Mom of Boy Picked Up By Cops for Walking to Soccer TRIUMPHS!

Hi Readers — Here’s an INSPIRING story about what we can do when life hands us paranoid neighbors, officious cops and maybe a lemon, for good measure. Let’s hear it for Lori LeVar Pierce, the small town mom and teacher we first heard from in 2009 when she let her son walk to soccer and a local police officer slammed her for negligence. Here’s the original piece. And here’s her local paper’s editorial piling on, reminding her that “things are different now,” the days of “Mayberry…are gone,” and rare but terrible things could have happened to her son in the one third of a mile walk in this quiet Mississippi town.

Well you know what happened next? She didn’t crumble. She didn’t lay down and die. She decided it was time to make Mayberry come true. If her town wasn’t safe for walking, why then, she’d get it sidewalks, and stop signs, and everything you need to make a town walkable — enticingly so. And she got started even before this study came out, saying: “Want a slimmer, healthier community? Try building more sidewalks, crosswalks and bike paths.”

One year after the cop berated her for letting her son walk, here is Lori’s story!

MAKING MAYBERRY by Lori LeVar Pierce

Some of you may remember my story. Last year I let my then 10-year-old son walk to soccer practice from our home, a distance of less than a mile in a residential neighborhood. He was picked up by the cops after 911 calls about him. As a result of that experience, as a family we made an even more concerted effort be outside walking or biking and discovered just how unfriendly our city is to safe biking and walking.

So I educated myself on what could be done and connected with local individuals who wanted the same things and others who had made changes in their communities. Earlier this summer I contacted my representative on the city council to propose a “Complete Streets” ordinance. This is an ordinance requiring that any new developments or major street repair also include features for safe biking and walking, such as bike lanes or striping, sidewalks, good curbs, etc. I was able to provide him with examples of similar ordinances passed in other municipalities and encouraged him to make it happen in our city.

I am pleased to report that the city council my hometown of Columbus, Mississippi just passed its “Complete Streets” ordinance this week. There is a major development going in just a few blocks from my home that will include sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge. I’m so excited for progress!

Me too! Light the way, Lori!

P.S. Look! Lori just sent in this very positive story from yesterday’s paper about the Complete Streets initiative.

Stories Needed: How Do Kids Get To/From School in YOUR Town? (Wackiness Appreciated)

Hi Readers! I’m about to write a column on how kids are getting to school — with a plea for more walking or biking, when possible — and for this I need stories of kids get to school in your neighborhood. For instance, I heard from my friend that her nieces are driven by GOLF CART two blocks to the bus stop in their GATED COMMUNITY. This seemed a bit, shall we say, ridiculous. The kids are able-bodied! The community is gated! The distance is two blocks! But the mom thinks the walk is just “too risky.”

I also heard of a school in Florida where dismissal works like this: The cars line up, single file, outside the school where there are NO children outside. As a car reaches the front of the line, a school aide reads the name on the dashboard plaque issued by the school and barks into her walkie talkie, “Jeremy’s mom is here!”  At which point someone inside the school shouts, “Jeremy! Your mom is here!” And Jeremy is ESCORTED OUT to the waiting car — like an unpopular dictator being hustled into his limo.  Jeremy’s mom careens off and the process begins again, with the next car and kid. Dismissal takes half an hour.

And, finally, if this is happening in your neighborhood, I would love to hear about it:  Is it hearsay or the truth that in some school districts, the bus no longer stops at bus stops but now actually stops at each child’s home? And that some parents drive the child from the garage down to the sidewalk in front of their house to wait?

Please tell me what strange new things are happening in your neighborhood, vis a vis getting to school, including whether kids are even ALLOWED by the school to bike or walk. Thanks!

Happy About a Lost Kid

Hi Readers! This nice note just in:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I couldn’t be happier! Tonight my 7-year-old daughter got lost in our neighborhood while riding her bike. She had two out-of-town cousins with her, and they wandered about one block further than she recognized (we’re new to the neighborhood). And then she did a very smart thing–she asked for help.

