Outrage of the Week: Today Show’s Crazy Halloween Advice

Readers — It is time to howl at the moon, or, better yet, NBC. Its Today Show “panel of experts” declared to the world the precise age at which parents can safely let their children start trick or treating without an older chaperon:


That’s right. Exactly the age when kids start thinking about whether they should be trick or treating at all. And the Today Show’s  rationale? Oh, it is priceless. In “gated communities,” one of the experts said, maybe kids as young as 10 could go out without an older person.  “But generally speaking you don’t want to go any earlier than 13 because people put on masks, they put on disguises, and there still are people who do bad things.”

Huh? The holiday is dangerous because of “masks” and “disguises”? Is this expert scared of the ghosts and goblins? Is she aware that these are NOT REAL? And that, “generally speaking” people do not automatically BECOME evil just because they have dressed up like vampires and witches?

Imagine if the Today Show guidelines had been in place when Charles Schulz wrote, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” The Peanuts gang would be inside at a “safe” party organized by grown-ups, with various adults warning them about eating too much candy, wearing loose costumes (these can make you trip!) and wearing tight costumes (these can cut off your air supply before you know it and God knows how many kids have died of tight-costumitis!), and everything else, including running, skipping, laughing (you could choke!) and wearing costumes that scare the other kids. Because nothing even the teensiest bit frightening should ever happen to kids at all. Even on Halloween.

The age that kids can really start trick or treating on their own, in my opinion? Well, considering the world has NOT dramatically changed in 20 years (except that crime has gone down), a good rule of thumb is: the same age as you did. Teach your kids to cross streets safely. Teach them never to go off with anyone. Teach them to save you some candy. (Not just the Mary Janes!) And put some reflective tape on their costumes. Why? Because, as you know, I believe in safety.

Just not that ghosts and goblins are out to get our kids. — Lenore

P.S. And yes, when I say, “Go out without a chaperon,” I am advocating groups of kids, not just one lonely skeleton.


Don't wait here, Linus! Come inside to our Super Safe & Fun Plastic Pumpkin Party!


(Bad) Advice from “All You” Magazine

Hi Readers — This note is RIGHT ON!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  Just thought I’d let you know of this snippet from the most recent All You Magazine. It incensed me to the point of writing an email to the author scolding her for her “professional advice” (this column is written by “Relationship Expert” Nancy Carol Rybski, PhD). Here is the article:

Q. A 6-year-old boy in our neighborhood stops by often to play with my 7-year-old son. His mom and dad never check on him or pick him up – he just walks home when I say it’s time to go. I end up babysitting him for hours! How can I talk to his parents about this?

A. Next time, walk the boy home and chat with his parents. Explain that you’re glad the kids are buddies but you’re busy and can’t have their son over all the time. Don’t be accusatory, but say you’re concerned for his safety when he goes home alone. If they’re still hands-off, tell them he can’t come over, because you just can’t be responsible for his safety.”

Here are my thoughts: First of all, why does this mom even have to talk to the parents? If this boy is coming over too often or staying too long, she should talk to the child directly, perhaps negotiate what times he can come over and for how long.

Second, why is so unsafe for this boy to walk down the street to his neighbor’s house to play with a friend? Rybski is just encouraging people to worry about all the horrible things that might (but mot likely will NOT) happen if a kid goes outside without an adult.

Finally, why does this mom feel like she has to babysit this boy? She should send both boys outside and give herself a break! Instead of obsessing unnecessarily about their safety, why not bask in a little sanity while the kids enjoy a walk around the block together?

Anyway, I wrote this “Expert” a letter using the email provided in the magazine: relationships@allyou.com. Perhaps a few other Free Range readers might want to do the same? — Lauren Ard

I think they just may. Thanks! — L.

Mom About to Adopt Asks for Free-Range Advice

Hi Readers! Here’s a note from a soon-to-be mom with a request for ideas (and a tiny dig at me, but what the hey). The boy she and her husband are adopting is three. Congrats to her and her expanding family! —  L.

Dear Free-range Kids: I like the idea of Free-Range Kids (although I’m not totally comfortable with some of Lenore’s extremes), and I would like some advice: My husband and I will soon be adopting a young boy.  After years of miscarriages and failed adoption plans, I’m terrified to let this boy, who hasn’t even come to live with us yet, out of my sight for even a few minutes.  I’m especially nervous for this particular boy, who has been abused and neglected.  How can I moderate my crazy-protective response into something that will allow him to have a regular life?

