nutjobs who see a 1982 copy of The Pokey Little Puppy on par with a loaded pistol.

All life involves some kind of risk – of boredom, disappointment, danger. Try to avoid it and you’ll end up inside, staring out a street lined with stumps. And by the way, your kids will be inside, too. Driving you nuttier than a hickory tree. — Lenore

Outrage of the Weekend: Man Arrested for Duck Impersonation

Hi Readers!  This just in, from Free-Ranger Deb Turner, who asks: “If you were shopping with your nine year old, and a man approached you and your child and did a Donald Duck imitation for the child, would you call 9-1-1? This happened in my local area.”
‘Duck’ didn’t ruffle any legal feathers
The case of an Oriskany man accused of frightening children and parents at Wal-Mart with his Donald Duck impression was dismissed from City Court on Friday.
A charge of endangering the welfare of a child was dismissed against Martin A. Tuzzolino, 55, by Judge Daniel C. Wilson, prosecutors said.
The case was dismissed on a motion by the public defender that the crime didn’t fit the charge, that there was no danger in Tuzzolino’s antics, prosecutors stated. At about 5:30 p.m. April 28, deputies said Tuzzolino approached a 9-year-old girl at Wal-Mart on Rome-Taberg Road and began speaking like Disney cartoon character Donald Duck.
Deputies said the girl started crying, and her mother called 9-1-1 to report the strange behavior. Tuzzolino left the store, and was arrested later for endangering.
To quote another terrifying cartoon duck:  Th-th-that’s despicable! — Lenore

The Dangers of Backyard Camping (Ghosts, Fugitives, Guy with One Bloody Hand)

Thanks to the intrepid reporters at The Onion, we are finally dealing with the truth about  backyard camping. It’s not  pretty.

Outrage of The Week: Recess Gets Programmed

Hi Readers! Here’s what’s up at a grammar school outside of Chicago where the kids have apparently been getting it all wrong during recess. A local source writes:

 This past weekend I went over to visit a friend of mine who is a first grade teacher. When I walked in, she was watching a video demonstrating different outdoor games to teach children, like 4-square, tag, etc. I asked why she was watching and she said, “We are figuring out which games are appropriate to teach the kids at recess.”

 When I followed up I learned that during the past year, there were too many fights and “wandering” children during recess, so the school has decided that recess should be structured with the children being given the choice of playing any of three or four pre-taught games.

So now, at the beginning of the 20-minute recess, there will be 3-4 activities set up. Kids will be required to pick one and stick with it. Says our source, “They are toying around with rotating the kids through the activities or giving them the chance to switch halfway through recess, but 20 minutes just isn’t that long!”

 It sure isn’t. And neither is childhood, which is why this is just wrong.

If children need to learn the basics of some classic games, by all means: Teach them! That’s a great idea! But then – it is time to back off.

The whole idea of free play is FREE PLAY. That means the freedom to run around. To make up games. To CHANGE the game. One of the happiest days of my son’s life was when he came back from the park where he and his friends invented “7-square.” It was like they’d invented cold fusion — a brilliant idea the world had been dying for.

 Kids have structured time the rest of the day. From what I’ve seen, a lot of it will probably be spent preparing for standardized tests. Recess shouldn’t be the same as the rest of the day. It should be…what’s that word again?

 Oh yeah! A recess. – Lenore

Kid Hurts Knee in Little League — Parents Sue. Who Won?

Walter Olson runs a great, nay, mindblowing blog called overlawyered.com. The name says it all. He’s got great posts on everything from a suit against dolphin trainers (for teaching their dolphins to deliberately splash during a water show, making the area slippery) to a family suing Honda for $10 million because their car window blew out (in a tornado).  And here’s one of his latest:

12-year-old’s slide injury to cost Little League $125K
by Walter Olson on August 6, 2009

Staten Island, N.Y.: Little League Baseball Inc. and the New Springville Little League have agreed to pay $125,000 to settle Jean Gonzalez’s suit charging that negligent coaching and the use of a stationary base were responsible for her son Martin’s knee injury, incurred while sliding into second base. Two coaches were named personally in the lawsuit. “The defendants countered that Martin had been taught the proper sliding technique, and the bases used, detachable ‘Soft-Touch’ ‘pop-up’ bags, were compliant with all safety standards” and considered safer than the alternative design. The family’s lawyer was Alan C. Glassman of Brooklyn. [Staten Island Advance; our earlier coverage]

When will we remember that bruising and even the occasional broken bone are not evidence of negligence, they are evidence of childhood — of kids doing something other than sitting in the minvan on their way to their (indoor, supervised) playdate? And now what happens to Little League? Are they going to outlaw sliding? Running? Speed-walking — because a kid COULD get hurt and they don’t want to get sued again?

