The 4-year-Old Defendant

Hi Readers! Probably by now most of you  have heard of this bizarre case: A 4-year-old girl and a boy her same age were racing their bikes on the sidewalk, training wheels and all, when they ran into an elderly woman using a walker. The woman fell, broke her hip and died three weeks later. Tragic. Now her estate is suing, among others, the 4 year olds. When the girl’s lawyer (just writing that is weird) protested that the girl was too young to be held liable, the judge said if she were YOUNGER than 4, he’d agree. But as she was already 4, he is letting the trial proceed.

A bunch of you sent me notes about the case, and this one really struck me, from Matt Wall, in California:

Dear Free-Range Kids: It’s an unfortunate accident — a four-year-old on a bike collides with an elderly woman, who is hurt, and later dies, although to what extent as a result of this injury isn’t clear. Being hit by a bike certainly didn’t help.

But we live in a society where somebody has to be at fault, so why not sue the four-year-old? What I find so strange about this is this finding by the judge: He wrote that the the girl’s lawyer had presented no evidence as to the child’s lack of intelligence or maturity, nor that “a child of similar age and capacity” would not have understood the danger of riding a bicycle into an old woman.

So a child has the presumed competence — the “maturity,”  at the age of four to be sued? But not the maturity or competence to stay by themselves in a car for five minutes at age eight? Or to ride the subway alone at age nine?

We have parent-teacher conferences at our school this week. It’s a wonderful school but they have their own liability rules and other rules handed to them by the state. One of them is we can’t have our
six-year-old play quietly by himself in the protected court yard right outside his own first grade classroom while we meet with his teacher because he would be “unsupervised.” So we’re obliged to engage
a babysitter for an hour (good luck, midday on a weekday, we’re paying a premium for this).

Fear of the bogeyman of child predators, etc.,  is a part of what drives this hyper-sheltered vision of childhood. But it also seems that our extremely litigious society creates a different kind of fear. I wonder how many kids will now be denied the simple thrill of riding ahead on their bikes a little by parents petrified the kids or they themselves will be on the hook for a multimillion dollar judgment if an accident happens? — Matt

Couldn’t have said it better myself.  — L.


Felons from an earlier era?


Free-Range Fracas in England!

Hi Readers — England has been in a tizzy about a Free-Range family since last week.  A family I support!

Here, London’s Jennifer Howze weighs in. Jennifer is a partner in the online social network British Mummy Bloggers, and she’s lead blogger on the Times of London’s parenting blog Alpha Mummy .

Free-Range in London: What’s a Reasonable Bike Ride for a Kid? By Jennifer Howze

Once you want a nice suburban-type neighborhood in which to raise your kids (but you still want to be in London), you move to Dulwich, so the thinking goes. This picturesque, sedate enclave looks like a little village that’s been landscaped with money, but last week it was the center of a debate about how much freedom parents should allow their children.

Oliver and Gillian Schonrock allow their 8-year-old and 5-year-old to cycle on their own a mile to school every morning. Both the school and other parents raised concerns and there were threats of calling social services on the couple. The newspapers picked up the story and it has became a heated topic for discussion among parents, on parenting blogs and in forums in the UK all week. (At my daughter’s end-of-school assembly last Wednesday, the headmaster’s speech included a tongue-in-cheek thanks to parents “for not sending their 5 and 8 year olds to school on bicycles”.)

Even the London mayor Boris Johnson jumped into the fray, giving a full-throated endorsement to the Schonrocks for bucking the “nanny state” and “elf and safety” (aka health and safety) busybodies. “In this age of air-bagged, mollycoddled, infantilised over-regulation it can make my spirits soar to discover that out there in the maquis of modern Britain there is still some freedom fighter who is putting up resistance against the encroachments of the state,” he wrote in the Telegraph newspaper.

“Their vision of urban life is profoundly attractive – a city so well policed, and with so strong a sense of community, that children can walk or cycle on their own to school. Instead of hounding the Schonrocks we should be doing everything we can to make their dream come true – in every part of the city.”

A lot of the debate amounts to parsing the risks of the Schonrocks’ arrangement: Is it a good idea? Is it fair to make an 8-year-old supervise a 5-year-old? Is the couple simply trying to make a point and using their children to do it?

Complicating this situation are all the extenuating circumstances. A mile does seem far in London, even a family-oriented part of it. While the children rode on the sidewalk and crossed one street with a crossing guard, many people raised concerns about the heavy morning traffic and the “Chelsea tractors” (the 4x4s beloved of parents everywhere) that pose a danger to all bicyclists.

