Kids & Kittens & Keeping Them Inside

Readers — This is such a fantastic example of the way our society is going: Better not to experience ANYTHING than to be exposed to a single ounce of RISK. It comes to us from Julie¬†Saxon, a university lecturer turned stay-at-mom of two in San Jose, CA. –¬†¬†L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to share this story that happened yesterday.¬†My family has decided it’s time to adopt a pet, and we’d like a cat or kitten.¬† My husband and I both grew up with cats in the household and we both had indoor/outdoor cats. I know there’s a lot of controversy about what’s best, but we both believe that it is better for the cat’s well-being to allowed outside sometimes. ¬†(Plus no litter box is awesome!)

So we set out to a local pet store yesterday that was holding an adoption fair. It was being put on by a local cat rescue that had very specific requirements of the homes in which the cats are to be placed, and one — written into a contract — is that the kitten will be kept indoors only. So, obviously, this wasn’t the rescue for us. But what was really interesting was the rhetoric the volunteer used in trying to convince us that cats are better as indoor only. It mirrored almost exactly what the media is telling us about children!¬† Some of the things she told me:

* We all used to have outdoor cats when we were kids. Everyone did. But things are different now.
* The cats’ biggest problem is PREDATORS. We think it’s cars, but it’s not. It’s predators. She then began to speak about COYOTES, despite the fact that I live in the suburbs of a fairly big city and have never–NOT ONCE in the 16 years I’ve lived here–seen a coyote. Off-leash dogs, yes. Raccoons and possums, yes. Coyotes, not so much.
* Kittens should never be outside, and these in particular because they’ve never been outside. They don’t know how to be outside. (As if I’m going to toss the kitten in the front yard and let it fend for itself.)
*Indoor only cats live longer.
*Besides, they don’t know what they’re missing.

Whether you believe the same way as this volunteer regarding cats and kittens isn’t my point. But I was shocked at how closely animal rescue folks mimic helicopter parents or possibly vice versa. Have we reduced our children to the state of 4-month-old bottle-fed baby kittens? We have to keep them inside because they’ve never been outside and they would instantly become prey to wild predators? Training them isn’t even considered? Besides, depriving them of what comes naturally is fine because they will live longer and they don’t know any different anyway?¬†Wow! – ¬†Julie

Who needs nature? We’re learning our numbers!

Help Needed: Do Kids Mow Neighbors’ Lawns Anymore?

Hey Readers — Here’s a query from reader that I’m curious about, too. Weigh in! — L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids:¬†My name is Stacey Gordon and I have noticed that I never see children doing the things that we did when we were kids. ¬†They seem to be supervised at all times and never have any “just kid” time. ¬†Nothing seems to be expected of them. It is as though they are treated as infants right up until the time that they are expected to wake up one day and magically become adults… without any practice.
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I caught a thread in our local neighborhood Yahoo group. ¬†Someone was asking if there were any kids that did yard work for summer as they would love to hire one. ¬†People fired back answers. One person suggested that kids were spoiled by their parents. Recently, in this same neighborhood, someone called the police when they saw some unsupervised kids IN THEIR OWN YARDS. ¬†My response to the thread was along the line of, “If the police are called if children are playing in their own front yard unsupervised, imagine what kind of trouble the parents would be in if they let the kids mow the lawn!” So my curiosity came from this neighborhood conversation.
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As children, we would hustle for money any chance we got. ¬†In the city of Yonkers, on those rare snow days, we’d get out and shovel and help clean off and dig out cars for the folks who had to get to work. ¬†They were always grateful and would throw us a few bucks. In summer we would go to the local grocery store (one of many we could walk to) and stand outside and help customers carry their bags to the car for tips. ¬† ¬†We would later pool our money and go to the local pizza joint and chip in ¬†for an entire pizza and a pitcher of soda. ¬†If there was money left over we went to the candy store for treats and baseball cards. ¬†Making our own money made us feel independent and grown up.
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It seems that in many locations that children are no longer able to be unsupervised while playing in their own yards. Do kids still do these things? There are no kids (a few infants maybe) in my current neighborhood so I have no way to judge.¬†Does anyone still see children mowing yards for money anymore? By “children” I’m thinking anywhere from age 9 and up. ¬†I recall in years past, in the suburban neighborhoods, my cousin and other kids would go door to door soliciting yard work. ¬†Would a kid even be allowed to touch a lawn mower now, much less seek gainful employment in the neighborhood? ¬†Is it fear on the parents’ part? Is it laziness on the kids’ side? ¬†Are kids just spending too much time being scheduled, or playing on computers?¬†What’s the story? – -Stacey, who writes the blog SouthGeek.