Let’s help! And send them our best wishes!

Does This Library WANT to Make Kids Feel Unwelcome?

Hi Readers! Here’s a note from a Free-Ranger named Cari Noga. Let’s give her some ideas! — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I just posted this in the “ideas” section on your blog, but thought I’d send it direct, too. On your blog you ask, “Do you ever let your kid ride a bike to the library?” My question is, “What do you do if the library won’t let your kid in?”   After two recent incidents I’m looking for ideas on how to positively approach my local library about its policy on “unattended children.”

Currently it states that “children under age 8 must be accompanied at all times by a person at least 14 years old. Upon discovering an unattended child, staff will attempt to locate the person responsible for that child. If the proper person cannot be located within one half-hour, authorities will be called to take the child into custody.” (It doesn’t say whose custody.)

I always thought this policy was intended to prevent people from using the library as a babysitter. But after my own recent incidents, I’m beginning to think “accompanied” literally means within arm’s reach.

Incident one: I was with both my kids (ages 1 and 4) in the children’s section, while husband was in another wing, perhaps 50 yards away, on the same floor of the building. Four-year-old son asked if he could go over to Dad. We have visited the library on approximately a weekly basis since he was an infant, so I said okay. He went over to dad, then back to me, then over to dad again. Going back and forth meant he had to pass in front of the children’s librarians’ desk. The librarian wound up remonstrating my husband for letting our son go back and forth, using the “You just never know/world is a scary place” rationale.

Incident two: Took both kids by myself and stopped at the main desk (ironically to see if my reserve of Free-Range Kids had arrived)! My one-year-old daughter walked on about 30 feet further, to the Christmas tree on display. She did shake the bottom branches a bit, but nothing fell off or even wobbled. My son, meanwhile, ran into the children’s section ahead of me. A librarian came out of that section and shooed my daughter away from the tree. Seeing me, she asked if I was also with a boy. When I confirmed it, she made my son leave the children’s section and wait in the main corridor until I finished my conversation at the main desk and entered with him.

At the time I did not handle it well, as I was so upset. (After all, you certainly wouldn’t want a four-year-old dashing into the library.) I suppose technically we had violated the policy in both instances, although you could also argue that, per the policy, the librarians should have backed off after confirming my kids weren’t there alone. I wound up getting the name of the library director. I haven’t yet called her – incident two just happened last week – because I wanted to be prepared. Here are my questions for you and your readers:

1. Is this policy reasonable/typical?

2. If not, what parts need to change? The minimum age? The definition of “accompanied?”

3. Any model policies I could suggest?

4. Is there a case to be made for no policy at all, simply librarian discretion if kids – of any age – are being disruptive?

Thanks in advance for your help and book. Santa brought me a copy, so I can get the library’s back to them. They certainly need to read it.

Yours, Cari Noga, Michigan

Hi Cari! I certainly think it makes sense to check in with the head librarian and talk about how much you and your kids love the library, how you want to obey the rules and how you’d like to make sure you understand them correctly. That way you’re on the library’s side and can join the librarian in wanting the place to be well-run, kid-friendly and safe. Then you might agree that the world is a scary place, which is why you are trying to bring up little buggers prepared for the real risks out there. Not abductions from libraries, which are exceedingly rare (she can look it up!),  but things like ILLITERACY. Then ask her to recommend some kiddie books! Good luck! — Lenore

Outrage of the Week: No Wine In Front of The Kids

Hi Readers! Here’s an advice column that had me reaching for the scotch. And I don’t even drink:

Dear Amy: My husband and I adore our grandson, who is a toddler. We watch him at our house overnight two times a month while his parents attend art classes.
Now that he is getting older, my daughter would like to start leaving him for longer stays — the most recent request is three nights/five days so they can attend a class out of state.
When our grandson was born, his parents created a list of rules regarding his care. I understood why they would want to do this.
One of the rules is that there is zero tolerance for drinking any alcohol by the primary caregiver (me).
My husband and I enjoy drinking wine every night. When my daughter and her brother were growing up, her dad and I always had wine with our meals.
I don’t mind giving up wine on an occasional evening, but as they start to ask us to care for our grandson for longer periods, I’m wondering if the no-tolerance rule is still an appropriate expectation.
We are responsible drinkers who enjoy wine. But are we pitting the safety of our grandson against our wine consumption? Are we being selfish, and could we possibly be accused of having a drinking problem by making an issue of this with our daughter and son-in-law?
Is responsibly drinking wine in one’s home mutually exclusive to being able to responsibly care for a child?
— WL

