Oh Thank You, I Could Never Have Figured This Out on My Own

Hi Readers — I just found this website: How to Write Letters to Camp. Apparently all you have to do is master five simple steps! The website features three different greetings you might consider to address your child: “Dear Michael.” “Hi Mikey!” “Hey Kiddo!”

Phew! I had no idea how to start a letter to my own kid! Now I do!

Here’s a sample letter the site gives:  “Yesterday the weather was sunny in the 80s.  Dad and I woke up at 7 and walked the dog.  Dad went off to work and got home at about 7.  Your grandparents came over (they look great and say hello by the way) and we all went to that new Italian restaurant on Main Street.  We enjoyed the shrimp scampi…”

We need this kind of instruction because otherwise…what?  We might accidentally write an INTERESTING letter?  Or is the problem that parents can’t possibly think of anything to say to their kids? We need someone TELLING us what is APPROPRIATE to say in a letter, and reminding us that we better do it RIGHT? God forbid, we write a less than supportive, chatty, funny DAILY note, and our kid never recovers from the shock and disappointment of a sub-par letter?

I know that this is an upbeat site just trying to spread a little cheer and I really don’t want to dump on it. The guy running it sounds delightful. But the fact that there are pages and pages of instructions on what to INCLUDE in a letter — jokes! questions! encouragement! — and how to FRAME a family anecdote and how to LET our kids KNOW WE CARE is one of the things that drives me crazy about our society today: The idea we need EXPERT ADVICE on simply being parents. The idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to “relate” to our kids. The idea that even the simplest of daily activities is now a major challenge that we shouldn’t attempt before consulting a reference site, and that once we’ve studied up, we must  work on perfecting the activity, lest we fall short and “cheat” our kids out of a teachable, incalculably valuable moment. (And don’t get me started on the fact that the blog also suggests we can add an “SAT word of the day.” No — do NOT get me started.)

Somehow, we have taken every aspect of parenting and pulled it apart into tiny sub-parenting particles to examine and refine and fret about. When, really folks: It’s a letter to camp. You get out a sheet of paper, you say hi, and you drop it in the mail. (You remember mail, right?) You can do it without an advanced degree. You can do it without inserting the best possible joke or story. You can even do it without this — an actual “fill in the blank” template for parents to write to kids, including my favorite line: “Whatever you did, we’re very, very proud of you for trying!”

Very VERY proud. Whatever gosh darn thing you did, we are bursting with parental pride.

But you know what, parents? I believe in YOU, too. Can you write a letter to your child at camp? Hey, Parent-o, yes you can! And I’m so very, very proud of you!  — L.

And they're off to camp! But do you know how to write them a letter?

Bumper Car Craziness

Hi Readers! A question for you:

Q: When is a bumper car NOT a bumper car?

A: When you are no longer allowed to bump it.

Such is the case in England right now, where three amusement parks have banned bumper car bumping, and insist that patrons who climb into the cars drive them slowly and use them only for “dodging” each other.

I’m sure you can (LAWYERS LAWYERS LAWYERS) guess why. And as this Telegraph article says: It is probably only a matter of time before the cars come equipped with airbags too. Or maybe a lawyer just rides alongside you. — Lenore

An amusement park (Coney Island) from back when amusing was not a crime.

Buzz Aldrin: (Former) Free-Range Kid

Hi Readers! This is a good reminder of WHY we want our kids to get out in the world, on their own. Enjoy! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: We picked up the book Reaching for the Moon by Buzz Aldrin at the library earlier in the day. When I got to page 8, I couldn’t believe what I read:

Determination, strength, independence – those were the qualities I worshiped in my favorite movie hero, the Lone Ranger. I went to the movies every Saturday, and sometimes I even snuck in through the fire escape when I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket. I felt just like the Lone Ranger the day I set off to ride my bike across the George Washington Bridge to New York City. Ten years old, I pedaled twenty miles down unfamiliar roads and busy streets, past neighbors and strangers, out into the unknown. Just like the Lone Ranger, I didn’t need help form anyone. It took me all day, but I found the way and did it myself.