Maybe from now on kids can crawl from base to base. Yes! The new American pastime: Basecrawl. — Lenore

Super-Involved AND Free-Range??

Hi Readers! Here’s an interesting angle on Free-Ranging, brought to us by Kathy Seal. Kathy is a journalist in Santa Monica and co-author of  Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child  and Motivated Minds: Raising Children. Her websites are www.kathyseal.net and  www.pressuredparents.com. Voila:


Ok, I’m gonna say something controversial: You can’t be too involved with your child.

You heard me right. Tons of gold-standard research shows that the more you’re involved with your kids –be they toddlers or teens — the better it is for them. And that doesn’t contradict my dear friend Lenore here one bit, because you can be involved without trampling on your kid’s feelings of independence and competence.

How? All you have to do is respect your child’s autonomy.   That’s what’ll prevent you from becoming one of those cringe-inducing helicopter parents. So what’s autonomy anyway?

It’s the feeling of initiating an action. It’s the opposite of feeling controlled by someone else. When kids — and all human beings — feel that what they do is self-initiated, they’re happier.   They also perform better, because the enjoyment motivates them to study or practice more.

Maybe you think there’s something icky about being highly involved with your kids. Like, it means you don’t have your own life, or you’re pushing them to achieve what you didn’t.  I hear you! Nobody wants to be involved like that.  So let’s define our kind of involvement as “support.”  Because a mountain of research has found that the more we support our children, the happier they are and the more they achieve. And it helps them feel secure and solidly connected to us, too.

My co-author, Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick, did a study of mothers of   elementary school children. The more involved the moms were with their kids — that is, the more time they spent with them, and the more they knew about what they did, liked and disliked — the better their children did on report cards and standardized tests, and the fewer problems they had in school. These highly involved mothers weren’t necessarily at home a lot, but when they were, they spent time with their children. They asked about their children’s school day, knew which subjects they enjoyed or didn’t, and who their friends were.

The big caveat is to combine your involvement with healthy respect for your child’s autonomy. And there are three ways to do that.  (I didn’t say three easy ways. But they’re not terribly hard either.)

1. Take your child’s point of view and acknowledge his feelings.

Say your 10-year-old isn’t doing his homework. He’s thinking, “It’s going to get dark soon. I want to have some fun now. I can do my homework later.”

You could take his point of view by trying to imagine, “If I were his age, what would I prefer? Riding my bike or reading a chapter on coal production?” Then you can say, “I understand that you’re having fun. But tonight we’re going to Aunt Karen’s for dinner, so unfortunately, this is the only time to do your science homework.” What counts is acknowledging your child’s feelings. You want to convey “I’m with you.”

2. Support your child’s independent problem solving.

One of the best ways to support your child’s independent problem solving is to ask questions, as I did when my son, Zach, was making a pinhole camera for the school science fair. Instead of taking him to a store to get the cardboard box he needed, I asked him, “Where could you find a big box?”

After a minutes he said, “I know — behind the store where they sell refrigerators!”

“How could we make the pinhole?” I asked next — and so on.

3. Give your child choices.

Even a tiny degree of choice boosts a child’s feelings of autonomy. So if your child is painting, you might say, “The materials need to be kept clean so you can keep using them for a long time.”  And she decides how to clean up.

As my own children have gotten older, I’ve found that questions like “Have you considered….?” or “Do you think you might want to …?” also do the trick.

Encouraging your children’s feelings of autonomy helps you stay involved without controlling them. All you have to control is yourself!

The Enrichment Activity That Beats ‘Em All

Here’s a phenomenal NPR piece – transcribed — that solves the classic overprotection question, “Well, why NOT keep kids inside all the time if it’s safer?”

