An After-school Provider Laments the Crazy Rules

Hi Folks! Here’s yet another look at some insanely overprotective, unproductive rules governing anything having to do with kids. This rant/lament comes from Rick Rood, director of an on-site after-school child care program in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He has worked in the profession since 1990, and provides workshops and coaching for education professionals who work with school-age children.  He blogs at AfterschoolAnswers and is currently finishing his new book, “The Three Secret Pillars of Behavior Guidance,” even while he and his wife are raising kids aged 5, 16, and 17. This note came in response to a post about a YMCA that wouldn’t let a mom bring her 3-year-old in to use the bathroom because this was against the rules. – L

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I run an after-school program, and if that parent had come to our center, I would’ve had to tell them the same exact thing.  Our organization (we’re a string of 16 centers run by a rec and park organization) has a policy that outsiders are not allowed to use our restrooms. Why not?

One simple reason — liability.  The (very) sad fact is that the policy comes from our insurance company. I do my best to be a “Free-Range” director.  I don’t make these policies, and there are many rules and regulations with which I personally don’t agree. But it goes deeper than that.  Because of this “bubble-wrap” mentality, out-of-school-time staff have become more and more infected over the years with this insidious “worst-case scenario” type of thinking.

Some examples? Recently one of my teachers reported me to my boss for a Free-Range comment I had made.  One day, one of our children decided to sneak away from school and not come to the afterschool program.  This resourceful 8-year-old made it pretty much clear across our medium-sized town, heading to a friend’s house.  We followed our policies when he didn’t show up to our program: parents and police were called, and they tracked him down in pretty short order. After the dust had settled, I made a comment to one of our teachers (who I mistakenly figured held similar Free-Range ideas), saying that, while it was good that we found the boy, I was impressed with the boy’s resourcefulness and that maybe, as a culture, we shouldn’t call up visions of child molesters and abductors every time something doesn’t go as planned. The teacher went to my boss, and told her that he didn’t think I was very serious about protecting the children in our care.

Another policy: Kids can’t walk home on their own.  Again, liability.  How much could we be sued for if a kid breaks their leg or goes missing on the short walk home (we’re a neighborhood school),  even if the parent has given permission?  Frustrating to me because the odds that nothing bad will happen within a two-block walk are pretty astronomical, and then add to that the VERY tiny chance that their parent will pursue legal action (these are parents that we, as a rule, work together with as partners- and we have very good relationships with our parents).

Here’s a corker. Our local Little League uses the fields on our school grounds for practice and games.  Can we release the kids to just walk across the field (again on the SAME physical grounds) to practice?  Heck no… we require a “responsible adult” to come and sign them out and walk them the 100 yards to practice).  And, even better, by policy that “responsible adult” cannot be one of our staff members (even if the parents say it’s okay and we walk them every step of the way).

Finally, here’s a spot where I’ve rebelled (although quietly). At one of our “sister centers” (on the grounds of another local school)… they had a kindergartner who fell off the monkey bars while playing in the afterschool program and broke her arm.  Immediately, and with almost scary domino-like action, many of the other local centers (including the one in question) banned kindergarteners from the play structures (even though they’re labeled for use by kids 5-12 years of age).  No one ever made it an official policy, so my kindergarteners continue to enjoy play time on the play structure.

My main philosophy in afterschool care is that we exist to facilitate the emotional and social growth of children.  And if we’re going to succumb to the bubble-wrap philosophy of raising kids, then our mission is doomed from the start! At my center, kids will be allowed to play freely on the play structure, kids will be allowed to wrestle in the grass, and I will make free range choices in every area where they have not already been banned and by the regulating agencies, lawyers and insurance adjusters.  And unlike some of my fellow co-workers, I will not succumb to the “worst-first” type of thinking that stunts the social and emotional growth of the next generation. – Rick Rood

School Outrage of the Week: No Cartwheels Unless “Trained Gymnastics Teacher” Supervising

Hi Readers! If you send your kids to the Drummoyne publics grammar school in Sydney, kindly instruct them to stay upright their whole day, as cartwheels, head- and handstands are no longer allowed unless  “under the supervision of a trained gymnastics teacher and with correct equipment,”‘  according to the Local West Courrier.

The ruling comes from the principal who is worried abut (all together now) INJURIES and LIABILITY, the twin Dementors driving schools crazy with fear and dread. The fact that the school just re-surfaced its playground with soft stuff to make falls even safer plays no role. Or perhaps it plays it usual PERVERSE role: The safer things get, the more safety we demand.

