Oh Thank You, I Could Never Have Figured This Out on My Own

Hi Readers — I just found this website: How to Write Letters to Camp. Apparently all you have to do is master five simple steps! The website features three different greetings you might consider to address your child: “Dear Michael.” “Hi Mikey!” “Hey Kiddo!”

Phew! I had no idea how to start a letter to my own kid! Now I do!

Here’s a sample letter the site gives:  “Yesterday the weather was sunny in the 80s.  Dad and I woke up at 7 and walked the dog.  Dad went off to work and got home at about 7.  Your grandparents came over (they look great and say hello by the way) and we all went to that new Italian restaurant on Main Street.  We enjoyed the shrimp scampi…”

We need this kind of instruction because otherwise…what?  We might accidentally write an INTERESTING letter?  Or is the problem that parents can’t possibly think of anything to say to their kids? We need someone TELLING us what is APPROPRIATE to say in a letter, and reminding us that we better do it RIGHT? God forbid, we write a less than supportive, chatty, funny DAILY note, and our kid never recovers from the shock and disappointment of a sub-par letter?

I know that this is an upbeat site just trying to spread a little cheer and I really don’t want to dump on it. The guy running it sounds delightful. But the fact that there are pages and pages of instructions on what to INCLUDE in a letter — jokes! questions! encouragement! — and how to FRAME a family anecdote and how to LET our kids KNOW WE CARE is one of the things that drives me crazy about our society today: The idea we need EXPERT ADVICE on simply being parents. The idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to “relate” to our kids. The idea that even the simplest of daily activities is now a major challenge that we shouldn’t attempt before consulting a reference site, and that once we’ve studied up, we must  work on perfecting the activity, lest we fall short and “cheat” our kids out of a teachable, incalculably valuable moment. (And don’t get me started on the fact that the blog also suggests we can add an “SAT word of the day.” No — do NOT get me started.)

Somehow, we have taken every aspect of parenting and pulled it apart into tiny sub-parenting particles to examine and refine and fret about. When, really folks: It’s a letter to camp. You get out a sheet of paper, you say hi, and you drop it in the mail. (You remember mail, right?) You can do it without an advanced degree. You can do it without inserting the best possible joke or story. You can even do it without this — an actual “fill in the blank” template for parents to write to kids, including my favorite line: “Whatever you did, we’re very, very proud of you for trying!”

Very VERY proud. Whatever gosh darn thing you did, we are bursting with parental pride.

But you know what, parents? I believe in YOU, too. Can you write a letter to your child at camp? Hey, Parent-o, yes you can! And I’m so very, very proud of you!  — L.

And they're off to camp! But do you know how to write them a letter?

“I Called You Names…Then Stopped, and Changed My Parenting”

Hi Readers — Sorry my computer has been on the fritz and it was hard to update the blog. But now: An upbeat start to the weekend!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I admit, when I saw the initial reports of your son’s adventure on the subway, I was a naysayer and a name caller.  Oh, the things I called you (apologies!).  I admit, I brought baggage to my parenting.  Two neighborhood girls had been lured from their backyards when one was in 2nd grade, and one in 4th.  They were missing for a day and then found dead.  I brought these two girls along and they were my judge and jury with almost every decision I made as a parent.

And then, I recognized the symptoms of anxiety in my oldest child.  He was scared of everything and everyone.  And I was completely to blame.  As an educator, I recognized that I had created the very type of child that I resented having in my classroom.  He was an easy target for bullies (both school age and adult), who would immediately recognize the signs of weakness and pounce.  I also had a kid that, God forbid, if the worst case scenario happened, had neither the confidence nor the fortitude to help himself.

So, slowly, I started letting the control go.  He balked more than I at first, but slowly he grew comfortable being outside by himself and exploring, as did my two younger children.  And as an added bonus, they learned how to settle their disputes BY THEMSELVES.  No more need for me to play referee 24/7.  Rather than drag all the kids to the other kids’ sporting events, we leave them home for the 30 minutes or an hour overlap.

Have there been some bumps in the road and on their bodies?  Sure.  We even have some scars from falling out of trees or slipping on ice.  Have I let go completely?  No.  We make sure our kids are prepared and make sure they are clear that they have the most important role in keeping themselves safe.  Get separated in the mall?  Just stop.  Don’t panic. Move to the side, pretend to window shop and I’ll find you.  Same plan if separated in the woods, minus the window shopping of course.  In case of fire, meet at the end of the driveway.  We do have a family plan for home invasions which does sound crazy, but we live in an area that is actually being studied by the FBI, we have such a large number of home invasions compared to population.

