Quit Trying to be So Safe!

Hi Readers! This was a comment on the post two below this one, and I was nodding along so much, I decided to give it its own post. It’s by a woman named Nanci, who describes herself as “a Midwest mom of two.” — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: ….  I really think the bottom line problem is that our society today is “too safe.”  When we begin to defeat all the things that used to be dangerous, we lose quite a bit of perspective.  We start to gauge safety/danger against absolute safety.

One hundred and fifty years ago it was almost unheard of for any family to have all of its children survive to adulthood.  There were so many dangers back then, from diseases to wild animals, to harsh living conditions, to dangerous machinery and so on.  Everyone expected people to die.  No one looked for someone to blame when a particularly cold winter claimed many lives, or an outbreak of typhus swept through.  Even 75 years ago young people were being killed by polio and world wars.

Nowadays, though, America is so safe that we have begun to see death as unnatural, especially the death of a child. “Surely something can be done to prevent it!  Surely if the parents would have just done a better job, been more vigilant, their child would be okay!” And so now we have generations growing up with the idea that if you protect enough you can prevent any tragedy. This is America, it’s 2011, we have good hospitals, doctors, everything is state of the art, surely there is no place in this society for children to die!

And now, after anything that kills a child, no matter how freakish the accident,  a product appears on the market within months that would have prevented it (and normal life) from happening.

In Third World countries they do not have these issues with Free-Range Parenting.  There, because children do still die, at least the parents have the freedom to live without the fear that they will be blamed if they don’t create a absolutely safe environment for their children.  They know it’s impossible! Unfortunately in America we are so close to complete safety that we can’t see that it’s an illusion that will destroy us if we seek it.

There has never been a safer place or time in history to raise children than America in 2011, and yet parents are more paranoid than they have ever been.  Parents today will only accept absolute safety, nothing less. Unfortunately the victims of this screwed-up thinking are their children, and eventually all of us, because as we all know the children are the future.  Too bad this next generation will be living in their parents’ basements playing video games into their 30s. — Nanci

HELP NEEDED: How to Calm a Parent Who Fears Danger AND Blame?

Hi Readers! Here’s my situation: When I speak with parents who feel they really have to watch their kids ALL the time, often it’s not just because they fear  that otherwise “something terrible” could happen. It’s also  because they fear that IF something does, THEY will be blamed.

So even if parents are pretty sure their son, say, is ready to walk to school, or scooter on the sidewalk, or play basketball in the park with his friends, they still won’t let him do it, on the off-chance of that double whammy: Disaster + blame — blame they will heap on themselves and blame that others will happily heap, too.

My questions for you (since I hope you know I often rely on you for ideas and inspiration): Is there anything that has helped YOU get over that one-two punch? And is there anything that you have ever used that helped anyone ELSE get over those fears? Any psychological exercises or examples or just surprisingly effective arguments?

I find that my rational reassurances — “The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor!” — run straight into the wall of, “Yes, but it only takes ONE TIME.” Or, worse, “It only takes ONE SECOND…” (That “one second” thing kills me. It’s like EVERY SECOND is going to be their kid’s last.)

So I’d love to hear some more ideas of how to talk folks down from constant terror, because it sweeping the globe. (And as for WHY it is sweeping the globe, I’m not even getting into how mad I am at certain cable shows that have recently begged parents to, “Never take your eyes off your kids!” Because my seething goes without saying.)  — Lenore

Applebee’s Over-reaction

Hi Readers — The other day, a toddler at an Applebee’s was accidentally served alcohol instead of juice. It’s appalling — the mom said she knew something weird was going on when he started saying “Hi!” to the walls —  but the bottom line is: The child was unharmed and this was  one single incident. In fact, it was an incident so modest and local, it is bizarre that it made the news. It’s not like this was a terrorist attack. It was one stupid mistake. But as a result, Applebee’s went into OMG mode (probably out of fear of lawsuits as well as bad publicity) and from now on, it says, it will re-train all its employees and use only SINGLE SERVE juice drinks.