She found a couple sitting on their porch and asked them to help her find her way home. She knew her address and phone number, so they called us to let us know she was on her way back. I had a nice little conversation with the husband, and then his wife walked the three kids back to our place.

The kids were exultant: they’d gotten lost, found their way again, and made new friends! When my daughter got home, I congratulated her on being so smart. To make sure she was clear about boundaries, I asked what she would have done if they’d invited her inside, offered her cookies and lemonade “just inside the house,” and so on. She said that she would’ve said no, she just wanted directions home.

Now I feel even more confident about my daughter’s street savvy and the kindness of adults in my neighborhood. A Free-Range kid is a safe kid–a kid who makes it back home again! Best — Caitlin

Free-Range Fracas in England!

Hi Readers — England has been in a tizzy about a Free-Range family since last week.  A family I support!

Here, London’s Jennifer Howze weighs in. Jennifer is a partner in the online social network British Mummy Bloggers, and she’s lead blogger on the Times of London’s parenting blog Alpha Mummy .

Free-Range in London: What’s a Reasonable Bike Ride for a Kid? By Jennifer Howze

Once you want a nice suburban-type neighborhood in which to raise your kids (but you still want to be in London), you move to Dulwich, so the thinking goes. This picturesque, sedate enclave looks like a little village that’s been landscaped with money, but last week it was the center of a debate about how much freedom parents should allow their children.

Oliver and Gillian Schonrock allow their 8-year-old and 5-year-old to cycle on their own a mile to school every morning. Both the school and other parents raised concerns and there were threats of calling social services on the couple. The newspapers picked up the story and it has became a heated topic for discussion among parents, on parenting blogs and in forums in the UK all week. (At my daughter’s end-of-school assembly last Wednesday, the headmaster’s speech included a tongue-in-cheek thanks to parents “for not sending their 5 and 8 year olds to school on bicycles”.)

Even the London mayor Boris Johnson jumped into the fray, giving a full-throated endorsement to the Schonrocks for bucking the “nanny state” and “elf and safety” (aka health and safety) busybodies. “In this age of air-bagged, mollycoddled, infantilised over-regulation it can make my spirits soar to discover that out there in the maquis of modern Britain there is still some freedom fighter who is putting up resistance against the encroachments of the state,” he wrote in the Telegraph newspaper.

“Their vision of urban life is profoundly attractive – a city so well policed, and with so strong a sense of community, that children can walk or cycle on their own to school. Instead of hounding the Schonrocks we should be doing everything we can to make their dream come true – in every part of the city.”

A lot of the debate amounts to parsing the risks of the Schonrocks’ arrangement: Is it a good idea? Is it fair to make an 8-year-old supervise a 5-year-old? Is the couple simply trying to make a point and using their children to do it?

Complicating this situation are all the extenuating circumstances. A mile does seem far in London, even a family-oriented part of it. While the children rode on the sidewalk and crossed one street with a crossing guard, many people raised concerns about the heavy morning traffic and the “Chelsea tractors” (the 4x4s beloved of parents everywhere) that pose a danger to all bicyclists.

And here’s another thing, one of parents’ worst fears: Two years ago in Dulwich a man tried to abduct an 11-year-old off the street, writes Dulwich Divorcee, a well-known London-based blogger.  Just a few months ago, in the nearby neighbourhood of Wandsworth (where I live), another 11-year-old was grabbed by a man before escaping. (Police have released a description of the suspect.)

“However much we pretend we’re in a village cut off from the troubles of urban life, we Dulwich residents are as much subject to bonkers drivers, perverts, traffic jams, accidents and stress as anyone else in London,” the Dulwich Divorcee writes.

These are all valid points in this debate and I can’t say I know the answer. My daughter, aged 6, seems too young to cycle four blocks to school on her own, but that’s as much to do with her shakiness on a bike and our congested streets as anything else. (In London, many of the two-way streets are only wide enough for one car, making jockeying for position and squeezing past other vehicles a regular part of driving.)