A lot of parents think it was fun back when they played outside as kids, but since that kind of thing presents at least SOME danger (no matter how tiny), why not skip it and replace it with organized sports (they still get fresh air!), educational activities (won’t hurt on those Harvard applications!) or simply keep them at home, indoors? (Better safe than sorry!)

The problem is that more and more research is showing that PLAY – plain old, run-around, parent-free PLAY – is the building block of everything we are trying to nurture in our kids: Responsibility, communication and, most of all, it turns out, something called “self-regulation.”

Self-regulation is the ability to control oneself and work toward a goal. The classic self-regulation experiment involved giving 4-year-olds a choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or wait for the researcher to come back in a few minutes and you can have TWO.

The kids who could make themselves wait did better academically later on in their lives. In fact, self-regulation turns out to be a better predictor of future academic success than a kid’s IQ score. So brains matter, sure. But the ability to control oneself and plan for the future are even more important. And I think you can guess what builds that very quality.

Play. Because in play, children listen to their “private voice,” a voice directing them to come up with a solution, not just passively obey. Pre-schools allowing more time for free play ended up with kids way more willing to help each other – and even help clean up. They understood cooperation and responsibility better. I guess you could say their private voice is coaching them in something on par with “maturity.”

The other part of this NPR essay talks about how childhood was once very clearly associated with play. Now it’s associated with the things we buy for kids to play WITH: toys.

Now, obviously, I’ve got nothing against toys. Nothing against Little League or piano lessons or tutoring. My kids have done them all (and own a ridiculous number of toys, most of them in a big pile and missing some crucial piece). But if we don’t give our kids time to just plain play – and if schools don’t give them that, either — we are depriving them of the one “enrichment activity” that just may be the key to…everything. Or at least, everything good.

And did I mention it’s fun? That too.  – Lenore

Free-Range Success — Thanks to Laziness!

Dear Readers — Here’s a success story from Plano, Texas!

We live about 200 yards from the school.  Our block ends across the street from the front of the school.  The crossing guard is one street over (on our same block, so no need for kids to cross a street).  Yet, every single child on our block either had their parent walk them to school or stood outside their house until they could see their child walk into the school.  Even our neighbors with fifth graders did this!

Under peer pressure, I did this while my oldest was in kindergarten and first grade.  When my girls were in kindergarten and second grade, I got laid off.  I admit it was laziness (I wasn’t dressed yet, because I wasn’t going to work) that finally made me act by my convictions and let the girls walk to school by themselves.  Since I was unemployed, I took them out of the after-school program, and they started walking home from school by themselves as well.

At first, I thought all of my neighbors would be talking about what a slacker parent I was.  Then a funny thing happened.  All of the parents on our block started letting their kids walk to school by themselves.  Another funny thing happened, the kids started walking together with other kids from our block.  They started to actually get to know one another.

It’s funny to think that I was so worried that the other parents would think bad things about me for letting my girls walk to school by themselves, but it turns out they were all so relieved that they could finally let their kids walk by themselves!

Half of All 5-10 Year Olds Have NEVER Played on Their OWN Street

Dear Readers — Here is an extraordinary essay from the Times of London, “We Approach Others’ Children at Our Peril.” It traces how “what began 25 years ago as an understandable desire to raise awareness of child abuse is turning into something extremely distructive — an instinctive suspicion of any encounter between grown-ups and unrelated children.”

This fear has lead not only to parents locking their children indoors — as indicated by the statistic in my headline (from England) — it is also changing the very relationship between children and grown-ups. As notes the article, by Jenni Russell, this generation of children has “been taught from the time they start school that all strangers may be dangerous and all men are threats. So children have become frightened of adults and adults — terrified that any interaction of theirs might be misinterpreted — have become equally frightened of them.”

Men: Has there been a time when you were thinking of helping a child, but held back, for fear you might be mistaken for a lecher, or worse? I’m curious about this.

Meantime, the takeaway point is this: When adults can’t approach a child without first second-guessing the consequences, and children think of all adults as potentially evil, we have a prescription for a stand-off. And that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Kids can’t ask grown-ups for help, grown-ups can’t volunteer it. Who is safer as a result?

No one, of course. All in the name of child safety.  — Lenore