Ten is the New Two

Hi Folks! Here’s my piece that ran in last week’s Wall Street Journal. You will recognize some of my examples! – L. 

Ten is the new two. We live in a society that insists on infantilizing our children, treating them as helpless babies who can’t do a thing safely or successfully without an adult hovering nearby.

Consider the schools around the country that no longer allow kids to be dropped off at the bus stop unless there’s a guardian waiting to walk them home—even if home is two doors down.

Or how about all the libraries I’m hearing about that forbid children under age eight or 10 or 12 to be there without an adult—including in the children’s room? God forbid a kid wants to spend the afternoon reading books by herself.

Over in Europe (where I guess they’ve got nothing else to worry about), the EU just ruled that children under age eight should always be supervised when…wait for it… blowing up a balloon. It’s just too darn dangerous. A child could choke! And those little whistle things that uncurl when you blow into them? Those have been classified “unsuitable” for children under age 14. (And somehow they’re suitable for kids above 14?)

The point is: Children are not being allowed to grow up and do the normal things we did as kids, out of the fear that, just maybe, something bad could happen. As if all the good things that happen—from exercise to independence to the joy of blowing up a balloon—don’t matter at all. All that matters is the possibility of risk.

When that’s your focus, nothing seems safe enough, which is why park districts are removing merry-go-rounds (kids could fall off!). A New Jersey day-care owner I spoke with was ordered to saw off all tree branches on her property that were lower than eight feet off the ground. Why? Because kids could run into them. They might even (I shudder to write this) climb them.

Which brings us to the latest casualty in this war on childhood: Train travel. As of Nov. 1, Amtrak raised its unaccompanied minor age from eight to 13. Whereas last month your third grader could get on the train, give the conductor a ticket, and proudly ride to the station where grandma (or, more likely, your ex) was waiting, now you and your kid have to wait another five years. Thirteen is the new eight.

This might make some sense if Amtrak had been experiencing a rash of child kidnappings, or pre-teens gone wild, but that is not the case at all. The government-subsidized train service announced it was making the change “not in response to any incidents,” but rather out of “an abundance of concern…”

So Amtrak did this for no good reason? That’s an impressive management style: Change your whole policy because, uh… well…everyone else is treating kids like babies, so why not follow the crowd?

As for Amtrak’s “abundance of concern,” it doesn’t seem quite abundant enough to cover all the parents who can’t afford an extra ticket, or time off work, but who trust their tweens to get from point A to point B, as generations of kids have done—and still do.

In Japan there is a special fare for unaccompanied minors under age six. The Japanese believe their kids can function independently. But over here, even when Amtrak does allow minors to travel on their own, look at the rules it imposes: 13 to 15 year olds must wear a special wrist band identifying them as youngsters. They cannot travel after 9:05 p.m. They cannot get off at an unmanned station. An adult must be at both ends to sign them in and drop them off.

Why not just put them in a crate with a chew toy and be done with it?

There is one more requirement for teens traveling on Amtrak alone: They also must be “interviewed by station personnel to determine if the child is capable of traveling alone.” So here’s an idea: Do away with the age restrictions and go with a basic interview for all the minors who want to travel solo. If they can tell you where they’re going, how they’ll know when to get off, and what they plan to do for supper, let them ride the rails.

There’s a difference between minors and babies. But if we never let the babies grow up and have some adventures on their own, they could end up as befuddled as Amtrak officials. – Lenore Skenazy

Letter: Amtrak is Right! Kids are Unsafe on Trains

Hi Readers: What generally brings us together here at Free-Range Kids is the belief that today’s children are safer and more competent than our culture gives them credit for. So I thought I’d present a letter I just got from someone who read my Amtrak column in a newspaper, not here at this site:

My question to you, have you ever ridden Amtrak?  My wife and I have once, and cannot believe Al-Qaeda has not struck this target.

There is really no security.  People jump on and off at different train stops.  No one checks luggage.  An adult could easily snatch a youngster.

Unless your sole purpose is to make people angry to talk about you, you need to do your research as to why children should not be allowed to ride unsupervised.  The common sense that is lacking is yours. 

Not a radical – retired high school principal.

