What Happens When We “Dangerize” Childhood

Hi Readers. Here’s a slightly updated column I wrote for my syndicate, Creators, this week.

What Happens When We Dangerize Childhood

This has been a big week for pointing fingers … including at me.

As the lady who started “Free-Range Kids” after letting my 9-year-old take the subway solo,  I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that crime rate is actually LOWER than it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which means our kids should be able to enjoy the same kind of childhood WE had — playing outside, riding their bikes, even walking home at age 8.

But then a madman murdered 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, who was  indeed just walking home from camp in Brooklyn. And suddenly, the idea of Free-Range Kids sounds about as sensible as letting children ride their trikes along the interstate. As the headline on one of the big “mommy blogs” read, “Boy Abducted Walking Home Alone: Is Free-Range Parenting Dangerous?”

To which I would like to pose a different question, based on the fact that 25 times more children die as car passengers than as abduction victims (that is, about 1,300 children younger than 14 die in cars annually, whereas about 50 are murdered by strangers): “Is Putting Your Kid in the Car Dangerous?”

I ask only because, as a society, we have decided to focus on the least likely, most horrific, most TV ratings-garnering child deaths and base a lot of our parenting decisions on them. Gever Tulley, an author and educator in California, coined a term for this: dangerism. (And he wrote a book about it, too.)  We decide, irrationally, which dangers are worth obsessing over and which we will shrug off as small, unavoidable risks.

So when I get a letter such as this one — “That little boy’s parents should have known better than to let him walk alone at such an early age” — I have to stifle a scream.

The parents should have “known better” than to trust their city — my city, too — where we are enjoying the lowest murder rate since 1961? Known better than to trust their neighborhood, which the state assemblyman described as a “no-crime area”? Known better than to trust their 8-year-old when, in most countries of the world, kids start walking to school at age 7? This is like saying the parents of the baby killed by a falling tree branch in Central Park last year should have known better than to stand under a tree.

We have yet to dangerize a walk in the park. But we are in the process of dangerizing any walk by any kid in any neighborhood, no matter how safe.

It is hard to get a grip on how uncommon a crime like the Kletzky murder is, because it is precisely those uncommon crimes that are exceedingly common on TV. They start out on the news and then get recycled in the crime dramas and “special investigations” and, eventually, on the anniversary shows (smarmily marketed as “tributes”), to the point where the story becomes indelible. Then, when we ask ourselves whether it is safe for our kids to walk outside, up pops Lieby Kletzky’s photo, like the top story in a Google search. And just like that top Google item, it seems the most relevant, even though actually it is the least. It is so easily accessible because it is so rare. If it were happening all the time — like kids being killed in car accidents — we’d search for an iconic image and draw a blank.

So the next time someone tells me, “I would NEVER let my child walk outside, because it’s just too dangerous,” here is how I will reply:

“I hope you NEVER put your children in a car. How could you ever forgive yourself if, God forbid, something terrible were to happen? It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to keep your children safe! Personally, I would rather have my kids stuck at home, unable to go anywhere, than take the TERRIBLE RISK of putting them in the car. Maybe at 13 or 14 they can start riding in a car, but seven or eight? Too young! Parents should know better! It’s just not worth a lifetime of regret.”

That’s how wacky — and stifling — we can get when we dangerize everyday life, so let’s try not to. (And let’s keep the blame-the-parents impulse in check, too.) — L.

What Can Happen if You DO Take Your Kids Out of the Car for Every Errand

Hi Readers! Just yesterday I was being interviewed by a reporter who admitted she had let her kids, ages 5 and 2, wait in the car while she ran into UPS to drop off a package. This took all of a minute or two, but when she told her husband about it, he said, “That was so dangerous! Promise me you’ll never do that again!”
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Why was it “so dangerous”? Answer: It wasn’t. It was only dangerous if some very strange, unpredictable thing happened, like a predator passing by UPS at just that instant who was eagle-eyed, lightening quick, and desperate for two kids at once. Need I remind anyone here how rare — nay, almost unheard of that scenario is? (60,000,000 children age 15 and under in America, about 115 kidnapped by strangers/year.)  
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As unlikely as that scenario is, it plays out in a lot of folks’ heads. So maybe  we should try to get them playing the FOLLOWING scenario instead. After all: Unpredictable is unpredicatble. — L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: Here in Auckland, NZ we had a tornado this week — nothing on the devastating scale in the US, but a very unusual thing here, and with no warning.  Tragically one man was killed, but this article is about the narrow escape of three small kids whose mum left them in the car for a moment while she popped into a shop…only to have a practically unheard of tornado strike that carpark at that moment, throw the car in the air and dump it on its roof!!  NOT in the realm of predictable risks  I would say!
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Great thing — the kids, being secure in their carseats, were only scratched and shocked. Because of the way the car fell, if mum had been in the car with them she probably would have been killed. Second great thing – NO criticism of the mum in the article, just praise for her great use of secure carseats.  And it occurred to me, that given the extra time it would have taken for her to get all three out of the car, they would probably all have been standing by the car when the twister struck, and…probably not such a great outcome. — A Kiwi Mum
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Let’s all try to remember that we can never predict an unpredictable occurrence. It’s pretty much up to fate, not “good parenting” what happens.  — L

