Scaring Kids Out of Their Wits — Literally

Hi Readers! I got this note and, in addition to being appalled, I was angry. The 10 year old in the story is literally being scared out of his wits by his mom. By”wits” I mean his brain, his senses. His mom is teaching him never to employ those, but to automatically go straight to fear. There is no way for this kid to learn how to distinguish between “pretty safe” and “dangerous.” It’s ALL dangerous. Good ol’ Worst-First Thinking, for a new generation.  

At Free-Range Kids, we encourage kids to sharpen their wits, not snuff ’em out. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Recently, we had a 10 year old over to play with my sons, ages 7 and 9.  I realized, however, that I had an appointment to go to.  I told this boy he could either go home or accompany us to my appointment.  He said he wanted to stay with us.  With this in mind, I brought a laptop with a  movie to keep the three of them entertained for the 45 minutes I expected to be 5 feet away from them, inside an examination room just off of the waiting area. (This office is not busy and there is only one other practitioner, so I knew they would only possibly encounter one other human “stranger” in the time I was in my appointment.)

In the car, I explained to this 10 year old where I would be and  that they would watch a movie.  Unfortunately the preview threw this kid into a full-fledged panic.  He said, “Oh, no, I can’t do that.  Oh, no. No way.  I’m not supposed to be somewhere alone or I’ll be abducted.”

I asked, “Who is going to abduct you?”

“The people,” he said.

I compassionately explained that I would be five feet away, simply IN THE NEXT ROOM, just like I am when he plays at our house, and that he would not be alone.  If he needed me he could knock on the door or call out my name and I would come right out.

Unfortunately, my explanations made zero impression on this child.  Apparently, his mother had drilled into him a fear of stranger abduction so deep that he could not fathom sitting  in a room with two other kids only feet away from a trusted adult.  I instead drove him home to his mother who thanked me and said she would never let him sit in a waiting room “alone.”

This world she is afraid of is not a world I care to live in, so I don’t.  I choose to live in a different world.  One in which my kids can feel they are safe. — A Frustrated Free-Range Mother of Two

Off Topic But…Frosty Arrested!

Hi Folks: Sometimes you have to post a story just because…you know it’ll go viral. Check out Frosty the Snowman getting arrested!  

And here’s the news story about it. The reader who sent this to me lives in the state where it occurred, Maryland, and writes that, “… for the record, this is not a really large parade — it is a very rural area, they easily could have followed him around the corner and arrested him after the parade.”

Anyway, I”ll attend to more Free-Range Kids issues very soon. But it’s a stronger blogger than I who can resist a snowman arrest. And while we’re on the (off) topic, here’s a link to one of the coolest books I ever read (liked it so much I ended up befriending the author!), Bob Eckstein’s History of the Snowman. It’s a funny, factual, fascinating history of one of the world’s earliest forms of sculpture — a form even kids used to make outside, on their own!

Which reminds me of something totally ON topic. Check out THIS:  The LL Bean “Snowman Kit” — a toy carrot for the nose, toy “coal,” etc. Because, you know, it’s too hard for today’s kids to come up with any snowman accessories on their own. No, they should spend $29.95 on this kit! And of COURSE it says:   Warning: Should only be handled or used with adult supervision.

So, okay: On this particular post we have one gratitous Frosty video, one plug for my (now) friend’s book, and one real Free-Range outrage: The idea that kids can’t even stick a (fake!!!) carrot into a snowman without “adult supervision.” That frosts me! — L.

Ten is the New Two

Hi Folks! Here’s my piece that ran in last week’s Wall Street Journal. You will recognize some of my examples! – L. 

Ten is the new two. We live in a society that insists on infantilizing our children, treating them as helpless babies who can’t do a thing safely or successfully without an adult hovering nearby.

Consider the schools around the country that no longer allow kids to be dropped off at the bus stop unless there’s a guardian waiting to walk them home—even if home is two doors down.

Or how about all the libraries I’m hearing about that forbid children under age eight or 10 or 12 to be there without an adult—including in the children’s room? God forbid a kid wants to spend the afternoon reading books by herself.

Over in Europe (where I guess they’ve got nothing else to worry about), the EU just ruled that children under age eight should always be supervised when…wait for it… blowing up a balloon. It’s just too darn dangerous. A child could choke! And those little whistle things that uncurl when you blow into them? Those have been classified “unsuitable” for children under age 14. (And somehow they’re suitable for kids above 14?)

The point is: Children are not being allowed to grow up and do the normal things we did as kids, out of the fear that, just maybe, something bad could happen. As if all the good things that happen—from exercise to independence to the joy of blowing up a balloon—don’t matter at all. All that matters is the possibility of risk.

When that’s your focus, nothing seems safe enough, which is why park districts are removing merry-go-rounds (kids could fall off!). A New Jersey day-care owner I spoke with was ordered to saw off all tree branches on her property that were lower than eight feet off the ground. Why? Because kids could run into them. They might even (I shudder to write this) climb them.

Which brings us to the latest casualty in this war on childhood: Train travel. As of Nov. 1, Amtrak raised its unaccompanied minor age from eight to 13. Whereas last month your third grader could get on the train, give the conductor a ticket, and proudly ride to the station where grandma (or, more likely, your ex) was waiting, now you and your kid have to wait another five years. Thirteen is the new eight.