Dear WL: I support the “zero tolerance” policy of these parents. Even one glass of wine can affect your response time and sleep habits.
Speak with your daughter, and go over her list of expectations. You should ask her to negotiate a solution — the most obvious being that you and your husband trade off who is the primary caregiver in the evenings. This person will enjoy a glass of apple juice with dinner.
If you are afraid your daughter will bring up your drinking, then you do have problem. At the very least, your drinking is causing a problem with her, and you should be brave enough to address it.

Hey Amy! How about being brave enough to address the over-the-top fears many of today’s parents are indulging in? They’re a lot more damaging than a glass of Chardonnay.

These grandfolks are not running around the table, chasing each other with electric knives. They sound like normal, civilized people. If they’re irresponsible, so is all of France. The idea that they have to change their behavior because their grown daughter wants them to be even MORE perfect — or what she considers perfect —  is not something to encourage. Should she insist they only discuss pre-approved topics, too, and play no music composed after 1783? (Maybe she did, in her list.)

If the grandparents are actual alcoholics, then that’s another story and I doubt the mom would even consider leaving her kid with them. Since that doesn’t seem to be the case, I think the grandmother here is being extremely obliging. She’s not only giving her time, she’s shutting up about the rest of the rules her daughter has issued.

Daughter, hon, how about Universal Rule #1? “Be grateful for free babysitting.”  — Lenore

When Can Parents Trust a Teen?

Hi Readers — Let’s help this teen together, shall we? Here is his letter:

Dear Free-Range Kids: You probably don’t get too many emails from kids and teens, but being a child with overbearing parents I have some things I’d like to ask.

I’m in the middle of reading your book (how sad, a kid reading a book on parenting) and I find it very intriguing. Actually,  my parents let me be fairly free in my childhood. The problems I’m facing now are being free enough in my teen years.

I can now drive and my social life is returning (I used to be quite anti-social). I can handle the curfews  and the need to answer the cell phone when my parents call, but the problem that I am facing is what happens when my friends’ parents are not home, or when my parents want to call someone’s house before I go over. My parents go insane over the prospect of a friend not having a parent home, or of me not having them home when I am hanging out with a friend. I feel like this is very detrimental to my social life and I’d like to give you an overview of different factors that come into play.

I’m an avid reader (non-fiction books on politics, economics, and history), and my parents always tell me I am very mature for my age. As a matter of fact I socialize very well with many adults (sometimes better than I do with kids). I am in a martial arts class (Oom Yung Doe, to be specific) and I truly have developed a system of responsible/socially conservative principles that I adhere to — not because my parents said so but because I truly believe in them.

I have been offered drugs (only weed thus far) and have always turned it down. Nowadays kids don’t put as much pressure on other kids to drugs — contrary to what many adults think. As a matter of fact, there are many situations when one kid will put more pressure on someone and the rest call him out and tell him to “stop being a dick… dude.” They realize that peer pressure is a bad thing. Furthermore, I suffered from a major depression in 8th grade and I saw, first-hand, many kids with psychological problems (many of them pertaining to drugs) and I saw how much drugs can screw up your life.  I would never take that risk.

I have a close enough relationship with my parents to let them know that I have been exposed to drugs and always turn them down (and they believe and trust me). But I really feel let down when they feel that I cannot make a proper judgment on what friend’s house it’s ok to go to. They build up my ego with this praise of my maturity but then shoot me down and act as if I can’t make proper values assessments. I feel as if this will tear our relationship apart because exposure to these things is inevitable unless I’m truly locked in cage and became a “teacup child.” (But generally teacup children go off to college and then get incredibly drunk and high and it works against what the parents were planning.)

