A Sweet, Simple Moment (That Nonetheless Made Me Cry)

Hey Readers — Just a nice summer note from a gal named Lynn:
Dear Free-Range Kids: So, last week were were out camping at Chincoteague, VA, and my kids and a man with four kids ranging in age from about 5 to maybe 10 or 11 were in the pool.  The man with the four kids had a son who was about the age of mine, and they ended up playing together.  I’d give them the “go” and they’d jump in the pool at the same time, seeing who could jump furthest.
Anyway, in the course of this game, the man and I made eye contact, and grinned at each other and struck up the occasional short conversation.  In time, I heard him telling the kids that they needed to get out of the pool because they had to go move their campsite.
The kids didn’t really want to go, but were good about doing as he asked.  So I offered to watch his kids in the pool while he went and did his thing, and when they were ready to go, I’d bring them back.  He was surprised at my offer, but said that if I didn’t mind, that would be great.  So he told them that if they wanted to stay in the pool that I was in charge.
On signal, the kids kind of pulled together and played in the shallower end where my kids were, and eventually, when they were ready to go, we headed back to their campsite.  No problem.  Nobody drowned.  Kids were happy to play a bit longer.  I was happy to be able to help.  The dad was happy to be able to go move the campsite without having to haul the kids out first.  Kids made new friends at the site.  Win win.
Also while camping, my 6 (almost 7)-year-old, usually very much a “Please do it with me, mummy”-type of kid, asked if she could go to the camp store and buy milk.  By herself.  So I handed her some money and sent her off to get milk and to bring me the change.  Which she did, coming back as pleased as punch with herself.
Perfect place for independence. I mean, really.  A campsite.  A family campsite.  The lady who ran the store had seen us in and out all week and recognized my daughter.  Even though I could see the store from our site, I just did my thing, trusting that she’d be all right.  And she was.  In a way, that’s what communities should be like everywhere.  People recognizing each other and wanting to help each other and keeping an eye out for each other.  Too bad it’s not like that everywhere. Free-Range?  Love it. — Lynn

The Personal Toll on Helicopter PARENTS

Hi Readers! Just back from the dead, after a grilling incident left me with second degree burns on my right hand FINGER TIPS! Bad news for a blogger (and YEOW!!!!!). So I went to the E.R. and got some very powerful pain drugs. So powerful that they left me lying on the floor all day yesterday, lifting my head only to vomit. Now, happily, my fingers are fine (tap, tap, tap) and I have vowed never to take a Vicodin again.

And now, on to less personal gripes.

Check out this essay, “Helicopter Moms, Heading for a Crash,” from Sunday’sWashington Post . It’s by Margaret Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control, and it basically says that by the time you have watched TV with your kids (to make sure it’s appropriate, and discuss relevant issues) and done homework with your kids (to help and guide them) and played with your kids and driven your kids and watched your kids at soccer/dance/chess/lacrosse, there’s not a lot of time left for your other relationships: With your spouse, your friends or your community.

I really related to the homework part. My husband and I DO spend a ton of time helping one of our sons with his homework and we  watch the evening dribble through the hourglass until but a few grains are left for teethbrushing and good nights.

Sometimes this time drain it’s not just a reflection of hovering and helicoptering — at least not deliberately, on our part. Sometimes it really is externally imposed by a society that demands a ton of kids and, by extension, parents. For instance — not that this is such a time sucker — but almost every quiz my sons take at school has to be brought home, reviewed and signed by a parent. Why?

And that’s not to mention the paperwork, the forms for every activity, the giant projects that a kid COULD do on his own…maybe in a few years. But it seems to me that sometimes the schools treat 8-year-olds like middle schoolers, middle schoolers like high school kids and high school kids like graduate students in advanced particle physics at Princeton.