So now every kiddie drink has to be individually packed.  I think this is ridiculous, not just for ecological reasons, but for common sense reasons, too. If a child gets hot soup spilled on them at Applebee’s — God forbid — should Applebee’s stop serving soup? Or only serve cold (but not TOO cold) gazpacho from now on? Should it ask patrons ordering soup to sign some sort of waiver, or don heat-proof aprons, just in case?

What the alcohol incident (and official reaction) represent is the fact that though sometimes things go wrong, we cannot accept that anymore. We individuals have been trained to over-react, as has corporate America. We treat minor, even one-in-a-million, problems as major affronts. And then we try to “fix” them, even if there’s very little, if anything, to fix. It’s almost as if we have come to believe that if we just plug every pinhole in the universe, we will all be absolutely safe and sound forever more.

This is the same mentality that says we must issue a recall for any product that anyone has ever hurt themselves on, even if the product is basically very safe. A couple of months ago I read the recall of a table that had a screw protruding from the bottom of the table top. A dog had gotten its hair caught in it. Sad, yes. But worthy of a recall? Can we PLEASE accept that there is some risk in the universe? Or at least some risk under a cheaply made table?

So far I have no proof that we are that mature.  And so we spend a lot of time and money (and political air time) saying things CAN be perfect, and looking for someone to blame when — well gollllly — they aren’t.

NEWS FLASH: Life is not perfect. Sometimes things to wrong. When they’re not too terrible, could we please stop acting as if they are? And when they aren’t anyone’s fault, can we please stop pointing fingers? And, by the by, when there’s no one else to blame, can we please stop blaming parents? — L.

Its not like they gave the kid a whole bottle...

If A Tree Falls…

Hi Readers — Last week I wrote a piece on ParentDish about the tragedy that happened here in New York: A mom was holding her 6-month-old, posing for her husband to take a photo just outside the Central Park Zoo, when a tree branch fell killing the baby and seriously injuring the mom.


My piece, however, dwelt not on the tragedy nor the sadness, but on the fact that the father — understandably beside himself with grief — is preparing a lawsuit against the city. This, even though the branch was leafy and seemingly healthy, and the tree had been pruned in March and found sound.

A lot of readers jumped on me for being cold and callous for saying,  I guess starkly, that sometimes we forget that fate exists. Fate is fickle, cruel — well, actually, it doesn’t have any feelings at all. It’s just a word that tries to explain  that terrible things sometimes happen and no human is to blame. People hate hearing this, or at any rate aren’t used to it, and they find it more upsetting than finger-pointing. Or maybe I just put it all badly, and the readers thought I didn’t feel anything for the parents.

Anyway, there were two responses that I really appreciated that I am reprinting here. First, from a guy named Rob C:

….The point of Lenore’s article wasn’t, “Aww, yer babby was killed, suck it up”, it was that sometimes horrible things do happen, but these horrible things are not necessarily anyone’s fault.

How do you propose to prevent a terrible accident like this happening again? Fence off all the damn trees? Then wait for somebody to sue the city when they’re injured climbing a fence to go sit under a tree?”

And from Gever Tulley, author of the book,  50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do):

Topic #19 in Fifty Dangerous Things is “Stand on the Roof”, which encourages parents to help their kids get up on the roof of their house and have a look around. A reporter recently asked me “What do you say to the parent whose child fall off of the roof and dies?” – this is the trump card of the narrow-minded. It is the same end-move in the game of escalation that happens when talking to administrators about letting children ride bikes to school.

The truth is that there are more than 81 million children living in the United States at any given moment, and chance plays a part in their lives. Someone in California will get bitten by a shark, someone will get hit by a piece of debris that falls off of an airplane, someone will be struck by lightning – for any given individual, the chances are infinitesimal, but when you multiply even the tiniest number by 81 million and again by 12-14 hours of activity, the chance that someone, somewhere, will meet an untimely end in a seemingly random manner becomes non-zero. As a physicist once told me, everything that can happen, will happen, eventually.

My heart goes out the parents of the child killed by the falling branch, but if they had been walking in a National Park, or hanging out in their grandparents’ back yard would we think of the “blame” equation differently?

