Letter: Amtrak is Right! Kids are Unsafe on Trains

Hi Readers: What generally brings us together here at Free-Range Kids is the belief that today’s children are safer and more competent than our culture gives them credit for. So I thought I’d present a letter I just got from someone who read my Amtrak column in a newspaper, not here at this site:

My question to you, have you ever ridden Amtrak?  My wife and I have once, and cannot believe Al-Qaeda has not struck this target.

There is really no security.  People jump on and off at different train stops.  No one checks luggage.  An adult could easily snatch a youngster.

Unless your sole purpose is to make people angry to talk about you, you need to do your research as to why children should not be allowed to ride unsupervised.  The common sense that is lacking is yours. 

Not a radical – retired high school principal.

Incredible — people get on and off at different stops? What kind of crazy train is that? And how dare anyone be allowed on any conveyance ANYWHERE anymore without undergoing a full body scan, or at least a thorough check of every bag and Baggie?  The American way is to shake in its collective shoes (or, actually, take them off), until some security official wands them up and down and then allows them to mince a few steps forward. That’s the spirit that made this country great!

And then there’s the issue of kids being snatched right and left. Well, potentially, anyway, and that’s good enough for this letter writer: The fact that a child could, in theory, “easily” get grabbed by an adult (with none of the other passengers noticing, I guess), is reason enough not to let even seventh graders ride the train solo. Heck, using that reasoning, why let them do anything where they could be “easily” grabbed? Why let them walk to school, or get an ice cream? Think about the worst thing that could happen and plan accordingly! This is not “radical,” according to the writer,  and as proof he points out that he is a retired principal. (The writer is a male.)

The sad thing is that he IS radical. But he doesn’t feel it, because our whole CULTURE is radical. It has taken the radical new view that children are too vulnerable to do almost anything without adult supervision.

It also has started to believe that nothing is safe without an official safetymeister checking it first. And then, if there is even the smallest possibility that sometime, under some circumstances, it could somehow be UNSAFE, that’s reason enough to declare it verboten.

So now we — the folks who believe in the world — are seen as radicals, while the crazy paranoid nutjobs are becoming our overlords. If that’s the case, well then, okay, redefine me. I’m a raging radical, ready to take them on. — L.S.

UPDATE: Um…Can a Town Actually “Not Sanction” Halloween?

Hi Folks — Okay, this is a day late, but too shocking to ignore. Go to this page of local listings of Halloween activities and check out what it says under “Frederick,” a Maryland suburb just north of D.C. Aw, heck, here —  I’ll excerpt it for you:

The City of Frederick does not sanction Halloween due to safety reasons. Times and restrictions should be determined by street blocks.

Yup, the town is officially sticking its fingers in its ears and going, “LA LA LA LA LA!” at the mere mention of trick or treating. It’s just too horrifying for the town elders to contemplate, I guess. Better the kids should miss the holiday than have those folks shuddering all day.

Yesterday I was interviewed on a radio show ( KIRO in Seattle) and the host, John Curley, asked me to predict what Halloween will look like in 10 years. I said something like, “There will be no costumes, because if they’re too tight they can choke a kid, but too loose they could trip, and if they’re too scary, some kids can’t handle it. And there won’t be props,  because those could trip or hurt a kid, and naturally no trick or treating, because that’s just asking for trouble, and no candy would be given out anyway, because of the obesity epidemic. And at the community center parties they won’t have any games, because those are covered with germs and also, sometimes a kid may lose, and that’s bad for their self-esteem, and while the adults COULD hand out fully-wrapped, X-rayed treats, kids might be allergic,  so everyone will just give out erasers — provided those are large enough not to present a choking hazard.”

And I present to you the town of Frederick as the cutting edge of what we are up against. THAT is scary. — L.

UPDATE: In the comments below, some of you were wishing we could come up with a cute catchphrase for Halloween. How about this, for would-be worrywarts and naysayers: LET’S KEEP THE “ALLOW” IN HALLOWEEN! — L

Blind and Free-Range

Hi Readers — This is an inspiring column by Peter White, an English broadcaster who’s blind. It reminds me that our job as parents is to believe in our kids — to believe they can rise to a challenge.