Rebecca Chown, the mother of Estelle, 10, an unrepentent cartwheel enthusiast, started a pro-fun petition that already has s250 signatures. According to The Telegraph:

Ms Chown first heard about the ban when her daughter Estelle, 10, came home on August 17 and said children had been told they couldn’t do anything that had them “upside-down”.

Estelle said: “It’s really frustrating because they ban everything and there is not much else for us to do.”

While Ms Chown said she understood the risks, children were playing, not training to be gymnasts.

Instead, we’re training kids to sit and blob out, all in the name of safety. Oh, and don’t be joyous either, kids. For your own sake. — L

AND HERE’S A DRAMATIC 38-SECOND RE-ENACTMENT OF THE BAN, STARRING THE GIRLS OF ROSMARINS BUNGALOW COLONY

Guest Post: The Bucky Balls Ban

Hi Readers! The Buckyballs ban is getting a lot of press. Here’s a piece in today’s NY Times, which references this oped by Michelle Malkin, And here is the official Consumer Product Safety Commission’s complaint. It notes that since 2009, there have been two dozen reports of magnet-induced injuries to children, including “at least one dozen involving Buckyballs. Surgery was required in many of incidents.” (It doesn’t say how many.)

In press coverage of the issue, generally someone whose child was hurt gets interviewed. Here’s a reader whose child was affected another way.  – L

Dear Free-Range Kids: Did you see the news about BuckyBalls being banned? BuckyBalls are little metal balls that look like bb pellets, only they’re magnets. It’s a desktop “toy” meant for adults… which it clearly states on the packaging, the website, their twitter feed… I heard a rumor that the company CEO has it tattooed across his forehead. http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2012/07/buckyballs-banned/

So why does the goverment want them banned? Well, in the past 4 years, and after MILLIONS of sales of these little magnetic balls of joy, 20 kids managed to swallow the magnets, which is a dangerous thing to do. The balls are magnetic and can wreak havoc on a digestive system, especially if they were unfortunate enough to swallow more than one.

This is a bad thing, but I’d like to point out, AGAIN, that it states on the packaging that it is definitely, totally, and 100% not meant for little kids. They even went so far as to give it an age cut off at 13 and up! THIRTEEN! These are magnets! The size of bb’s! I personally find it a little overboard. I mean, hopefully by the time the kid is 12, his parents have broken him of the habit of sticking strange metal objects into his mouth.

So why is the government suing the company that makes BuckyBalls? I mean it’s a U.S. based company that employs lots of people, you’d think that shutting them down would not be in our best interest. But no, the government’s complaint is that the 13+ age limit is not enough. They insist that the the packaging should read 14+. Because, you know, there’s a huge difference between 13 and 14, I guess. [Lenore interjects: I actually think they want them to not be sold to anyone of any age.] And also the government believes that 13 year olds are idiots and can’t be trusted around shiny things.

Disclaimer: I have several packages of these BuckyBalls. AND I have a 13 year old. We bought the BuckyBalls for my husband as a neat thing to fiddle with on his desk at work. But my son was fascinated with them from the get-go. Of course we reminded him that shiny things are not necessarily edible things (for which he stared at us like we had grown two extra heads. I mean, DUH, guys. Parents are so weird.) We also stressed the importance of being careful not to lose the balls as we do have pets, and although neither my dog nor my cats have ever tried to swallow anything that wasn’t made of fish and/ or whatever is in those brown kibble things doggies eat, I didn’t want to take the chance as none of my pets have learned English yet and I was unable to give them the shiny-things-are-not-food talk. Well, I mean, I did give them the talk, but I don’t know if it really sunk in. They just kind of looked at me. Then my cat started to lick herself and my dog got distracted by the squirrels in our front yard.

As I was saying. My 13-year-old son became fascinated with the BuckyBalls and was allowed to play with them in my husband’s office. We noticed that he was going in there to play with them almost daily, making all kinds of intricate shapes with them, picking up paperclips with them, modeling things… all that jazz. We ended up purchasing a larger set of magnets and he’s been constructing and experimenting with them as well. (These new magnets are the size of marbles, and although they’re still not a good thing to swallow, the package for these magnets says they are only made for children over the age of 3. I have no idea why there’s a difference, except that perhaps the BuckyBall magnets are stronger.)

