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

“Only Bad Parents Make Their Kids WALK to School”

Hi Folks! I read this over at RixaRixa and asked if the blogger was game to let me reprint the whole thing. Yes! So here it is, in all its infuriating bureaucrat-brained fullness!

We’ve been walking Zari to and from kindergarten. It seemed the most logical of our three options (walk, ride the bus, or drive) since we only live 1 km away. If Zari rode the bus, she’d have to leave the house almost an hour earlier, and she’d get home 1 to 1 1/2 hours later. That adds up to over 2 hours on the bus per day. Driving was out of the question; why drive when our legs are perfectly capable of getting us there?
So far we’ve enjoyed our twice daily walks. Eric and I switch off walking duty depending on who is teaching that day. We get time with Zari and we get extra exercise. Sounds like the perfect scenario, right?

Yes, except that we have to cross a Death Trap road on the way. It’s a state highway that runs through town, and there are no stop signs or stoplights in probably a mile either direction. There’s a flashing light that goes on during school hours. This means that cars are supposed to slow down to 25 mph, but no one does. Every time we cross the street, it’s like we’re inside a giant game of Frogger (this totally dates me!).

I first contacted the school transportation department to inquire about crossing guards. After all, the road where we’re crossing is the main entrance into the elementary school and to the county fairgrounds. The reply? They used to supply a crossing guard at that intersection, but not any more. They told me to talk to the police department.

So I met with the chief of police and explained my concerns–that the school no longer provided a crossing guard and that I was having real troubles getting us safely across the street, especially during the morning rush. He sympathized with my situation and said he’d send some patrol cars out in the morning, but otherwise he coudln’t do much else. He suggested talking to someone in the state transportation department, since traffic signs on that road are regulated by the state, not by the city.

This morning I spoke to a woman at the state transportation department. I explained our difficulties crossing the road and asked if they would consider doing a traffic survey to put in either stop signs or a stop light. I told her I’d already met with the school transportation coordinator and the police chief, and they both told me they couldn’t do much else to help me. Her response:

“You really should have your daughter ride the bus.”

I explained that this option made no sense in our situation. We live close to the school, and riding the bus would take an extra 2+ hours out of my daughter’s day. Her reply:

“Well, you’re the one who’s choosing to put your daughter in danger. You’re choosing your convenience over her safety. She has a safe option, and that’s to ride the bus.” 

Excuse me?! When did walking your child to school mean that you’re a bad, selfish parent? I abandoned any niceties and dropped my polite tone. I said that it was not just a choice between convenience and safety. After all, we’re facing major obesity and pollution crises in this country. I feel very strongly that it’s an irresponsible choice to put my child on a bus for 2 hours a day, or to drive her to school (as many parents at this school do), when we’re perfectly capable of walking. The solution isn’t just to put my daughter on a bus; it’s to help us find a way to safely cross the street.

Her reply:

“In my town, I have several friends who live across the street from an elementary school, and they all have their children ride the bus because it’s safer than crossing the street.”

The then told me that she likely couldn’t do anything to help me, and to talk to the school and the police again.

Can anyone else see what’s wrong with this picture? Is there anything else I can do? (I do have something really subversive up my sleeve…more on that later!)

Lenore here: I like the sound of ‘something subversive.’ Please keep us looped in! – L

FREE-RANGE VICTORY! Charges Dropped Against Dad Who Let His Kids Play in the Park — THANKS TO US!

Readers — This is so incredible! Remember  this post from a few months ago?

As we approach our third annual, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” (Saturday, May 19), this story is outrageous. Apparently a dad let his two kids, ages 6 and 9, play in a local suburban Pittsburgh park on Saturday morning for not quite two hours while he did some shopping and took a shower. That is, while he went about the tasks of everyday life.

Meantime, a woman noticed this unusual thing: Kids playing without an adult around! That this fact was “disturbing” to an onlooker is what is so disturbing about our culture. For millennia, kids kept themselves occupied while their parents were otherwise engaged. A 9-year-old watching a 6-year-old was NORMAL, not a REASON TO CALL THE COPS.

But call the cops she did. And when they got there, they charged the dad with two counts of child endangerment.

