Reading & Writing & Finger Prints to Identify Your Dead Body, Kids

Hi Readers! Here’s a note from Amy Uzinger, a mom in Tucson.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Today I got my 1st grade son’s school pictures in.  Along with the pictures, is a ‘Operation Child I.D.’ form.  It has my child’s picture and there is a spot on the form to take to the police station to have your child’s fingerprints taken.  Then you are supposed to keep this form handy, just in case your child is kidnapped.
It disturbs me that thousands of parents will receive this form and it reinforces the belief that children are in constant danger of being abducted by a stranger.  It makes it seem like such a common occurrence that parents need to be prepared for when it happens.  And when the kids are dragged to the police station to be fingerprinted, this will form in their mind the idea that the world is a scary place and abduction is a real and present danger.
Why don’t we have them wear dog tags at all times so that when they get killed in a car wreck or hit by lightning or have a sudden heart failure it will be easier to identify their bodies?  Sounds morbid.  But all these things are more likely than having them kidnapped by a random stranger and needing to have a recent photo and fingerprints on file.  Sheesh. — Amy

It’s not only morbid — it’s passive. It’s not like issuing them a whistle: “If you’re ever in trouble, cause a ruckus!” Or teaching them basic self defense: “Run! Kick! Scream!” No, it’s, “If we need to i.d. your body, sweetheart, now we can!” Ugh. — L.

Kidnapping & The Tax Code

Hi Readers — Here’s a note I just got. Really, really strange!

Dear Free-Range Kids: Totally off topic, but as I was wrapping up my taxes last night, I saw (on p.22 of the 1040A instructions) this little gem:

“If your child is presumed by law enforcement authorities to have been kidnapped by someone who is not a family member, you may be able to take the child into account in determining your eligibility for head of household or qualifying widow(er) filing status, the dependency exemption, the child tax credit, and the earned income credit (EIC).”

You mean if my kid is kidnapped I can still claim a child tax credit? Well now I don’t feel so bad!

No, seriously (sort of):  The IRS thinks stranger-kidnappings are so common, they must be written into the tax code, like business lunches? That is an agency pretty out of touch with reality. But I guess we knew that… — Lenore

A Mom Worries: Am I Bad? Friends, Family Say “YES!”

Hi Readers — Here’s a dilemma almost every “good” parent will face at some point. Does it take just one, normal, harried parenting decision with ZERO consequences to make others find us BAD? Sometimes it seems the parenting path is narrow indeed.

Dear Lenore: I am currently reading your book, am only about halfway, but I have to write and tell you my story.
Even now, in relating this, I fear your judgment of my decisions. A part of me is thinking that you will read this and say “I’m all for Free-Range, but that was just plain dangerous of her to do!” This is what my friends and family have done.

What did I do? I left my kids in the car. My 5- and 2- and two-year-old girls. For, like 10 or 15 minutes. And I almost got the police called on me for it. Here’s hat happened:

I came home from work and the babysitter told me my dog was bleeding. Somehow he had obtained a large gash in his head–one that clearly needed stitches. He actually bit me in pain when I probed it and this dog has never bitten me in 12 years. The babysitter had worked a full, long day so, although she offered to stay with the kids, I sent her home and took the kids along with me to the vet. My husband, by the way, was out of town.

The vet is in a small retirement town (read: full of old people and extremely low crime rate) 30  minutes away from my own small town. I got the kids into the office,set them down in the waiting area by the fish tank (ooh, look!) and went back out to get the dog. So far so good. Except that the 2-year-old had fallen asleep in the car on the way there and was none to happy to find herself at a vet’s office, fishes or no. So she started scream-crying. And continued to do so to everyone’s dismay and discomfort throughout the visit. The vet affirmed the need for stitches and asked me to leave the dog there for an hour. Fine. Meantime, I took the girls to McDonalds.

When I went back, it was five minutes to closing time for the vet. I had already given them my credit card and signed for the charges. All I needed to do was get the dog and any medicine. The girls had already shown that they did not tolerate the vet’s office well. They were happily drawing in their car seats. The temp was a pleasant 68 degrees. Did I mention this was on a side street from main street in a very small retirement town? Not wishing to handle screaming children and a dog that has just come out of anesthesia with stitches and a cone over his head, I cracked the windows and left the girls in the car.

As I was waiting inside for them to bring the dog out, I poked my head out the door every two or three minutes to check on the kids. My inquiries were starting to annoy my 5-year-old. “We’re fine!” she said. Finally, the vet was ready to give me instructions. I was in the examining room for all of five or six minutes.

As I was half-dragging my dog out the door, I noticed a well-dressed man in a black Audi parked perpendicular to my car. He was talking on his cell phone. When he looked up and saw me, he slammed the cell phone shut and sped away. I checked on the girls, who were still happily drawing in their car seats, I put the dog in the car, and we went home.