My kids have flourished knowing that they are in fact capable of keeping themselves safe and knowing what to do “if ever…”  They also know how rare that “if ever” is.  Yesterday, my oldest decided he was going to climb on top of some industrial storage containers that are next to one of the practice fields.  He spent an hour jumping from one to the other. Then I recognized from his posture and movements that he was considering jumping off one onto a pile of dirt.  The mom next to me recognized it at the same time and asked me if I was going to yell and stop him.  I said no, because he was going to jump anyway and if I yelled to stop him (because there was no way I was going to be able to walk over in time) he needed to be 100% committed to the jump and not be distracted, or he would get hurt.  The look on her face made it clear that she would be telling her kids that evening that they would never be allowed to play at my house again.

And he did jump, and he walked away with the biggest smile on his face — and all the kids that weren’t allowed even on the containers all thought he was the coolest dude ever!

So, I am getting there slowly, and weening myself and my kids off my crazy.  My kids have spent countless hours on their bikes, but never off of our private way or the 50-mile bike trail we are fortunate to live near.  This summer they want to play Wiffle ball games with some of the kids in our area of town.  Each weekend, I take them on their bikes out on the road and teach them the way to ride a bike when there are cars and logging trucks going by at  25 to 45 mph.  And I may not be ready to let them go completely by themselves.  I may ride along with the to the field they’ll use but then continue on and get some exercise in myself.  Baby steps. Thank you for your book. — A Happier Mom

Dear Happier Mom: I’m happy, too — for you and your family! And, call me a stickler, but saying you are “not” Free-Range because you are still teaching your kids to be safe and what to do in an emergency just proves that you are MORE Free-Range than you think! Free-Range believes in preparing our kids to deal with the world, not just throwing them out there, and that’s what you are doing. Also, we try not to beat ourselves up for any of our parenting decisions (there are plenty of other people ready to do that), so I wouldn’t even say the the old you “created” an anxious child. Let’s just say you noticed your own anxiety and decided to fight back. And did! In spades! Here’s to a wonderful summer! — L

“You Are a Horrible Mother” — Letter

Hi Readers: Just got this note tonight. Thought I’d share it. The writer must have recently stumbled on “Why I Let My 9-year-old Ride the Subway Alone.” — L.

[To Lenore]: In my opinion you are a horrible mother. You knowingly put your child in harms way. Yes its true, chances are its not going to happen but why give it the chance to happen. It is your job to protect your child until he/she is old enough to protect themselves. At nine yrs. old he is not going to be able to defend himself and I can’t believe that you didn’t give him a cell phone because you were worried about him losing it. Isn’t your childs life more important then your cell phone. You can replace your cell phone but your son is priceless but maybe you don’t see him as that way. You are a horrible mother and even reading your story made me wish someone would take him away from you  immediately. You dont deserve him and I hope for his sake that he does get taken away from you and with someone who actually cares.

LOVE This Letter (About “Stranger Danger!”)

Hi Readers: This letter made my day. Might make yours, too. (After your blood stops boiling.)

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am 14 years old. I go to a school in small town Kentucky that is extremely over-protective! Rubberbands are consided a weapon and if you are caught with one, you get the same punishment as if you carry a knife or gun! It’s ridiculous! But this is just the beginning.

Every year we have a lady who wears a “National Center for Missing & Exploited Children” t-shirt come and tell us that all people in the world are evil and want to kidnap, rape, and kill you. She tells us that if someone you don’t know walks up to you (no, not to say “excuse me” or “hello”) but WALKS UP TO YOU, you immediately run away and start screaming. Seriously!

After 9 years of school, it has been drilled into my head that all strangers are bad and that every little thing in life is dangerous. But since a year ago, when my father told my family about this website, I’ve been less afraid. It used to be that I wouldn’t go anywhere with out my brother or sister. But thanks to Free-Range Kids, I’ve learned that people in the world are here to help you, and not to kidnap you! Thank you Free-Range Kids!

My gosh, you are welcome. I am overwhelmed. It is great to get a letter like this. — L.

A Very Heartening Note!

Hi Readers! Remember this story — about the mom whose neighbors called the police because they saw her three children playing outside, unattended? That sort of epitomized my fears for our country: Busybodies AND the authorities meddling in normal  childhood, as if it’s too dangerous. This new note from the mom gives me great heart. Let’s hope it bodes well for 2011! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: All week I have been wanting to write to you. Fortunately, this time, with good news!

It has been a year since you posted my story regarding the police telling me my kids are too young to play outside. Because of  this movement, my life has changed for the better! I am not longer scared letting my kids go out because so many people around the US wrote letters of support. It feels really nice to know there are people who are on my side!

