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?

Free-Range Kid, 11, Attends a Wake…on His Own

Hi Readers: I was just very impressed by this boy’s sense of sorrow, connectedness and respect. While I don’t recommend kids defying their parents’ rules, sometimes, as they say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Anyway, here’s what I’m talking about, from the MSNBC website:

Jared Flanders faced a dilemma Wednesday evening: He had heard about the firefighter who was killed while looking for victims inside a burning building last week and he wanted to pay respects, but at only 11 years old, Jared wasn’t allowed to go outside by himself and he had no one to take him.

Jared, who lives in Worcester, Mass., ultimately decided to defy his father’s orders and go to firefighter Jon Davies’ wake. He carefully put on a coat and tie, hopped on his bike and went down to the funeral home, about a mile away, reported NBC affiliate WHDH.com.

Jared didn’t know the fireman, but he knows the pain of losing someone: His older half-brother fought in Iraq and died this summer, said Jared’s dad, Gene Flanders,on his Facebook page.

Jared sounds like a boy any parent would be proud of. (So does his half-brother.) Also sounds like he’s ready for some new rules — like letting him go out of the house on his own. — L.

Criminally Confident in Our Kids

Hi Readers — Here’s my syndicated column from last week. Sorry it took me to long to get to the Tennessee bike rider story. Got overwhelmed by other stuff. Here goes! – L

CALLING ALL COPS…OFF

So, a mom in Tennessee, Teresa Tryon, has been told by the police that she was wrong to allow her 10-year-old daughter to bike to and from school. Do it again before the police discuss this with Child Protective Services, she was warned, and she could face charges of child neglect.

Though Tryon believed her child was safe, the police officer didn’t. And that was enough to put the mom on thin legal ice.

The bike ride is less than 10 minutes each way. The mom herself said she passed a total of eight cars on her two journeys on that same route that same day. Moreover, she had her daughter take a bike safety class before any of this.

Does it get any safer than that? Perhaps the girl should just never get on a bike at all. That would probably satisfy the cop. But what about the kid, who wants a childhood? And the mom, who wants an active, independent little girl? And the town, which could be buzzing with kids playing outside or could be just a barren expanse of empty lawns?

The cooped-up kids and lifeless lawns are collateral damage in the war against terror — the terror we are supposed to feel whenever we think of children doing anything on their own. If you don’t share that terror, you risk trouble with the law.

I know because it happened to me, too. After I let my son ride the subway solo at age 9 a few years back, I also let him ride the commuter train out to the burbs when he turned 10. He went back and forth to his friend’s house many times, but then, one time, one of the conductors noticed him and went ballistic. “You should NOT be riding alone!” he said. Izzy offered to let the man talk to me on the phone, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he radioed ahead to the cops, who were waiting when my son got off the train.

Also waiting, by the way, was the family of the kid my son was going to see.  They always pick him up.

You’d think that would be proof enough that this was a situation both families felt comfortable with, but instead, the train was held for several minutes while the police questioned the friend’s family and then called me. Finally, the cop conceded this was probably OK, so the conductor got back on the train, and that was that.

Until about a month later, when it all happened again.

The same cop called me. And when I said that Izzy was now carrying a printout from the train’s own website that said kids as young as eight can ride alone,  and that furthermore that I personally felt my son was safe — at rush hour, surrounded by hundreds of commuters — the officer said, “But what if someone tries to abduct him?”

I said that in that very unlikely scenario, I thought the other people would help him.

Countered the cop: “What if TWO guys try to abduct him?”

This is what I call “Worst-First” thinking — jumping to the very WORST scenario FIRST and acting as if it were likely to happen. Two guys waiting at a commuter train platform just in case a 10-year-old might happen to be riding by himself that day and they could somehow grab each arm with no one noticing? (And as my son asked later,  “Isn’t the policeman there to KEEP me safe?”)

Of course, there are police officers who understand that kids are not in constant danger and allow them to go about the business of learning to navigate the world. But when a cop comes knocking on your door or calling you from the train platform, you realize that until we abolish “Worst-First” thinking, kids can’t be kids — and the police get to parent.

Here’s A Story You’ll Love…About a STRANGER and a GIRL

Hi Readers — Just read this lovely little essay and wanted to share it. It’s about a dad who accidentally loses track of his daughter on a bike trip, and what happened next. Enjoy! — L.

The Highlander Takes the Low Road

Hi Readers! I know these Toyota ads have been running for a while, but I still cannot believe that some ad agency thinks the best way to sell parents on a car is to tell them their kids despise everything they believe in and enjoy — possibly including THEM. And that the best way to show our love for our children is to chauffeur them in a TV-equipped bubble, where they can drown out anything that does not amuse them. And, of course, that driving (individual!!) kids to school is the natural order of things.

This is what I mean when I talk about the many ways pop culture molds us as parents. If we turn on the TV and it really looks like EVERYONE is driving their kids to school, that becomes the norm and, in turn, everyone starts driving their kids to school.

