Guest Post by Greg Olear: Swan Song for Swings?

 Hi Folks! Here’s a guest post from Greg Olear, senior editor of The Nervous Breakdown and the author of the novels Totally Killer (Harper, 2009) and the brand-spanking-new Fathermucker, which concerns a single tumultuous day in the life of a stay-at-home dad. I absolutely adored Fathermucker — soooo funny and soooo spot-on about parenting foibles (every single, crazy one of them!!!!!!) — that I am delighted he’s writing here today! — L.

Swing No, Sweet Preschooler By Greg Olear

Last year, for a variety of reasons, we decided to move from the idyllic Hudson Valley to my hometown in no-longer-idyllic New Jersey.  Our son would be entering kindergarten in one of the best school districts in the country—the main impetus for our move—and it fell to me to find a suitable preschool for our daughter.

This proved more difficult than anticipated.  For one thing, my hometown had become, to my solidly-middle-class astonishment, the sort of tony suburb where you had to fork over 75 bucks to apply to a preschool. As we were new in town and thus late in the application process, this meant we’d quite possibly be paying $75 a pop for fancy letters regretting to inform us that enrollment was closed.  So we had to choose prudently.

One afternoon, my wife and I took a drive around town to tour the various preschools.  It was Sunday, so they were all closed. All we could do was check out the playgrounds.  And that’s when we noticed something unusual.

“These playgrounds all suck,” my wife said.

She was right.  Compared to the glorious expanse of fun our daughter had grown accustomed to at her preschool in upstate New York, these Jersey playgrounds were downright pathetic: small, cramped, and devoid of any remotely interesting equipment.  They looked more like pens for dogs than playgrounds for kids.

And then we realized, simultaneously, what was missing: “No swings!”

It was true—not one of these pricey preschools was endowed with a single swingset.  We guessed at reasons: lack of adequate space was the best one we could come up with (northern Jersey has become, in the years since I last lived there, as densely populated as an actual city).

Ultimately, we opted to send our daughter to a brand-spanking new preschool the next town over, even though it, like all the others, did not have a swingset.  We asked about this deficiency during the interview.

“The state inspectors strongly advised us against it,” the director told us.

“Why?”

“There are concerns that a small child might choke.”

“Choke?”

“You should have seen this great slide I bought for the playground,” she said wistfully.  “I had to return it.”

There are two ways you can get hurt on a swing: 1) The swingset breaks, or 2) You let go.  That’s it.  (Contrary to urban legend, it is physically impossible for a child not wearing a jetpack to swing high enough to go over the top.)  But choking?  How exactly would someone choke on a swingset?  Why are we — that is, why are insurance companies, who charge prohibitive premiums in New Jersey for preschool swings —worried about this?  Has this ever happened in the history of time?*

I thought of my own childhood, the countless hours my two- and three-year-old self spent contentedly swinging back and forth and back and forth.  There was nothing I enjoyed more than that. But kids in my hometown would now be deprived of that pleasure, because of the bureaucratic fear of an outcome that is about as likely as alien abduction.

The school we chose proved terrific — great teachers, ambitious curriculum, etc. My daughter, now a kindergartener, loved it there so much, she likes to go back for lengthy visits during her vacations.  But she may have loved it even more if there were swings.

*Apparently, it has.  According to safekids.org, 147 children perished from “playground equipment-related injuries” from 1990-2000. Most were on equipment at a private home, but about 40 weren’t. (That is, four a year.) And strangulation — usually caused when the pull-cord from a sweatshirt gets caught on the equipment — was the leading cause of those 147 deaths. I couldn’t locate statistics for swingset strangulation deaths specifically, but it seems, to me, highly improbable, way more improbable than being struck by lightning. — G.O. 

Is this child in grave danger? New Jersey says, "YES!"

Blind and Free-Range

Hi Readers — This is an inspiring column by Peter White, an English broadcaster who’s blind. It reminds me that our job as parents is to believe in our kids — to believe they can rise to a challenge.

