SATURDAY! Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day!

Hi Readers! Here’s a piece I wrote for my syndicated column:

Coming up this Saturday is holiday you didn’t celebrate as a child, because you didn’t have to. You just got up, ate breakfast and sped off to the park. No big deal.

Except it is now. Around the country, the parks are empty. Or, if there are kids around, they’re tiny tots on the jungle gym with parents poised tensely below, arms open, ready for the worst. The older kids are at home on their computers, or off at travel soccer, or studying with a tutor. Or they’re simply told, “It’s too dangerous out there,” – “there” being any place beyond the doormat. That’s why I declared the Saturday before Memorial Day, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.”

Last year, when I started this holiday, it got the kind of treatment I have come to expect from the fear-is-dear media: It was ridiculed on about six or seven TV shows, with the reporters interviewing terrified parents in the park and coming back to tell the anchor, “Nobody thinks this is a safe idea.”

Of course not! How could they, when the “news” makes it sound like we are living in Armageddon? (Which, come to think of it, is also slated for Saturday.) Where do you think folks get the idea that the very same parks they played in as kids are now cesspools of danger and depravity? One network even interviewed a lawyer who hinted that any parent allowing a kid to go to the park could be charged with child endangerment, which is patently untrue, unless the child is extremely young and helpless. I suggest that kids be at least seven or eight years old – the age kids walk to school in the rest of the world — before being allowed to play for maybe half an hour on their own, at the local playground. Is that so nuts?

A lot of people think it is. But the idea that stranger danger is rampant is unfounded. Crime is DOWN since the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when today’s parents were kids playing in the park. The societal ills actually trending up have to do with NOT playing outside: Childhood obesity, childhood depression, childhood diabetes. We forget that when we try to keep our kids “absolutely” safe, cooped up inside, there’s a tradeoff.

What happens when we give them a bit of the freedom we had?  Well, some bumps and bruises, of course, but some key developmental milestones, too.

When kids are – this is a weird word – “forced” to play on their own, they actually develop some rather amazing skills. The first is creativity: they have to create something to do, without pressing a button. Second comes communication: They have to explain the game to their friends. Then comes compromise – if the friends want to play something else – and diplomacy: making the teams equal. Giving the younger kid an easier pitch requires empathy, and granting that the ball was “out” requires grace. Those are all skills that kids will need later on in life, and even not so later on: The ability to wait one’s turn on the ball field develops the ability to wait one’s turn in class.

So “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” is not an exercise in neglect. It’s the opposite: it’s nurturing independence, which just happens to be the end-goal of parenting.

If you want to participate, I’m suggesting that you bring your kids to your local park at about 10 in the morning, so that everyone in the neighborhood can meet each other. With any luck, suddenly the park will be alive, once again, with child development.

Er…you know, kids. Having fun.

Bring life back to the park!

“I Was Kidnapped as a Kid, and Lenore Is Wrong.”

Hi Readers! The other day I had a piece in the Wall Street Journal that said moms don’t have be “sherpas,” or hover 24/7. Today the paper published its letters to the editor about it (and me). Here they are. One was from a woman who was kidnapped at age 4 by a stranger, and found 24 hours later. She is an adult today and says her mother spent the rest of her life feeling guilty.

I feel terrible for everyone involved. I also feel a little bad that the letter writer thinks she has to explain that “child abduction takes a huge toll on the entire family.” Contrary to popular belief, Free-Range Kids never thought otherwise. We here are no fans of child kidnapping.

Nor are we fans of actual negligence.  Even Free-Rangers know that 4-year-olds are not ready to take on the world by themselves. We’d never recommend that.

From the letter, however, we don’t know anything about the circumstances of this story: whether the mom was heedless to the point of negligence or simply blaming herself for an unforseeable bolt from the fates.

I can understand why the writer would feel that people can never EVER take their eyes off their kids. But as Laura  Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours, writes in this gem of an essay about that letter  (and another letter from a woman who said that because one 3-year-old was killed the year her own daughter was three, she never let her own child out of her sight again):

…this is the “rare exception” line of reasoning, in which any anecdote which counters a broad based trend or statistic must be evidence that the data are wrong or should be ignored. But while Kathleen Newton of Lindon, Utah writes that “there are too many vicious people out there who seek to do children harm” and this is “why unsupervised play does not exist anymore,” this ignores the reality that the world has changed, but not in the way she’s pointing. Crime rates are lower now than they were a few decades ago. And regardless, in a world of 7 billion people, you can find anecdotes of anything. The fact that an animal could escape from a zoo exhibit doesn’t mean that bringing your kids to the zoo indicates lax parenting.

