Lady Forced to Delete Pix of Kids (Not Hers) with Mall Santa

Hi Readers: Is there some way we can convince Americans (and then the world, and then the galaxy) that taking pictures of a child who is out and about in public is not the same as sexually violating them? Because the fact is:  Most people taking pictures of kids are not doing it to get off on ’em. And for those few who are, dare I ask: So what? It’s like that disclaimer at the end of a movie: No child was harmed in the making of this photo.

I think the hysteria about kiddie picture taking stems from a lot of sources:

1 – The belief that anyone interested in kids other than their own MUST be a pedophile. (And what a lovely notion that is.)

2 – The deep-rooted fear that a picture really DOES capture the soul.

3 – The conviction on the part of some parents that their kids are SO preternaturally attractive that they are going to be singled out by everyone, including talent scouts, college admissions officers, and perverts.

4 – The idea that, “I once heard something about a picture of some kid that ended up on the Internet and…” I.e., some half-baked urban myth that doesn’t even make SENSE, but rattles around in the collective consciousness.

So here’s the story of a middle aged woman who wanted to take some sweet Christmas photos at the mall (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms to some of us). She shot some photos of kids talking to Santa, and the kids’ mom kicked shot her dead.

Well, not quite. But the mom certainly killed the photographer’s Christmas spirit. So did the security guard who demanded she delete the photos of the kids.

Now the weird twist is that the photographer lady is actually a former West Virginia State Senator. And in a column she wrote about the mall/photo experience she says:

The woman who had stalked me through the mall did not know that I am a former state legislator who initiated and succeeded in creating strict laws against pedophiles in the West Virginia legislature. To me, the random child in my picture was simply a representation of a special moment in a human life and an innocent attempt to capture the magic of Christmas.

I just wonder how her “strict laws against pedophiles” dealt with other folks just trying to capture a special moment. Let’s hope her laws were measured and sane. And let’s hope that what we all get this season is the gift of calming down and connecting, instead of fearing everyone and everything. — L.

The FBI Says: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid for Your Kids

Hi Readers: Firsts off, thanks to all of you who sent this in: The very first app the FBI is releasing to the public. It’s the “Child ID App,” allowing you to store your kid’s photo, height and weight in one easy-to-retrieve place, and to forward this info instantaneously to the authorities. It was developed, according to the FBI’s site, to put “Child Safety In Your Hands.”

After all, the site notes: “A child goes missing every 40 seconds” — that’s 800,000 kids a year. “Many never return home.”

My question: Does the FBI read its own statistics? Because I do. And from what I read, about 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year. Of these, 50 are murdered. We live in a country of about 60,000,000 children age 15 and under. So the idea that “many” children never return home makes sense, if by “many” the FBI means 1 in over a million. And while perhaps a child goes missing once every 40 seconds (I know I went missing when I hid in the closet as a tot), one goes missing permanently, due to a stranger abduction, once a week.

Of course, even once a week is terrible. Heart stopping. No one would ever say otherwise. But by offering this app to America, the FBI is reinforcing the idea that children are in constant danger.  It feels as if the FBI has raced to fill a need that doesn’t exist while feeding a fear that’s already out of control. Maybe even at FBI headquarters.

Because as the FBI should know better than anyone, crime is DOWN since when most of us parents were kids (check out the charts toward the bottom of this link). It just doesn’t feel safer when the nation’s top crime agency is telling parents that children are disappearing, perhaps forever, all day long. That is a very scary thought, the kind that makes parents think they can’t ever let their kids out of their sight.

What is the down side to an app like this?  I mean, it IS nice to have a photo of your child available, if only so the pretzel lady at the mall can say, “Oh, your little boy is just on the other side of the kiosk!”

But the app comes with a tie to the  National Child Identification Program, which provides a physical kit to gather your child’s pictures, fingerprints, personal characteristics, and DNA “to keep with you in case of emergency.” What kind of emergency would that be?

Well, it’s not the kind when your kid is goofing around on the other side of the pretzel kiosk. It’s the kind when your kid’s body is decomposing.

Even granting that this app may indeed be helpful in some very rare, worst-case-scenarios (and not just running our law enforcement officers ragged with false alarms), turning it into just a handy-dandy thing you’d want to carry with you — the parental equivalent of a jack — makes it feel as if murdered children are as common as flat tires. The consequences of that dread are real, and I’m not just talking about obesity, diabetes and depression as we park kids at home, to be “safe.” There are other costs: Empty streets, because parents are too afraid to let their kids play. A line of cars in front of the school, because parents believe their kids aren’t safe to walk. Children never  organizing their own game of kickball, or climbing a tree, or riding their bike to a friend’s house, because the FBI is telling parents that every 40 seconds one of them will disappear.