What I now have been driven to do is to say that I am hanging out at a friend’s house and then, when I get there,  we all head out somewhere else. I don’t like lying to my parents but I want to maintain a social life and get a girlfriend for once (that is right, age 16 and I have never had a girlfriend).

So, as you can see, I have a few questions. Where is the line drawn? Should I really not be allowed to go to a kid’s house if the parents aren’t home, or without my parents and theirs being in contact? How do I get this across to my parents?

Please, please, please respond and I will be incredibly grateful.

That’s the letter. Personally, I’d say two things to the writer:

1 – His parents may be more worried than they’d be otherwise because they remember his bout with depression and it scared them to the core. (Understandable.) If it reassures them to have some basic contact with his friends’ parents, that shouldn’t be such a big deal.

2- Knowing that their fear comes out of love and perhaps trauma, he has to assure them that he is almost of legal age, he has made the conscious decision not to take drugs, and he is both mature and responsible. They can’t ask for more than that, except to have him also promise never to get into a car with a friend who has been drinking or doing drugs. Of course, if it would help, maybe he and his parents could also pay a trip together to his former psychologist or his pediatrician, who could assure them that at some point kids need to be able to hang out together without direct parental supervision.

I’m wondering if you, readers, have any more advice for the parents, or for the letter writer. If so, please add it. Maybe he can share your thoughts  with his folks. Thanks! — Lenore

Are There Really Lessons to Learn From The Jaycee Abduction?

First off, my heart goes out to Jaycee Dugard, her daughters, her parents, step-parents — everyone in her circle. She was kidnapped 18 years ago and kept imprisoned since then, bearing her rapist/captor two daughters who were also imprisoned until a few days ago, when Jaycee walked into a police station.

This is, of course, every parent’s — every human’s — worst nightmare and her story will  be seared into our memory  forever, along, alas, with the inevitable “advice” we’re now getting on how to avoid this same fate. Advice that makes it seem like abduction/rape/enslavement  is something we just have to be ever-prepared for, like the possibility of an overcharge on our credit card bill. Like it’s a fate we can avoid with some simple tips.

But as Trevor Butterworth at the organization STATS.org has pointed out: Preparing for very unlikely events is impossible — it’s like preparing for the possiblity of being hit by a frozen turkey through the car window while you’re driving on the expressway. Yes, that is something that really happened, at least once. But should you live your life always watching out for flying turkeys? That would be inconvenient, if not insane, because what could you do? Never drive on the expressway again? Get your car window replaced with lead? Sure, you couldn’t see through it. But at least you’d be protected from frozen airborne Butterballs!

Here’s one post-Dugard advice article that suggests that, from now on, we simply “never go anywhere alone.” That’s not asking too much, is it?

This is just the kind of ridiculous suggestion that leads to ridiculous situations, like parents hauled in for “negligence” for letting their kid walk solo to soccer (or wait in a car!). It leads to folks trumping any Free-Range notion with, “Look what happened to Jaycee Dugard!”

“Your child could be abducted just like Jaycee Dugard. Learning from the Jaycee Dugard situation and protecting your kids from predators like Craig Garrido and Nancy Garrido is vital to the health and well-being of your child.”

No, what’s really vital to the well-being of your child is him or her not growing up convinced that stepping  out the  front door  is the equivalent of stepping into a viper-filled pit. What’s vital to the health of your children is their learning to make their own playdates, organize a game of four-square, talk to people instead of being terrified of them. Please do teach your kids to run from anyone trying to lure them away, should that rare thing happen. But teach them to talk to the rest. That’s how they learn stuff, and make friends. That’s how they become human.

“It’s sad our children have to grow up in a world where they have to worry about people like Craig Garrido and Nancy Garrido. All we can do is learn from this tragedy.”

No, I’m afraid, we cannot. Law enforcement officials may be able to learn a thing or two.  They may learn to follow up better on missed parole visits. They may learn to pare down the list of sex offenders from the 674,000 in California to the ones that truly pose a risk,  so theycan concentrate their resources on rapists, instead of guys who peed in public, or had sex at 19 with a girlfriend a few years underage.

But there is no lesson to be learned from Jaycee’s ordeal except that sometimes, terrible things happen to innocent people, randomly. In our blame-, lawsuit- and silly advice-obsessed country, it’s a lesson we find hard to accept.

 — Lenore