On the road (and as I film my reality show), I hear from a lot of parents who think it is dangerous to let their kids do anything on their own — walk to school, babysit, take a bus, you name it — because they might get hurt or frustrated. I hope that some of those parents read this essay, because here’s what happens when we DO say (heart in throat): “Go for it, honey.”  We pick up where Mr. White is recalling how his mom let him learn how to ride a bike:

I didn’t understand it then, but I know now it took great courage for her to do what she did. The interesting thing is that the special blind boarding schools to which we were sent were equally uninhibited. At my secondary school in Worcester we were positively encouraged – no, actually forced – to go out alone, or accompanied only by another blind friend. The 4 o’clock walk was compulsory: nobody asked where you were going, or whether you had the skills to get there. And when things went wrong, the school faced them with almost unbelievable sang-froid. When I was 12, I had a road accident. My parents were informed of this in a terse letter: “Peter has had a slight brush with a lorry. No serious harm done.”

After this incident, a few half-hearted rules were introduced about who should be allowed to wander about unsupervised, but they were quickly abandoned. Nothing interfered with the custom of Founder’s Day, where every pupil was given five shillings, and sent out for the day – a kind of ultimate 4 o’clock walk. I once managed to hitchhike the 200 or so miles home to Winchester and back. Returning to school just after midnight, I received a mild reprimand, and congratulations for having had the initiative to enlist the help of the police in getting my last, after-dark lift. But I was far from the boldest. The school bred adventurers, roaming the city and beyond. There were always a handful with girlfriends, off to parties and pubs, clambering back into school at night up drainpipes and through windows.

It’s hardly surprising that, growing up in this environment, the world held few terrors for us.

Only one word besides “blind” occurs to me to describe those kids and ironically it’s this: Lucky. — L.

Guest Post: Home of the “Brave”?

Hi Readers! — Some thoughts on how easily we criminalize erstwhile normal behavior. These are brought to us by Ann Sattley, a stay-at-home mother of two boys and author of the book Technically, That’s Illegal: An Experiment in Following the Rules and the blog of the same name,where she questions the efficacy of many laws.

The Home of the (lol) “Brave”? by Ann Sattley

When we say that the United States is the “Home of the Brave,” we must not be talking about our children or their parents. We can’t very well be the home of the brave if we run out and buy every new safety item and are concerned about our children’s eyes being damaged by the glare on notebook paper.

Besides the sundry products that are marketed to (over) protect our children, there are also laws that are selectively enforced based on whether a child was involved. No, I’m not talking about molestation or child endangerment. Those things are heinous. I’m talking about people getting fined and arrested for simply scaring a child.

In Idaho, a man was asked by the police not to wear his bunny suit anymore. He wore the suit in his own yard. I don’t know why he likes to wear the suit, but I do know why he was told by the police not to do so – because it frightened some children. What kind of children are these? When I was young, I would probably have followed a person in a bunny suit expecting to get some candy out of the ordeal. Maybe the children will feel differently around Easter time. Until then, the bunny suit is considered a public nuisance, and the man could be guilty of disturbing the peace — and traumatizing children.

You know what else is traumatic for a child? Witnessing a wine tasting. In Maine, any child under 15 is protected from such audacious displays of wanton disregard for civility. This law intends to prevent any child from even catching a glimpse of someone with a wine glass in their hand at a public event. Having blinds over the windows and doors is not sufficiently protective because a child might happen to glance into the room when the door was partially open. The sensitive child would then go home, cry himself to sleep and wake up deciding to become an alcoholic.

Imagine the precedent we set if simply upsetting a child or his or her parent would result in criminal charges. It upsets me that some people in my neighborhood don’t bother to recycle. It bothers me when young women wear a sports bra with no shirt on to run past my house. Although I’m sure this won’t bother my young sons in a few years, there has to be room for criminal charges in there somewhere.

If we looked for opportunities to help and empathize with our neighbors as much as we look for ways in which we can criminalize their behavior, we might revert to being the home of the brave. Until then, we’ll call the police when something annoying happens. — Ann Sattley

Why It Feels Like Kids are Being Kidnapped All the Time

Hi Folks! So many people I talk to (especially for my upcoming show) are convinced that children area being kidnapped all the time, everywhere, that they cannot let their children go outside on their own. Here’s a succinct look at why parents feel this way, as presented in a comment by the reader whose screen name is “Socalledauthor.” – L.

