Just Following Orders…At an Afterschool Program

Hi Readers: The letter below brings things full circle for me. While I have been interested in the way we underestimate kids and overestimate danger for a while now, I have been interested for even LONGER in the way decent people become trained not to use their brains or hearts. Eventually they come to think this is the RIGHT way to act. I think it is WRONG WRONG WRONG. And also: WRONG.- L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Today I was at baseball practice with my older sons when my 3-year old said, “I gotta poop!!!” I could tell by the look on his face that it could not wait.  Although the fields are at a school, it was after hours and the restrooms were locked.

We went to the YMCA after-care, located on the school grounds, and asked to use the restroom.  By this time, there were no school kids in the room, just two employees. They looked at me apologetically, but said it was against policy to let a stranger use the facility.  At this point, my son wailed again, “I’m going to poop!”.  The employee went to ask her boss.  The boss returned and apologetically said it was again the rules and that her “hands are tied.”

I then realized that this daycare provider used to work at my son’s school!  I reminded her that she actually knew us.  I told her that my son might actually poop on her steps.  She then replied that if her supervisor found out she let him in, she would get fired.  After all, “What would happen if he slipped and fell in the bathroom? You could sue us,”she said.

I actually feel for the employee.  I do believe that she was following orders. But really, couldn’t a little flexibility have been possible in this case?

And yet…I have another modern day story. Our sons attend a wonderful school that literally is on the other side of the fence from our house.They open the back gate and are on campus. On weekends, they go down by themselves and play in the fields. The after-care program at the school is at the far end of the school, so it is approximately a five minute walk from our back fence.

I am frequently in a hurry, and I don’t want to drag my 3-year-old to the program to pick up his brothers.  I’ve asked if I can call the school and have my boys sent home.  I’ve been told that it is a liability to let my kids walk home by themselves, and that I must sign-in and out everyday.  I even offered to sign a release of liability, but my request was denied.

I understand organizations being afraid of lawsuits. However, I really respect most childcare providers. I would love it if the people caring for my children had the freedom to make exceptions once in a while. — Frustrated Mom

Lenore here: I’m a frustrated mom — and human — too. These rules are just like Zero Tolerance laws. We refuse to let people make sensible, case-by-case decisions because we don’t trust them, we don’t trust the world and we don’t trust each other (not to sue). In the end, we are crippled by the stupidity and cruelty this distrust engenders.

Halt! What toddler goes there?

A 4-Page Playdate Waiver? Is This the New Normal?

Hi Readers — This mom wrote to me wondering if what she just experienced is normal. I’m wondering, too! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I have a situation perhaps your readers can help with.  Yesterday my daughter came home from playing at the “new” neighbor’s house with a 4-page liability waiver that they want us to sign!  Wow!  I guess that dangers lurk over there – in the form of a trampoline – and if she is going to set foot on their property she needs a release first.   I can’t help but feel paranoid – should I then be worried about having their kids over at our house, because the first thing in their mind is legal action?  Has anyone heard of such a thing? Is this the new normal for making friends?  — Stunned Mom

Outrage of the Week: Goggles Banned as Straps Could “Snap”

Readers — This story makes The Onion look like The Economist. But, in fact, it is straight from The Telegraph, in jolly old (off-its-rocker) England:

Children have been banned from wearing goggles during school swimming lessons for fears they could hurt themselves.

Pen-pushers have slapped the ban on the swimming aids amid “fears” a pair could “snap” onto a child’s face too hard, injuring them.

I stop here because I am at a loss for anything else to say, except…

No, I actually have nothing to say. I suppose rubber bands are next. — Lenore

All those people in dire peril!

Why Not Hire Armored Personnel Carriers?

Dear Readers: This is from a comment on the Afghanistan post — the post where we learned that while American schools worry that Valentine’s Day could emotionally scar the children, and 15-year-olds waiting outside for a ride could be in danger, 12-year-olds in other parts of the world are the heads of households:

Dear Free-Range Kids: On a personal (Free-Range) note, at the school where I teach I was informed that we now have to get written/signed parental permission for our classes (Elementary schoolers age 5-11) to walk across a one-lane road WITH FOUR TEACHERS to a park/playground that is literally directly across from our parking lot.

This is new. We used to just take them all the time AND let them run back to the school in pairs or small groups when they needed to use the bathroom, or get more toys or whatever. Not anymore, apparently. Thankfully, all of the parents signed the slip (most agreed it was ridiculous) so at least we can continue spending our afternoons outside (mostly) Free-Range playing.

And so it goes. – L

The Ice Lawsuit Cometh (Potentially)

Hi Readers: It’s weird, isn’t it, how something as remote as litigation ends up changing REAL, daily life? But it does. This note is just a great example of what happens when we see everything in terms of a court case down the road. — Lenore
Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in the suburbs of DC — Frederick, MD to be exact, a lovely community that is rich in history. We have a fantastic “downtown” area that hosts lots of community and cultural arts events on a regular basis. Anyhooo, last Friday was their yearly “Fire & Ice” display. The streets are lined with many ice sculptures on display, the quaint stores are open late, free trolley rides etc. etc.