Anyway, perhaps that’s a bit off topic (okay, AND a personal gripe. Just like I promised to move away from! It’s the Vicodin hangover typing.)  What I liked about the Washington Post piece is that, rather than castigate helicopter parents yet again, it mourns the richness of life they give up: the time to volunteer for a political campaign, or have dinner with friends. As Nelson says at the end:

Many of the helicopter mothers I’ve spoken to have told me, often with pride in their voices, that their daughters are their best friends. At first, I wondered why these women — some of them in their late 40s or 50s — wouldn’t prefer to spend their free time with people their own age. But as I looked more closely at the way they are tackling parenthood, I understood: They have no free time.

All the more reason to try to go Free-Range — not just on a home-by-home basis, but also to encourage a society that lets kids be kids, so parents can be part of the bigger world, too.  — Lenore

From Our Friends at KaBOOM!

Hi Folks! Here’s a note from KaBOOM!, the non-profit dedicated to making sure there are playgrounds everywhere, and that kids actually get out and enjoy them.  Like “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day,” KaBOOM! has a week in September when it encourages communities to get all the kids outside, playing together. And now the community with the best plans for revamping a playground, or getting kids active, or creating community connectedness seems to be eligible for a grant, too. A biggie!

So here, without further ado, I present to you: KaBOOM! (a name with vaguely terrorist connotations, at least to this New Yorker, but what the hey. Too late to change it, I guess.) — L.

ORGANIZE A KABOOM! DAY

Hi Free-Rangers! — If you’re following this blog,  you already know how important play is to keeping children happy and healthy.  Play is in jeopardy across the country, and national non-profit KaBOOM! is dedicated to saving it. You can help, too!  To spread the word around the importance of play plan a KaBOOM! Play Day for the week of September 18-26th. KaBOOM! Play Days encourage communities to come together for fun activities and to improve local parks and playgrounds.

Last year, more than 1,250 communities in all 50 states and on all 7 continents (yes, even Antarctica) got together to celebrate a KaBOOM! Play Day. This year, the KaBOOM! Play Day program is presented by Mott’s.

KaBOOM! Play Days help communities:

  • Have fun! A KaBOOM! Play Day is about adults and kids coming together to have fun and enjoy games, fresh air, and good company.
  • Connect. Planning a Play Day strengthens community ties and gives participants a chance to meet and work together.
  • Improve your playground. Many KaBOOM! Play Day events include improvement projects, such as planting flowers or trees, building benches or picnic tables, painting murals, and much more!
  • Advocate for play. Play is on the decline. By participating in this program, you are joining a national movement and helping KaBOOM! spread the message that play is vital for America’s children.

Free-Rangers, parents, teachers and community leaders who want to get their kids outside and active can visit www.kaboom.org/playday to plan a Play Day in their community.   Once there, you’ll be able to choose games and activities, self-organize, recruit volunteers, invite attendees and receive event planning help.  When the events are over, stellar Play Day communities with the best improvement projects will be eligible for $25,000 in grants to help them further improve their local park or playground.

By hosting a KaBOOM! Play Day, you will not only ensure children in your community get out and play for an afternoon, but you can help make your local park or playground an inviting place, where families can spend time together for years to come. — Your friends a KaBoom!

Guest Post: Trust A Stranger at the Park?

Hi Readers! I’m in Minnesota to give a Free-Range talk. Always happy to spread the word because then things like this — see below — start happening! This post originally appeared at the blog Last American Childhood. by Rachel Federman. Enjoy!