And Caleb’s fascination with magnets hasn’t ended there. It sparked an interest in geology in general, which has recently morphed into an interest in archeology. This week he’s hanging out with his grandfather at the beach where Caleb is taking his new metal detector out for a spin! (A metal detector with an electro-magnetic coil in the head, he tells me. MAGNETS. They are AWESOME, Mom.)

So you might understand why I’d be so baffled about the government deciding that BuckyBalls, or any small magnet, I assume, was too dangerous for kids to experiment with. I thought you might be interested to know about this development as well. I remember that a few years ago you talked about the Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs that Canadian children get to partake in, but U.S. children can only read about online. I have a feeling that if the government has its way, BuckyBalls will go the way of the Kinder Egg. Sorry this was so long! Cheers, Julie

Man on Plane Must Change Seats — He’s Next to 2 Boys. Australians Outraged!

Hey Folks! Encouraging news in our war on predator panic! Over in Australia, on Virgin, a man named Johnny McGirr, 33, was seated next to two unaccompanied boys, aged about 8 and 10. The stewardess made him move because that’s the airline’s policy: Women can sit next to kids, men are apparently just too likely to pounce.

McGirr — a fireman — was understandably embarrassed. He blogged about it and now he’s everywhere in the Australian media today, saying: “[The attitude of the airline] is ‘we respect you but as soon as you board a Virgin airline you are a potential paedophile’, and that strips away all the good that any male does regardless of his standing in society, his profession or his moral attitudes.”

He also had a new suggestion for Virgin, to keep people safe:

No male should sit next to anyone. A spare seat will be allocated next to any male at any time to ensure the safety of women and children.

Virgin — Jeez what a name for this story — is now reconsidering its policy, the way British Airways did a few years back. (Remember this incident? And its outcome?) But perhaps even better is that the Sydney Morning Herald reports more than 44,000 readers nationwide responded to an online poll about  the policy, and 87 % agreed it’s  ‘‘sexist and suggests all men are potential pedophiles.”

They sound like Free-Rangers!  – L

Maybe all children are not in danger from all men at all times?

You Can Babysit at 12…But You Must Be Dropped Off at the Babysitting Class by Your Mom

Hi Readers! Let’s call this a “Catch 12”: you are old enough to do something independent, but not allowed to do it independently: 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve got my 11 & 12 year old sons registered to take a babysitting class through our local children’s medical center.  The reminder email stated:

Accompany your child into the building and to the classroom. Please allow 5 minutes to park, find the room, and to check your child in.

Please send a water bottle, lunch and snack with your child. There is no cafeteria available.  (Because clearly, neither I nor my kids would think of this on our own for a class that runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.!)

Class ends promptly at 2 p.m. Please arrive to the classroom by 1:50 p.m. for a summary of the day and to pick up your child. For your child’s safety please let the instructor know if you plan to have someone other than yourself pick up your child from the classroom.

So I replied:

Hi, my kids have been learning how to bus around town this summer.  Are they not allowed to arrive without an adult?  What about leaving on their own?

Thanks, Cheryl

Here’s their response:

Cheryl,

We really appreciate you checking in on this ahead of time. Due to safety concerns, it is our standard practice to ask that a parent or caregiver accompany the child to the class. The instructor checks each student in and confirms an emergency contact number with the adult. We also ask that the instructor see each child leave with a parent, caregiver or designated adult.

I apologize if this causes any scheduling concerns for you. If you’d like to schedule your child for a different class that occurs when you can accompany them, we’d be happy to waive the transfer fee and schedule them in a class with availability. Let me know if you want to do that or if you have any questions.

Thanks again for contacting us with the question. I hope your child enjoys the upcoming class!

And my reply:

I can make it happen, it’s just kind of silly that kids who are to be responsible for little ones aren’t given a chance to be responsible for themselves. It’s also not good for the environment, my time or our gas budget.

Does it make a difference if it’s two siblings that would be traveling together?

I haven’t heard back from them yet.  Isn’t this just ridiculous?!  I won’t stop being a Free-Range Parent, but goodness, sometimes it’s just so dang tiring dealing with friends, family, society, etc. that think I’m crazy for letting my kids do things like walk, bike, and bus around town; for working for neighbors; and you know the rest! ~~Cheryl 

What Do Lawsuits Have in Common with Predators?