Okay, here’s the first comment (of 168) made to that post, which apparently set the template for action:

First time I’ve created an account on one of these random sites you link to and posted a comment. Stuff like this just really irks me. The busybody who freaked out is the real problem in this scenario. I’m guessing all real crime in that city has been solved and there’s no real child endangerment going on so the cops need to invent some?

And now? The authorities have DROPPED the charges again the dad (after he took some parenting classes). HOW COME? Well, according to the Chartiers Valley Patch:

The child endangerment charges created a firestorm on the Chartiers Valley Patch message boardafter a group called Free Range Kids linked to the story and several members criticized the police officer’s decision to file charges.

I’m so proud of everyone who took the time to write a message over there and explain that while people may THINK kids are in constant danger when they’re unsupervised, that’s a misperception, and no one should be considered negligent for not buying into it. Too bad about the parenting classes they guy had to take, but otherwise: WOW WOW WOW! — Lenore

Maybe this kind of fun is to be encouraged, not prosecuted!

Outrage of the Week: Mom Arrested for Letting Her Kids, 11 & 7, Walk to Pizza Shop

Yes, readers, it’s another case of child protective craziness. According to the Manchester, Conn. Patch, a local  mom was charged with “risk of injury to a minor and failure to appear after police say she allowed her seven-year and 11-year old children to walk down to Spruce Street to buy pizza unsupervised.”

And according to reader Bob who sent this to us, Google Maps shows that we are talking about a half-mile walk! In addition to the solidarity of outrage, please post your ideas for how to protest the idea that kids are in danger every time they do something on their own,  even something dumbfoundingly  mundane, which means also protesting any time helicopter parenting becomes the only  “legal” way to raise our kids. – L.

Shh! Don’t tell the cops I let you get this on your own, kids!

“After Hearing John Walsh, I Cannot Let My Kids Go”

Hi Folks! Here’s a heartfelt letter from a mom haunted by the horrible stories we hear all the time (sometimes decades later) of murdered children. Though she said in subsequent, very sweet notes to me that she doesn’t want any help, and is raising her kids the way she feels is right — as are we all! — I’m wondering if you have any kind words that might help her feel a little less pessimistic about strangers.
.
Dear Free-Range Kids: I was a Free-Range Kid. I understand the theory behind letting your kids Free-Range.  I even support and feel positively about the idea of Free-Range.  And then I see ANOTHER interview with John Walsh–whose child was one aisle over from his mother in a store before being abducted and his head cut off — or Stan Patz, whose child was just walking to school when he was snatched, or Marc Klaas, whose daughter was sleeping in her own bed before she was grabbed by a psychopath and brutally raped before being fatally savaged to death, and I just can’t do it.
.
I just can’t.  50 dead kids a year is a wholly unacceptable risk in my mind.  And remember, we’re talking 50 kids who end up being lucky to be dead after the rape and torture they endure.  Remember, we’re not talking about the chances you’ll pick a yucky watermelon or miss the bus here.  One kid being violently murdered is the end of the world if it’s a child in your life.  I’m not going to helicopter my kids, but listening to John Walsh talking about listening to tapes of tortured children to see if he could recognize his son’s voice (which he couldn’t because Adam had already been beheaded by the time the tape was made) will haunt me forever.
.
And I understand the responses already being formulated — those are isolated examples, that’s only three out of millions, crime statistics are down/misleading/hyperinflated, we did it when we were kids and we’re fine, etc.  These are all responses I’ve had from my three brothers (none of whom has children, incidentally) and they are perfectly reasoned responses.  They just aren’t enough to make the risk worth it for me. – A  Mom of Four
.
My Response: Coping with Risk
Dear Mom of Four: I think the really important word here is “risk.” It’s different from the word “risky.” Risk is unavoidable. It’s a part of life. It’s something we take every time we put our kids in the car, for instance.
“Risk-Y” is something else, an activity or decision that is likely to cause harm, like driving blindfolded. When we define all risk — even the risk of letting  our kids wander one aisle away from us at the store — as “risky,” it becomes very hard to do anything other than keep our kids by our side at all times.  