That’s it. Just trying to talk about a tough topic — fate — and having a hard time. — Lenore

When are we ever completely safe?


Hi Readers! I’m writing this today, because by evening tomorrow, I have a feeling I will be in the crosshairs for something that has happened to some child somewhere in this country, or even another country that has heard about Saturday’s “Take Our Children to the Park & Leave Them There Day.”

After doing nine TV interviews, a couple dozen radio interviews, and being written about in papers that called me everything from  “crazy” to “moron”  — and one that even ran a political cartoon showing despondent kids abandoned by their drunk parents, who are raising a toast to  “unsupervised play” (because no one except drunks would even consider the notion of taking their eyes off their children, ever) — the media has succeeded in doing to me what it does to most Americans on a daily basis: It is making me think in terms of the worst case scenario. It is making it hard for me to remember that what I am recommending is what children do all over the world — play at the local playground, with each other, without constant parental supervision, once they reach the age of 7 or 8. That is, once they reach the age that most children in other countries start walking, without their parents, to school.

So tomorrow, when, thanks to the odds in a country of about 60 million children, one of them fractures an arm or, God forbid, suffers anything worse, I can see where it could very easily become, “We told you so!” and, “It’s all her fault!” on the part of  the media. Media that will not know who to point to when another child tests positive for diabetes, or learns that he has high blood pressure brought on by a sedentary childhood, or dies in a car crash, as 5 or 6 kids do every day.

No, when it comes to kids venturing outside on their own, the media now has a villain, and it will be very easy for the evening news to ignore the “everyday” tragedies of car accidents and ill health, because, of course, it already does. Sure, those things kill kids. But there’s no drama in them.

Yesterday, on CNN, the anchor quoted some Dept. of Justice statistics about the lower crime rate today and then said “even if these are true,” (even if?)  children are still not safe. Then he provided a quote from the father of murdered 12-year-old Polly Klass,  who said that letting any children ever play outside, unsupervised, is a “knuckledheaded” idea.

Interestingly, Polly was kidnapped from her bedroom.

Naturally, CNN does not interview the parents of children killed in cars when it does a story on road trip vacations, or on a new movie that people will have to drive to the theater to see, because this would not make sense. What could the parent say? “I’m begging you: Never drive your child anywhere! It’s a knuckleheaded idea to put your child in peril that way.  Look what happened to mine!”

And of course, 40 times more children are killed in cars each year than are killed, as Polly was, by a stranger.

So all I can say is: I’m bracing for blame and trying to remember that the whole idea of kids getting out of the house, and meeting each other, and playing on their own, even for just 10 minutes, is a worthy thing.  — Lenore

The more kids outside, the safer and happier the neighborhood.

The Perfect Mother’s Day Gift: Responsible Kids!

Hi Readers: Just got this note today and had to share it, not just because it is so upbeat and hopeful, but  because it is one hell of a marketing piece! Give a mom my book and she, too, can experience the joy that comes with watching her kids grow happy and self-reliant!

Dear Lenore: I love your book! I used to worry about what people thought of me for having my kids stay home alone for an hour and a half till I was done with work, or when I wanted a quick and quiet trip to the store, but it has made me realize how much more independent they are compared to other kids! Reading your book gave me the idea to stop paying for a cab to drive my kids to or from school when I’m working ($40/week) and let them walk the 1.5 km from the bus stop to home. They love the walk (through a park) and were even willing to walk from the school (about 4 k) to save the money. Now I am giving them 2 bucks a walk for saving me the money spent on a cab.

Thanks for giving my parenting style a name:  Free Range! — Tara (in Canada)

Just When You Thought Free-Range Kids Was Catching On…

Hi Readers — Here’s a link to my essay on ParentDish, “Can a Mom Leave Her Kid Alone at the Library for Three Minutes?” It’s about a mom who left her kid in the children’s room to run upstairs and check out a book in the adult department. She told the librarian she’d be back in a few minutes and the librarian warned her that this was okay, but that the dangers of the real world lurk in the library too.  My piece said that while I don’t think librarians should be treated like babysitters, this seemed like a fine, short, safe thing for the mom to do. And by the way: There was no one else in the children’s room!

