To See Where Childhood Is Headed, Look at Halloween

Hi Readers! You’ve seen some of the facts here before — like the fact no child has EVER been poisoned by a stranger’s candy, as far as university research can tell — but if you need a little Halloween pep talk, here it is, on Huffington Post.

My main point? If you want to see where childhood is headed, look at Halloween. It’s going from a joyful, neighborhood, kid-centric day (or night!) to a parent-planned, neighbor-distrusting, often indoors and/or daytime “event,” slathered in suspicion and Purell. Why?

The “sake of the children,” of course.  And to think I used to feel bad stealing my kids’ Kit-Kats. It’s worse to steal their holiday. — Lenore

Halloween: Too Scary for Kids?

Hi Readers — and BOO!

Oh my God! Sorry! I hope your kids weren’t reading over your shoulder! I didn’t mean to scare the little dears — it could traumatize them for life! Imagine the psychiatric bills — or years in the insane asylum!

That’s the way we’re supposed to think of kids now: Too delicate for ANYTHING, including, apparently, being even slightly spooked by a holiday hitherto dedicated to  spookiness. As this New York Times article documents, schools and community centers across the country are asking that kids not wear any disturbing, scary or politically incorrect costumes.

I guess that means no ghosts, gobblins, witches, ghouls, vampires or — scariest of all — Halloween festivity organizers.

Hope yours is a happy holiday despite all this. — Lenore (who’s allowing her children to eat unwrapped candy. For real. Boo!)

The Dame in Spain

Hola Readers — I’m just back from Spain, which seems a little more Free-Range than America. (And Canada. And especially England!) One Madrid playground my son Izzy and I visited actually had a see-saw, something you rarely see (saw) in America anymore, thanks to the fear of bump-induced lawsuits. Izzy declared it the most fun piece of playground equipment ever, after merry-go-rounds. (Another childhood standard on its  way out,  for the same reason.)

The two of us were speaking at a conference sponsored by Audi on the topic, “The Streets Also Belong to Me!” — “Me!” being children. The chief of traffic for all Spain was there, and his country really has made a concerted, successful effort to cut down on pedestrian deaths, mostly by seriously  enforcing the speed limits. The whole idea of concentrating on the real threat to children walking to school — traffic — rather than the perceived threat to children (kidnappers), was incredibly refreshing.

I was embarrassed for my own country, though, when after my talk, the head of marketing for Audi in Spain came up to me and said he’d been to California last summer and didn’t understand us. “Here,” he said, “my wife and I, we always smile at the children. We wave, make them laugh, pat their heads. In America, when we did that, the parents would stare at us.” And he demonstrated the stare.

It was icy.

I hope that as the years go by, we drift more towards the Spanish model of dealing with kids, rather than Spain drifting more toward us. I like the idea of strangers making my kids laugh, and I’m sorry that some of us Americans made these Spanish visitors cry. Or at least wonder why we are all so grumpy and suspicious.

That’s my report from Spain except I must add that everyone dressed really well, and I sure loved all the sidewalk cafes. And why doesn’t America have Fanta Lemon — a really lemony soda — instead of just Sprite?

Adios for now!– Senora Leonora

No Parents on the Playground! (They Might Be Predators)

Hi Readers — Take a Valium  THEN read this: Two “adventure” playgrounds in England  have BANNED PARENTS. After all, parents are adults and so are sexual predators,  so from now on, in the land of the Magna Carta, only playground workers who have passed a background check will be allowed in. Why?

Councillors in Watford claim they are only following Government guidelines and cannot allow adults to walk around playgrounds “unchecked”.

You know, I never thought of myself as walking around “unchecked” before. Anyway, more bureaucracy:

“Due to … regulations we have a responsibility to ensure that every authorised adult who enters our site is properly vetted and given a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check by Watford Borough Council.”

Council Mayor Dorothy Thornhill argued they are merely enforcing government policy at the play areas, in Vicarage Road and Leggatts Way .

She said: “Sadly, in today’s climate, you can’t have adults walking around unchecked in a children’s playground and the adventure playground is not a meeting place for adults.

“We have reviewed our procedures, so although previously some parents have stayed with their children at the discretion of our play workers, this is not something we can continue to do.

“There are other places in the town for parents with small children to go.”

Yeah, like “to hell.” — Lenore

Homework is a Free-Range Topic

I just finished reading what could be considered a perfect companion book to the Free-Range Kid movement, The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. Lenore has blogged about this before, and Sara’s terrific website stophomework is on Lenore’s blog roll. In a nutshell: Bennett and Kalish state that there is little or no correlation between homework given in elementary and middle school and increased scholastic achievement. And health professionals state very clearly that children should be outside PLAYING and not spending time indoors doing schoolwork. As a matter of fact, some of the actual homework “incidents” mentioned in the book would make your hair curl—four hours or more of homework each night for example. The authors clearly present the issue, discuss facts, and advise parents about how to bring sanity back into their children’s lives. If you do have a too-much-homework issue, this book will be your champion and your guide.