In February, my husband lost his job. For economic reasons, we moved to Oregon — which turned out to be a blessing. To make a long story short, my husband found a job, we bought our first house AND our neighborhood is wonderful. Most of the kids here are Free-Range Kids, so my family finally fits in! It is nice seeing normal kids ride bikes, play basketball on the street, and play with each other.

Two months ago, the most awesome thing happened. My kids were playing outside with the neighbor kids, and my 7-year-old, Muhammad, came home. He was wearing a police badge sticker. He said, “Mom, a police officer gave this to me.” Of course I had a flashback. Then Muhammad continued, “He was really nice. He asked us what our names are and he gave us these stickers.”

I can’t tell you how happy I was. What a nice and smart police officer. Instead of him questioning my kids about why they were outside, he was having a nice conversation with them. Therefore, he was doing his job. I am guessing he was making friends with the neighborhood kids, so they know that if there is any danger, they’ll be comfortable talking to him. Isn’t that what a police officer is supposed to do?

Meantime, at school I have told a couple of teachers about Free-Range Kids and they agreed with some of the ideas! My son’s teacher said the school doesn’t do apple bobbing anymore because of “germs.” But she agreed the odds of someone getting sick is unlikely. Another teacher agreed with me that the media scares people thinking their kids are in danger, etc.

I look back at the last year, and I feel a sense of relief. My life is so much easier. Because I feel more comfortable being a “Free Range Mom,” my kids have matured so much. They have learned more social politics, and because they are outside more, they drive me less crazy. The whole family is happier!

Let’s hear it for defending Free-Range Parents! — Shaylene Haswarey

Note From a Non-Free-Range 16-Year-Old

Hi Readers! This cautionary note just in:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I wish I had been raised Free-Ranged. What parents don’t seem to realize is that when your parents are constantly hovering, it’s like being told No You Can’t every single day.

I am sixteen years old. I am sixteen years old, I don’t drink, I don’t even LIKE parties, and I have never even seen a real joint. I am a straight A student who is currently taking more college courses than a college freshman. I am also, apparently, too irresponsible to ride my bike to school. Or to my best friend’s house (which is about halfway down my would-be bike route to school).

I had this really odd realization the other day. I noticed that when I go bike riding with my dad, I tend to be less competent than when I go by myself. The days when I do my homework without being told are the days when no one is there to tell me to do it. When there is someone there to “hover” over me and make sure I’m okay, I become less capable. One time, while riding my bike, I went past the “boundary lines” for where I’m allowed to ride, and instead explored another part of my neighborhood (by the way, my neighborhood’s definition of “youth crime spree” was when a kid spray painted a p***s on a fence two and a half years ago). When I decided to head back, I was able to remember which streets I had taken without a problem. This took me completely by surprise.

I think what happens for a lot of kids is that when our parents keep denying us the chance to look after ourselves, we eventually stop trying, which our parents see and take as evidence that we’re not ready yet.

What Might Happen If You Let Your Kid Play Outside, Alone?

Hi Readers! In response to my downer about dealing with a tsunami of media “What If?”s, here’s one woman’s note answer to: What happens when you, with some slight hesitation, let your child go outside on her own?

Dear Lenore: I understand your anxiety, and can only join the chorus of those saying please, please don’t give up.  Your book has SIGNIFICANTLY changed our family for the better, and we were already what I called “half-range” to begin with!

My daughter (10) has been riding her bike to school for a month now, with buddies, but no adult.  It started out with just her wanting to and me saying yes, which traveled through the grapevine and triggered a flood of calls from the other moms.  “Are you REALLY allowing this?  Are you nuts?  What if this/that?  But but but…”  And many conversations and several holes bitten through my tongue later, we have 4 regular riders and many more that, although they aren’t allowed on the school ride, are allowed a wider radius of the neighborhood for riding.

The whole pack of them roam the neighborhood after school and on the weekends, with no adults around.  They’re all still alive and well, some of the moms have relaxed and seen the light, and the kids have met many neighbors they didn’t know at all before.  One elderly neighbor has been given the nickname “Candy Man” because when he sees the pack of them go by, he goes out to the street with a big bag of candy and lets them each choose one.  (Needless to say, they looooove the Candy Man!)  Another one has a dachshund they just adore, so they’ll go up and ask if they can “borrow” her dog to pet for a while.  Sometimes they’ll show up en masse at another kids house, grab the family dog, and take it for a walk (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen 8 kids walking 1 dog).