Which is not to say you must  let your kids go off on  their own, or even sleep in their own rooms (which was the sum total of the “risk” the Klaas’ took). Only that the world we live, despite its imperfections, in is a LOT better than the tape loop of terrifying abductions we see when we turn on the TV. Free-Range Kids exists, in part, to turn that loop off. I’ve invited the readers to share any coping strategies that help them do just that. – L
John Walsh

EVERYONE Gets Separated from their Kids at Some Point (Even Prime Ministers)

Hey Folks — Here’s a little anecdote to start your day. Apparently the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, left his 8-year-old daughter in a pub. It was (almost) the usual kind of mix up: He left with his bodyguards and assumed she was with his wife and the other kids. Mom (or, I guess, “Mum”) assumed the girl was with daddy. In fact, she was in the bathroom and emerged to find her family gone.

While the Associated Press reports the parents were “distraught” when they realized she wasn’t with either, they called the pub and learned she was fine. She’d been separated from the fam for about 15 minutes. So why is any of this worthy of anything more than an amused smile that we’re all in this together?

SEE THE POST BELOW THIS ONE! That’s why!

In Tennessee, a woman who couldn’t find her kids for a short while was thrown in JAIL after she called 911 for help locating them. By the time the cops arrived at her house, so had her kids. Point is: These temporary blips are not evidence of BAD parenting, they are evidence of PARENTING, PERIOD.

We’ve all had those heart-stopping moments of wondering, “Oh my god, where did ________ go?” It’s no fun to live through them, but it’s not proof that we did anything wrong. LIFE IS NOT PERFECT. Parents are not perfect. Even Prime Ministers are not perfect (and no getting into politics here!).

When we criminalize everyday parenting foibles, we are ALL CRIMINALS.

Okay. Enough with the CAPITALS. Have a great week! And we shall talk soon about my FREE-RANGE KIDS PICNIC COMING UP THAT YOU ARE ALL INVITED TO ON SATURDAY, JUNE 23. (Okay NOW no more capitals.) – L

Prime Minister David Cameron will be charged with abuse and neglect for losing track of his child for 15 minutes. Oh wait…no he won’t. That’s the story UNDER THIS ONE.

Outrage of the Week: Mom JAILED for Letting Kids Play at Park

Readers –Here’s what the police blotter  in Johnson City, Tenn. describes as this mom’s crime:

On Thursday, June 7, 2012 April L Lawson, W/F, 27, 1104 King Springs Rd, Johnson City, TN was arrested by officers of the Johnson City Police Department and charged with child neglect. The arrest stems from a 911 call in reference to a missing child. During the investigation, officers discovered that Lawson had allowed her two children, ages 8 and 5, to walk to the playground at Mountain View Elementary School where they were without adult supervision and unattended. After sending someone to check on the children about an hour later, the mother discovered that the children were missing, at which time she called 911. The investigation revealed that the children had walked away from the playground and went to a house nearby, at which time they were accompanied back to their residence just prior to police arriving. The Department of Children’s Services was contacted and responded to the scene. Lawson was placed in custody and transported to the Washington County Detention Center without incident where she is being held in lieu of a $5,000 bond.

HELD IN JAIL for letting her kids play down the street.

Well, some might say, weren’t they in danger? After all, the mom herself called 911! Reporter Laura Halm at WCYB did a follow up story and learned Lawson’s family lives a block and a half away from the park. Lawson told her:

“So I walked them across the street, watched them walk up the block to the park and went back inside. When the kids didn’t come home I sent somebody up here to bring them home,” she explained.

So the kids had gone to another house. Like that NEVER happens to GOOD parents. Good parents ALWAYS knows where their kids are EVERY SECOND. There are NO MIX-UPS, EVER if you are a decent parent.

That explains why the Judge Robert Lincoln told Lawson she is facing felony child abuse and neglect charges.

What I need to hear from any of you who are up on the law, or civil disobedience, or Occupy Parenthood (just made that up but I like the sound of it!)  is: How can we  fight this kind of thing — this outrageous leap from “minor mix-up” to “mommy felon.”  This leap from “Police are here to help” to “Police are here to judge.” And the leap from Child Protective Services to Family  Destructive Services. Share your ideas! We need them! – L

Where’s mommy? Rotting in jail.