If you were mauled by an escaped mountain lion, of course, you’d think otherwise. I wouldn’t blame you. But Laura’s point is both true and hard to absorb in light of the fact that sometimes real tragedy does strike kids, out of the blue.

It is terrible. It is shocking. It is very hard to argue with someone who came face to face with something so unspeakable.

And yet, if we do NOT speak up, these terrible stories are the only ones we will hear. They will scare us to the core, and have us believe that our children are never safe. As the letter writer says, in closing, “Certainly those parents whose children were taken from their homes while they slept can attest, parenting is a full-time job with no coffee breaks.”

By this line of reasoning, parents should feel guilty for even sleeping. Why weren’t they awake, standing guard in their children’s room all night? No parenting is good enough or safe enough when we think this way. And, of course, that is the way we are encouraged to think. — Lenore

Two Stories You Won’t Hear on the News

Hi Readers! Here you go! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in a small town (less than 300 residents) in Southwest Pennsylvania,  and regardless of the image the local-ish news channels portray, it is VERY safe. I grew up in the house I am living in, my  parents live next door.

The other day I was working in the yard, repainting some furniture. I heard my 2-year-old come out  then turn around and bang on the door she just exited. My mom came to the door and asked Gwen if she wanted to come in. I didn’t hear anything else, and when I looked up a few minutes later and didn’t see my daughter, I assumed she had gone in with my mom. A couple minutes later, I went in to clean up. When I didn’t see my daughter, I asked where she was. Mom said she thought Gwen was outside with me. This started a search of the yard (large, nearly 3/4 acre, all fenced in), something that happens a couple times on most days. When we determined Gwen wasn’t there, we started walking up the street. Mom found her standing in front of a neighbor’s house three homes away, looking for the back-hoe she’d seen the day before. The neighbor who lived there was just walking over to Gwen to bring her down and see if she was ours. My next door neighbor, who was leaving for work, was also just coming out to see whose child it was.

Total result? A minute of semi-panic when we realized my two-year-old wasn’t in the yard. A five-minute conversation with a normally anti-social neighbor about her grown daughter at the toddler stage. And when my father came home, he moved the gate latch to the outside of the fence so Gwen can’t open it again. Nobody called the police or child protective services, no injuries occurred, and Gwen wasn’t even fazed  — though she WAS disappointed that the big machines were gone.

This is a big deal to me because Pittsburgh news (our closest “local” news) runs nearly weekly reports of parents going to court-mandated parenting classes or even losing their children because of similar occurrences where toddlers get out and wander unsupervised. In all of these occasions, when neighbors find random children, they don’t look for a parent, they seem to START by calling the police.

Then, today we went to our nearest park to play on the big swings. The park is right against the Youghigheny River, so there are a lot of water fowl. Gwen played until she realized the ducks were there! She wanted to go look. While there, she had a lovely conversation about the ducks with an older gentleman (75 or 80 years, probably), who was sitting on a bench watching the ducks, too. I actually walked back to the car (about 20 yards away) to get her drink while she sat and watched with him. She probably sat still for longer than anywhere else today. He was polite, patient, and seemed to find her constant observations about the ducks adorable.

Thankfully, the local city has not succumbed to the temptation to bar adults from enjoying the same areas as children, because both my daughter and the gentleman had a wonderful time.

Moral of the story: There are some areas of the country that haven’t completely succumbed to insanity, and I am SO happy to live in one of them, since we have been Free-Range with Gwen since she first became mobile. — A Happy Pennsylvania Mom

WTD? What happens when a toddler watches ducks with someone other than her parent?

Marilyn Denis/Toronto Talk/Casting Call!

Hi Readers! I’m in Toronto today to do the Marilyn Denis Show this morning and a free talk tonight. It’s at the Beverly Acre Public School in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, 7 – 9 p.m.  Maybe see you there? Hope so!