Socalledauthor writes: Child abductions are not more frequent now than they were, however, they ARE more publicized.  In my town (a semi-rural area), there was a child abducted in 1928.  It got about two paragraphs in the local paper about how she was walking home from school and didn’t make it… when she was found, there was another small article.

Also in my town, in the last year, there was a child who went “missing.”  For four days there were articles on him and what was known about his last whereabouts and how to keep children safe.  FOUR DAYS of articles… and then, a short blurb (maybe four paragraphs) when it was revealed that he’d spent the time at a friend’s house because he was mad at his parents.

The point here is the difference in media coverage.  Day after day, the front page of our local paper was about this missing boy.  It makes it seem like the problem is bigger than it is.  Conversely, my local paper gives only a paragraph every day or so to those hurt or killed in a car accident — because it happens so often that it has become common!

Fear does not equal fact.  Just because you feel something is true does not make it so.

By the way, if you turn off the TV, you’ll find the world a less fearful place!

Guest Post: “Five Freedoms I Had that My Daughter Won’t”

Hi Readers — Here’s a lovely piece by Kerala Taylor, senior manager of online content & outreach at KaBOOM, the organization dedicated to making sure every kid has a playground nearby. (And even plays in it!) KaBOOM has a “Back to School Pledge” folks can sign, to defend school day playtime. Naturally, I signed it! — L. 

Five Freedoms I Had at School that My Daughter Won’t, by Kerala Taylor

At six months pregnant, like most moms and moms-to-be, I’m finding plenty of things to worry about. When I’m not fretting over my daily calcium intake or environmentally friendly diaper options, I find myself plagued with anxiety about the longer-term realities of childrearing today.

I want to give my daughter the freedom I enjoyed as a child—freedom to move, imagine, and create. But in today’s paranoid, litigious, and test-happy culture, will I be able to? As kids across the country head back to school, and as I watch my belly swell, I’ve been thinking a lot about the freedoms I had in school that most kids these days don’t enjoy.

  1. I had two recess periods every day. More and more kids are finding they have to rush through lunch to enjoy a precious few minutes of recess. Some kids aren’t getting any recess at all, despite the overwhelming body of evidence that shows kids need recess to focus in the classroom. This child sums it up perfectly: “I get this feeling in my legs when they want to run and that feeling moves up to my belly and when that feeling moves up to my head I can’t remember what the rules are.”
  1. I got hurt sometimes—and no one freaked out. I suffered plenty of scrapes and bruises on the playground, and once limped around for a week after falling from the monkey bars. But no one ever told me to stop running, or even considered the possibility of taking away the monkey bars! These days, the fear of lawsuits from relatively minor injuries are prompting schools to not only remove see saws and swings from schoolyards, but to ban tag, touch football, and yes, even running.
  1. I played inside and outside the classroom. I made a paper maché globe in geography, dug up “dinosaur” bones from the sandbox in science, and took regular field trips (on, gasp, public city buses!). Now, the pressures of standardized testing are forcing teachers to forego such creative, hands-on pursuits. After all, how will paper maché teach students which bubble to mark with their No. 2 pencil?
  1. I took a school-sponsored week-long camping trip every year, starting in the first grade. Playing in nature comes intuitively to children; nature is rife with opportunities to splash, dig, climb, run, and explore. Unfortunately, nature is also rife with potential “dangers” that today’s bubble-wrapped children must be protected from at all costs. And as studies find that kids of helicopter parents have trouble functioning on their own in college, can we expect today’s first graders to be independent enough to spend a whole week away from home?
  1. I played after school. I didn’t participate in any organized sports until sixth grade and my homework in elementary school was minimal. That meant more time for free play. Yet since the 1970s, as schools pile on more homework and kids get roped into more structured activities, children have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play.

Why are we taking these freedoms away from our children? We say we’re protecting them from harm, or we’re helping them succeed academically, or we’re preserving their fragile egos. But more often than not, the reality is that we’re slowly eroding the very essence of what it means to be a child. We’re not only making childhood less fun, we’re actually stunting our kids’ physical, social, cognitive, and creative development.

