My Son Went Outside Barefoot. Is This a Crime?

Readers — This letter means so much to me. It’s from a mom in Massachusetts, reminding us that Free-Range isn’t just an idea. It is real. It can change lives. (And it believes in barefoot kids.) — L.  

Dear Free-Range Kids: Imagine my surprise as I looked out the second story window only to see my 10 year old son walking into our driveway with a police officer’s car creeping along with him!  You see my son was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes” and this was apparently alarming to law enforcement.

Actually, he was outside, without shoes, waiting for his friend to arrive, and in his great anticipation, had decided to walk a few houses up the street.  (How terribly childlike of him!)  The officer asked him, “WHY ARE YOU OUT ALONE WITHOUT YOUR SHOES?”  And my son (quite nervous and experiencing an anxiety-induced brain freeze) said, “Uhmm, I don’t know.”  The officer took note of his name and address and drove away after he was safely inside.  I am left to wonder if there’s a file at the police station with my child’s name on it with a note about the boy who was “outside,” “alone,” “without shoes.”

This year has been one of fantastic liberation. We’ve taken a great leap of faith and allowed our first-born to roam and ride his bike alone and with friends.  He also has the free will to decide if he wants to wear shoes or a coat (unless we’re going to a public place or it’s 20 degrees. 🙂  Since adopting a “Free-Range” parenting style I have noticed that others view this as somehow neglectful and/or dangerous.  Interestingly, I have also seen a dramatic change in my child’s well being since he’s been “let off leash.”  He’s lost weight, he noticeably smiles and laughs more, and he has had many wonderful experiences to brag about — like catching a giant catfish at a pond down the street (alone) and carrying it through town with its tail flapping around, half hanging out of a lemonade container, and then summoning the help of a “stranger” to get the hook out.  He has stories to tell because he is LIVING and I am so happy to give him one ounce of the joy I was allowed as a child.

Recently, as dusk became dark and he was not yet home, I wondered if I had made a mistake.  Where was my boy?!  My heart began to race as I thought of every horrible thing that might have happened to him.  I jumped in the car and as I started down the street I saw the outline of his human shape chugging up the hill to our house.  He made it, in one piece, with rosy cheeks and the smell of childhood all over him.  Free-Range is the way to go!  There is risk in everything.  Freedom is a risk I am willing to take.  Thank you,  you have changed our lives! — Carla English, mom of two

The Drop-Off in Drop-Offs

Hi Readers — I thought this was just a great observation of how our kids-in-danger society is changing what it means to be a child — and parent. It’s by Matt Wall, a full-time stay at home dad of two boys, former software geek, part-time baseball umpire and Coast Guardsman — as well as “a recovering hovercraft parent.”

THE DROP OFF IN DROP-OFFS by Matt Wall

My topic today is the disappearance of the drop-off. As in, you drop your kids off at school, a friend’s house, sports practice, or practically any activity for a child under the age of twelve — and then you leave.

That doesn’t happen any more. Why not?

After all, our coaches are background-checked, we file sports physicals for the kids, and everybody on the planet has a cell phone, so emergencies are already covered. And of course parents are forbidden from interfering with coaching  — rightly so — so they’re not needed that way. I’m searching my memory for a sports practice in my youth when there was a parent present besides the coach, and I’m coming up empty. And yet, parents are required to attend practice these days, or their children are not allowed to participate.

What earthly good are we doing there?  I have never had this explained to me other than, “You need to be there in case something happens.” In case what happens? Nobody knows! It’s a generic fear of a generic something.

Of course, the real message to parents is: You are an adjunct,  parenting by penumbra, “participating” in your children’s sports event by watching them dribble a soccer ball from one end of the field to another. And I say this as someone who actually enjoys sports! What a deadly bore for the parent who does not.

Bear in mind, I’m not even getting into the subject of how kids never get to organize their own time and games. Whatever constraints or inhibitions our kids have in our presence remain.  Their experiences are never fully their own.

And I pity the poor coaches, teachers, and other organizers. It’s hard enough doing these  jobs without having your every move put under the microscope!

My kids have a range of activities, from formal to not so much, where this parental presence requirement is in effect, sometimes subtly, but often legally. My kids’ swimming lessons require us to be present, since who knows what could happen in a pool with six trained lifeguards surrounding it and another four swimming instructors in it.  I also can’t leave my older child alone in the craft section of the local children’s museum while my younger one plays in another area, because my child might go berserk with the glue gun, or fatally cut himself with the blunt scissors were I not there to supervise him.

