Never Post a Baby Photo on Facebook?

Hi Readers — It’s nice to hear of sanity taking root!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I just had my first child 6 months ago and I never thought I’d even have to worry about Free-Range Kid topics until he was at LEAST 3 years old, but I was wrong.

I posted an adorable picture of my son on my facebook page 2 days ago of him having tummy time on a towel; diaper free.  Lo and behold, this morning in my message box on Facebook I have a concerned ex-co-worker warning me about the dangers of putting naked pictures of my child on the internet and that pedophiles could get ahold of the photo.  I don’t know how I would have responded a few years ago.  Perhaps I would have sheepishly said I was not worried and in the back of my mind wondered if I was right.  Thanks to you and this wonderful community of fearless parents this was my response:

Oh, you can’t see his front bits. I’m not worried. Perverts can make
something sexual out of ANYTHING. Even feet, or eating cake. We lock
our doors at night, try not to drop our baby on his head, and don’t look
for babysitters on Craigslist. Most sexual abuse happens with family
members, friends, and teachers/ religious leaders, etc. So the best
thing we can do for Ari is make sure that growing up he feels comfortable
talking to us and is raised to fearlessly express his boundaries. In
addition, crimes of that nature in this country have actually
gone DOWN in the past 20 years. I respectfully appreciate your concern
but life’s to short to deprive my family members of that cute little
tush. — A Less-Worried Mom

Hey baby! It's nice to see you (here, on the internet).

“Is My Son a Sex-Offender?”

Hi Readers — Last week I was on a radio show where the host wondered how I could endorse the idea of kids playing outside, now that we KNOW we are surrounded by “sexual predators.” I replied that Sex Offender Registry is confusing because some people on it really do (or at least did) prey on children, but many of them don’t or won’t, and we can’t always tell which is which.  I didn’t get a chance to say this, but  a study by the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board — Georgia! Not a state wussy on crime — concluded that five percent of the people on its registry were “clearly dangerous.” It also determined that just over 100 of the 17,000 (1 in 170) were actual “predators” — people who feel compelled to commit sex crimes. (Read this Economist article for more info.) Here the story of one of the other 169:
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I know in some ways this isn’t exactly Free-Range, but last Saturday night my 17-year-old son was interrupted by a Sheriff’s deputy while “parking” with a 15-year-old girl.  I hadn’t heard about her, but apparently they’d been bf/gf for a few weeks.
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After I read about the cases of similar situations that resulted in the teenage boy ending up on the Sex Offender Registry, I immediately looked up the age of consent in my state, Oklahoma, which is 16.  Then I sat down with my son and explained the possible consequences of having sex with an under-age girl.  But I guess it didn’t carry much weight coming from mom.
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Now, I think the deputy handled the situation perfectly (even in a somewhat old school way):  he made both kids call their parents and tell them what they had been doing.   The deputy also gave them a good, strong lecture that with a present-day twist: he included the possibility of sex offender registration.  My son drove, so when the situation was over he was sent home in his vehicle, but the girl’s mother had to come pick her up.
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I have to admit that I was initially amused by it, once my son established that the phone call was pretty much the extent of the deputy’s actions.  He had been doing what teenagers do, and getting interrupted by the officer seemed almost like a scene from a ’60s movie.  I have done my best to prepare him for a safe and healthy sexuality, not only has he had comprehensive sex-ed from myself and our church (Unitarian, so it’s a different approach than many churches) about disease and pregnancy prevention, but I have also talked with him about maturity and emotional consequences for both himself and his partner.  I know from personal experience that teens are going to do what they’re going to do, so my approach has always been about sex being a healthy experience, physically and psychologically.  We’ve had open dialog since he was about 5 or 6 when he asked me, “What is sex?”  My response:  “Sex is a special kind of hugging and kissing that grown-ups do when they really love each other a whole lot.”
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My first question when he got home was “Were you using/about to use/have ready to use a condom?”  He couldn’t have said “YES!!!” faster or more emphatically.  My second question was, “How old is she?” He said, “Two years younger than me,” which didn’t take a lot of math to figure out that there was potential for real trouble involved.  When I started to remind him of our prior talk, he told me about the deputy’s warning and it was obvious just how hard it hit my son then.  (He event commented that he was going to check ID in the future to make sure a girl was at least 16.)  But I still wasn’t concerned because there was every indication that the event was over and done.
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Unfortunately, that may not be the case.
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The young lady told my son that her mother wants to talk to me.  I understand that she’s upset and I said she was welcome to do so and my son sent the girl my number last night, so she could call me.  Her mother is mad — extremely so — and wants my son to be punished.  Harshly.  Possibly legally.  When he told me that, I started to get nervous and at that point sat down with my son and asked him exactly what happended that night — how far did they go?
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Thankfully, due to our existing relationship on the subject, he was able to tell me honestly and clearly.  They were interrupted before they made it to intercourse, but had progressed to oral sex.
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My son also told me that the girl and her mother have a somewhat contentious relationship and that the mother sometimes calls her daughter “slut” and “whore.”  I believe that the mom is really lashing out at my son out of anger, rather than honestly thinking he did something to hurt her daugher.
Now I’m concerned we should contact an attorney just to cover his butt for whatever may come from this.
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Am I overreacting?  We barely get by as it is and have no money for legal fees.  And if I do need to consult an attorney, what kind?  Criminal/defense?  How do I find a good one, especially with my financial situation?  I’m scared for my son who was just being a normal teenager. What should I do? — Scared Mom
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Dear Scared Mom: I’m scared, too, but I have no legal background. I don’t know if it makes sense to get an attorney just in case things escalate, or possibly wait for them to die down. Thus, I am asking the readers for their advice, and I am wishing you and your son every bit of good luck and fairness. — L.