Pretty inspiring! — Melissa

Lenore here: Sure is! May I add that at a conference on play that I attended, I heard from Stuart Brown that NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab were baffled by some of the brainiacs they were hiring to replace Buzz’s generation. Yes, the new hires were brilliant at equations and engineering, BUT they lacked a certain agility when it came to real-world problem solving. How did NASA and the JPL solve their OWN problem? They started to ask, in job interviews, about the applicants’ childhoods. Had they tinkered as kids? Built things on their own? The ones who had were the ones who got hired. So “free-time” when kids are just goofing around, making stuff, turns out to be of FUNDAMENTAL importance when it comes to succeeding in the “real” world. And beyond.– L

What's the Buzz? Independence is good for kids! (And astronauts.)

OUTRAGE OF THE WEEK: Cops Say It’s ILLEGAL for Kids to Play Outside, Unsupervised

Hi Folks — Here it is again. The creeping idea that anytime our kids are outside without us they are in DANGER, thus it is CRIME to take our eyes off them. The writer of the note below, from Western Maryland, also pens this blog. Here’s what’s happening out by her:

Dear Free-Range Kids:  Our kids have always been “Free -Range.” Unfortunately, today, someone called the police because of the “unsupervised children” running around the neighborhood.  My son is six (seven in September), and we allow him to ride his bike to friend’s houses up the street (we live in a small, three-street neighborhood far from any major roads), rollerblade down the road, play with friends in the little patch of woods across the street from our houses, play in sprinklers with the neighbors, etc.  There are constantly kids running around our neighborhood, playing with their friends — kids of all ages.

The officer said that kids under ten, by law, are not allowed outside, unsupervised except in their parents’ yard.  The officer did not come to our house, but visited the mom of two of my son’s good friends.  The people who called reported that all the way back in the winter, a “whole bunch of unsupervised kids were sled riding down the hill” that is across from our townhouse units.

It’s true — there were 10 or 12 “vagrant” children sledding in full snow attire with NO PARENTS present for hours, with some stops to run home for bathroom breaks and hot cocoa.

I don’t know who reported our kids.  The officer was very kind and said he understood, but still said that if there were more reports they would have to take more aggressive action than just a warning.  I have no idea what to do about this. My husband and I have been looking for the law online and found nothing.  All I know is: it’s not fair for us to have to keep our kids inside or in our backyards for the entire summer.  Any insights? — Maryland Mom

Dear MM: This requires a fight — for the sake of your family and for the sake of the neighborhood. If there really IS a law, you and your neighbors must protest. If there isn’t a law — and I certainly think you could ask the local precinct to actually show it to you — then you have to remind law enforcement that we live in a free society where parents are allowed to determine the way they want to raise their kids. Oh, and by the way, it is GOOD for kids to go find their friends outside and play. Not bad. Good. — L

All Adults Are Potential Predators (Even Ladies Eating Donuts at the Park)

Hi Readers: The headline on this story says it all — almost: Women Ticketed for Eating Donuts in a Brooklyn Park. The REASON these women were ticketed was not the donuts, it was the lack of children with them.

Local law — that is, the law in my insane city — says no adults are allowed on playgrounds unless they are accompanied by kids. In other words, my city officially believes there is absolutely no decent reason any adult would or should ever want to be around frolicking kids. (Or swings. Or jungle gyms.)

If that reminds you of segregation, it should — because that’s exactly what it is. We are segregating adults from children who aren’t their own. And, just like the earlier segregation parts of our country condoned, the idea is the same: Keep people apart by warning them about each other. One is innocent and good and pure, one is monstrous and lewd and uncontrollable. Must to separate.

Way to go, New York. — Lenore

Mmm! Predator Chow!

A Shining Light (from a Trailer in Oklahoma)

Hi Readers —  Last summer I spent a day with Mary Duval, her son Ricky, and Ricky’s wife. Mary and Ricky were in town to appear on a John Stossel show about the country’s sex offender laws, mostly because Ricky had ended up on the sex offender registry at age 16. He’d met a girl at a club, had sex with her twice, and only later learned she’d been 13, not the 15 or so she’d told him she was. Anyway, the whole, harrowing story is here and I’ve written about it before. What brought Mary to Stossel’s attention is that she fought the law that turned her son into a “sex offender,” and eventually got it changed in her state. She even got her son’s conviction expunged. This kind of victory is rare. Other young men like Ricky are on the registry for life.