Even more disturbingly, I have had a real problem getting other parents interested in swapping “drop-off playdates.” (I’ll resist the temptation to get into the very concept of a “playdate,” which did not exist when I was a child.) I offer  to let my sons’ friends stay with just me as supervisor of the kids all the time, but never has another family taken me up on the offer. (Nor have I had it offered in return.) This has extended thus far to birthday parties and “group playdates” (which we used to call, in their parent-free incarnations, “afternoons” when I was a kid).

As for school drop-off: I still have to escort my second-grader right to his classroom door. Really? The child of course can’t be trusted to walk fifty feet by himself? So much danger lurks that a parent can’t be more than an arm’s reach away until the child is safely delivered to the teacher?

So it has gone for Cub Scouts, the library (where I’ve been chastised on two occasions for letting my kids return their own books in my full view while I browse books from thirty feet away), gymnastics, and even giving a neighbor a misdelivered piece of mail.

The net effect is that a large portion of my life is spent being idly present in my sons’ lives, not living a little extra of my own, or letting them live their own lives in tiny, incremental pieces of independence. The subtext is that adults can’t be trusted, unless it’s your own parent.

To paraphrase a slogan of another social revolution: maybe it’s time to drop-off, drive off, and tune your kids in…to their own experiences. – M.W.

This child seems adequately supervised, for sitting on a bench. (He also appears to be the future king of Norway.)


Guest Post: What’s Wrong with This Lemonade Stand?

Hi Folks! Here’s a big chunk of a wonderful essay by my friend and fellow journalist Christopher Moore, published in the New York weekly, Our Town. I guess when life hands you lemonade…write a column:

Lemonade Stand-ing Watch by Christopher Moore

At least in my Manhattan ’hood, there are a crazy number of kids out on the sidewalks hawking cold—or at least cold-ish—beverages. The only problem: their parents are out there with them.

The overprotective parent strikes again. And these adults can dramatically change the you’re-on-your-own tradition for kids with summertime stands.

Yes, this is a case of a person without kids criticizing parents, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. These kids will be running my nursing home, and I want them to be capable and able to think for themselves. Anyway, if our neighbors can proudly go public with their overparenting, the rest of us surely have a right to notice.

I wasn’t having all these big thoughts the day my partner and I stopped on West End Avenue at a lemonade stand. I liked it. The two girls—my guess is they were around 9 or 10—sold us a couple of plastic cups filled with what tasted a lot more like Crystal Light than homemade lemonade. The girls took the money and delivered the beverages with a pleasant demeanor. All in all, it would have to be considered a better-than-average commercial transaction in present-day New York.

Later, lemonade stands started popping up everywhere. They felt delightfully small-town without anyone having to give up access to Lincoln Center. Seeing youngsters take to the city streets with such enthusiasm can make a tangible, positive difference in how many of us relate to our neighborhoods. With the children, though, can come some pretty conspicuous parents. Like the mom yakking on her cell phone, creating enough of a scene that the children with her seemed like accessories. Mom was there but, thanks to the cell phone, she was also not there. Our modern problem.

A few days later, there was the dad…

Read the rest right here! And follow Chris on Twitter thusly: @cmoorenyc. And, heck, contact him yourself at  ccmnj@aol.com.

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

Weather.com You Are Part of the Problem!

Hi Readers — I went to check the forecast on weather.com this morning and up popped an app, unbidden: “Mom’s Daily Planner.”

How the site KNEW I’m a mom I won’t even speculate. But here are the day parts it broke the day down into:

Lunchtime

PM Bus Stop

Evening Activity

Excuse me — “PM Bus Stop” is now an official part of a mom’s day? We are EXPECTED to be at the bus stop to pick up our children? Expected to drop everything to stand guard at the bus stops that have existed for decades, where kids used to hop off and skip home on their own? Now these MUST be manned — or rather, mommed?

I know that some schools require a mom or other per-certified caregiver to wait at the stop and this irks me no end — why can’t the parents decide if they think it’s safe (or even beneficial!) for their kid to walk from the bus stop to home? But what’s uber-irking me today is that this is becoming so much the norm that Weather.com treats it like a pre-ordained part of every mother’s day: You get up, you get dressed, you have breakfast, lunch and then pick up the kid from the bus stop.

Apparently you don’t work, or if you do, you skip that report the boss was waiting for, to make sure your kid doesn’t ever have to walk a block or two alone.