Possible sex offenders?

NEEDED: Tales of Your Youthful Fails! (Or Your Kids’!)

Hi Readers! I’m preparing a new speech — as opposed to my beloved tried and true one — which I’ll be giving it from noon to 2 on Saturday, June 4, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It’ll also be filmed for my show. (Address: The Old First Reform Church, 778 Carroll St. Directions here. If you want to, feel free to RSVP to Jgillespie@cineflix.com, but it’s not required.) Anyway, what I realized I could use are some stories of great childhood failures.

By that I mean, stories from your youth when you goofed something up — and ended up being  glad of that in the long run. I’m also interested in stories like that from your kids’ lives.

These days we are so focused on preventing our children from feeling disappointed, sad, or defeated that we sometimes forget that one way for them to grow that protective coat of self-confidence is BY letting them fail.  It’s the old “fall off the bike and get back on” thing: If you never fall, you never learn that  you can get yourself back on again. In fact, falling — failing — starts to loom larger than ever.

So think back and tell us some tails of your fails. And as failing is looming large to me at the moment (Gotta give a NEW speech! AND it’s being filmed! Gulp!) , thank you very much for your help. — Lenore

They Left Their Kids at the Park and Then…

Hi Readers! Here’s a note I got from one of you right before “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day,” last Saturday, May 21:

Dear Free-Range Kids: We’re doing it as a communal group, with about 9 kids thus far from my various friends. We’re even letting them ride their bikes over instead of driving them. Our plan for the day is to go shoot paintball. (Why should the kids be the only ones to have fun with their counterparts about?)

I think parents need some non-parental time in their lives, which is becoming less and less these days as we become more paranoid about letting kids out of our sights. — Sean in upstate New York

Well Sean’s plan sounded good, so I asked him to let me know how it went. And he did!

Dear Free-Range Kids: The day went great. Since I’m fairly central to everyone, and close to the local park, my place got picked as home base. I woke up early, and knowing I was about to be taking on more than thirty people between kids and grown-ups, I started knocking out breakfast (I’m a cook, it’s what I do), which was made up of pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits.My niece, who just turned five, helped with the eggs and pancakes, and thus needed to change clothes before people arrived.