As a Free-Range stepmom and mom-to-be, I’m used to feeling isolated, enraged, and just plain exasperated. But I know I’m not alone! I say, let’s join forces to save play in our nation’s schools—we can start by signing this Back-to-School Pledge.

We are not powerless to curb the rising tides of paranoia, testing-frenzy, and blatant disregard for the health and well-being of our children. It’s when like-minded parents connect—whether on this blog, in the neighborhood, or in PTA meetings—that we can channel our frustrations into action and restore some good old-fashioned common sense. – K.T.

Guest Post: What’s Wrong with This Lemonade Stand?

Hi Folks! Here’s a big chunk of a wonderful essay by my friend and fellow journalist Christopher Moore, published in the New York weekly, Our Town. I guess when life hands you lemonade…write a column:

Lemonade Stand-ing Watch by Christopher Moore

At least in my Manhattan ’hood, there are a crazy number of kids out on the sidewalks hawking cold—or at least cold-ish—beverages. The only problem: their parents are out there with them.

The overprotective parent strikes again. And these adults can dramatically change the you’re-on-your-own tradition for kids with summertime stands.

Yes, this is a case of a person without kids criticizing parents, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. These kids will be running my nursing home, and I want them to be capable and able to think for themselves. Anyway, if our neighbors can proudly go public with their overparenting, the rest of us surely have a right to notice.

I wasn’t having all these big thoughts the day my partner and I stopped on West End Avenue at a lemonade stand. I liked it. The two girls—my guess is they were around 9 or 10—sold us a couple of plastic cups filled with what tasted a lot more like Crystal Light than homemade lemonade. The girls took the money and delivered the beverages with a pleasant demeanor. All in all, it would have to be considered a better-than-average commercial transaction in present-day New York.

Later, lemonade stands started popping up everywhere. They felt delightfully small-town without anyone having to give up access to Lincoln Center. Seeing youngsters take to the city streets with such enthusiasm can make a tangible, positive difference in how many of us relate to our neighborhoods. With the children, though, can come some pretty conspicuous parents. Like the mom yakking on her cell phone, creating enough of a scene that the children with her seemed like accessories. Mom was there but, thanks to the cell phone, she was also not there. Our modern problem.

A few days later, there was the dad…

Read the rest right here! And follow Chris on Twitter thusly: @cmoorenyc. And, heck, contact him yourself at  ccmnj@aol.com.

Quit Trying to be So Safe!

Hi Readers! This was a comment on the post two below this one, and I was nodding along so much, I decided to give it its own post. It’s by a woman named Nanci, who describes herself as “a Midwest mom of two.” — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: ….  I really think the bottom line problem is that our society today is “too safe.”  When we begin to defeat all the things that used to be dangerous, we lose quite a bit of perspective.  We start to gauge safety/danger against absolute safety.

One hundred and fifty years ago it was almost unheard of for any family to have all of its children survive to adulthood.  There were so many dangers back then, from diseases to wild animals, to harsh living conditions, to dangerous machinery and so on.  Everyone expected people to die.  No one looked for someone to blame when a particularly cold winter claimed many lives, or an outbreak of typhus swept through.  Even 75 years ago young people were being killed by polio and world wars.

Nowadays, though, America is so safe that we have begun to see death as unnatural, especially the death of a child. “Surely something can be done to prevent it!  Surely if the parents would have just done a better job, been more vigilant, their child would be okay!” And so now we have generations growing up with the idea that if you protect enough you can prevent any tragedy. This is America, it’s 2011, we have good hospitals, doctors, everything is state of the art, surely there is no place in this society for children to die!

And now, after anything that kills a child, no matter how freakish the accident,  a product appears on the market within months that would have prevented it (and normal life) from happening.

In Third World countries they do not have these issues with Free-Range Parenting.  There, because children do still die, at least the parents have the freedom to live without the fear that they will be blamed if they don’t create a absolutely safe environment for their children.  They know it’s impossible! Unfortunately in America we are so close to complete safety that we can’t see that it’s an illusion that will destroy us if we seek it.