Well the piece has garnered 1300 responses so far.  Here’s a typical one:


And another:

“Here is an example of the social contract. When you decided to become a parent, you accepted that being a parent means Every. Single. Second. There is no such thing as a free range parent.”

And another:


Personally, I’ve gotten so used to reading the comments here on Free-Range Kids that I was stunned anew by the  conviction that children are in grave danger for their lives EVERY SECOND their parents’ eyes are not upon them.

Not to mention the usual vitriol, and the joy in blaming a mom for something that did not end up tragically. But, you know, COULD have. — Lenore

Job description: Have child. Never let go. Ever.

Killer Kids: Blame the Parents?

Hi Readers — This note came in response to my ParentDish column, “New Study: Parents Stink.” Sometimes I am just, well, blown away by the logical leaps people take:

“I am a mother of a 26 year old man and a 13 year old boy. I give my 13 year old as much freedom as I think he needs but I always know where he’s at and who he’s with. This may be hovering but it’s better then him showing up at school one day and blowing everyone away and I had no idea he had been planning this.”

I agree: Most things are better than having one’s kid wake up and kill everyone at his school. Especially when it’s a big surprise. (I hate surprises!) And of course, if he does indeed do this, it’s all the parent’s fault.

That belief — that everything my kid does, good and bad, stems directly from MY parenting skills — is the kind of belief that drives us nuts to begin with. I wish she’d read my book, or at least Chapter 11:  “Relax! Not Every Little Thing You Do Has THAT Much Impact on Your Child’s Development.”

Meantime, whatever this woman thinks of “Free-Range Kids” (and me), I actually don’t condemn parents who want to know where their 13-year-old is and who he’s with.  I just think it’s pretty wacky to believe that if a parent is a little less informed, that kid will wake up, go to school and kill all his classmates. — Lenore

A Note to the Pregnancy Police

Hi Readers — Here’s a great comment that came in response to the blog post, Driven Crazy by Pregnancy Perfectionists. It reminds us of a truth we’ve been encouraged to forget in our “blame the parents” society: We are not in total control, ever. Not of what happens to us, and certainly not of what happens to our children.  A reader writes:

Sorry, there are no guarantees in life.  I followed the rules for the most part, though not to any extreme — probably didn’t eat enough vegetables or get enough exercise (still don’t). But I did have every prenatal test to make sure everything was fine.  It all came out normal.  I felt fine, the pregnancy progressed fine, the birth came early but was otherwise fine –and then my daughter was born with a birth defect.  One that would have killed her in an earlier age; fortunately we’re not in an earlier age, and they fixed it and she is TOTALLY fine now.

And for a while I blamed myself — what did I do??  Was it that glass of wine I had before I knew I was pregnant? Was it one too many baby back ribs from Chili’s?  Was it my shocking avoidance of pregnancy yoga?!?  Then I realized — it was nothing.  It was a misfire during the building process.  A dropped stitch.  No process is foolproof or perfect.  This was a universal truth we all understood a few generations ago.  But we’ve become so accustomed to the illusion of control that modern life gives us that we’ve become responsible for EVERYTHING that happens to us, and that’s just ridiculous.  Little of what’s going on in there is in your hands.  So you may as well relax. — Dahlia

Jaycee’s Story and the Yale Bride Who Was Murdered

Hi Readers — After the terrible story of Jaycee Dugard’s abduction and 18-year imprisonment came to light a few weeks ago, the media was on fire with reminders that our children are NEVER safe on the streets and anything like this could happen at any time on any unchaperoned trip to school. You’ll recall one bit of advice I questioned was an article that said we should never — that’s right, NEVER — let our children go “anywhere alone.”

Last week, Annie Le, a graduate student, was murdered at Yale.  Shouldn’t the talk show hosts and fearmongers be wringing their hands and tearfully reminding us parents, “Never — NEVER — let your children go to Yale”?

 Why aren’t they?  — Lenore