Our Constant Worry for Our Kids Outside is NEW

Hi Readers — I’m sharing this reader’s story because I like to remind us, from time to time, that the intense fear of our kids being beyond our sight, doing ANYTHING on their own, is not just “normal parental concern” kicking in. It is NEW. It is born of this era. (I explain how it came about in my book). And, just like the fear of neighbors-as-witches in Salem, some day it will seem weird and inexplicable. I’m just hoping to hasten that day. And here’s a note from a reader in Florida that may help! — L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I had written to you a little while back about my neighborhood, my kids, our friends, etc.  I have 3 daughters: ages 9, 7 and 5.  We live in a closed-off (not gated, but it could be) community in South Florida.  It is a very family-friendly community.  I’ve been very influenced by the Free-Range movement, and I would like my kids to do more Free-Range things, but none of their friends are permitted to join them.  In fact, I had no idea how neurotic my friends and neighbors were with their kids until I started to “push the envelope” about Free-Range.  Believe me, I’m not suggesting anything crazy.  But, can my 9 year old daughter go with a friend to a movie by themselves?  Hell, I went to the movies with my friends when I was that age (circa 1976).  Why should I have to endure movies like “Gnomeo and Juliet” when my daughter can perfectly well see it herself, and feel really great and grown up doing so?  I recently gave her a key to the house.  She feels so proud.
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This past Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year], while my 9 year old was getting tired of services (who can blame her), I told her to go to the synagogue playground.  The playground was full of little ones and their parents/nannies.  She invited a friend to join her, to make it more fun.  Her friend’s mother declined the invitation.  You see, her 9 year old daughter is not allowed on the playground without specific adult supervision.  This, at a synagogue playground, full of kids and their parents, most of whom we know, in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah morning services!!!  And HER DAUGHTER IS 9!!
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Anyway, I got to thinking about your post about the “Your 6 Year Old” book — about how a child that age at the time that book was published (1980?) was supposed to be able to walk to a corner store and buy a little something.  That was something a child that age should be achieving, just like a 3 year old should be toilet trained.
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It reminded me of an old family story we used to tell to illustrate how people are just “wired” to be the way they are, but there is an unintended “Free-Range” message too.  My family is from Poland.  They escaped to Russia just before the war, but returned after it. In or around 1946, my father began 1st Grade.  He was expected to walk to and from school by himself.
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As you can probably imagine, Poland in 1946 was undergoing massive reconstruction.  My father, even at that tender age, was enthralled with building construction.  On his way home from school, I guess more than once, he would pass by a construction site and be hours late coming home because he spent so much time watching the buildings go up.  My grandmother, of course, was sick with worry.  Her Jewish son was wandering around Lodz — who knew what happened?  She would spank him and admonish him never to do that again.   The story was told to show us kids how Dad was destined to be a builder himself.
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But, you know, nowhere in the story was there any suggestion that my grandmother should go get my father from school herself.  To say that was considered and dismissed would be to give the idea too much credit.  It just wasn’t on the radar.  No, a 6 year old boy was supposed to be able to get back and forth from school, from local stores, from friends, etc.  If he was late and worried his parents needlessly, he would be spanked and punished.
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Clearly, my grandmother was aware of dangers.  What Jewish mother in Poland in 1946 wasn’t aware of danger?  Still, letting that stop you from allowing your son do normal things like walking to school — well, that was like letting fear stop you from doing your laundry!  You have to be able to do normal things.
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If you post this comment on your web site, I’d really be curious to hear people’s (and your) thoughts. – A Reader from Florida
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My thought is this: You are right. We have completely lost perspective about danger and now believe that almost anything involving our kids out of our sight is “too risky” to try. Stories like yours — and even more prosaic stories from our own childhoods — serve to remind us that GOOD and CARING and CAREFUL parents always let their kids do things on their own, until very recently. It is time for our generation to get a grip. – L

Child Predators Love Polite Kids?

Hi Readers: So here’s a “helpful” article on how to keep our kids safe from predators. It cites the oft-repeated notion that when we make our kids hug or kiss relatives, the kids get the message that from now on they must submit to any and all skeevy and revolting requests adults make of them.

To me this seems like a giant leap. I never liked kissing my aunts and I sure hated the lipstick smudges they’d leave on my cheeks,  but I don’t think that gave me an, “I guess from now on I’m jailbait” mentality, either. This just seems like one more, “Watch out!” article that gets parents worried without actually giving them something sensible to do.

What IS sensible? DO teach your kids to be polite. And then do what David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, suggests, in terms of keeping kids safe from abuse: Teach them to understand, avoid and report it. In other words, teach them “good touch/bad touch,” starting as early as age 3 or 4. Let them know that if anyone touches them in a disturbing way,  or asks them to do something that feels wrong or upsetting, they can say no. AND they can (and should) tell you what happened, even if the other adult says not to. AND you won’t be mad. Let kids know: It’s not their fault.

By the way, Finkelhor said he has seen no correlation between kids made to hug their relatives and kids who get abused. Neither has Amy Baxter, a pediatrician who did a fellowship in child abuse and teaches other doctors about it. Both agree, however, that if your child does express real distress about hugging or kissing someone in particular, there is no need to force them to do it. Once the person is gone, just ask your child some open-ended questions — “Can you tell me why you feel this way?” — to see if anything is going on.

The “Predators Love Polite Kids” piece I’ve linked to assumes that when we are teaching our children to generally be polite we are also turning a deaf ear to any of their pointed protests or hesitations. But we aren’t. It also assumes we are squelching all their instincts. But most of us grew up with that, “Don’t kiss me with your lipstick-y mouth!” instinct and it seems to be one that we could suspend temporarily, for the sake of good manners,  even while retaining our other, self-protective instincts. And even while retaining an open line of communication with our parents.

The leap from kissing grandpa to being molested seems like a truism that we’ve just gotten used to parroting. — Lenore