Without your book and this site, I don’t know that I would have allowed the school ride.  And look what it started!  I won’t be taking my daughter to the park and leaving her there on Saturday.  I’ll be telling her to get on her bike and GO to the park and hang out with her buddies, and be home when the street lights come on!  (Meanwhile, I’ll be leisurely reading on the couch!) — A Free-Range Mom

“Mom, I am NOT Going to End Up a Sex Slave.”

Hi Readers — This comment came in from a 16-year-old.  Seems to frame the problem of overprotection and parental fear pretty darn well. Read on!

Dear Free-Range Kids: Tell me about it. Kids need more freedom and less worry.

I live in a neighborhood where the violent crime rate is a small decimal. It’s a safe, cushy suburban neighborhood. The last violent crime happened because someone was mentally disturbed, a few years ago.

My friend’s mom wouldn’t let her go on a walk at 8pm on a Saturday with a group of 4 friends (several of whom were trained in martial arts, mind you) because she was afraid her daughter would get hurt. She watched over her via iPhone, texting her nonstop– the invisible leash, or so it seems.

Similarly, when my mom doesn’t want me to go out because she’s worried about me, she always pulls the weirdest defense. Last time, she said, after I got upset at her not letting me leave the house (I love to wander), “Well hey, just be grateful you’re not someone’s sex slave.”

W-whh-what?! I can’t leave my house because I might become someone’s sex slave? What, do we never get in our car because we assume every time we drive we will get in to a massive collision? Do we never leave the house because there are axe murderers on every corner of suburbia?

I was so disgusted when my mother said this to me, it made me really angry and violated, actually. Simply, she watches way too much Law and Order Special Victims Unit– a TV universe of rape fables and sexual violence that distorts our reality. Every episode is another rape. It follows the lives of detectives who have to deal with prosecuting/investigating rape every day and we enter their world through the screen. Every episode has to be entertaining, so anything possible can happen in the episodes– the more extreme the better. Some days it’s a normal rape, sometimes it’s a serial rapist, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to come across an episode where the rapist tortures his sex slaves. Exciting, isn’t it?

We forget that we live in the safest possible neighborhood on the planet, that we moved in to for the very purpose of giving children freedom and safety to play on their own. Absurd.

“Crazies Are Out to Kidnap Your Cutie!”

Hi Readers — This is just an odd one: Some parents made postage stamps with their young daughter’s picture on them to stick on invites to her birthday party. Then the parents had some of the stamps left over, so they used them to mail  their bills. Some nut saw one of the stamps, noted the family’s return address and dropped the parents a letter saying that by putting their kid’s picture on a letter, they were ASKING SOME CRAZY PERSON to do “GOD KNOWS WHAT.”

Seems to me they were asking a crazy person to drop them a crazy note. Anyway, here’s the story, as it appears on the wonderful site, passiveaggressivenotes.com . Read it and creep (out). — Lenore

Notes from An Overprotected Childhood

Hi Readers: This letter is from a woman whose mom was way more helicopter than most — an extreme case. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale and she sent it here to endorse the Free-Range movement. Here’s wishing the writer, and her mom, a very happy and  liberating 2010. Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I really wish that I had a free, happy childhood memory to share, but I don’t.  I grew up in the ’80s and my mother was obsessed with keeping my brother and me “safe.”  She was a total helicopter mom, even though that term wasn’t used then.  She watched us every second she possibly could.  I was never allowed to go over to any friends’ homes because their parents could be child molesters.  My mom didn’t like other children in her house, so they weren’t allowed to come to our house, either.  She was a bit more lenient with my brother because he’s a boy and I’m a girl, but not much.

My brother and I grew up confined to our back yard and had only each other as playmates.  Eventually, I stopped going outside completely, pretty well bored of the tiny yard.  I was a stereotypical fat kid.  My mom wouldn’t even let us go very often to play with our own cousins, thinking that they were too “rough.”  Every newspaper item regarding a child that had been abducted, raped, or murdered was thrust into our faces with the same phrase, “See?  Next time you want to complain, you should think about this kid!”

I love my mother very much, and she did teach me many things that I am forever grateful for, like the value of a dollar (I’m the only cousin in our family who has never had a problem with credit card debt) and how important reading is (she never denied me any book I ever wanted to read).  The lesson I could have done without?  That every person you meet will probably try to hurt you in some way.

I am now 26 years old and I have never had a real friend. I am very grateful that I am alive today and have never been seriously injured, but it sure seems like there was an awfully high price to pay in order to guard against something that seems so unlikely to me now that I am older.  I can’t completely escape her influence, and I may never be able to.  I hope that this website can reach many parents and show them how to let their kids have more freedom.  I’ve never had a serious physical injury, but I’ve had all kinds of emotional illnesses.  I think I would rather have had a few more bumps and bruises. They heal a lot quicker.