And here’s another thing, one of parents’ worst fears: Two years ago in Dulwich a man tried to abduct an 11-year-old off the street, writes Dulwich Divorcee, a well-known London-based blogger.  Just a few months ago, in the nearby neighbourhood of Wandsworth (where I live), another 11-year-old was grabbed by a man before escaping. (Police have released a description of the suspect.)

“However much we pretend we’re in a village cut off from the troubles of urban life, we Dulwich residents are as much subject to bonkers drivers, perverts, traffic jams, accidents and stress as anyone else in London,” the Dulwich Divorcee writes.

These are all valid points in this debate and I can’t say I know the answer. My daughter, aged 6, seems too young to cycle four blocks to school on her own, but that’s as much to do with her shakiness on a bike and our congested streets as anything else. (In London, many of the two-way streets are only wide enough for one car, making jockeying for position and squeezing past other vehicles a regular part of driving.)

Still, the Schonrocks say they took the risks into consideration and decided that their children are mature enough to handle them. The couple want to engender confidence and street smarts in their kids. That’s their decision.

What I find chilling is the idea that a school or fellow parents will, in effect, call in the cops (or civil functionaries) to police choices they disagree with. There’s no indication that the Schonrocks are neglectful parents. So is the threat of social services based on justifiable fear, or fear that we are somehow complicit if those kids discover that the world is not a 100% safe place?

We all have our own level of Free-Range comfort. (I’m making an effort to get comfortable with my daughter safely roaming.) What became clear this past week in London is that, when other people’s comfort level doesn’t match our own, just what others will do to bring it all into line. — J.H.

Why Is It So Hard to Get Kids Walking to School?

Hi Readers — I’m still on the road and just gave a speech in Chicago sponsored by the National Center for Safe Routes to School. (A jolly bunch!)  Safe Routes reps every state gathered to talk about the pressing question: How can we get more kids walking to school? The organization says  that a generation ago, two thirds of f kids walked or biked to school. Today, 20-25% do. I’ve heard numbers even lower than that.

So Safe Routes (funded by the Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration) aims to get kids back to walking to school by whatever means necessary. If a neighborhood needs sidewalks, they help the neighborhood organize to get ’em. If a school has outlawed walking or biking, they help explain to the district why those things are actually GOOD. They even address, head on, the district’s fears of liability. Meantime, if parents are interested in letting their kids walk, but are scared (of predators, traffic, and worst of all: other parents thinking they’re lazy!), they teach ’em about the “walking school bus.” That’s the cool idea that a parent can take her kid and walk to the next kid’s house and pick her up, and then they all walk to the NEXT kid’s house and pick HIM up, etc., etc.,  so by the time they get to the school, there are a bunch of kids all walking together. Eventually, the kids don’t need the parents anymore: They’ve learned the route, know how to safely cross the street, and this has become their daily routine.

Even the Safe Routes folks agree: It’s weird we have come to time in society when we have to structure what used to be simple and natural — kids walking places. But the way I often think of Free-Range Kids is just that: re-introducing an old-fashioned childhood. When kids have been kept inside so long they no longer know how to organize their own game of leap frog, it’s not bad for a school to hire a recess coach to teach them (and then get out of the way). It’s more important to bring back those skills than it is to blindly pretend that kids will develop them on their own — because they never did. The used to learn games from the older kids in the neighborhood. If there are no older kids outside anymore, or they’re all at travel soccer, then of course the younger ones don’t learn those games out of thin air. Someone needs to re-introduce them.

That’s the same reasoning behind “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” Of COURSE I’d like all kids to automatically head out to the park on a sunny Saturday without needing a special holiday to encourage this. But since so many times kids DON’T head to the park, they DON’T get to know the other local kids, and they DON’T know how fun it can be to just kick around a playground with each other. So they stay inside. I proposed a morning where the old-fashioned “meet and have fun” thing would happen, hoping that afterward kids would clamor to do it again.

Safe Routes is on the same sort of mission and its website seems to be loaded with great ideas for how to get the PTA involved, and what to say to skeptics, and how to get the school on your side. And if the local problem is a lack of crossing guards, or whatever, the organization is also game to help walk a district through the red tape it takes to get some grant money to fix the problem. And, just like Take Our Children to the Park Day, Safe Routes sponsors Walk to School Day (coming up in October).

Our shared goal? To re-introduce kids into the world,  sort of the way we’ve done with Peregrine falcons. They may have been bred in captivity, but a future awaits when they can soar. — Lenore

The Bicycle/Three Sleeping Children Thief

Hi Readers! How the Danes must be puzzled by our abduction obsession. Here’s what happened when a thief  in Copenhagen found a cargo bike outside a store and stole it — not realizing three kids were sleeping inside the big container-thing attached to the front.  Thanks to all of you who sent in this bizarre (but kind of heartwarming) story! — Lenore