Still, the Schonrocks say they took the risks into consideration and decided that their children are mature enough to handle them. The couple want to engender confidence and street smarts in their kids. That’s their decision.

What I find chilling is the idea that a school or fellow parents will, in effect, call in the cops (or civil functionaries) to police choices they disagree with. There’s no indication that the Schonrocks are neglectful parents. So is the threat of social services based on justifiable fear, or fear that we are somehow complicit if those kids discover that the world is not a 100% safe place?

We all have our own level of Free-Range comfort. (I’m making an effort to get comfortable with my daughter safely roaming.) What became clear this past week in London is that, when other people’s comfort level doesn’t match our own, just what others will do to bring it all into line. — J.H.

Why Is It So Hard to Get Kids Walking to School?

Hi Readers — I’m still on the road and just gave a speech in Chicago sponsored by the National Center for Safe Routes to School. (A jolly bunch!)  Safe Routes reps every state gathered to talk about the pressing question: How can we get more kids walking to school? The organization says  that a generation ago, two thirds of f kids walked or biked to school. Today, 20-25% do. I’ve heard numbers even lower than that.

So Safe Routes (funded by the Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration) aims to get kids back to walking to school by whatever means necessary. If a neighborhood needs sidewalks, they help the neighborhood organize to get ’em. If a school has outlawed walking or biking, they help explain to the district why those things are actually GOOD. They even address, head on, the district’s fears of liability. Meantime, if parents are interested in letting their kids walk, but are scared (of predators, traffic, and worst of all: other parents thinking they’re lazy!), they teach ’em about the “walking school bus.” That’s the cool idea that a parent can take her kid and walk to the next kid’s house and pick her up, and then they all walk to the NEXT kid’s house and pick HIM up, etc., etc.,  so by the time they get to the school, there are a bunch of kids all walking together. Eventually, the kids don’t need the parents anymore: They’ve learned the route, know how to safely cross the street, and this has become their daily routine.

Even the Safe Routes folks agree: It’s weird we have come to time in society when we have to structure what used to be simple and natural — kids walking places. But the way I often think of Free-Range Kids is just that: re-introducing an old-fashioned childhood. When kids have been kept inside so long they no longer know how to organize their own game of leap frog, it’s not bad for a school to hire a recess coach to teach them (and then get out of the way). It’s more important to bring back those skills than it is to blindly pretend that kids will develop them on their own — because they never did. The used to learn games from the older kids in the neighborhood. If there are no older kids outside anymore, or they’re all at travel soccer, then of course the younger ones don’t learn those games out of thin air. Someone needs to re-introduce them.

That’s the same reasoning behind “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” Of COURSE I’d like all kids to automatically head out to the park on a sunny Saturday without needing a special holiday to encourage this. But since so many times kids DON’T head to the park, they DON’T get to know the other local kids, and they DON’T know how fun it can be to just kick around a playground with each other. So they stay inside. I proposed a morning where the old-fashioned “meet and have fun” thing would happen, hoping that afterward kids would clamor to do it again.

Safe Routes is on the same sort of mission and its website seems to be loaded with great ideas for how to get the PTA involved, and what to say to skeptics, and how to get the school on your side. And if the local problem is a lack of crossing guards, or whatever, the organization is also game to help walk a district through the red tape it takes to get some grant money to fix the problem. And, just like Take Our Children to the Park Day, Safe Routes sponsors Walk to School Day (coming up in October).

Our shared goal? To re-introduce kids into the world,  sort of the way we’ve done with Peregrine falcons. They may have been bred in captivity, but a future awaits when they can soar. — Lenore

What Might Happen If You Let Your Kid Play Outside, Alone?

Hi Readers! In response to my downer about dealing with a tsunami of media “What If?”s, here’s one woman’s note answer to: What happens when you, with some slight hesitation, let your child go outside on her own?

Dear Lenore: I understand your anxiety, and can only join the chorus of those saying please, please don’t give up.  Your book has SIGNIFICANTLY changed our family for the better, and we were already what I called “half-range” to begin with!