Later, as I was relaying the story to my husband,  I said “I think that guy might have been calling the police on me!” His response was not, as I expected “Wow, what a lousy situation. That must have been hard.” His response was “Well, I would have done the same thing!” He meant he would have called the police, too.

So I told my mom about it. Her response: “Well, he should have called the police on you. That was dangerous of you to do!”

So I told a friend about how no one had any sympathy for me and didn’t that stink and you know what she said? “Of course you know that man was probably a kidnapper.” And proceeded to lecture me about how I had learned my lesson and would never do that again.

Despite all of that, I still think I would have done the same thing given the same situation. I don’t think I am a bad mom at all. It was 68 degrees out. It is a small town. It was five in the afternoon. They were without my watchful eye on them for no longer than 5 or 6 minutes. They were okay!

Anyway, that’s one of my stories. I keep thinking of more as I read your book. Thank you for writing it, for standing up for reasonableness in parenting. And for helping me to realize I am not a bad mom for what I did.

That’s exactly right: This women is not a bad mom, she is a mom, period. Everyone who has kids or works with them finds some point in the day less than optimal and that is NORMAL. If children needed absolutely perfect, doting, hands-on care every second of every day, there would not be a human species, because that is impossible for any parent to provide. So here’s to a very responsible lady and a movement that refuses to castigate her for living life on the fly, as we all must do. Good  luck to her, her family and, of course, her dog! — Lenore

Crazed School Bans Parents from Sports Day

What happens when the fear of the incredibly rare crime of child kidnapping becomes so all-consuming that it overshadows any other considerations? Including common sense? Or even Googling?

You get something like this: A school in England that holds a multi-school sports day every June – the highlight of the year, where kids compete and parents cheer – decides, for the first time, to ban parents from attending. That’s right: no parents are allowed to watch their kids. Why not? Here’s the rationale, as reported in The Telegraph:

Paul Blunt, development manager at the East Beds School Sports Partnership, said the “ultimate fear” was that a child could be abducted.

“If we let parents into the school they would have been free to roam the grounds. All unsupervised adults must be kept away from children.

“An unsavoury character could have come in and we just can’t put the children in the event or the students at the host school at risk like that. The ultimate fear is that a child is hurt or abuducted, and we must take all measures possible to prevent that.”

That’s like saying because it may rain sometime during the year and a child could get hit by lightining, we cannot allow children to attend school anymore. (Quit cheering, kids.) After all, they could get zapped on their way. Child zapping is the “ultimate fear” and we are just being sensible in taking all possible measures to prevent that. Right?

Wrong, of course. Really wrong. It does not make sense to prepare for the worst case scenario when the chances of that scenario happening are infinitessimally small. That’s why I must take issue with a woman who posted earlier on this blog that even if there were just a .00001% chance of something terrible happening to her child, that was not a “risk” she was willing to take.

When something has a .00001% chance of happening, I don’t think we should consider that a “risk” anymore. We need a new word to keep it in perspective. How about a “nisk” as in nearly non-existent risk?  (Or “nnisk?”) Whatever we call it, we should consider anything  that unusual as a bizarre aberation in the natural order of things — something  we cannot prepare for or prevent anymore than we can prevent an asteroid from landing in our dirty laundry, giant target though that may be.

Yes, please teach your children the basics of staying safe: How to cross a street safely, how to run and kick and scream if somebody is bothering them, how to ask  for — or even demand — help if they find themselves in danger or lost or confused. Teach them never to go off with strangers. Teach them to dial 911 and to confide in you when something is troubling  them. Free-Range Kids believes in safety and prepared kids are safer kids.

But to try to engineer our childrens’ lives  so that there is not even .00001% risk is to defy the truth of human (and animal! and plant!) exitence. Nothing is 100% safe, not even sitting on a couch that could probably, conceivably, somehow collapse in on you all of a sudden. Or cause a deadly rash. (Actually, we had a couch that seemed to be doing that years ago. Very, very itchy — but that’s another story. And, I’m happy to say, another couch.)

The school that is worried about sports day attendees-as-kidnappers has taken no notice of the fact that stories of school kidnappings by strangers are so rare that when you do what any modern-day worrier does — Google “kidnapped from school” — you find two stories in the New York Times: One from 1900, one from 1908. Then there was that 1972 instance in Australia  — but the two guys had guns, so you couldn’t stop from attending a sports day even if you told them, “Sorry, no parents allowed.” And then there was a recent kidnapping in Nepal, presumably not while doing the high jump in front of hundreds of adoring family members.

The English school was wrong to ban parents from its sports day based on a such a remote possibility of danger. You know — a  mere nisk. (Or nnisk.)

— Lenore

CNN or C.A.N. — Child Abduction Network?