Sure, kids can use TOY lawnmowers. But what about the real thing?

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.

What’s Black and Blue and Happy All Over? Ask Your Child’s Doctor

Hi Folks — I love this exchange on Facebook about kids and bruises! Wrote one mom:

I brought my 5 year old son to the dentist yesterday and she was amazed to see that he has scratches and bruises. She said she never really sees those kinds of small injuries on kids nowadays because they play inside all day. What is happening to childhood in this country that seeing a scratch or small bruise on a 5 year olds shins is something out of the ordinary? When I was a kid my knees were always scraped and my shins were always bruised because that was just part of playing outside.

Wrote another:

I hate to admit this, making myself look neurotic, but when my son was 2, when he really started getting brave, his little legs were covered in bruises/knots/you name it. He had a few on his arms, but his legs looked (to me) awful, and I obsessed myself into thinking something must be terribly wrong–surely he had some kind of bleeding issue! A blood disorder! I finally got up the nerve to take him to the pediatrician (had to steel myself for the inevitable bad news, of course), and she looked at him, and looked at me, and said, “He has busy little two-year-old boy legs, and if he’s lucky you’re going to let them stay that way.” She also advised that I chill out before I drive us both (all?) crazy. Best advice I’ve ever gotten–and he is, to this day, covered in bruises and scratches and who knows what, because he rides his bike and jumps off everything he sees, and thank goodness he can. – Paula Kiihnl King

Wrote me:

This reminds me of the time I spoke to an advertising exec at Tide and he said kids’ clothes aren’t getting that dirty anymore. Bad for laundry detergent, bad for kids! – L

Remember when “Leapfrog” was an actual game, outside?

Unaccompanied Minors: Boys, 10 and 6, Travel Solo from Oklahoma to New York City — by Horse!

Hi Readers — What a story! The boys traveled by themselves, over a thousand miles, to meet the President.

Okay, so it happened in 1910. Still, what ¬†a great reminder of what kids are CAPABLE of ! And today we dither about sending them to play at the park before dinner! Jeez Louise — let’s get a little perspective!¬†Here’s the Wikipedia entry¬†about the amazing Abernathy boys — Louis and Temple:

Louis (sometimes styled Louie) Abernathy was born in Texas in 1899 and Temple Abernathy was born in 1904 in Tipton, Oklahoma. Their father was cowboy and U.S. Marshal Jack Abernathy.

In 1909 the boys rode by horseback from Frederick, Oklahoma, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and back. Louis was nine, and Temple was five.[2]

When the boys completed their Santa Fe journey, they began planning a cross-country horseback ride to New York City, again by themselves, to meet Theodore Roosevelt when he returned from his trip to Africa and Europe. They made that trip in 1910. They were greeted as celebrities, and rode their horses in a ticker-tape parade just behind the car carrying Roosevelt. While in New York, the boys purchased a small Brush Motor Car, which they drove, again by themselves, back to Oklahoma, shipping their horses home by train.[3][4][5]

In 1911, they accepted a challenge to ride horseback from New York to San Francisco in 60 days or less. They agreed not to eat or sleep indoors at any point of the journey. They would collect a $10,000 prize if they succeeded.[6]

After a long trip, they arrived in San Francisco in 62 days, thereby losing the prize but setting a record for the time elapsed for the trip.

In 1913, the boys purchased an Indian motorcycle, and with their stepbrother, Anton, journeyed by motorcycle from Oklahoma to New York City. This was their last documented adventure.

Abernathy kids (LOC) by The Library of Congress

There they are! And here’s a¬† lovely song by a descendant ¬†— with fantastic old photos in the background. – L