I know this is a car commercial, so it’s not going to say: For God’s sake, why don’t those able-bodied boys WALK to school? Or ride their BIKES? If they’re such good friends, obviously going the same direction, wouldn’t it make sense for them to amble off to school TOGETHER and talk on the WAY, instead of communicating through CAR WINDOWS? (Or if they live really far, even — hey — carpool?) When we don’t see any of those questions on TV, the only question becomes WHAT we drive, rather than WHY.

Yes, all of that is what this ad (infuriatingly cute nonetheless) got rumbling inside of me.

Meantime, the ad BELOW just reinforces the idea that cool kids get driven to and from school, losers take the bus. (Cool, RICH kids apparently also get the blonde chicks.)

I guess it’s a little much to expect a car company to embrace public transit, but still — let US at least remember that more kids are killed in car crashes than on school buses. So if you’re a parent who REALLY cares…which would you choose?

Two Boys Save a Third

Hi Readers! Okay, enough about cosmetics. Here’s a bracing little tale of what happens when we trust our kids to take on some grown-up responsibilities: They rise to the occasion! In this case, the occasion being a boy who fell off his bike, suffered a severe gash, and needed basic First Aid while waiting for the medics.

Let’s remember that when we worry, “Oh, she’s too young to babysit!” or, “He’s too young for a paper route.” Our kids are often way more competent than pop culture leads us to believe. (Or maybe they should just stay home and play with makeup. The girls, that is. The boys can play with squirt guns until they’re outlawed.) Good night! — L.

Stories Needed: How Do Kids Get To/From School in YOUR Town? (Wackiness Appreciated)

Hi Readers! I’m about to write a column on how kids are getting to school — with a plea for more walking or biking, when possible — and for this I need stories of kids get to school in your neighborhood. For instance, I heard from my friend that her nieces are driven by GOLF CART two blocks to the bus stop in their GATED COMMUNITY. This seemed a bit, shall we say, ridiculous. The kids are able-bodied! The community is gated! The distance is two blocks! But the mom thinks the walk is just “too risky.”

I also heard of a school in Florida where dismissal works like this: The cars line up, single file, outside the school where there are NO children outside. As a car reaches the front of the line, a school aide reads the name on the dashboard plaque issued by the school and barks into her walkie talkie, “Jeremy’s mom is here!”  At which point someone inside the school shouts, “Jeremy! Your mom is here!” And Jeremy is ESCORTED OUT to the waiting car — like an unpopular dictator being hustled into his limo.  Jeremy’s mom careens off and the process begins again, with the next car and kid. Dismissal takes half an hour.

And, finally, if this is happening in your neighborhood, I would love to hear about it:  Is it hearsay or the truth that in some school districts, the bus no longer stops at bus stops but now actually stops at each child’s home? And that some parents drive the child from the garage down to the sidewalk in front of their house to wait?

Please tell me what strange new things are happening in your neighborhood, vis a vis getting to school, including whether kids are even ALLOWED by the school to bike or walk. Thanks!

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

What Might Happen If You Let Your Kid Play Outside, Alone?

Hi Readers! In response to my downer about dealing with a tsunami of media “What If?”s, here’s one woman’s note answer to: What happens when you, with some slight hesitation, let your child go outside on her own?

Dear Lenore: I understand your anxiety, and can only join the chorus of those saying please, please don’t give up.  Your book has SIGNIFICANTLY changed our family for the better, and we were already what I called “half-range” to begin with!

My daughter (10) has been riding her bike to school for a month now, with buddies, but no adult.  It started out with just her wanting to and me saying yes, which traveled through the grapevine and triggered a flood of calls from the other moms.  “Are you REALLY allowing this?  Are you nuts?  What if this/that?  But but but…”  And many conversations and several holes bitten through my tongue later, we have 4 regular riders and many more that, although they aren’t allowed on the school ride, are allowed a wider radius of the neighborhood for riding.

The whole pack of them roam the neighborhood after school and on the weekends, with no adults around.  They’re all still alive and well, some of the moms have relaxed and seen the light, and the kids have met many neighbors they didn’t know at all before.  One elderly neighbor has been given the nickname “Candy Man” because when he sees the pack of them go by, he goes out to the street with a big bag of candy and lets them each choose one.  (Needless to say, they looooove the Candy Man!)  Another one has a dachshund they just adore, so they’ll go up and ask if they can “borrow” her dog to pet for a while.  Sometimes they’ll show up en masse at another kids house, grab the family dog, and take it for a walk (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen 8 kids walking 1 dog).

Without your book and this site, I don’t know that I would have allowed the school ride.  And look what it started!  I won’t be taking my daughter to the park and leaving her there on Saturday.  I’ll be telling her to get on her bike and GO to the park and hang out with her buddies, and be home when the street lights come on!  (Meanwhile, I’ll be leisurely reading on the couch!) — A Free-Range Mom