And if you are interested in being on my reality show, please drop a note to Sylvia Lee: slee@cineflix.com, or call her at 1-416-504-7317 ext. 618.We’re looking for families in/near Toronto or New York City who are overprotective but ready (or almost ready) to loosen the reins a bit, with  a visit from yours truly. — L

You Mean 18-y.o.s with 16 y.o. Girlfriends AREN’T Sex Offenders?

Hey Readers! Once in a while, common sense actually wins a biggie. That’s what’s  happening right now in Texas, where the governor seems set to sign a “Romeo & Juliet” bill that would prevent teens and young adults who have consensual sex from ending up as official “Sex Offenders,” required to register for life.

Yes, that’s really how the law stood — until now. According to the Star-Telegram:

Under current law, according to a legislative analysis of the bill, there is no such thing as consensual sex with a minor in Texas. Currently, a man who is 18, 19 or 20 in a consensual sexual relationship with a girl under 17 could be convicted of sexual assault of a minor and would be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

That is beyond crazy. That is LIFE ruining — and for what? Who does it help? No one. Who does it hurt? The very people it is supposed to protect: young people.

Thank god the legislature had the gumption to re-introduce the Romeo & Juliet bill, which the Governor, Rick Perry, vetoed in 2009. Let’s give a big hand to its sponsors: Texas State Rep. Todd Smith and Texas Sen. Royce West (one Democrat and one Republican — this is NOT a partisan issue)!

While we are at it, let’s also hear it for Mary Duval, a dogged (and, by the way, blind) activist who has been working for YEARS trying to make our country’s sex offender laws do what they were intended to do — keep creeps away from kids — rather than rounding up anyone who ever had sex at a young age. She’s founder of the extremely moving site, Ricky’s Life,. It was through Mary that I first about how the sex offender laws were catching more than just “the bad guys.” Like a net that catches dolphins along with tuna, they were catching some people who did nothing more than have sex with someone slightly younger, along with hapless humans who peed in public or even streaked.

When the law prosecutes threats and non-threats with equal zeal, something is very wrong. Today, a little bit got righted. — L

A Note from the “No Boys Can Help with Toddlers/No Men Can Change Diapers” Pastor

Hi Readers: Here you go! The dot-dot-dots are his, not mine. – L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am the Pastor of the church with the policy that is quoted in this blog post. [The one below this one.]  And I found you through the significant traffic to the church website through this blog.

A group that claims to appreciate helmets for their children, but sees no need to run background checks or have a Safe Haven policy is not facing reality.  I am not a fear-monger.  My children DO ride to the store on their own.  But statistics show that child abusers go to places with least resistance and are more likely to be someone with whom the child is well acquainted.  I will NOT allow my church to be a Safe Haven for sex offenders and just as in anything . . . safety and convenience are always a trade-off.  I hope you can understand how your blog came across as condescending and  offensive to someone who is doing the best they can to protect children from potential abuse as well as volunteer workers from false accusations.  The diaper and teenage thing was a stretch for me personally, but at the recommendation of my insurance company and the thought of potentially stopping abuse, I saw it as a worthwhile compromise.  Unfortunately, we have a group of 6 ladies that meet regularly in a recovery group for abuse.  I don’t know what you do for a living, but as a blogger you get to say whatever you want and have strong opinions.  As a Pastor I get to work both sides of the equation trying to protect the kids . . . while trying to provide hope and healing to those whose lives have been shredded by abuse . . . by the way,  I am not a sexist . . . but I used to play one on TV . . .

My Response:

Hi Don! Thank you for writing. I do appreciate that you are trying to keep the kids at your church safe. What worries me is that your policies go too far, without making the kids any safer. In doing so, they spread the “Worst First” thinking that is festering in our society: The idea that we should automatically think the Worst possible scenario First, no matter how unlikely, and proceed as if it’s fact. (Which is what insurance companies do.)

Thus your No Men Changing Diapers rule seems to proceed from the idea that because there are some creeps who get turned on by diaper changes — a small group, to be sure — now NO man should ever help change ANY child in church. That is overkill. It’s treating ALL men as monsters, which is terrible for the men as well as for any boys who want to grow up to be upstanding adults but now see they will never be trusted.

The same thing happens when we treat all teen boys as jerks, or worse. Older kids of both sexes have been taking care of their younger siblings since the dawn of time. It is only at this particularly terrified moment in time that we see all adolescent males as potential pervs at worst, incompetent lugs at best.