One reason Americans are so extremely terrified about child abductions is that whenever we turn on the TV or computer, there’s another one. As if these horrific crimes are happening 24/7, when actually the media is only too happy to fly across the country — or world — to set up camp wherever a cute, white girl has disappeared. Tight news budgets get thrown out the window  for a story like this. But because that story then shows up on our screen at home,  it feels like it’s happening right around the corner. All the time.

What happens when there is NOT a new story like this for the media to feast upon? Instead of traveling to another state, or country, they’ll travel back in time. The show 20/20 just did an hour-long look at the Etan Patz kidnapping from 30 years ago. And here’s CNN’s Nancy Grace page , from a few days ago: “Third Grader Stepped Off School Bus, Disappeared.”

Start reading it: ” With the weekend arriving and a long day finally over, 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan stepped off her yellow school bus on a chilly Friday around 4 p.m….”

Oh, by the way, CNN finally adds at the end of paragraph three: This was in 1985.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense to sometimes revisit a cold case in hopes of solving it. I do hope someone solves this one. But it begins to  look suspiciously self-serving when networks desperate for viewers keep coming up with the exact same kind of story, served up any which way they can. How about the cold case of an African-American teenager gone missing? Or a schitzophrenic adult? Or someone who isn’t winsome, white and under five feet tall?

A newly Free-Range mom dropped me a little note this morning trying to help all of us (herself included)  put our fears in perspective: The chance of a child being kidnapped and murdered? 1 in 1.5 million. The chance of a child ending up at some point with some form of depression? 1 in 4.

It is extremely depressing, disheartening, lose-your-faith-in-humanity-izing, to keep being presented with the most vile crimes on earth as if that’s what life  is all about. As if that’s just what you can expect if you’re bringing up a kid these days.

So what’s the alternative?

One of the chapters in my book is called, “Turn Off the News.” At the end it has some suggestions for how to get started  going Free-Range, including, “Get up and go out. Spend that hour you were going to watch ‘Law and Order’ on a walk with the kids instead. Look around at all the unspeakable crimes not being committed. This is called the Real World. (Not to be confused with MTV’s version, which is a crime all  its own.)”

When we depend on the media to shape our world view, we’re going to get a world view that looks a whole lot like the view from a harried, ratings-obsessed assignment desk: If it bleeds, it leads. If it’s sad, we’re glad! If it’s an abduction, ramp up production! 

Which they sure do.

But if a network thinks its job is to terrify us, maybe it’s time to turn the tables and terrify them: Let them watch their viewers mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again.

Someday, they may even do a cold case special on us. — Lenore

Are Crimes Against Children Down Because There Are No More Kids Outside?

Hi Readers!

Quick answer to the question a lot of commenters have brought up: Are crimes against children down so dramatically simply because there are fewer children left outside to be victimized? And doesn’t that prove that we SHOULD keep our kids cooped up?

Very reasonable questions. But no:  Keeping kids cooped up is not the cause of the crime decline — and so it’s not what we need to be doing.

The head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, David Finkelhor, points out that ALL crime has been declining since the early ‘90s – property crimes, assault, sex crimes against adults AND children. Something is driving ALL crime down, and Finkelhor pegs these factors:

* More policing.

* More aggressive prosecution of wrongdoers.

*Less tolerance of abuse in the family. You know how nowadays, if your kid goes to school with a black eye, the nurse or social worker probes to find out what happened? That kind of intervention is bringing more abuse to the attention of the authorities, who investigate and, when necessary, prosecute.

*Cell phones. These are a crime fighting tool two ways: First, we can use them to report any crime, anywhere – and even take pictures. Second? Criminals know this.

*Psychiatric meds. Finkelhor calls this the “sleeper” reason crime is down. More and more troubled people are being prescribed medicine to quell their demons. When the criminally insane feel less insane, they are also less criminal. Also, as Finkelhor points out, some of the medicine has a libido-dampening effect, too.

Taken together, these factors have contributed to the stunning drop in crime. A drop my book likens to “a graph of Hummer sales, Miami condo prices or birthday cards to Bernie Madoff. An unbelievably dramatic jackknife down.”  

It’s not just kids who are safer, it’s everyone. So rather than keeping kids locked inside, we should feel less leery about sending them back out. Nationally, we are back to the crime rate of 1970. If you were a kid any time after that, in the ‘70s or ‘80s, times are actually safer now (even though, I know, I know – that’s hard to believe). I’m happy to talk about why it SEEMS so much less safe another time.

But for now — thanks for asking!

Meantime, if you are anywhere near the Park Slope Barnes & Noble on Wednesday night, May 6, at 7 p.m. I am doing a reading of my book: “Free-Range Kids.” (What a surprising title!) Love to see you there! The address is: 267 Seventh Ave. in Brooklyn. Bye! — Lenore