My daughter (10) has been riding her bike to school for a month now, with buddies, but no adult.  It started out with just her wanting to and me saying yes, which traveled through the grapevine and triggered a flood of calls from the other moms.  “Are you REALLY allowing this?  Are you nuts?  What if this/that?  But but but…”  And many conversations and several holes bitten through my tongue later, we have 4 regular riders and many more that, although they aren’t allowed on the school ride, are allowed a wider radius of the neighborhood for riding.

The whole pack of them roam the neighborhood after school and on the weekends, with no adults around.  They’re all still alive and well, some of the moms have relaxed and seen the light, and the kids have met many neighbors they didn’t know at all before.  One elderly neighbor has been given the nickname “Candy Man” because when he sees the pack of them go by, he goes out to the street with a big bag of candy and lets them each choose one.  (Needless to say, they looooove the Candy Man!)  Another one has a dachshund they just adore, so they’ll go up and ask if they can “borrow” her dog to pet for a while.  Sometimes they’ll show up en masse at another kids house, grab the family dog, and take it for a walk (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen 8 kids walking 1 dog).

Without your book and this site, I don’t know that I would have allowed the school ride.  And look what it started!  I won’t be taking my daughter to the park and leaving her there on Saturday.  I’ll be telling her to get on her bike and GO to the park and hang out with her buddies, and be home when the street lights come on!  (Meanwhile, I’ll be leisurely reading on the couch!) — A Free-Range Mom

Let’s Hear it for Parents Magazine– And Some of Its Commenters!

Hi Readers — Usually I flip through parenting magazines and am amazed by all the items, activities, foods and basic childhood rites of passage they find dangerous (and possibly deadly). But kudos to Parents Mag for this lovely little blog post about Take Our Children to the Park & Leave Them There Day — which is coming up this Saturday.

The tone is receptive, open and calming. Couldn’t ask for anything more. Of course, there are some comments along the lines of, “This is absurd!” and, “Life isn’t the way it was when WE were kids,” and, “It’s easy to push for ‘Free Range Kids’ based on statistics but that means shit when YOU become PART of those statistics.” But get a load of some of the wonderful counter-comments:

Right, our world isn’t like when we were kids. It’s significantly safer.

Also: Why doesn’t the fear of the Unknown Other Driver keep you from driving your children anywhere? I mean, you can look at all the automobile-safety statistics in the world, but that means shit when YOU get hit and YOUR CHILD gets injured, right?

Nah, that’d just be ridiculous, to live your life afraid of something so unlikely as a car crash.

And:

Good gracious! The point is not for the kids to hang out in singles. The idea is for them to hang out together! My oldest child would be so happy if other parents would let their kids out of their living rooms and into their yards. He would love to throw a ball around with some other kid at the park.

I won’t live my life in fear. I won’t let my kid live that way. Do I want to teach my child how to make independent decisions? I do. Do I want him to feel trusted? I do. Do I worry about becoming a statistic? Sure do. But I truly believe my kid should be a kid! (The first day we let him ride his bike to the park by himself – he went there and back 10 times. He was so happy. And nothing untoward happened.)

And, finally:

It is just so sad that parents (like many above) have such fear of the world that they can’t let their kids out of their sight. My son, 8, is already allowed to play outside by himself, ride his bike around the neighborhood, stay at a park by himself, etc….and he’s autistic. And before you think we live in some tiny little po-dunk town, we don’t. We live in a major suburb/city in the Bay Area in California. Without the opportunity to be on his own, how will he learn to negotiate conflict with other kids? How will be learn to wait his turn for the tire swing? How will be learn to trust his gut instincts that something’s going down that he should not be a part of? How will he learn that falling off his bike and getting a scraped knee isn’t the end of the world? He won’t. Unless he is given free reign (or range :P) to experience and learn and grown on his own. Kudos to Lenore and all the other Free Range parents out there that are letting their kids be just that…kids.

Welcome, Parents and Parents readers, to Free-Range Kids! — L.

Victory! Boy Allowed to Ride His Bike to School!