This might make some sense if Amtrak had been experiencing a rash of child kidnappings, or pre-teens gone wild, but that is not the case at all. The government-subsidized train service announced it was making the change “not in response to any incidents,” but rather out of “an abundance of concern…”

So Amtrak did this for no good reason? That’s an impressive management style: Change your whole policy because, uh… well…everyone else is treating kids like babies, so why not follow the crowd?

As for Amtrak’s “abundance of concern,” it doesn’t seem quite abundant enough to cover all the parents who can’t afford an extra ticket, or time off work, but who trust their tweens to get from point A to point B, as generations of kids have done—and still do.

In Japan there is a special fare for unaccompanied minors under age six. The Japanese believe their kids can function independently. But over here, even when Amtrak does allow minors to travel on their own, look at the rules it imposes: 13 to 15 year olds must wear a special wrist band identifying them as youngsters. They cannot travel after 9:05 p.m. They cannot get off at an unmanned station. An adult must be at both ends to sign them in and drop them off.

Why not just put them in a crate with a chew toy and be done with it?

There is one more requirement for teens traveling on Amtrak alone: They also must be “interviewed by station personnel to determine if the child is capable of traveling alone.” So here’s an idea: Do away with the age restrictions and go with a basic interview for all the minors who want to travel solo. If they can tell you where they’re going, how they’ll know when to get off, and what they plan to do for supper, let them ride the rails.

There’s a difference between minors and babies. But if we never let the babies grow up and have some adventures on their own, they could end up as befuddled as Amtrak officials. – Lenore Skenazy

You Must Be 15 to…

…wear this hat. Or so the manufacturer recommends:

Because a 14-year-old might eat it? (And thanks to reader Sierra for this photo.)

Vintage Woody Allen on Stranger Danger

Hey Folks — Just a clip you might enjoy. (Or not.) — L.

The Stranger Danger Is…Me!

Hi Readers! This essay by Jennifer Carsen originally ran at her blog,  Mommy Tries, which bills itself as “Bringing you good-enough parenting since 2010.” – L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve been wondering, “WWLD” (What Would Lenore Do?)

My daughter Lorelei was on the swings at the playground today, loving it as usual, when a little girl and her dad ambled over to the swing next to us. It’s hard for me to accurately calculate the ages of other people’s children, as nearly all of them are smaller than Lorelei – including a few incoming UNH freshmen – but she must have been 3 or 4 or so.

“Hi!” I said brightly, as her daddy was getting her settled.

“Hi,” she replied – and then got a worried look on her face.

“Daddy, is that a stranger?” she asked, pointing an accusing finger at me.

He looked me over, menacing in my turtleneck and mom jeans, and said (with a slight smile at me over his daughter’s head), “Yes.”

“She talked to me,” the little girl said, her tiny voice dripping with equal parts horror and disgust.

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” he said, laughing. “I’m right here.”

I understand that teaching our children to be cautious is a good thing, but there’s got to be some better way to distinguish “stranger” (mommy at the next swing; merely a friend we have not yet met) from “STRANGER” (creepy guy who separates you from the rest of the herd with promises of puppies and van candy).

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Me (Lenore): Agreed! And the thing is, even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children — the folks who put the missing kids’ photos on the milk cartons — now formally distances itself from the idea of “stranger danger” — because it’s useless.
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First of all, the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they KNOW. So it’s like warning kids about the dangers of spoons, when — if we’re talking cutlery — the bigger danger is probably meat cleavers, right?
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Secondly, when we warn kids never to talk to strangers, we are taking away a safety net for them. If they are ever in trouble, it is GOOD to ask for help from anyone, fast! As the late, great Mary Duval once said, “I think we can trust random people not to suddenly become child molestors just because they happen to see a child.”
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And thirdly, if we tell kids that everyone unfamiliar to them is a potential child killer, we are effectively stunting any street smarts they might otherwise be cultivating. If you automatically distrust EVERYONE, how can you develop that tingling sixth sense of, “Something feels a little weird”? EVERYTHING feels a little weird — you’re surrounded by killers!
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So here’s “What “Lenore Would Do”:  Teach kids you can TALK to strangers, you just cannot go OFF with strangers. That way, they get to see the world for what it is — basically good — with a dollop of caution, which is also basically good.
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And as for that dad, who is teaching his daughter she’s safe as long as SuperDaddy is around, but otherwise she’s a delectable hors  d’oeuvre for the crowd of slavering wolves at the swingset,  maybe it’s time to put HIM on a milk carton with the caption: “Have you seen this well-meaning but clueless dude?” — L

Yikes! I see some strangers at this playground. Run, kids! Run!

Outrage of the Week: Toronto School Bans Terrifying Orbs!

Hi Readers! A number of you sent me this story, about a K-8 school in Toronto that has temporarily banned all balls that are not Nerf-soft, after some near  misses, as well as an adult who got an actual hit to her actual head by a soccer ball and suffered a concussion.

The school board defended its action as, guess what? Prudent  Big surprise. But Dr. Mark Tremblay, chief scientist at Healthy Active Living Kids Canada, is quoted as saying, “The health benefits far exceed the risks associated with them.”

Yay! And  — duh. Charles Adler pretty much sums up my feelings about the ban with this essay. When the choice is between kids playing or kids standing oh-so-safely still, I think we can pretty much agree on which should win. But feel free to weigh in: Should kids play with soccer, foot, basket or volleyballs on the school playground? Or is this just a tragedy waiting to happen? Have a ball! — L.

Good lord, what is that dangerous object sitting next to the sweet, doomed moppet?