There has never been a safer place or time in history to raise children than America in 2011, and yet parents are more paranoid than they have ever been.  Parents today will only accept absolute safety, nothing less. Unfortunately the victims of this screwed-up thinking are their children, and eventually all of us, because as we all know the children are the future.  Too bad this next generation will be living in their parents’ basements playing video games into their 30s. — Nanci

Guest Post: Free-Range…in a Group Home

Hi Readers — Here’s a guest post from Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a very cool, national nonprofit trying to ensure a playground within walking distance of every child. Hammond is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. So read this while you send the kids outside! — L

THE HIDDEN “PRIVILEGE” OF AN UNPRIVILEGED CHILDHOOD, by DARRELL HAMMOND

When I was 19 months old, my father went to unload a truck and never came back. My mother, who was left to care for eight children, didn’t raise us Free-Range on principle, but rather by default. She had to work multiple jobs, so we were left on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner was often butter and sugar sandwiches on white bread. My older siblings started skipping school, ostensibly to take care of us younger ones, but they sometimes ended up getting into trouble instead.

Eventually the bills piled up and my siblings’ frequent absences from school caught the attention of social workers. When I was four, we were all transferred to Mooseheart, a group home outside of Chicago. In many ways, life at Mooseheart was both Spartan and structured. I stored all my belongings in a single trunk; I shared a room with 23 other boys; I was summoned to classes, meals, and other activities by a whistle; and I needed written permission to move from one building to another during school hours and after dark.

But within this structure, I actually had an ample amount of freedom—more than many kids, including so-called “privileged” kids, enjoy today. For one thing, with about 1,200 acres of lush lawns, playgrounds, athletic fields, and basketball courts, Mooseheart was full of outdoor spaces for roaming and playing. And I always had other kids to play with. Rarely in my free time did I have an adult hovering over my shoulder—there simply weren’t enough adults to go around.

My childhood was unusual, yes, and certainly not desirable in every way, but it was my group home upbringing that initially opened my eyes to the importance of strong communities and of free play—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. It was Mooseheart that set me on the path to founding a community-building nonprofit dedicated to saving play—a journey I detail in my new memoir, KaBOOM!.

The Free-Range movement is often misinterpreted as a movement that gives parents license to be reckless, lax, and neglectful. Critics completely gloss over the vital role of community in the Free-Range philosophy. Say the words “child-directed free play” and they don’t envision a group of neighborhood children looking out for one another as they invent games, create new worlds, and explore their surroundings. No, instead they are haunted by images of stray kids running wild in heavily trafficked streets or careening helmetless downhill on their bikes (of course, as the pedophiles and child-snatchers lurking on every corner look on).

Beyond all the paranoia and hyperbole, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding. Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure—I know, because I lived it.

I would never advocate for children eating butter and sugar sandwiches for dinner, spending Christmas alone, or routinely missing school. But freedom within a strong, healthy, nourishing community—that’s what every child needs and deserves. – D.H.

“Leiby’s Law” Would Not Have Saved Leiby

Hi Readers — This post was sent to me by Mendel Klein, a Brooklyn father and a pediatric occupational therapist who writes about the benefits of letting children fail over at, yes,  Let Your Child Fail. — L

Leiby’s Law Wouldn’t have Prevented Leiby Kletzky’s Death

Here we go again. While Leiby Kletzky’s parents and sisters were still sitting the seven days of shiva,  mourning the brutal killing of their son, politicians in our community were already announcing a law in reaction to the terrible tragedy that struck them.

No need to guess what the law is called. It’s Leiby’s Law. The politicians are proposing that homeowners and store owners be able to voluntarily  submit themselves to criminal background checks and, if cleared, get a large, bright green sticker symbolizing that location as a safe-haven for lost children.

It has now become customary to propose and pass laws in reaction to tragedies that involve children. Some of these laws are helpful, but others, like this one, aren’t.