Injustice made Mary into the kind of activist they make movies about…when the activism doesn’t involve sex offenders. Just about the same time her son was convicted, she went blind from Marfan Syndrome. A divorcee, she moved the family to a trailer in the middle of Oklahoma, since Ricky couldn’t live many places in town. Sex offenders have to locate a certain distance from schools, churches, day care centers – any place children may congregate. (And yet bank robbers don’t have to live a certain distance from banks.  And murderers can live anywhere. Go figure.)

Anyway, that day Mary was in New York, we painted the town red. We went to Central Park, and Fifth Avenue and Chinatown. What’s really fun if you’re blind? We sailed into a fancy perfume store and soaked up all the scents, even as the snooty salesgirl glared at us. We went to Barney’s, the ultimate in chic, where a sloppy-looking handbag cost $3000, and Ricky and his wife took pictures of the crazy New York prices. It was a great day. And as we walked along, Mary’s cell phone kept ringing. “Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a mom who’s been suicidal for about a year. Her son was 15, he got a sext from his girlfriend, who’s 17, but the prosecutor got him for kiddie porn.” Or, “Oh, that’s a mom whose son is on the sex offender registry – the cops found something on his computer. And now when anyone rings the bell at their house he has to answer the door, ‘I am a convicted sex offender.’ She’s having a hard time.” Another mom called, also upset. She had to take all the photos of relatives under the age 18 down from her walls, because her son was on the registry and that’s what his parole officer demanded.

The moms called Mary for strength. She listened, offered some bracing words, maybe snorted with gallows humor and told them to call her again anytime. “That mom who was suicidal? She’s finally coming out of it,” said Mary, sounding damn pleased. “She’s getting ready to fight.”

I wish I could say the same for Mary, but in the less than a year since I saw her, she was diagnosed with cancer and went through chemo. She managed to make it to a couple of legislative hearings to explain that while we all want our children to be safe from predators, some of the sex offender laws aren’t making that happen. In fact, they’re making our sons less safe. And then, very recently, she broke her back.

Right now, the word I’m hearing is that Mary is in a coma.  The prognosis is grim and her message machine is full.

Of course it is. The moms keep calling her. They need her. We all do.

Hoping for a miracle. – L.

Nice Idea: Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt

Dear Readers: One of you dreamed this up and I lost your name!. Claim it if it’s yours! Meantime, maybe everyone can enjoy — or even organize — something like this for the local kids to get to know the nabe and each other!

Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt

  1. A tree with pink flowers
  2. A black car
  3. A squirrel (don’t get too close!)
  4. A pink house
  5. A cat
  6. A robin
  7. A scooter
  8. Tulips
  9. Forsythia!
  10.  A bicycle
  11.  A bug
  12. A big dog
  13. A small dog
  14.   A friend
  15.  A fire hydrant
  16.  A person walking a dog
  17.  A truck
  18.  A green house
  19.  A lawn ornament
  20.  A dogwood tree

Rules

  1. Stay together
  2. Ask before taking a picture of a person (or their house, dog, etc., if the owner is outside)
  3. Watch for cars
  4. No fighting
  5. Stay in the neighborhood
  6. Have fun!

“I Called You Names…Then Stopped, and Changed My Parenting”

Hi Readers — Sorry my computer has been on the fritz and it was hard to update the blog. But now: An upbeat start to the weekend!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I admit, when I saw the initial reports of your son’s adventure on the subway, I was a naysayer and a name caller.  Oh, the things I called you (apologies!).  I admit, I brought baggage to my parenting.  Two neighborhood girls had been lured from their backyards when one was in 2nd grade, and one in 4th.  They were missing for a day and then found dead.  I brought these two girls along and they were my judge and jury with almost every decision I made as a parent.