Incredible — people get on and off at different stops? What kind of crazy train is that? And how dare anyone be allowed on any conveyance ANYWHERE anymore without undergoing a full body scan, or at least a thorough check of every bag and Baggie?  The American way is to shake in its collective shoes (or, actually, take them off), until some security official wands them up and down and then allows them to mince a few steps forward. That’s the spirit that made this country great!

And then there’s the issue of kids being snatched right and left. Well, potentially, anyway, and that’s good enough for this letter writer: The fact that a child could, in theory, “easily” get grabbed by an adult (with none of the other passengers noticing, I guess), is reason enough not to let even seventh graders ride the train solo. Heck, using that reasoning, why let them do anything where they could be “easily” grabbed? Why let them walk to school, or get an ice cream? Think about the worst thing that could happen and plan accordingly! This is not “radical,” according to the writer,  and as proof he points out that he is a retired principal. (The writer is a male.)

The sad thing is that he IS radical. But he doesn’t feel it, because our whole CULTURE is radical. It has taken the radical new view that children are too vulnerable to do almost anything without adult supervision.

It also has started to believe that nothing is safe without an official safetymeister checking it first. And then, if there is even the smallest possibility that sometime, under some circumstances, it could somehow be UNSAFE, that’s reason enough to declare it verboten.

So now we — the folks who believe in the world — are seen as radicals, while the crazy paranoid nutjobs are becoming our overlords. If that’s the case, well then, okay, redefine me. I’m a raging radical, ready to take them on. — L.S.

Amtrak to 12-year-olds: You Are Babies

Hi Readers! Were you planning to have your tween take the train to your ex’s this Thanksgiving? Too bad. Amtrak has just raised its unaccompanied minor age from 8 to 13.

That’s right. Five years of a child’s development are gone — poof! — in the blink of a bureaucratic eye.  It’s like lopping teens off at the knees and saying now they’re too small to go on the ride. As of Nov. 1, any traveler younger than 13 must be accompanied by someone who is 18 or older. Why? Jeff Snowden, Amtrak’s senior director of service (so-called!) delivery, said, “This is not in response to any incidents,” but “out of an abundance of concern for the comfort and safety of all our travelers.”

Got that? Amtrak is admitting there is zero REAL reason to make this new rule, just “an abundance of concern” — an abundance that somehow manages to feel not at all concerned about the legions of parents who believe their kids are ready to travel solo. And why shouldn’t they? A kid on a train is not like a hitchhiker flagging down ice road truckers. The kids know where they’re going. (It even is written on the ticket!) There are conductors to answer questions. There’s a snack car to sell overpriced, undercooked hot dogs. There’s nothing to prevent kids 8 and up from getting where they’re going — except the brick wall of baseless worry.

How baseless? You can SEE the train brains casting around for a rationale. Here’s one they tried: In the past, guardians had to bring their minors to the station, get them a wristband and then wait with them till their train departed. But sometimes, an Amtrak spokesman explained to MSNBC, “if a specific train station ran out of wristbands, we’d have to deny travel to that child because of no fault of their own.”

So to REMEDY that, the corporation is denying travel to ALL children? That’s like saying, “Because once in a while we are total boneheads and forget to order milk for the cafeteria, from now on no child gets any milk.” Must be that ol’ “abundance of concern” welling up again. And here’s another dollop: The spokesman added that these new rules are “more customer-friendly.”

Yeah, the same way not allowing fliers to bring their water bottles through security is more customer-friendly.

What this new edict does — besides dismay me, a train lover who has taken Amtrak from New York to Chicago many times and even on to Arizona once — is to make official the trend I call “10 is the new 2.” That’s the trend of treating our kids as cute little nincompoops who need parental help every baby step of the way … to college.

Remember that we are living in an era that already is selling us things such as computerized play date organizers because our kids can’t possibly make their own arrangements. And then there’s my favorite whipping boy, the child carrier backpack that’s designed to let parents schlep their offspring up to (according to the company’s website) “60 pounds or seven years of age.” So this is a culture that sees nothing wrong with treating 7-year-olds like infants.

And Amtrak is right on board. Until last week, a third-grader could travel solo. Now even a seventh-grader can’t. Yet another big institution has no faith in our kids. That should be of abundant concern to us all. — L.S.

How could Harry Potter ever have started at Hogwarts if everyone under 13 needed a chaperone on the train?