In reaction to Caylee Anthony’s death, or rather in reaction to her mother’s acquittal, there’s been a push for Caylee’s law, which would make it a crime not to report a missing child. As was pointed out here, Caylee’s law could make many of us criminals. And as Lenore wrote, next people are going to propose a law against mothers buying duct tape.

Here’s what’s wrong with Leiby’s Law. Levi Aron, young Leiby’s confessed killer, would have passed a criminal background check with flying colors. The New York police commissioner, Ray Kelly, made it clear that Aron had no criminal record. Even Aron’s ex-wife was saying how great he was with kids.

I don’t want to accuse politicians of opportunism, so I’ll stay away from that angle, although you may fill in the blanks. Still, this law (if you even want to call it a law) is ridiculous.

In the aftermath of tragedy people propose new regulations thinking that if only that law had been in effect at the time, the tragedy wouldn’t have happened. But in this case, while little Leiby Kletzky could have gone into a store or home sporting a green sticker on its window, that store or home could have been owned by a killer with no previous criminal record.

That is actually what happened.

Levi Aron was a person of Leiby’s community, my community. He looked like a community member to Leiby. Leiby likely trusted him. It’s exactly the same as if he had a green sticker. And that unfortunately didn’t prevent Leiby from being kidnapped and killed.

And yet, I can already imagine people starting to say, “Oh we only shop at stores that have green stickers, you know — the good stores. We are supporters of Leiby’s Law.” Or, “That store owner must be a child killer. Why else doesn’t he have a green sticker?”

Passing laws might boost politicians’ profiles. Petitioning for these laws might make us feel good. But reacting in these ways also boosts our fear and paranoia, while making our children no safer. It’s time to vote nay on these retroactive, post-mortem, feel-good laws, no matter whose name is attached. — M.K.

Guest Post: The Up-Side of Downsizing

Hi Readers! Here’s a seasonal  essay by Corbyn Hightower, a writer and mom of three in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA. She has six chickens and a “disobedient husband.” More of her work can be found at www.corbynhightower.com. — L.

SIMPLY SUMMER by Corbyn Hightower

My oldest child—a preteen—is having a friend spend the night. I’m surprised how self-conscious I am on my daughter’s behalf. We haven’t many guests since the recession demanded that we downsize our life, at which point we sold our only car, axed the cable and Internet, and moved into a shabby old house by the rail yard.

It’s really hot inside, and there’s no air conditioning. Some doors don’t have knobs. Our chickens have rendered the back yard unusable, and our driveway has been taken over by raised garden beds. What we lack in decorum we make up for in freedom from too many Rules About Things.

The guest says, “Your house is colorful.” I look at this crumbling place and I see the salvation of its underpriced square-footage and prolific fruit trees. This has been safe harbor, even with the nearby train tracks. I bite back apologetic explanations for the bicycles in the dining room and the cords from all the whirring fans that kept us from wilting in this destructive heat. We harvested pounds of squash from our garden, and that’s going to comprise the bulk of our dinner. My husband steams it, seasons it lightly, and serves it with a pot of brown rice. Our young houseguest eats heartily.

The next day it’s just so hot, and our little neighborhood creek bubbles below the foot bridge with promise of relief. I send the older girls out, where they will break small green branches from the fennel plants that grow in great fluffy drifts on the shore. They will have to climb through the remains of a concrete ditch, make way under a bridge festooned with lovers’ graffiti, and wade through the murky water to get to the small, hidden beach made of smooth stones and small shells.

They return muddy, sun-pinked, and happy. They’ve collected fistfuls of fennel along with small glittering rocks and treasures. Our new friend has gotten splinter on her foot. I make up a warm footbath with crushed lavender, and my son tells her that it will help with the splinter, and with her emotions, too. “It’ll make you feel okay until it gets better. It will give you a peaceful feeling.” I smooth her hair down and kiss the top of her head, our initiate. She holds her foot up to me to investigate.

Later, I send my five-year-old out to water the garden. The tomato plants have blooms, and the other plants are straining upward, not full-grown but strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of the season. The sparkling flavor and seeds made them taste almost carbonated.

My children will have a summer of these simple memories, ones in which I participate, and others where my only job is to remove the splinters and wash off the mud upon their return.