My kids are 8 & 10 years old. As we were browsing the streets this evening, we came upon a fenced in outdoor area that advertised itself as the “ice playground.” Cool. As the kids and I curiously went to step into the “playground,” we were abruptly halted by a lady with a clipboard. Since this fenced-in area was actually the patio dining area of a restaurant (closed during winter months, obviously), I thought this lady was taking names for the wait list to get seated inside. Wrong. She was having anyone who entered the area (even adults sans children), sign a full page release. I printed my name and then signed at the bottom. I then was asked to print the names of my children under my signature. The lady was most pleasant and I obliged accordingly, thinking to myself how ridiculous this is.

To make this even more absurd, the “ice playground” consisted of 3 things. Hold on tight here, they are a bit risky and dangerous:

1. A large ice sculpture (bear shaped) that was made into a chair. Anyone could line up to sit in the chair and have their picture taken, for free.

2. Another large ice sculpture, clown-shaped, with various holes in the ice. A large plastic bin sat in front of the clown with bean bags in it. Anyone could play to their heart’s content, trying to get a bean bag to go through one of the holes.

3. Lastly, another ice sculpture of a checkers-type game with plastic checker pieces on it. It was actually more of a mini shuffleboard, where one could slide the plastic checker pieces on the ice table.

That was it. The Ice Playground. No ice sliding, no balance beam, no diving board, high wire or frozen ball pit that I was assuming would have been at this high-risk “playground,” with mandatory release required.

I am so sorry that I did not get a copy of the form to email you. It was one for the books. Here is a link to the events for the evening though. Enjoy your winter! — A friend in Maryland

The fear of lawsuits is freezing the life out of us. Brrr. — L



NEEDED: Legal Advice on Having Fun

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I couldn’t answer. Can any of you? If so, please do! L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Regarding, “No More Playing in the Dark, Kids.” What would be helpful to know, is how we  — parents, scout leaders, teachers and other carers of children — can find ways around this.  For example:

*Are disclaimers needed to be signed by parents and children?

*Can leaders do spur-of-the-moment activities or must every thing be risk assessed in advance? I’m all for a little sponaneity.

The Telegraph article is sparse on the details. I’d like to know precisely why the scout leader was deemed negligent. There’s not enough info about the environment in which the game was played either.

It concerns me that these cases are still coming to court and being won. How can we turn the tide here?

No More Playing in the Dark, Kids

Hi Readers — Another day, another lawsuit, another childhood institution crushed. In this case, back in 2001 a Scout troop in England was playing a game where everyone had to grab a block from a pile in the middle of the room. Get there last and there’s no block left for you. Sounds like musical chairs.

Anyway, to make it more fun, the troop decided to turn the lights out and play by the glow of the “Exit” signs and guess what? A 13-year-old kid hurt his shoulder. Not so much that he could not go on and play rugby for the next nine years until the courts made their final ruling on his suit.  But still — I’m sure his shoulder did hurt.

What hurts more is that the courts ending up ruling that the Scouts were at fault. Playing in the spooky dark is just too dangerous. As this article from The Telegraph explains:

The Scouts Association had urged the court to overturn the award, arguing it would make it harder to draw youngsters away from computer screens and televisions. But Lady Justice Smith and Lord Justice Ward, dismissed their appeal.

They ruled that Mark Barnes, of Castle Bromwich, West Mids, had been a victim of negligence and that playing the game in the dark had created an unacceptable risk.

Despite expressing “instinctive sympathy” towards the Scout Association, Lord Justice Ward said that “scouting would not lose much of its value” if such games were played with the lights on.

In a dissenting ruling, Lord Justice Jackson found that it was not the function of the law “to eliminate every iota of risk or to stamp out socially desirable activities”.

I’m with the dissenting justice, of course. I know my sons’ favorite thing over the summer is to play “manhunt” (some sort of tag) after the sun has gone down. It’s heady. It’s scary. It makes you feel excited and grown-up and that’s why scouting — and childhood — DOES “lose much of its value” if everything is done in the Kleig lights of super safety.

One way kids get that “self-esteem” we’re so worried about is by facing up to a fear and conquering it. Like, say, a fear of the DARK. And one way to get kids to FACE that fear is by making it so fun that the excitement outweighs the trepidation.

Maybe the judges are afraid of the dark. Who knows? But this kind of ruling means a smidgen more safety purchased at the cost of a ton of old-fashioned joy. That is scary. — Lenore

Why is the night so spooky? It's filled with LAWSUITS!

Could School Have Prevented Injury…by a Paintbrush?

Hi Readers! This is such a disturbing story. A Scottish boy who was 10 was painting scenery on the ground for a school play back in 2003 when one of the other painters got up, bumping into him. This caused him to fall on another student’s paintbrush, which — this is so horrible — pierced him through the eye, causing blindness in the eye and brain damage.