Everyone converged on the house at about 7:30-8:00 am, and it was on. We went through a few gallons of sweet tea, a gallon of orange juice and several pitchers of Kool-Aid, and my niece kept regaling everyone about how she cooked the eggs and pancakes. After that, we packed up lunches for everyone, and put the eldest, 11, in charge — something she smiled almost evilly about. But we figured there were enough other kids to form a coup if it got too bad. She had a cell phone, the time and place for us to meet up, and was left with $20 emergency/ice cream truck money. Then we waved goodbye to kids as they all mounted their bikes and pedaled off.

The other twenty of us loaded up into cars and vans next, and drove on up to Scaticoke for a day of paintball, and because we had so many people, we got a group rate. We spent all day running back and forth through woods and hills shooting paint at each other, laughing, joking, and okay, a pretty good rash of swearing at times too, but everyone was having a blast. We did get a call while we were breaking for lunch because the 11-year-old didn’t know if she was allowed to use the pavilion for lunch eating. We assured her it was  fine. Then we ran around like idiots for another few hours after eating, and, thoroughly bedecked with paint, realized we were supposed to have left a half hour earlier.

When we arrived, there was Jenna with the rest of gang, tapping her foot like a parent watching her kid slip in after curfew. So we called for everyone to count off (a system we worked out so each kid has their own number, so we know immediately if someone is missing). The count went to nine, and then we hit a minor skid: it then went to ten and eleven. This ended up having an explanation.

The kids had arrived at the park with lunches as well as gear for some games such as Wiffle ball, kickball, ultimate frisbee, and soccer. Well, apparently, while they were playing monster ball (a mash up of kickball and wiffle ball), a couple neighborhood kids decided to join in, and Jenna had given them each a number immediately. The kids hung out all day, and this is where we found out something interesting: They’d all eaten their lunches together as well, even though the other two hadn’t brought any. Jenna and a few others had split part of theirs so everybody got something to eat, and the same went with the ice cream truck money. No one had to tell them, or force anyone to include them, and they hadn’t just been left out. The kids took care of each other without question, or prodding.

Well, we got phone numbers for the newcomers so they could set up some playtime again another time. From there, we rounded up our guys, and went off to  CiCi’s, an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, for dinner. The only problem left was that pretty much all of the kids (and a few of the adults) fell asleep in the car on the way back. Otherwise, went off without a hitch. We’re probably going to set up another day like that somewhere in the future when we have time and money for it again. It was just too much fun to only do once. — Sean

The date on the photo of THIS park day is June 23, 2011 -- a hundred years ago!

Please Post This Everywhere: “Steady Decline in Crime”

Dear Readers: Here is an article from the New York Times that says what I keep trying to say: Crime is down. Not up. Not even sideways. Down.

How far down? Major crime — murder, rape, robbery, assault —  is at “the lowest rate in nearly 40 years,” sez the paper of record. In fact, America is enjoying a crime plunge so striking, the experts can’t even figure out WHY it is happening. But it is.

So when folks say that they’d really LIKE to let their kids play on the lawn, or bounce a ball on the driveway, or stick a toe out the front door, but they can’t because we are living in hell on earth, engulfed by danger, and ANYTHING could happen and good Lord, isn’t our job to keep our kids SAFE, especially in TIMES LIKE THESE…please show them this article.

Please. — L.

P.S. And please also remember that this drop in crime cannot be attributed to parental hovering, since we are NOT hovering over adults and yet crime against THEM is down, too. No one is obsessively watching over grown-ups on play dates, or when they’re walking home from work, and yet they are getting murdered and raped and robbed LESS, too.

Is a Child “Unaccompanied” if the Parent Is Close By?

Hi Readers! Here’s a recent letter that makes me hot under the collar (but not hot enough to turn on the A.C.). — L. (who can’t figure out how to get rid of this LINE!!)