What struck me most about the real-life stories, though, was how many moms and dads are allowing hours and hours of homework eat up their children’s childhood—as if it just isn’t under their control. As a society it seems that we have forgotten how to be parents; we are letting “systems”—be it after-school sports, media, toy companies, or schools—parent for us. So next time your child sighs and lugs his/her backpack to the “well-lit, quiet homework space”, say, “Forget about it! Go outside! I’ll write you a note!”

This is my last post; Lenore will be back starting tomorrow. Thanks so much for listening to a slightly different perspective on the very important Free-Range Kid movement! –The Deputy

A Baby Einstein or Your Money Back

Hi Readers — Hope you saw this piece in The Times:  Disney is offering refunds to any parents who bought its Baby Einstein videos and found, to their shock, that watching shapes, songs, kids and colors on TV did not turn their babies  into instant geniuses the way a name like “Einstein”  might suggest.

This mea culpa  is a huge victory for the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, which got the Einstein folks to drop the word “educational” from their marketing materials a few years ago. This new refund is an even bigger deal, because now the company has to put its money where its Mouse is. (Sorry. It’s not even quite a pun, but who could resist?)  Anyway, Baby Einstein sells $200 million worth of products a year.  About a third of all American tots own one of its DVDs.  Giving their parents refunds  represents a lot of money, and a lot of embarrassment. What made Disney budge? According to the Times:

Last year, lawyers threatened a class-action lawsuit for unfair and deceptive practices unless Disney agreed to refund the full purchase price to all who bought the videos since 2004. “The Walt Disney Company’s entire Baby Einstein marketing regime is based on express and implied claims that their videos are educational and beneficial for early childhood development,” a letter from the lawyers said, calling those claims “false because research shows that television viewing is potentially harmful for very young children.”

I don’t think watching a little TV is going to turn any kid into a Dudley Dursley. But to think that watching TV is the key to kiddie education, rather than, say, letting the kid dig in dirt, or splash in the tub, or bang on a pot — whew. That’s just plain Goofy. — Lenore

School Spirit

Hi! The Deputy here!

My dad recently told me about a friend of his–this would be the 1940’s–whose mother told him to pick five schools he might want to attend. He chose the five, she told him to give the schools a ring to let them know he was coming for a visit, gave him train tickets and some spending money, and sent him on his way. Alone. He was…13. These were boarding schools we’re talking about!

Let’s contrast this with some stories I have heard about today’s COLLEGE students. These are very reliable accounts, not urban myths, and so Believe It Or Not: 1. A college student was late to class because his mother forgot to give him his wake-up call. 2. A mom successfully petitioned her child’s university to let her move into the dorm so she could keep an eye on her unhappy offspring. 3. Before Parent’s Weekend, one college made the students clean their dorm rooms and someone came around with a checklist to make sure everything was in tip-top shape. Sounds like summer camp, doesn’t it? A darned expensive one, I’d say.

When, exactly, do parents decide that their children are no longer children? In the 1940’s, for some folks, it was at age 13. In 2009 it seems to be 21 and climbing. What is going to happen if no one gets to grow up? Who’s going to run the show?

Reality Check

Good afternoon! The Deputy here; lucky Lenore is still in Spain!

In the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times today, the headline reads, “Guardians of Their Smiles: It’s fun to post pictures online of baby’s first bath, but some parents wonder if it’s safe.” As the article points out, much of this fuss can be chalked up to “technopanic”, not reality. The article quotes David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “’There is this characterization of pedophiles using the Internet as an L. L. Bean catalog, but this is not the way it happens.’” In fact it’s much more mundane than you would think; they simply log onto chat rooms and websites where confused teens think they would like something different than your typical goofy high school student. Sad, but true. (Please note that Lenore addresses this very topic in her book on pages 161-164.)

So if the issue of whether or not to post pictures of your children on the Internet isn’t REALLY about predators, what is it about then? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Free-Range Kids is a many-layered concept that includes…feminism. Or lack there of. What this article shows is that for some reason women are not there for each other. It’s like Salem, MA all over again (I know, not quite.). But bear with me…Replace “She shouldn’t have let her walk to school” with “She shouldn’t keep black cats as PETS, for God’s sake.” And replace, “She shouldn’t have posted pictures of her child’s pool party on Facebook” with “Well, what do you expect when someone knows so, so much about herbs?”

Let’s face it; parenting is a real job, a hard job, and an important job. We are all just doing the best we can.

Speaking of Playgrounds

Speaking of playgrounds, I was perusing mental_floss and they have a list of Ten Unusual Playgrounds from around the World. Wow! Fun! Here is the kind of playground I remember from my youth. ede32088117d5945_large(No,no…that’s not me!) Not terribly unusual I guess, but still fun, right?