Hi Readers! Here’s a really thought-provoking piece about the OTHER fear haunting parents — and schools and parks departments and congregations and day care centers and scouting groups and…you get the idea. Read on! – L
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Dear Free-Range Kids: This blog is all about how the fear of injury, disease, abduction, or low IQ has turned parents into helicopters and locked our kids inside.  After reading “Commandment Five: Don’t Think Like A Lawyer” in Lenore’s (utterly awesome and enlightening) book, Free Range Kids, I was prompted to write to her about a different fear: the fear of lawsuits. I am a lawyer, and today I want to help debunk the myth that our country is a collection of litigious jerks against whom we must protect ourselves diligently (a myth which persists even though most of us have never actually met one of these litigious jerks).  First, I want to talk about lawsuits in general, and then I’ll talk about lawsuits and parenting.

Things to know about lawsuits in general

I am a law clerk for a judge in a trial court. “Trial court” just means we don’t handle appeals–we’re the lowest level court, which all judicial matters have to go through first. My courtroom handles a civil docket, which means we handle handle almost everything that isn’t divorce or criminal matters–this predominantly means lawsuits. I have been in this job for two years, and I have seen over 2,000 individual cases just in my courtroom alone. I also chat with the other law clerks in the other courtrooms about our most interesting cases.  Frequently, we talk about the most  ridiculous ones. What’s most striking to me, though, is how infrequently those cases come up.  Keep in mind that each of us has approximately 1,000 cases a year, and 300 going at any one time.

In my time at court, I have seen perhaps 2 cases that were truly bunk.  These cases really stick out.  Of all my cases, that means that less than one percent of of them should never have been filed; one-tenth of one percent, in fact.  Most of my cases have some value.  And guess what?  Both of these bunk cases resolved in favor of the defense.  I’ll do you one better — neither were about crazy parents suing for stuff that happened (or could have happened) to their kids, nor were they brought against parents.  They were about adults doing stupid things and then suing to paper over their embarrassing mistakes.  Point being: the risk of a lawsuit by or against a parent is simply not that great.

The best stats I could find regarding the filing of bad lawsuits in general is here: http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/kritzer/research/rule11/rule11Jud.htm.  After doing the math from these statistics, I (with help from my engineer husband) determined that in only 28 out of every 10,000 cases were sanctions imposed on lawyers for bringing a frivolous case.  Once again, that’s less than 1%.

These are not perfect statistics, but it appears that they’re the best we have.  They also don’t speak to the issue directly at hand (i.e., how often parents, and not just people in general, sue for ridiculous reasons), but we can probably at least accept that parents just aren’t running to lawyers every time their kid stubs a toe.  Just as with all these other fears that Lenore highlights, the media hypes up the craziest cases, and the rest of us come away with the feeling that everyone is just looking for an excuse to sue. But that isn’t really the case.

Do people sue when they really have no reason to?  Yes.  But it’s such a tiny, fractional risk, it’s practically not worth worrying about.

If you do get sued, keep this in mind: when you finally get in front of a jury (which may not ever happen — the statistic thrown around in law school is that 94% of cases don’t ever get that far), the jury frequently assumes that the plaintiff is sue-crazy.  It’s unfortunate, but people really believe that we live in an era where everyone hires an attorney for every little bump.  And even if the plaintiff convinces them that their case has value, they get just enough money to handle medical bills and court costs – IF they’re lucky enough to get all that covered at all.  Contrary to popular belief, plaintiffs don’t just get an arbitrary amount of money according to how much a jury thinks they deserve — they have to prove it up, and show how much money an accident has cost them.  No one is getting an Italian villa, and even if a jury does try to award exorbitant damages, judges are able to reduce an unfair damage award.  Furthermore, most organizations have insurance in order to defend against lawsuits, and many people who may have children in their home are already covered by homeowners insurance.  So while a lawsuit is not fun, and can cause considerable expense and stress, it is also not likely to be the end of the world.

Lawsuits as they relate to parenting

I wish I could give more concrete stats about unnecessary lawsuits brought by or against parents, but they don’t exist.  (Although I’m sure that at this very moment, some anal retentive lawyer is carefully picking through every single case ever filed in the United States to compile them for you.)  I think we can agree that the statistics would probably follow along the same lines as the more general statistics listed above.  In other words, such a tiny risk that you shouldn’t even bother to worry about it.