A Free-Range Exeperiment by Rachel Federman
In the playground this morning I tried to apply a bit of Free-Range parenting to my usual routine (albeit with someone else’s kids). A lady with a newborn was trying to round up her boys (3 and 4) so she could put her laundry from the washer to the dryer in a nearby building. They of course did not want to leave even though they could “come right back” (which in kid-speak translates to Don Corleone saying, “Someday, and that day may never come”).
I stuttered, “You can leave them with me,” which was maybe a bit forward, given we hadn’t met or even engaged in any of the usual playground banter. She went silent for a moment, probably not thinking, “Hey, what if this lady playing in the sandbox with her toddler changes her plan for the day and abducts Max and Jackson?” But more like — “Can she handle all three?” (Especially when most days it’s clear to even the most casual observer I can barely handle one.)
She asked her kids if they wanted to stay. They did. She told them, “Rachel’s in charge.” The 3 boys seemed to intuitively understand they should now play together and stay local. They chased each other around the monkey bars and returned again and again to the water. My main concern was that one of them might run out of the gate while I had to be on the other side of the playground catching Wally before he dashed in front of high-speed swings. Nothing close to that even happened, in fact hardly anyone was even on the swings.
When she came back the mom of 3 said she worried only that someone might get hurt and then I’d have to attend to that on top of the others. I guess you could say it was lucky, but it was all so easy. So natural. The odds were stacked pretty high for us. How ridiculous to have to shuttle three kids back and forth from the playground to inside and back just to move a few pairs of shorts from a washer to a dryer. I did notice a few quizzical looks from other parents. The kids though couldn’t have been happier. When the second adult returned to her post, they scattered out again. Had it not been for the free-range experiment, I wonder if they would have played together at all. – R.F.
Lenore here: Can I repeat that one of the basic ideas of Free-Range is that community — connecting — makes us all safer and happier? And that when we  go to that dark place where the fearmongers want us to go — “Remember! Everyone is a a potential predator!” — we let terror govern our days instead of common sense. And joy.

Water, Water Everywhere (Including at the School Desk)

Hi Readers! This note from a teacher interested me so much — and not just because I really hate  bottled water. (Always have. It’s a waste of plastic, and a waste of fuel, in that it gets transported from Fiji or wherever, by boat and truck. And in a country with clean tap water, it’s a waste of money! Especially because so many brands, including Dasani and Aquafina, are just re-filtered tap water anyway!)

But anyway — the letter interests me not just because it has to do with over-coddling, but also because of insidious  privatizing: The triumph of bottled water over public drinking fountains. When we start to shun public resources in favor of “better” private ones,  we start to break down something bigger: The idea that we should work (and pay) to make things better for the whole community, not just our own precious progeny. It reminds me of the way book stores have taken the place of libraries in some places, because they’re open longer, have more books, and serve lattes. And yet,  libraries are much more important, because they provide a world of learning, free,  to everyone.

Okay — that’s a long intro to a short letter, and slightly off-topic, at that.  So here goes! –L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: In the last year I have noticed something that I wanted to share with you, thinking, maybe, you could confirm my thought that the world, and parents, are going mad.  Or maybe I’m crazy?  During the school day the children are given frequent opportunities to get a drink of water. But, afraid that their kids might still not get enough, a lot of parents give their children water bottles to have at their desks.  This year I have gotten multiple requests from parents to remind their children to drink water throughout the day.

Have I lost it completely in thinking that learning to drink when you’re thirsty is one of the key parts of growing up into a functioning adult human?  While water is obviously important, it doesn’t seem to kill kids to be without for a couple hours.  A shocking number of parents act like it’s insulin for their diabetic children.

Maybe it would just be best to hook all kids up to fluid drips to make sure they are always fully hydrated?  Am I crazy? — A Teacher

Dear Teach — I don’t think you’re crazy. I agree: Once again we have “dangerized” a little thirst and turned it into a health problem that must be immediately addressed. And once again we are thinking of our children as less safe, less resilient and less smart (they have to be TOLD to drink?) than any generation before them.  — L.

Back when hobbies did not include "Staying Hydrated."

CNN’s Great Idea to Get Kids Playing Outside!

Hi Readers! Friday night I was on CNN with Rick Sanchez, talking about how Take Our Kids to the Park & Leave Them There Day went. (Just fine, thanks!) The affable anchor then lamented the fact that he and his family live in a lovely suburb of Atlanta, but the playgrounds are always EMPTY. And then — he had a great idea of how to fill them again.

How?

Put a cop in the park! (“Ah, but what if the cop is a kidnapper?” asked my smart aleck 12-year-old who is getting used to the way most Americans think.)