We would be a less blame-obsessed society if we remembered the role of fate.

Rear-Facing Car Seats and Safety — Updated!

Hi Readers: There is so much to ponder in this amazing column from the Herald-Mail in Maryland titled, “When It Comes to Protecting Kids, We Have It All Backward.” Yes, it was inspired by the new American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent dictum that children should be kept in rear-facing car seats until age 2. Personally, I don’t get how that even works. Do we cut off their legs? (This would also prevent them from running in the street. Win/win!)

But the columnist, Tim Rowland, takes the idea a step farther with these thoughts:

Today, being a child is like being a hostage; the first two years of your life are spent blindfolded and tied to a chair. Great. Along with being safer, it also prepares the tyke for future airline travel.

But we wonder why the real world seems too much of a challenge to the young people of today. Is it really that hard to figure? “What do you mean I have to get a job on my own? Aren’t you going to wrap me in straps and blankets and transport me to a hardened-plastic workplace?”

You know, on reflection, maybe a car seat isn’t safe enough, either. Maybe we should just leave them in the hospital until they’re ready to start first grade.

As you can tell, I have conflicting feelings about safety. You can’t have too much of it — except that you can. You can protect against every contingency — except that you can’t.

That last paragraph sums up my own feelings about safety pretty exactly. As you know, I LOVE safety and hate courting danger for danger’s sake. But there is such a thing as TOO safe. There’s the safety that protects kids in only the most extreme and unlikely circumstances, but manages to restrict their daily lives just about completely. And there’s the safety we are encouraged to pursue that is almost superstitious. And there is the notion out there that if we just pass enough laws and buy enough gadgets and curtail enough activities and hover close enough to our kids, nothing bad will EVER happen. Which conveniently neglects the truth about fate, AND encourages the blaming of parents when ANYTHING goes wrong.

Long story short: I liked this guy’s column.  — L

UPDATE: Okay! After looking at the slo-mo videos of rear-facing car crash dummies — yikes! — I believe I would abide by the new guidelines if my kids were younger. In fact, my mom employed some kind of prot0 carseat when I was two, and this saved me when we tumbled off the highway.  Seatbelts saved her and my cousin. So I have always advocated for car seats (see statement on the left of my page that has been there since the beginning of this blog!). The reason I liked the column I quote here is that it uses this new edict as a jumping off point for asking if there is ever a point at which “very, very safe” is safe enough. Perhaps there isn’t, at least not when ensuring the extra safety involves something as simple as a new car seat position.  But it’s a question I ask a lot. Should we require videocameras on all rear bumpers? Should we redesign the hotdog? Should we get rid of trampolines? Does it ever make sense not to embrace new safety notions?

I don’t have the answer to all these questions but I do love trying to figure out what makes sense,  and what doesn’t. So while kids are already very safe in car seats — something to remember! —  you have convinced me that the rear-facing seat protects kids without changing childhood.  Let’s figure out everything else! — L

Beware the Vultures

Readers: This is a topic we have visited before, but it continues to grow as an “issue.” Today in my inbox I got this notice from “Safe Kids,” urging people to call 911 whenever they see a kid in a car, and using this tragic story as its rationale — the story of a mom who forgot her child in the car for 10 hours.

Seems to me there is a rather huge difference between accidentally forgetting your child in the car, and deliberately choosing to leave him there for a short while while you run an errand. But the “Safe Kids” people obscure that and — as is so popular in our culture today — paint every kids-alone situation as a disaster waiting (perhaps seconds) to happen.

So then what you get is this other letter I got in the mail today. Read on! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: This is going to have to be anonymous because I learned I could actually get into serious trouble with social services for this??!! My 4-year-old goes to pre-k. My 9-month-old had an ear infection and an upper respiratory infection. It was a 20 degree windy day, and it is a 100 foot walk from the car to the building, so I decided to leave the baby in the heated car while I took her sister in, so she wouldn’t be exposed to the wind.