While searching for just the right jungle gym image on the internet, I found out that The Playground is a rather hot topic. There are books such as American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space by Susan G. Solomon. There are blogs devoted to playgrounds. There are blogs that discuss playgrounds. And there is even a classic urban planning video preserved for all time on YouTube (thank you “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” by William Whyte is fascinating (despite his reference to “girl watchers”), particularly the footage of children playing in the street as well as his perspective on playgrounds. He proudly presents an Adventure Playground in New York City that he describes as a very good one with “lots of dirt and mud and water that kids love so much”. It’s also filled with lots and lots of construction debris. I’m not sure that this playground would fly for those parents referenced in the previous post. Because, gosh, a big kid might use the hammer on a little kid instead of…the orange crate it was intended for!

PS I showed the video to my 10 year old daughter and asked if she would like to play on that kind of playground. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Sure!”

And you thought the playground was a happy place…

Hi all! The Deputy here…I have the distinct honor of being Lenore’s guest blogger for several days because Lenore will be jetting off to Spain to promote the Free-Range Kid movement! Hopefully she’ll be sending in a few posts in between talk shows and tapas. ☺ I have been reading this blog for quite a while and am a big fan of Lenore’s message. I am also impressed with the thoughtful, compassionate, and often wonderfully funny responses from all of you. I’m rather new to the blogging world and your feedback during the next several days would be very much appreciated. Here goes:

Lenore’s trip to Spain has got me thinking. In fact it is all becoming clear to me now and I have finally figured out what has gone wrong with parenting today. I do believe it all started at the beginning of the 1980’s. When I was 20 I flew to Europe by myself (no email, no cell-phone, no atm card, no big deal). The trip was uneventful until the youngster behind me started banging the back of my seat with her feet. I turned around, peered between the backrests, and gently said, “Would you stop hitting my seat, please?” She gave me a sweet smile—a real one—and replied, “Ok!” And then before I could even take down my tray table, her father loomed over the back of my seat and the top of my head, and said, practically spitting because he was so angry, “Don’t…you…tell…my…daughter…what…to…do. I will decide if she is doing something wrong. She is MY daughter!” Weird! Scary! Creepy! However, because cute boys on Vespas and gelato on every corner awaited me I managed to forget all about it. Until now, that is. The reason that we even need a Free-Range Kids movement—that the idea of a free-range kid has to be reinvented–is because parents today see children as THEIRS. Their possessions, their projects, their private accomplishment. It’s all about “my” child which really means it’s all about “me”. The following incident, sent in to Lenore by a reader in Ontario, Canada, illustrates this perfectly. It’s a weird, scary, and creepy story about shockingly self-centered parents. After you finish reading, please post a comment so that she doesn’t feel alone…like she’s the only sane one on the plane having to deal with a psycho dad—or psycho playground moms.

From Sara in Ontario: Here is the skinny. There had been issues with older and younger kids having conflicts on the playground. When, say, the grade four kids and the grade one kids were trying to play a game of basketball or soccer together, there were multiple occasions each recess where the kids would be running to the teachers with complaints of the older kids being bossy and the younger kids following the older kids around even when the game had stopped. Understandably, the teachers on duty thought it needed to be addressed and a guideline was made that if kids were more than a grade apart, they were not to play together. This was only a guideline and only to be used as a tool for the teachers to be able to say to the kids that were complaining that they need to stop playing together because of this rule. The principal is very reluctant to designate certain areas of the yard to only certain grades. She likes that kids can intermingle, but wants a definite line that teachers can tell kids they’ve crossed if needed.

This, to me, is a symptom of the overprotective parenting so prevalent today. Had these kids (the younger and older ones) been left to defend themselves and think up solutions outside of the school, they would not have turned to the teachers so frequently to solve their problems. These are kids who are incapable of compromise because all of the compromising has been done for them. I can’t blame the teachers for becoming exasperated with it all.

Had the issue ended there, I would be ending this email on a more positive note. However, there is a group of parents who support this and want it enforced on the most strict way possible by designating an area of the yard for each grade. I had the opportunity to talk to one of these parents and her attitude scared me. She was adamant that the only reason a twelve year old would ever associate with a seven year old would be to prey on him. After I got over the shock and was able to talk again I told her about three real life occurrences at that very school: 1 – siblings have been playing together for years without incident; 2 – a grade seven soccer guru student has been giving “lessons” to his grade four brother and his brother’s friend; 3 – when my oldest was in grade two, she and her friends had a group of grade eight students help them make snowmen. This is what this group of parents are willing to sacrifice. The fact that they are perfectly willing to turn innocent TWELVE YEAR OLDS into potential predators is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever encountered.

For me, the issue is over. I am not against the guideline for the teachers to use as needed. A note is going home to parents to explain exactly what the guideline is and how and when it will be used. I have a feeling that the issue is not over for the principal and the psycho group of parents. I will keep on top of it for sure. I have joined the Home and School Committee for the first time this year and hope to keep brining sanity to the insanity that can happen. I am happy to inform you, though, that we are planning not only a bake sale but a cake raffle. Long live the cupcake! And long live free play!