And then, I recognized the symptoms of anxiety in my oldest child.  He was scared of everything and everyone.  And I was completely to blame.  As an educator, I recognized that I had created the very type of child that I resented having in my classroom.  He was an easy target for bullies (both school age and adult), who would immediately recognize the signs of weakness and pounce.  I also had a kid that, God forbid, if the worst case scenario happened, had neither the confidence nor the fortitude to help himself.

So, slowly, I started letting the control go.  He balked more than I at first, but slowly he grew comfortable being outside by himself and exploring, as did my two younger children.  And as an added bonus, they learned how to settle their disputes BY THEMSELVES.  No more need for me to play referee 24/7.  Rather than drag all the kids to the other kids’ sporting events, we leave them home for the 30 minutes or an hour overlap.

Have there been some bumps in the road and on their bodies?  Sure.  We even have some scars from falling out of trees or slipping on ice.  Have I let go completely?  No.  We make sure our kids are prepared and make sure they are clear that they have the most important role in keeping themselves safe.  Get separated in the mall?  Just stop.  Don’t panic. Move to the side, pretend to window shop and I’ll find you.  Same plan if separated in the woods, minus the window shopping of course.  In case of fire, meet at the end of the driveway.  We do have a family plan for home invasions which does sound crazy, but we live in an area that is actually being studied by the FBI, we have such a large number of home invasions compared to population.

My kids have flourished knowing that they are in fact capable of keeping themselves safe and knowing what to do “if ever…”  They also know how rare that “if ever” is.  Yesterday, my oldest decided he was going to climb on top of some industrial storage containers that are next to one of the practice fields.  He spent an hour jumping from one to the other. Then I recognized from his posture and movements that he was considering jumping off one onto a pile of dirt.  The mom next to me recognized it at the same time and asked me if I was going to yell and stop him.  I said no, because he was going to jump anyway and if I yelled to stop him (because there was no way I was going to be able to walk over in time) he needed to be 100% committed to the jump and not be distracted, or he would get hurt.  The look on her face made it clear that she would be telling her kids that evening that they would never be allowed to play at my house again.

And he did jump, and he walked away with the biggest smile on his face — and all the kids that weren’t allowed even on the containers all thought he was the coolest dude ever!

So, I am getting there slowly, and weening myself and my kids off my crazy.  My kids have spent countless hours on their bikes, but never off of our private way or the 50-mile bike trail we are fortunate to live near.  This summer they want to play Wiffle ball games with some of the kids in our area of town.  Each weekend, I take them on their bikes out on the road and teach them the way to ride a bike when there are cars and logging trucks going by at  25 to 45 mph.  And I may not be ready to let them go completely by themselves.  I may ride along with the to the field they’ll use but then continue on and get some exercise in myself.  Baby steps. Thank you for your book. — A Happier Mom

Dear Happier Mom: I’m happy, too — for you and your family! And, call me a stickler, but saying you are “not” Free-Range because you are still teaching your kids to be safe and what to do in an emergency just proves that you are MORE Free-Range than you think! Free-Range believes in preparing our kids to deal with the world, not just throwing them out there, and that’s what you are doing. Also, we try not to beat ourselves up for any of our parenting decisions (there are plenty of other people ready to do that), so I wouldn’t even say the the old you “created” an anxious child. Let’s just say you noticed your own anxiety and decided to fight back. And did! In spades! Here’s to a wonderful summer! — L

CPS Took My Kids Because I Don’t Hover

Hi Readers — A long, sad and infuriating story. Here goes:

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I noticed you sometimes talk about Child Protective Services (CPS) or other official intervention and Free-Range children. I have to admit, I did always wonder if I’d get in trouble for being the only mom who doesn’t wait at the bus stop each morning or overbook my kids with extracurriculars, but intellectually I knew I wasn’t breaking any laws or even engaging in any overly questionable parenting. However, it seems the school disagreed, and they compiled a pretty extensive (if weak) case against me with CPS and CPS tried to put my kids in foster care. They’re with my parents now, and our lives have been pretty much destroyed indefinitely.

Long story short: in mid-February, my 8-year-old daughter and I got some ice cream and watched Romeo + Juliet on a Saturday night. Six days later a group of kids cornered her at recess and she got upset and said she wouldn’t be in school Monday because she was going to kill herself. A serious thing, yes, but probably influenced by watching the movie.