I was in the building out of view of the 9-month-old for approximately 30 seconds — at worst it could have been 45. The car was locked, the car alarm set. I return and the 9-month-old is sleeping peacefully exactly where I left her. I move on with my day and forget about it.

The following week I pull into the pre- k and a cop blocks my car into the parking space and proceeds to interrogate me about my “dangerous habit” of leaving my child in the car. He threatened me with “consequences” if it continued. This, in front of an entire parking lot full of curious, staring parents and children, the former probably wondering if I was dealing meth or crack to their 4-year-olds…

What exactly did they think was going to happen in that 45 seconds? Was a giant vulture equipped with a huge can opener going to swoop down and extract the baby from the car? Is a terrorist going to blow it up? Will she be kidnapped in spite of the car alarm in 45 seconds in broad day light from this suburban parking lot? And as a parent, could my presence have protected her if she was? And more importantly for me: who, exactly, has so much time on their hands that they are peeking in other peoples’ car windows checking for unattended babies and monitoring the behavior of their parents? And why isn’t this person being properly medicated for THEIR condition? (signed) — Mik

Welcome, Wall Street Journal Readers!

Hi Readers — All of you, including the new ones who caught my piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. It was all about the fact that so few kids are walking to school these days — about one in ten. And here’s a note that sums up the whole craziness:

Dear Free-Range Kids:  My son started kindergarten and the dismissal procedure is for the teacher to open her classroom door to the outside and let the kids out if she sees a parent or person assigned to pick up the child. When I asked another parent about letting the kids walk home – they laughed and said the kids can’t walk home until 2nd or 3rd grade.

WHAT???? I live exactly 1 mile from the school. My son would have to walk down a residential street, cross a busy street – with a crossing guard – and then walk in another residential area to get home. I would have no problem with him walking home. He might take a while because he wants to look at the birds or a stick on the ground, but hey, he is almost 6 and that is to be expected.

It takes me at least 20 minutes to pick up each day. I have to drive to the school, trying to maneuver around the other parents trying to get a parking spot, park my car across the street in the junior high parking lot, load a sleeping toddler (who I just plucked from a nap) into a stroller, try and cross the street that the other parents are trying to maneuver to decide where to park, and wait for my child to be released. To me it is a nightmare!

Me, too. And here’s a piece that should make us all think twice: In Germany, the newspapers are trying to convince parents NOT to drive their kids to school. Good parents (they say) should think about all the time, gas, pollution, and opportunity for exercise and socialization that are wasted when they act as their children’s chauffeurs. Agreed! — Lenore

P.S. The link to the Journal piece works now — possibly only for today!

P.P. S.  Let’s try to keep the discussions here helpful and supportive. Especially (spoken like a mom) because today we have guests! L.

The Dame in Spain

Hola Readers — I’m just back from Spain, which seems a little more Free-Range than America. (And Canada. And especially England!) One Madrid playground my son Izzy and I visited actually had a see-saw, something you rarely see (saw) in America anymore, thanks to the fear of bump-induced lawsuits. Izzy declared it the most fun piece of playground equipment ever, after merry-go-rounds. (Another childhood standard on its  way out,  for the same reason.)

The two of us were speaking at a conference sponsored by Audi on the topic, “The Streets Also Belong to Me!” — “Me!” being children. The chief of traffic for all Spain was there, and his country really has made a concerted, successful effort to cut down on pedestrian deaths, mostly by seriously  enforcing the speed limits. The whole idea of concentrating on the real threat to children walking to school — traffic — rather than the perceived threat to children (kidnappers), was incredibly refreshing.

I was embarrassed for my own country, though, when after my talk, the head of marketing for Audi in Spain came up to me and said he’d been to California last summer and didn’t understand us. “Here,” he said, “my wife and I, we always smile at the children. We wave, make them laugh, pat their heads. In America, when we did that, the parents would stare at us.” And he demonstrated the stare.

It was icy.

I hope that as the years go by, we drift more towards the Spanish model of dealing with kids, rather than Spain drifting more toward us. I like the idea of strangers making my kids laugh, and I’m sorry that some of us Americans made these Spanish visitors cry. Or at least wonder why we are all so grumpy and suspicious.

That’s my report from Spain except I must add that everyone dressed really well, and I sure loved all the sidewalk cafes. And why doesn’t America have Fanta Lemon — a really lemony soda — instead of just Sprite?

Adios for now!– Senora Leonora