Hey Readers — Sometimes it doesn’t take a Supreme Court ruling to get a scared, silly rule reversed. Sometimes it just takes a little spine. Here’s the story of the mom who wanted to let her son ride his bike to school and at first (and second) the school said no. But then — victory!

And while I’m here, giving some links, here’s a funny one about the dangers of baking bread.

And, heck, it is exactly ONE WEEK from Mother’s Day. Know a mom would would appreciate a book that is LOL funny AND helps folks relax AND raise “safe, self-reliant” Free-Range Kids? As one reader (not a friend or relative!) wrote,  “Your book had me laughing so hard that my husband had to come and see if i was okay! (I think my gasping sounded like sobbing.)” Here’s the Amazon link! Happy Sunday! — Lenore

Let’s Help This Boy Bike to School!

Hi Readers! I’m dashing off to give a talk tonight (Thurs.) at the Ethel Walker school in Simsbury, Conn. (outside of Hartford). It’s free and open to the public, if you’re in the nabe.  Meantime, let’s help this California mom! Any advice? Support? Great ideas? — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I recently lost my car and decided that bicycles will be mine and my son’s primary mode of transportation until I can afford to replace the car. The boy is 8 and I ride with him half-way, some days all the way, to school in the mornings. His first day riding, I provided him with a note, releasing the school from any related liability.

Today I received a call informing me of the district policy that kids can’t bike to school unless they are in 4th grade or higher. So no kids are allowed to ride their bikes to school unless they are 10 years old.  I feel like the district is over-stepping its bounds by telling me how my kid can and cannot get to school.

I guess I’m contacting you to see if you or your readers can offer some suggestions on how I can fight this. I want him to ride his bike. It will teach him another level of responsibility, boost his confidence and make getting home after school easier on both of us. Any advice or suggestions on handling this situation? — A Reader in California

Why Is This Radical? A Town Debates LETTING Kids Ride Their Bikes to School

Hi Readers! This is an encouraging story (from boston.com), in that Arlington, MA., a town outside of Boston, is pushing to get more kids biking to school.  But the fact that this initiative is CONTROVERSIAL is enough to make you bang your head against a bike horn. (Or vice versa.) Here’s a bit of the story, which begins by describing how bike-friendly the town seems to be:

No corner of the town is more than a few miles from the Minuteman Bikeway, the most popular bike path in the country. The town is home to two bicycle stores and a bike club whose members set off on long rides every Saturday and Sunday morning. A bicycling committee advises town leaders on bike issues.

And yet, until recently, school officials informally banned children from biking to school.

So far, none of the schools have bike racks. Last year, a pilot project to encourage children to ride their bikes to the Hardy School, the elementary school in East Arlington, was controversial.

“My view was, if you can’t ride to school in Arlington, then there’s no place you can ride to school in Massachusetts,’’ said David Watson, an Arlington resident and executive director of MassBike, a Boston-based bike advocacy group. “It’s already a bike-friendly community.’’

To those who want to encourage children to ride their bikes to school, the advantages seem clear: It’s better for the environment. And in an age of increasing fears about childhood obesity, they argue, it’s better for kids.

But not everyone agrees. Some parents and school officials are fearful about children sharing busy roads with minivans and SUVs ferrying children to school. (Most Arlington children live within a mile of an elementary school, so there are no school buses.)

And so it goes: Common sense — and the fact that this is one of the bikingest places in America — would seem to suggest that biking is not a terrible, crazy, death-defying idea. And yet the “What if???” brigade will always have its say. I agree: WE DO NOT WANT KIDS BEING MOWED DOWN BY MINIVANS! But here’s a great stat that I state in my book, too: HALF of all the kids injured by cars near schools are injured by cars dropping off OTHER kids at the school. So if we just scaled back on the chauffeuring, we’d already have a much safer route to school. Go Arlington! Get those kids pedaling! (And the next idea being contemplated there: Getting kids to ride to their ball game practices. Imagine!) — Lenore

Some day, Arlington. Some day!