Dear Free-Range Kids: Well, I did it again: I sent my 4.5-year-old inside the library to walk the 20 feet to the elevator and make it to the children’s floor without me… and, like the last few times, I was twenty seconds behind him.  But this time I was accosted by the librarian at the check out desk: “Was that YOUR little boy?! He MUST be ACCOMPANIED!”
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I replied as calmly as I could, “Thank you for your concern, but it builds his confidence to navigate a bit by himself.” She looked angry and then pounded the desk with both hands (I’m not kidding!) while announcing, “Under 13 must be ACCOMPANIED. It is POLICY.”
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Now, I didn’t drop him off and go to the grocery store, I simply let him out, parked the car in a very close parking spot, and walked directly inside. It’s also not like she’s never seen us before, we’ve been at that library several times a month since my son could look at the books without chewing them.
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Then, I got upstairs and found my son had been detained by a police officer and told to sit and wait for me! Again, not kidding.
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Now, these are my questions for you and for the readers: First, while I understand that it is policy that under 13 be accompanied, was my son really unaccompanied? Does being twenty to thirty seconds behind him count?! Second, what do I do with that pit-of-the-stomach feeling that I had been caught doing something naughty and was going to the principal’s office? I know intellectually that teaching my son to navigate in simple situations (like a familiar library) is a good thing, but it took me several hours to get over that feeling. Also, my son was clearly confused by the situation and thought I had instructed him to do something wrong. How do I handle THAT?
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I need some clarity as this is the first time I’ve had my Free-Range Parenting challenged. — L.A.
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Dear Rattled Mom: My sympathies and suggestions. As for the policy at the library, see if you can talk to the head librarian. Tell him or her that you find this rule a little anti-literacy (at least I do), in that it discourages all children under 13 from coming to the library on their own. Ask: Were there problems with some disruptive kids? If so, suggest the library’s rules be changed to address that — “Anyone disruptive will be asked to leave” — rather than forbidding anyone under puberty from using the library solo.
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Also ask to talk about the idea of accompaniment: Does the adult have to be physically attached to the child for it to count as “accompanying”? If not, then how about some sensible leeway?
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As for the pit-of the-stomach feelings, all I can say is: I get those, too. I’m not sure they’re avoidable, but if you CAN possibly engage the police officer in a chat about his own youth, you MAY be able to get him to remember that no one’s mom was expected to be as hovering as today. And once he’s all jolly about his reminiscences, tell him that’s just the kind of childhood you want to give your kid, too. The kind his mom gave HIM. Leave him to chew on that (not a book).
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And remember: You ARE a good girl and did nothing wrong. It’s just our crazy, terrified, anti-community, eager-to-blame culture you’re up against. That’s all. — L

Past puberty? Then YOU can enjoy the library without your mom. 

I Walk By Kids, They Run Away (Because I am a “Stranger”)

Hi Readers!  Here’s a note from a doctor, Par Donahue. He’s author of the book and blog, Messengers in Denim, all about the things we can learn from teens (and life). Here’s one lesson he got from kids that he did not like. (Nor I.) — L 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am a retired pediatrician who walks my dog twice daily in our neighborhood and enjoys talking to kids — after all, that’s what I did for almost 40 years. But, now I feel like bogeyman.

When kids are outside, they see me coming and run into the house. If they are waiting for the bus, they stare at the ground or cross the street when I approach. If I say good morning, or, “Have a nice day,” they either do not respond or they grunt without looking up!

Some years ago my wife and I moved into a new neighborhood where a family with two small kids lived next to us. They were usually in the fenced back yard when we came home from work and would always run into the house as we walked from our garage to the house. After 6-8 months of this the younger boy, 4 or 5 years old, stayed out and actually said, “Hi.”  His older brother, 6 or 7, quickly grabbed his arm and said, “Don’t talk to them, they might be kid-nappers.”

What a terrifying life parents make for their kids when they teach them to be this afraid. With very rare exceptions, kidnapping is done by estranged parents or other relatives. We, of course, hear  about the half dozen kids in the USA who are kidnapped each year by strangers. Fear, as Michael Crichton said in “State fo Fear” controls! So sad! — Par Donahue

Lenore here again: Par’s note reminds me of a great essay someone sent me the other day that I have to go dig up. It’s about a parent deciding NOT to teach the kids that strangers are “bad.”  There IS an alternative to automatic distrust and fear!