But what if the school/daycare/supervising parent does make a mistake, a serious one, and a lawsuit is warranted?  We’re talking here not about frivolous suits, but the ones that could actually result in money awarded.  Obviously, this happens – but not as frequently as people think.  Please remember: (1) your child is unlikely to get injured or abducted in the first place, and (2) most people are reasonable and don’t want to be embroiled in a draining lawsuit even if they do have a really good case.  To repeat: even when parents may have a perfectly good lawsuit, that doesn’t mean they’re going to go to a lawyer.  I bet most of you have never met someone who was involved in one of these suits.  I asked around, and NONE of my fellow law clerks (about 20 of them), NOR the Judge that I work for (who has been on the bench for over 20 years), has seen a case brought by a parent to recover for an everyday childhood accident or violence by a stranger, even ones that have merit.  (I’m not including car accidents and medical malpractice – the types of things that are just as likely to injure adults.)  This is despite the fact that our court encompasses a very large school district.  That doesn’t mean these kinds of lawsuits don’t happen, but it does mean they don’t happen very much.  Most parents just want their kids to be ok, and maybe want medical bills paid for if it has come to that; they aren’t out to make your life miserable.

As a lawyer, I need to sign off by saying that I am NOT your attorney, and none of this constitutes legal advice.  But I hope it does make you feel a little bit better about the world your kids are living in.  The bottom line is that people aren’t as litigious as you’d think, and lawsuits by parents for normal childhood injuries are rare.

So what can we do about this massive, unwarranted fear of lawsuits?  We’d love to hear your ideas.

All the best! —Tiffany Gengelbach

Here are some ideas for helping to cut down on the fear of lawsuits:

(1) Try to spread the word that lawsuits really aren’t that common.  People love to talk about our litigious society, but that really isn’t true.  Most people would rather forego a completely reasonable lawsuit than be labeled “litigious” and go through the very difficult process that a lawsuit entails.  While you’re at it, maybe point out that lawsuits are seriously no fun, and are extremely stressful, time-consuming, and expensive – maybe that will discourage unnecessary lawsuits!
(2) Shame the heck out of the people who bring frivolous lawsuits (as opposed to constantly suggesting that “you should sue for that!!”, which I see all the time on internet comment boards).  The blog “Lowering the Bar” is a great resource for this: http://www.loweringthebar.net/
(3) Where you have the influence or power, try to get organizations to self-insure so that they aren’t subject to arbitrary rules by insurance companies.  Even though you pay them to defend you against lawsuits, insurance companies are afraid of having to spend their money on an unpredictable suit even though it probably won’t ever materialize.  It’s not their fault – they need to protect their business just like everyone else.  Still, they are looking out for every single little thing that could cause a lawsuit, no matter how unlikely.  This kind of thinking encourages fear and contributes to the feeling that a lawsuit is just a matter of time.
(4) Ask your state legislature to provide greater governmental immunity to schools for injuries.
(5) Ask your state legislature to add rules saying that parties who lose in court have to pay attorneys fees.  Right now, under the “American Rule,” each party must pay his own attorneys’ fees, except in certain limited circumstances.  Under the “English Rule,” the loser pays.  The English Rule could cut down on filing lawsuits and encourage people to talk things out ahead of time.
(6) Don’t be afraid to apologize when you’ve made someone upset.  Though you shouldn’t admit that you are liable for any damages, just connecting on a personal level can do wonders to avoid lawsuits.  A simple, “I’m so sorry little Kimmie got hurt,” is often a great way to soften someone.

Remember When We Fingerprinted CRIMINALS? Now We Fingerprint Coaches

Hi Readers: Two words — Jerry Sandusky — will be invoked for the next umpteen years to justify background checking every male who interacts with children. Let’s remind those folks that if anyone HAD background checked Jerry Sandusky he’d  have looked as trustworthy as a golden retriever. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My hubby who has been coaching our boys hockey for 16 years just received a letter from our police to come in and submit fingerprints in order for him to continue coaching.  The new policy requires this. Fingerprinting!! Never mind that we already have ‘safeguards’ in place.  Each team has at least 3 coaches and there must always be 2 coaches present with the players at all times if parents aren’t there.  Now they have to submit to not only a background check but be fingerprinted in order to ascertain that you haven’t changed your name after a conviction.  What can you do? If you want to keep involved in your child’s sport you don’t have a choice.
Sad that volunteers are under constant suspicion and offensive to have to be treated this way. — Nathalie Delage

If you are male, you’re guilty till fingerprinted innocent.