Now a court has ruled that the teachers at the school should have “foreseen” that such an event was, if not likely, at least POSSIBLE. Wrote the judge:

When one looks at the whole circumstances of the use of the brush, a real risk of injury emerges as foreseeable. A reasonable person in the position of the teachers would have taken steps to prevent that foreseeable risk of harm…”

According to the BBC report, the judge said the painting could have been done with “safer” brushes, and at the kids’ desks, rather than on the ground.

As if the ground is so darn dangerous.

Now, obviously, what’s extremely upsetting about this is not JUST that the school has since outlawed “long” paintbrushes, and now sees painting as a dangerous activity. It’s the notion of “reasonable” foresight and how this encourages a totally paranoid way of thinking. If we are all supposed to have the foresight to prevent all freak accidents that might someday, somehow happen under the most mundane of circumstances, we would have to get rid of every item in every place any child could ever be. Because — hey — a child COULD choke on a lemon, or slip on a slipper, or impale herself on a toothbrush. Let’s ban them all now, before we’re on the line for millions, as this school might be.

What happened to the boy is a tragedy. No need to compound it. — Lenore

The 4-year-Old Defendant

Hi Readers! Probably by now most of you  have heard of this bizarre case: A 4-year-old girl and a boy her same age were racing their bikes on the sidewalk, training wheels and all, when they ran into an elderly woman using a walker. The woman fell, broke her hip and died three weeks later. Tragic. Now her estate is suing, among others, the 4 year olds. When the girl’s lawyer (just writing that is weird) protested that the girl was too young to be held liable, the judge said if she were YOUNGER than 4, he’d agree. But as she was already 4, he is letting the trial proceed.

A bunch of you sent me notes about the case, and this one really struck me, from Matt Wall, in California:

Dear Free-Range Kids: It’s an unfortunate accident — a four-year-old on a bike collides with an elderly woman, who is hurt, and later dies, although to what extent as a result of this injury isn’t clear. Being hit by a bike certainly didn’t help.

But we live in a society where somebody has to be at fault, so why not sue the four-year-old? What I find so strange about this is this finding by the judge: He wrote that the the girl’s lawyer had presented no evidence as to the child’s lack of intelligence or maturity, nor that “a child of similar age and capacity” would not have understood the danger of riding a bicycle into an old woman.

So a child has the presumed competence — the “maturity,”  at the age of four to be sued? But not the maturity or competence to stay by themselves in a car for five minutes at age eight? Or to ride the subway alone at age nine?

We have parent-teacher conferences at our school this week. It’s a wonderful school but they have their own liability rules and other rules handed to them by the state. One of them is we can’t have our
six-year-old play quietly by himself in the protected court yard right outside his own first grade classroom while we meet with his teacher because he would be “unsupervised.” So we’re obliged to engage
a babysitter for an hour (good luck, midday on a weekday, we’re paying a premium for this).

Fear of the bogeyman of child predators, etc.,  is a part of what drives this hyper-sheltered vision of childhood. But it also seems that our extremely litigious society creates a different kind of fear. I wonder how many kids will now be denied the simple thrill of riding ahead on their bikes a little by parents petrified the kids or they themselves will be on the hook for a multimillion dollar judgment if an accident happens? — Matt

Couldn’t have said it better myself.  — L.


Felons from an earlier era?


Iconic Merry-Go-Round Is Deemed an Insurance Liability

Hi Readers — Wheeeee! That’s the sound  of happy Australian kids in the town of Geraldton, playing on the merry-go-round. Or at least it was. The festive bit of fun was built 20 years ago to honor the spirit of local author Randolph Stow,  who wrote the apparently much-beloved book, “Merry Go Round In the Sea.” And yet, says this article, now the merry-go-round has been decommissioned because it presents the city council with an insurance risk.

You can sort of see the council’s point: If a child DID get hurt, it WOULD take a hit and then there’d be less money for everything else the city needs. This is a real problem. But of course we can all see the other side very clearly, too. As clearly as the 14 year old who has taken it upon himself to collect 350 signatures to save the merry go round.

Said he:

“There’s no point fighting for something unless it means a lot to you. We’ve spent much of our childhood playing on the merry go round and have had so much fun. I hope the council realise it’s not just a piece of wood that they can bolt down. I think they need to realise the community likes this.”

Said the mayor (and methinks they need a public relations person): It’s like a pot hole tha tneeds to be taken care of.

Best quote was from a businessman:

“The merry go round is much more than a pot hole.

“It and Randolph Stow are part of our social fabric, in the same way as agriculture, sport and fishing have been for the region and our city.”

That’s the true importance of this battle for the town and also for those of us at Free-Range Kids: At some point we have to make society realize that childhood is not just a liability waiting to happen, it is part of who we are. And to lock it up and tamp it down and dismantle it all in the name of “safety” is to perform a mass joy-ectomy on a generation.

Merry-go-rounds are endangered here in America for the same reason as down under: Liability. If you have any great ideas on how to wrest fun and freedom back from the clutches of litigiousness, please share them here. Now! — Lenore