The school asked us to get counseling, and I said we were applying for Child Health Plus, which takes up to seven weeks to become active. After three weeks, the school reported us to CPS for “failing” to get counseling, despite the fact I told them four times, in writing, that we did not have money to pay for it out of pocket and were trying to get insurance. (I’m a single mom.) My daughter and her brother (10) were questioned at length, and she said that a single time when she’d had a tantrum, I used a pillow to block her punches. In court documents, this was worded as “on a daily basis, the mother pinches the child’s nose shut while holding her mouth closed and putting a pillow over her face, placing her in imminent risk of death.” This is patently false, but the words were deliberately chosen, because otherwise they could not remove the kids.

CPS workers later told me that the pillow allegation was a pretense to allow them to remove my kids from the home, because the counseling thing had raised a red flag. (I have a recording of the CPS worker saying he did not report the pinching/suffocating allegation, and was surprised to see it in the motion.) I was given a list of other “red flags,” things that are frightening in their averageness:

-That since I work from home, I spend “all night typing on the computer while my kids run wild.”

-That my children walk 300 feet to a bus stop unattended, although I watch from the window. They are 8 and 10 and go together.

-That when my daughter made the suicide threat, close to the end of the school day, I was unavailable by phone because I was on a business call. Apparently, this is a crime worthy of terminating parental rights, because there is an adoption date of 12/2011 on my first court paper. Seems mothers must never be more than five feet from a (non busy) phone at all times.

-That my children “never do their homework,” when in actuality, I don’t do it for them and cut it off at bedtime. If they don’t do it, they miss recess. This happens about twice a month, tops.

-That they “never have school supplies,” because my son lost a notebook once and it stayed lost for a week.

-That I said I could not commit to picking up their homework at the school each day because it would interfere with my work and asked the teachers to email me if there was a problem.

-That I communicate via email, and some of the emails have a timestamp after 2am. This became the “typing all night” thing.

None of the relations I had with the school prior to CPS involvement were hostile or even contentious. I had no reason to believe that such drastic measures would be taken. Never in a million years would I have believed that missing a phone call, allowing kids to walk to the bus stop, letting them go to school with incomplete homework or sending late emails would be grounds to place a child in foster care, but that’s exactly what happened to us.

Since this happened, most people who know us well have reacted with shock and sympathy, but an alarming number have said: “Why didn’t you take them to the bus? ” “Why didn’t you do their homework if they didn’t do it?” “Why are you up late?”

I know all this is insane. No one should be forced to raise their kids in consideration of appearances if the children are happy and healthy. I just hope you don’t get too many emails like mine. — Worried on Long Island

Dear Worried: I am sickened an appalled by the way this has unfolded. What everyone reading this site should know, however, is that I posted this story NOT because it is common — it’s not. I posted it because it shows what can happen if we allow “helicoptering” to become the only acceptable way to parent. If not walking the kids to the bus stop becomes a form of abuse, we will be living in a very different country. So for those of us here, let us keep reminding our friends and associates that our kids are NOT in constant danger, that after a certain age they do NOT need constant hands-on supervision, and that there is a range of parenting styles that work for a range of kids. 

Also, if there are any reporters reading this who would like to follow up on this story, or explore the idea that sometimes CPS conflates confident parenting with criminality, please contact me and I can steer you to the letter writer. — L.

FREE TALK IN BROOKLYN THIS SAT., AT NOON!

Howdy readers! If any of you are in or around New York City this weekend, I’m giving a free talk/Q&A on Saturday. Voila:

PLACE: Old First Reformed Church, 729 Carroll Street in Park Slope. Directions here.

TIME: Noon – 2.

KIDDIE CARE: Free!

COOKIES: A distinct possibility!

TV: My reality show is going to be filming it.

ME: Hoping to meet you! Say hi! Ask questions! Eat free cookies, if they materialize! And, of course, take the subway!

RSVP (not required, but what the hey): Jgillespie@cineflix.com

And if you can, please spread the word. Thanks!– L.