As Weather.com’s presumed “Evening Activity” is ambiguous — PERHAPS the mom is allowed to attend an activity of her own choosing and this does NOT only refer to the child’s evening activity — I’m not going to carp about it. Ditto,  the site’s  “lunchtime.”  But “PM Bus Stop” has me stormier than the November weather outside. Weather that I guess I’ll check by looking out the window instead of clicking on the blithely bubblewrapping, neighborhood-distrusting, mom-indenturing Weather.com. — Lenore

ADDENDUM: I think (and hope!) many of  the commenters below are right: This “PM Bus stop” is a way for parents to see what the weather will be when the kids are walking home, not when WE, the parents, are stuck waiting at the bus stop. I hope so and thanks for enlightening me! L.

I can figure out the weather for myself from now on. Looks windy.

How Do You Tell A Total Helicopter to Back Off?

Okay, Readers. Let’s help this mom out!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  Finding this blog several years ago validated my desire to back off and let my kids be kids. At that time, I was mostly associating with “helicopter parents” and feeling inadequate for not wanting to micromanage my children’s every waking moment. And yet, one helicopter parent I continue to associate with is really starting to get on my nerves, to the point where I don’t know how to respond any more.

My 9-year-old son is good friends with a boy in our neighborhood, who lives only a couple of blocks away in our quiet suburban town.  The mom and I are friendly, but not friends. Today the kids played at her house after school.  And today was the second time she flat-out refused to allow my son to walk home from her house by himself.  Even after I told her that’s what I wanted him to do — and in spite of the fact that that’s what he enjoys doing.  So she had another woman who was visiting her drive him home!  TWO BLOCKS.

I am flabbergasted and what I really want to say is,  “How dare you completely disregard MY wishes for MY child?”  But alienating her would not be a good thing!

A bit of back story for this specific instance:  In recent weeks there have been several break-ins in the neighborhood, but all at night, when no one is home.  And, unfortunately, someone was robbed at gunpoint in front of their house on the next block over.  But again, this was late at night, well after dark.  All of these incidents are extremely unusual for our quiet town.  And really: Who the hell is going to hold up at 9-year-old?  Even ignorant thieves know the kid won’t have a watch or money.  And the “bad guys” are not abducting children in broad daylight.  They’re committing crimes of opportunity under cover of darkness.  Moreover, the last time this mom refused to allow my son to walk home alone was at 11 in the morning on a beautiful, sunny Saturday in May, when there hadn’t been any crime in our neighborhood for at least a dozen years.

So here’s the question:  what do I say to her NEXT time? I need to formulate a rational, civilized response to keep the peace.  Otherwise, I’m going to go crazy on her ass!!!  Yeah, I’m kidding.

Sort of.

Bad News! Courts Are Rewarding “Intensive Parenting”

Hi Readers — This is so disturbing. Two professors studying family law have written a paper saying that “intensive parenting” is becoming the norm that judges expect good parents to practice. As Walter Olson explains on his blog, Overlawyered, “Gaia Bernstein (Seton Hall) and Zvi Triger (College of Management School of Law, Israel) say custody law rewards parents for greater involvement in their kids’ lives even if it amounts to over-involvement.”

And as the authors themselves say a bit more verbosely in the abstract of their paper (to be published in the U.C. Davis Law Review):

Today the child is king. Child rearing practices have changed significantly over the last two decades. Contemporary parents engage in Intensive Parenting. Parents devote their time to actively enriching the child, ensuring the child’s individual needs are addressed and he is able to reach his full potential. They also keep abreast of the newest child rearing knowledge and consistently monitor the child’s progress and whereabouts. Parents are expected to be cultivating, informed and monitoring. To satisfy these high standards, parents utilize a broad array of technological devices, such as the cellular phone and the Internet, making Intensive Parenting a socio-technological trend.

The professors go on to say that this is a trend that judges assume is healthy for the kids and hence indicative of good parenting. As if those of us who try to give our children a bit more freedom and responsibility are lagabouts who don’t love or care for our children as much. Ack. I’ve certainly heard THAT before.

I have nothing against parental involvement in their kids’ lives. I’d say I’m an involved parent myself. But when “MORE” involvement always equals “better,” that means the very BEST parents don’t let their kids do anything on their own! Having that type of  parenting lauded and legitimized in court is bad news for all of us, but especially for any Free-Rangers facing divorce. I’m very grateful to these law professors for noticing this trend and bringing it to light before it becomes set in stone. — Lenore