On the road (and as I film my reality show), I hear from a lot of parents who think it is dangerous to let their kids do anything on their own — walk to school, babysit, take a bus, you name it — because they might get hurt or frustrated. I hope that some of those parents read this essay, because here’s what happens when we DO say (heart in throat): “Go for it, honey.”  We pick up where Mr. White is recalling how his mom let him learn how to ride a bike:

I didn’t understand it then, but I know now it took great courage for her to do what she did. The interesting thing is that the special blind boarding schools to which we were sent were equally uninhibited. At my secondary school in Worcester we were positively encouraged – no, actually forced – to go out alone, or accompanied only by another blind friend. The 4 o’clock walk was compulsory: nobody asked where you were going, or whether you had the skills to get there. And when things went wrong, the school faced them with almost unbelievable sang-froid. When I was 12, I had a road accident. My parents were informed of this in a terse letter: “Peter has had a slight brush with a lorry. No serious harm done.”

After this incident, a few half-hearted rules were introduced about who should be allowed to wander about unsupervised, but they were quickly abandoned. Nothing interfered with the custom of Founder’s Day, where every pupil was given five shillings, and sent out for the day – a kind of ultimate 4 o’clock walk. I once managed to hitchhike the 200 or so miles home to Winchester and back. Returning to school just after midnight, I received a mild reprimand, and congratulations for having had the initiative to enlist the help of the police in getting my last, after-dark lift. But I was far from the boldest. The school bred adventurers, roaming the city and beyond. There were always a handful with girlfriends, off to parties and pubs, clambering back into school at night up drainpipes and through windows.

It’s hardly surprising that, growing up in this environment, the world held few terrors for us.

Only one word besides “blind” occurs to me to describe those kids and ironically it’s this: Lucky. — L.

Help Needed: A Friendly Kid, a Scolding Neighbor

Hi Readers! Can you help this mom? L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve been reading your blog and readers’ comments for better than a year now.  Never really thought I’d have an experience similar to the ones I read about on your blog, but yesterday it happened.  My children are nearly-5 (boy) and 3.5 (girl).  We live in a very safe neighborhood in the Midwest, with wide sidewalks.  Thankfully, I can report that I frequently see many of children playing in their yards or at our local park (without helicoptering parents), and riding their bikes to our neighborhood school.  There is definitely a Free-Range mentalilty among many of my neighbors.

Yesterday I was outside with my children, cleaning out the garage while they were playing out front.  My daughter was riding her scooter up and down the sidewalk.  She knows she can take it as far as the neighbors’ homes that are two away from us on each side.  She never goes farther than she should, and at any given time, she’s no more than 50 feet from our front yard.  My son was playing with his trains on the driveway.  Periodically, I’d walk out of the garage (doors were open) to check on them. During one of these checks, I saw her at the neighbors’ driveway where she is allowed to stop and turn around.  There was a minivan parked on the street and a lady getting into it.  My daughter is a very friendly, chatty soul.  If she sees someone near her, she’s going to say hello and chatter about whatever strikes her fancy.  I also, however, have no doubt that if someone she didn’t know tried to get her to go with them, she’d scream and kick and struggle LOUDLY.  I have no desire to quash her naturally friendly and open spirit.

The lady she was talking to was giving her a strange look.  I assumed my daughter was annoying her and called my girl to come back.  She did.  The lady then got in her van and pulled it up to my driveway.  She got out and waved me down.  When I approached, she said to me, “You know, your daughter doesn’t know me at all, and she just started talking to me.”  I replied, “Yes, she does that.  She likes to talk to people.”  She responded, “Well, you know, I run a home day care, and you really need to talk to her about speaking with strangers.  There is a really good video that John Walsh put out about teaching kids who it is ok to talk to — you really should get it and have your children watch it.  Because, you know, anything can happen, and they need to know not to talk to people they don’t know.  I could have been anyone.” Um, okay.  I was totally taken aback.  I thanked her and headed back up to the garage with my daughter.