Anyway, the point is: This is an idea that is doable and doesn’t seem to have a downside. Towns have cops and cops are supposed to be outside, on the beat, getting to know the community.  Put a cop at the local playground from, say, 3 to 7 on weekdays (more hours on weekends) and it’s like sprinkling a parched field. Suddenly, it blooms anew! Parents are no longer scared to let their kids go to the park. The kids who go, run into other kids. The kids start to play together, they get exercise, they make up games, they create community and the cop is making the neighborhood family-friendly again.

“It’s just like the old days, when we had parkies!” said Curtis Sliwa, when I mentioned the idea on his radio show  yesterday. Before my time, apparently, the New York City Parks Department used to have an adult or two in each park to watch the kids, lend out equipment, maybe even start a game of this or that.  If parks can’t afford parkies anymore, maybe the police department can afford, well, coppies, since it is in everyone’s interest to make the streets and playgrounds safe, and that’s what a local cop can do.

So: What do you think of this idea? Especially if you happen to be in law enforcement, I’d like to know if it makes as much sense to you as it does to me! And if it does make sense — let’s figure out how to make it happen! — Lenore

Wouldn't it be nice if kids gathered at playgrounds on their own? Rick Sanchez has a way to make that happen!

“Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day” Are You In?

Hi Readers — May 22, a week from this Saturday, is the very first “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” The idea behind it is simple: Most of us want our children to play outside and have fun, but this is impossible because there aren’t any OTHER kids outside for our kids to play with. It’s a  problem folks often cite as the reason they won’t be participating in the holiday. But that’s precisely the reason TO join in!

Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle — there are no kids outside so I won’t let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don’t let YOUR kids outside, so I don’t let MY kids outside, etc. , etc., etc –which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing! As opposed to PlayStationing.

And once again, let me reiterate that this is not a day to leave our 2-year-olds in the park. It is meant for kids age 7 or 8 and up. And it needn’t be more than an hour or even a half hour. And you can just take a walk around the block, if that’s all you or your child are ready for.  And you can give them cell phones! I just want to get kids out of the house so they can frolick and maybe even plan to do this strange thing where they ask a friend to “come out and play”  again. And it’s a great time for parents to meet each other, too! The way to really make any community safe requires reviving just that — community! Connect with your neighbors and everyone watches out for everyone else.

To that end, I’m going to suggest 10 a.m. as a good time to make it to the park, if you can. Of course, any time is fine (well, maybe not 10 p.m.), but if we have an official “starting” time, there’s more of a chance that several kids will be at the park at the same time.

So — that’s the current plan.  Here in New York City there is some media interest in the day. Yay! So if there’s one particular playground in Central Park that you are heading for, let us know and maybe a bunch of us can head over there together. (I know there’s some big rock my son and his friend love to climb around 64th Street.)

That’s it. Let us be in touch! — Lenore

Wouldn't it be nice?

Yay! Another Car Story — But Much Happier!

Hi Readers — When you get right down to it, a lot of Free-Range Kids ends up being a plea for more community. More helping each other, more trusting each other, even more hanging out with each other. And here is a story of just that: A brief glimpse of how nice it is when we create community, instead of accusation.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My 8-month-old son hates riding in the car, generally, but he loves visiting Grandma, who lives 3.5 hours away. So it’s a very long trip home. Late in the evening, we pulled into a convenience store to pick up caffeine for the ride– just as he dropped off to sleep. In front of the store was a local police officer.

I got out of the car, sized up the lines of sight, and then asked the officer, “Is it legal in this state for me to leave my son asleep in the car while I run in to get something? I can see him from the window, and I hate to wake him up.”

The officer hesitated and then said, “Go ahead in, I’ll be here and I’ll keep an eye on him.”

I said, “Thank you. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, and he just fell asleep. You know how it is, once you wake them up…”

The officer joined in “you never get them back to sleep.”

“Yeah.”

I ran in, bought my tea, and ran out again. Thanked the officer, and we were off.

That’s it. End of story. Beginning of new era? — Lenore