How is preventing males from changing diapers and teen boys from helping toddlers serving the best interests of anyone, including the kids, who now may have no nursery or Sunday school, due to a lack of volunteers? And similarly, how is treating two family members as if they are a cabal of kiddie molesters bettering the world?

I hate child abuse. I hate any abuse. But it seems as if a simple “two people in the room” rule would serve you very well, without these other, excessive, demeaning caveats — or so sez me. In the meantime, here are a few responses I very much endorse that came from readers when you wrote your comment in the post below. (And here the dot-dot-dots ARE mine):

  1. pentamom, on May 13, 2011 at 01:47 said: Dear Don: … Insurance companies don’t design policies to balance wisdom and risk; they design them to eliminate risk entirely, as far as possible. Churches have more concerns than that. It is good to wisely incorporate policies that protect kids; it is not good to forget that not a single decision or recommendation of an insurance company is done out of love for people or what is actually best for them overall — children included.

    Library Diva, on May 13, 2011 at 01:47 said: Don, don’t you resent that your insurance company has badgered you into policies that you don’t really support? ….  As a man, doesn’t it bother you that society seems to consider your entire gender a threat to children

    Abuse does terrible things to people’s lives, and it’s good that there’s been more awareness of it. But it seems unbalanced in the extreme, where we now treat ANYONE who has an interest in spending time with children as some sort of sick pedo. Fighting back against this “worst-first” thinking is part of what the blog’s about, so that someday insurance companies won’t be so concerned by the possibilty of false accusation lawsuits that they destroy community in the manner that’s happened to you.

  2. Uly, on May 13, 2011 at 02:18 said: Don wrote: “The diaper and teenage thing was a stretch for me personally, but at the recommendation of my insurance company and the thought of potentially stopping abuse, I saw it as a worthwhile compromise.”

    WHY is it a worthwhile compromise to do something that makes no logical sense, unfairly maligns a portion of the population (preventing them from learning useful parenting skills), and alienates members of your own church? WHO is being protected by this?

    Okay, it’s Lenore here again: I do thank you for writing in, Don. It is always good to get a dialog going. And I’m glad your kids go to the store! — L

Oh Those Nefarious Retirees, Trying to “Help” the Church Nursery

Hi Readers: Here’s a letter from the front lines of (excessive) child saftey, and how it is changing society.  — Lenore 

Dear Free-Range Kids: With your recent posts about risk adversity, I wanted to tell you about a horrendous trend that is starting to appear in churches: husbands and wives are no longer allowed to work together in children’s ministry.

One would think that a husband/wife team would be exactly what a church would want in helping to nourish youth.  But it seems that insurance companies and risk-adversity have gotten the better of people’s common sense.  Basically, the idea is that since spouses can’t testify against each other, we need someone else in the room.

This happened to a church I used to go to.  It was medium-sized — small enough that we were fairly short on nursery and children’s volunteer staff.  In one of the nurseries, a retired couple had been watching the children for a long time, and everyone was happy with them, and they enjoyed the chance to be together with children.  But under the new policy, they couldn’t be together unless there was a *third* person to watch them.  So, they were told they couldn’t watch the nursery together anymore.  And so they just stopped working there.

Here’s a link to a “Safe Haven” policy that is not from the church I mention, but is an example of the anti-family, pro-paranoia policies that are creeping in everywhere. Here’s the really bad part of the policy:

All workers in nursery through three years old shall not be from the same family.

Teenage boys will not be permitted to work in the nursery or toddler areas.

Only adult women shall change diapers and help toddlers in the restroom. When taking children to the restroom, the door shall be partially open.

Thought you might be interested. — Jon

Jon, I am. I am interested to know that teenage boys are, as a group, not allowed to work with young kids. I guess thousands of years of older siblings looking after younger siblings matters not when “Worst First” thinking creeps in. The “worst” being: He’s male, he’s young, why would he want to have anything to do with a child unless, of course, he’s a pervert? Get him away!

Then there’s the idea of only women changing diapers. Sometimes it feels like the easiest way to roll back feminism is to insist, “We DO believe in equality. But think of the children!”

As for the elderly couple leaving the church where they are no longer trusted and cherished, I don’t blame them. But it’s funny that when we “Think of the children!” we end up not…thinking of the children. — L.

I hope that there are another two adults (one unrelated) watching this man at all times!