After the lady left, I thought about it and realized I was offended.  While I know she thought she was only doing something nice — and, therefore, it wasn’t worth starting a fight over — it really was none of her business.  I didn’t want to get into a debate with her at the time, which is why I just thanked her and ended the conversation.  But what I really wanted to say was, “I understand you’ve bought into the media propaganda about the frequency of child abductions, but you really need to understand that crime is down significantly in this country.  And yet, you’re recommending I show my kids a video that might scare them into not speaking to people. For what it’s worth, you obviously weren’t someone intending to do my child harm.  In fact, the chance of her meeting such a person on our sidewalk in front of our house is less likely than her falling off her scooter and hitting her head.”

Probably wouldn’t have done any good, and she’d have driven away feeling even more self-righteously justified in having told me what she thought about my heathen parenting ways.

I’m not sure I handled the situation as best I could have, but then again, maybe just smiling and saying thank you without further engaging someone is best.  I just don’t know.  I would love to hear what your readers’ suggestions would be, regarding how to handle a situation like this.  I’ve found they often have great advice that is sound and based in logic, rather than emotional fearmongering. Thanks. — Heather

If a 6-y.o. Can Really Walk Around the Neighborhood…

Hi Readers! I gathered together a few of the 341 responses to  the other day’s post, “As Recently as 1979 a First Grader Could…,”to remind us of what kids are capable of (when we don’t give in to the fear-mongering media). Enjoy! – L

Jackie: When I lived in Panama, 6 year olds would scale a coconut tree (no side branches) with a machete, cut down a head of coconuts, slide down using their bare feet as brakes, and whack the heck out of a coconut with their machete until it was cleaned of the outer coat and had a nice, perfectly round little hole that I could drink the milk out of.  The first time I saw that, I was horrified.  The twentieth, thirtieth time I saw it, I realized we Americans are a bunch of namby-pambies.

Sherry B:  I have heard of child abductions.  Who hasn’t with Nancy Grace and all the news channels sensationalizing them?  I also hear of car accidents and drownings, which happen way too frequently and take away the lives of so many more children.  I’m just trying to be a rational parent here.

Let me tell you a story of my Mother-In-Law (who just loves her CNN news).  We spent the last week on an incredible vacation at the lake. Our house was on the water and the kids (and their friends they invited) were in heaven with fishing, swimming, boating, and dives off the floating dock. Playing outside all day, campfires every night, both kids and adults were in heaven.

Grandmom called EVERY DAY of our vacation.  She wanted to tell us DON’T LET THE KIDS GO IN THE LAKE.  Why?!  Because 3 people died of a brain-eating amoeba that was found in lakes in Louisiana, Florida, and Virginia.  It was all over the news. So, all lakes are dangerous now.  See how spreading The Fear works?

Thankfully (for my children’s sake), we ignored her (though we did remind them to close their mouths in the water) and enjoyed old fashioned fun without the side of irrational fear.

derekmunson: this post made me realize that our shih-tzu puppy has more free range than our kids — and we live in coyote country! maybe it’s time to loosen the leash.

 

Why It Feels Like Kids are Being Kidnapped All the Time

Hi Folks! So many people I talk to (especially for my upcoming show) are convinced that children area being kidnapped all the time, everywhere, that they cannot let their children go outside on their own. Here’s a succinct look at why parents feel this way, as presented in a comment by the reader whose screen name is “Socalledauthor.” – L.

Socalledauthor writes: Child abductions are not more frequent now than they were, however, they ARE more publicized.  In my town (a semi-rural area), there was a child abducted in 1928.  It got about two paragraphs in the local paper about how she was walking home from school and didn’t make it… when she was found, there was another small article.

Also in my town, in the last year, there was a child who went “missing.”  For four days there were articles on him and what was known about his last whereabouts and how to keep children safe.  FOUR DAYS of articles… and then, a short blurb (maybe four paragraphs) when it was revealed that he’d spent the time at a friend’s house because he was mad at his parents.