Liability vs Real Safety: How Insurance Issues Contort Our Lives

Hi Folks! Here’s this weekends thought to chew on, from frequent commenter Kenny Felder:
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Dear Free-Range Kids:¬†I‚Äôm not sure how many readers will see the connection between this story¬†[the lifeguard fired for trying to save a man beyond his official area] and¬†Free-Range issues, but it is huge. A lot of the problems we‚Äôre running into come¬†when people worry about insurance and lawsuits, and dress up those financial¬†fears in ‚Äúsafety‚ÄĚ clothing.
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At my high school, for instance, we spend a staggering amount of time and money lining up parent volunteers to drive our students to field trips. These
same students drove themselves to school, and will drive themselves home.¬†‚ÄúCan‚Äôt they just drive themselves to a field trip?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúNo, that‚Äôs not safe.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThen¬†are they in mortal danger every time they drive to school?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not our¬†responsibility.‚ÄĚ Translation: We‚Äôre not worried about their safety, we‚Äôre worried¬†about a lawsuit.
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And of course, it isn’t an entirely irrational fear. Crazy lawsuits happen all the time. Somehow we have to figure out why they didn’t used to happen, and get
back there. Until then, these problems will not get better. – K.F.
LENORE HERE: I agree with all of this except the idea that¬†¬†“crazy lawsuits are happening all the time.” I have another guest piece I’ll be running here in a few days explaining how those “crazy lawsuits” are sort of like predators: We HEAR about them all the time, but in actuality they’re rare. But Kenny is totally right: The fear of them distorts our world view. And of course, insurance companies LOVE for us to worry about every angle, so their ridiculous rules don’t seem so awful. Which brings me to this other comment, that appeared on the post below, about parades forbidding people on floats from throwing candy:

Dear Free-Range Kids: Actually I have a different take on the whole matter. I have help run several of the Gay Pride Parades here in Houston — which, by the way, have lots of families, with young kids, in attendance. It costs more to hold a parade where you toss items. You have to insure against anyone running out onto the parade route and being struck by a float. You have to have a rider on your policy to protect against someone suing because they were injured (being pushed, falling, and or struck by fast projectiles) while trying to obtain said object. Then you have to pay extra money to have the items that are not taken home cleaned up the next day by the sanitation department. So it might have been a purely budgetary item to eliminate candy, and they blamed it on “We don’t want the kids to get squished.” The Houston Pride Parade instructs (yes each entry in the parade has to attend class) on how to toss items into the crowd. Each float that tosses items has to have walkers on each side to watch for people going in front of the floats. This is on a parade route with metal barricades on each side of the road to prevent people from entering the route, and it still happens. Is it a sad excuse, yes. However, it shows the window into the world we live in today where everyone is sue happy and has no common sense. So it might have been because the organization that ran the parade could not budget the insurance policy to protect itself, so they had to ban thrown items. – Milo Moon

We Interrupt This Blog to Bring You the 1970s

…Via this fantastic commercial. Actually, I’d never heard of the advertiser ¬†before — it’s Halfords, which, according to its Twitter feed, is the U.K.’s “leading retailer of automotive, leisure and cycling products.” It also seems to be a leader in supporting Free-Range Kids! (And, okay, nostalgia. But it’s legit!)

Let’s hope seeing all the fun that kids can have outside, on their own, reminds everyone to celebrate Saturday’s holiday: TAKE OUR CHILDREN TO THE PARK…AND LEAVE THEM THERE DAY!¬†Spread the word!

“Reverse Culture Shock” as a Parent Returns to America

Hi Folks! One of the things I like to remember is that what we think of as “normal” is normal for HERE (America, in this case), and completely freakish to other cultures. Keep that in mind when somebody screams at you, “How DARE you let your child play on your front lawn?” or some such local nonsense. – L.
Dear Free-Range Kids:¬†My kids are Free-Range almost by accident. ¬†We were overseas for my first 7+ years of parenting, I didn’t watch CNN, and I had no idea how insane things had gotten in the US. I just raised my boys as I was raised.
When we moved back to the states — and back to my childhood neighborhood, which is even safer now than when I was growing up — I let them do everything that I’d done at similar ages. ¬†It was only after living here for¬†several months¬†that I realized that no other kids were out doing the things that mine were. ¬†I now refer to this as my moment of “reverse culture shock.” ¬†I was a little lost trying to parent in Russia, but I’d assumed that I’d know how to do it in the U.S… and apparently, I didn’t! ¬†It was crazy! ¬†And it made me crazy.

My kids are now 9 and 13, we’ve been here for more than 5 years, and the comment that I get most often about them¬†is that they “are so mature.” ¬†For a couple of years, I didn’t see this. ¬†As I watched, they seemed exactly like my brother 30 years earlier… and no one ever would have accused him of being particularly mature as a pre-teen! ¬†It was only when I looked around that I realized how everyone else had just fallen backwards, somehow. ¬†Again, what a shock! ¬†I now this “maturity” to their Free-Range upbringing. ¬†They know how to get themselves around town, they are confident solving problems on their own, and they don’t need to turn to me for instructions for all of their daily actions. ¬†They are totally normal kids. ¬†They just belong, apparently, in the 1980s.
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Anyway, I am now consciously (sometimes, militantly) Free-Range. ¬†It continues to be a challenge, but I am blessed to have a decent number of parent-friends who I can commiserate with when needed, and I turn to your blog and book on a regular basis to remind myself that I’m not the one who is insane. – A Mom Back Home

Reprint: “Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play”

Hi Folks! One of you sent me this wonderful oped from the Sydney Morning Herald. Then I got in touch with its author, Karen Malone, and found out she is an academic studying, among other things, how to make cities more child-friendly. Which is exactly what I’m going to be talking about in Bendigo, Australia early in May. So here’s to serendipity — and kids walking to school. — L.

Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play, by Karen Malone

Picture this. It is 2005, I arrive for the first time in Tokyo. I am making my way across the busy city to attend a meeting when I encounter a small group of kindergarten children walking home from school. They are oblivious to my presence as they busy themselves crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves, straddling low brick kerbs and chatting. There is not a supervising adult in sight, no older siblings. As a parent I feel a sense of foreboding – I worry about their safety.

I recount my experience to a Japanese colleague and exclaim ”there were no adults watching out for them”. He is a little taken back. ”What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” On average, 80 per cent of primary age Japanese children walk to school. In Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40 per cent. Why? What happens in Japan that makes it so different?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves aged eight in a special place and to describe it. Most recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children, out of earshot of parents: ”I had some bushes where I would play and hide with my brothers and sisters and sometimes friends” (Wilma, 43); ”My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies” (Richard, 36); ”We used to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket” (Andrew, 39).

Tim Gill, author and play commentator, would call this parenting style ”benign neglect” and for many of us, growing up in baby boom suburbia, this was our experience. It made us independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors.

I next asked the audience to consider if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no.

The question is, then, are we killing our kids with kindness? Is our desire to protect our children actually making them more vulnerable?

The big issue pervading the psyche of parents around children’s independence in the streets is ”stranger danger” and child abductions. The irony is, when you look at the statistics on abductions, almost all are by family members, and the numbers have been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia is one in four million and their child is at a much greater statistical risk of drowning in the bathtub or being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, they answer like Andrew, 39: ”I want to and I wish we could. I know the chances are slim but I just couldn’t forgive myself.”

So is there a middle ground between ”benign neglect” and ”eternal vigilance”? There is in Japan and Scandinavian countries, where children’s independent mobility is high. While parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated and participated in activities to increase their safety.

In inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools; shopkeepers who are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program; and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS-connected device that hangs around a child’s neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre.

These concrete strategies, while unique to each neighbourhood, are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment to the belief that children being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient in a civil, safe and healthy society.

So while we might criticise the policeman who decides to take it on himself to deliver a child back home, as reported in the¬†Herald¬†recently, it is heartening to know someone is watching over us. It was reassuring when recent results from a historical comparison in suburban Sydney showed children’s independent mobility in the past 10 years has remained stable and in some cases increased, with many parents looking to get children out of the house and back to parks and playgrounds. So it is timely to have these debates, but if we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it’s our role as community members to step up to the plate and let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.

Dr Karen Malone was recently appointed Professor of Education in the School of Education at University of Western Sydney. Dr Malone is also Chair and Founder of the Child Friendly Asia-Pacific network and a member of the UNICEF International Research Advisory Board for Child Friendly Cities.

A Child Visitor to America Asks: “Where Are All The Kids?”

Hi Readers — This note was originally a comment on the post below this one. Its¬†poignancy hit me particularly hard because today’s New York Times has a piece by Jane Brody —¬†“Communities Learn Good Life Can be a Killer”¬†—¬† about the effect of sprawl on health, autonomy and, of course, ¬†childhood. I’m not sure how to suddenly re-urbanize vast swaths of suburbia, but I’m glad that city planners are looking into it. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Before moving to my current home in Germany 6 years ago, I lived in a small town (about 5,000 people) in a different part of Germany. It was very Free-Range. Kids of all ages played outside in the smaller streets without adult supervision. The older kids watched out for the younger ones when a car drove by. Kids were always out playing in the neighborhood, either in the streets or at a local playground.

When my son was about 4 or 5, my family (husband, son, me) took a trip to California to visit family. In all of the neighborhoods where we stayed, nobody was on the streets. My son finally commented, “This must must be a really lonely place. Nobody is here.” He was so used to seeing the German streets in his neighborhood alive with kids playing and adults walking, cycling, or running. The empty streets in nice neighborhoods in California really threw him off.

During another CA trip, when my son was 9, he commented that he wouldn’t want to live there because you have to drive everywhere. He likes being able to walk or ride his bike over here and doesn’t really know anything different.

Kudos to Lori for making her town less of a “lonely place.” She is a beacon of hope for the Free-Range movement. ¬†—¬†Sue Biegeleisen

Helloooo? Anyone NOT home?