The point here is the difference in media coverage.  Day after day, the front page of our local paper was about this missing boy.  It makes it seem like the problem is bigger than it is.  Conversely, my local paper gives only a paragraph every day or so to those hurt or killed in a car accident — because it happens so often that it has become common!

Fear does not equal fact.  Just because you feel something is true does not make it so.

By the way, if you turn off the TV, you’ll find the world a less fearful place!

An Alert for an 11-y.o. Missing for 2 Hours?

Hi Readers! Just got this note from “Emily in Ohio.” Loved it! And her! — L.
.
Dear Free-Range Kids: Last week, at 4pm, I received an automated call from the police station about an 11-year-old that was missing.  When did the boy go missing you ask?  That day at 2 pm.  That’s right, he was missing for TWO WHOLE HOURS before the police called every single person in the city, asking for any information whatsoever regarding his whereabouts.
 .
A whopping five minutes later, I received another call — he had been located. Yeah, that’s right.  Why is it the American standard that if our children should ever leave our sight for a microsecond, that we need to issue a lockdown over the whole country?  Kids don’t need to be supervised every hour of every day. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe this boy wasn’t abducted and murdered but decided to go out with his friends and didn’t have a cell phone with him?
.
I could understand if the boy had been missing for two or three days, but two hours?  And since the call went out two hours after he went missing, I’m sure the police were notified less than hour after he went missing.  It really annoys me that people are going so crazy about child safety.
.
I guess I have been raised “Free-Range,” more out of necessity than principle, having been raised by a single mother for most of my life.  I’m only 16, but I already appreciate the style with which I was raised.  I started staying at home alone when I was about 7 or 8, and have turned out perfectly fine and probably more independent than most kids my age.  However, my own extended family still treats me like I am 5.  Over the summer, I was at the mall food court with my aunt and cousin.  I wanted to go to a restaurant that was on the other side of the food court. My aunt asked me if I thought it was okay with my mom if I walked across the food court by myself to get food, which really irritated me.  Apparently I am capable of driving a car but not old enough to walk by myself.
.
My mom’s brother has two daughters, 7 and 10.  His wife balked at the concept of allowing the older one to walk two miles home from school alone.  Even in my government class, when we were talking about issues that concerned us, and I shared about the fact that crime rates are as low as they have been since the ’60s, but that parents are attempting to make their kids too safe, everyone stared at me like I was crazy.
.
On a final note, I feel compelled to share something I read on a “mommy blog.” This woman was talking about her new house, and how her almost 10 year old still sleeps with a baby monitor because she fears that “he is going to be sick or hurt in the night and need her or someone will break in and abduct him” and she won’t be able to hear any of this happen because he sleeps a floor lower than she and her husband.  I rest my case. — Emily

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

Playgrounds Getting TOO Safe?

Hi Readers — A bunch of you sent me links to this wonderful NY Times story by John Tierney yesterday, about how maybe we have been making playgrounds SO safe that they actually stunt our kids’ development. (Or at least make it too boring for anyone over 7 to want to go play.)

It’s a point I agree with so much that I wrote a piece about the same thing, last year. Here’s a link to that one, too.  Basically, both articles point out that in our desire to eliminate ALL risks, we create new ones, like the risk of kids not getting a feel for what’s safe or not, and not feeling confident about facing the world in general. And not getting exercise!

And here’s an earlier Wall Street Journal article that inspired me, “Why Safe Kids are Becoming Fat Kids.”  (Actually, it’s just a bit of the article because the Journal only gives a chunk, unless you subscribe.) The piece is by Philip K. Howard, who happens to be author of one my favorite, mindblowing books, Life Without Lawyers.

Anyway, here’s to fun on the monkey bars, and maybe some new ideas about playgrounds, too. — L

Wheeeee! This is so developmentally rich!

“Millions Irrationally Feared Dead in Minor Train Accident” – The Onion

Readers — Sometimes I need a break, as I’m sure you do too. And what could be better than a snippet from The Onion reminding us just how driven the news media and  “experts” can be when it comes to whipping up fear? Enjoy!