I try not to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to safety products because I love some of them — like safety belts, and helmets. But when the product’s benefits seem slim and the societal repercussions loom large, I say: Keep a photo of your kids in your wallet and go about your day. And FBI? Get a grip. — Lenore

Guest Post: “Caylee’s Law” Could Make Me a Criminal

Hi Readers! I’m busy filming my TV show, so I was glad to get this pithy guest post on Caylee’s Law. It’s a proposed law I’ve been disturbed by, mostly because often when we make laws named for tragic children, they seem to make sense only in very specific situations, and retroactively, to boot. Like, “If only we’d had a law against moms buying duct tape, this never would have happened!” Then we get saddled with a law that doesn’t keep anyone safer, but does impinge on everyone’s freedom.
So here’s an essay by suburban Chicago dad Mark Buldak, who says his motto is, “Common sense isn’t as common as it used to be,” and is active in the Facebook group “Ban Dihydrogen Oxide.” — L
The knee-jerk reaction to bad motherhood being proposed, labeled Caylee’s Law, is a blow to Free-Range Kids.
As proposed, the law would make failure to report a missing child in a timely manner a felony.
I’ve received numerous requests from friends on Facebook to “join the cause” and sign the online petition favoring the passage of this bill. I refuse.
I have problems with “in a timely manner.”  That’s vague and open to whims of interpretation. For example: My 13-year-old daughter tells me, “Dad, I’m going over to Brittney’s house for the afternoon.  I’ll call you later.”
Four hours have gone by.  I haven’t heard from my daughter, so I call Brittney’s mom.  She tells me, no, my daughter isn’t there and, in fact, has not been there all afternoon.
I call my daughter’s cellphone; no answer–only voicemail.  Of course I don’t have Brittney’s number—why would I need that?
Seven hours after she left, my daughter walks in.  I’m relieved, and a little angry.  I demand to know where she’s been.
“Dad, I’m sorry!  We ran into Madison and decided to spend the afternoon at the mall.  I tried calling, but I forgot to charge my phone.  It was dead, and Madison’s and Brittney’s couldn’t get signals.  You know the mall took out its pay phones last year.”
With Caylee’s Law and an eager district attorney, I could be charged.  After all, my daughter was missing for seven hours.
Granted, Casey Anthony did not graduate from the June Cleaver School of Motherhood.  That’s no call to punish all other mothers and fathers out there. — M.B.

The “Stranger” at the Mall

Hi Readers: Just got this note. Read on!

Dear Free-Range Kids: I swear, I could just cry at the stranger-danger hysteria these days.

I have the good fortune to be self-employed.  As such, I can work whenever and wherever I want, so today I chose to work at the mall.  (I know, right?)  Did a little shopping, had a little lunch, now I’m ensconced in the bookstore cafe, latte in one hand, mouse in the other, waiting for my husband to get off work so we can go home together.

I am not a conventional looking woman, I guess, which makes me a rather attractive target for curious children.  I have long purple hair, wear gothy makeup, and don’t look like your typical mother of teenagers.  Add my little cloud of technology – a huge purple laptop with a matching purple mouse and a cell phone with a purple cover serving as my wireless hotspot…well, kids want to come look and ask questions.

Usually, I’m very happy to entertain them.  They either want to gawp at my hair (“Does your Mommy let you color it like that?”) or pet my computer or ask me what I went shopping for (there’s a big bag from Torrid at my feet.  It’s very pink and very eye-catching.)  Today, though, it’s been nerve wracking!  The kids come over and start to chatter while their parents are distracted, I invite them to sit and I smile and answer their questions, and then their parents come swooping out of nowhere, gasping and huffing and giving me the stink-eye whilst hustling their progeny off quickly in the opposite direction.  One woman even threatened to call Security!

The worst, though, was the gaggle of teenagers.  The teenagers weren’t bad.  Actually, the teenagers were pretty awesome.  There were four of them — three girls and a boy, all looking to be high school students close in age to my own kids.  They bounced about and asked me where I bought my hair dye and what kind of makeup I used, and the boy had a million questions about my computer and what I was doing.  He was delighted to hear that I work for a large search engine company, and proceeded to tell me all about how he wants to work for my client some day.  His sister poked him and told him she had a better chance there than he did, and they good-naturedly argued over who was the bigger nerd.  They were perfectly charming and funny and sweet and I was rather enjoying their company, even if they were sort of interrupting my work. They were not the bad part.

The bad part was their Mother.  She came into the cafe, found them sitting with me, chatting happily, and FLIPPED OUT.  How DARE I speak to her children, what was I doing there?  The boy protested.  “Mom, we were just asking her about her computer and stuff!”  Mom was not satisfied with that and ordered them away.  “You just never know what kind of freaks will try to sneak you out some back door!”

Merry Frellin’ Christmas to you, too, lady.  Sheesh. — M.

Remember The Mom Arrested for Letting Her 12-Year-old Take Younger Sibs to Mall?

Hi Readers — Remember that story? A mom let her 12-year-old daughter and the girl’s friend take their combined three siblings to the mall. The kids shopped and had lunch but afterward, when the two older girls went into a dressing room to try on some shirts, they left the younger kids — 7 and 8 and a 3-year-old, who was in a stroller —  in the cosmetics department. Fearing God knows what (an attack by triplet pedophiles who snatch kids in public while nearby adults continue calmly selling cosmetics?), the clerks summoned mall security. Security brought the kids to the Macy’s office and hauled in the mom. The mom was arrested. And this is where the follow-up story, by Spiked Online’s fabulous Nancy McDermott, picks up. Read it here. And weep. — Lenore

Start Your Week Off Right!

Hi Readers — This just in. Read it and grin. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My 9-year-old son and I went to a little strip mall yesterday. It has five stores. Joey needed a haircut and I needed thank you cards and wine. I sent him with money to get his hair cut while I hit the other two stores. This is where he always gets his hair cut and he knows what clipper setting he needs them to use and such.

He came running into the store saying that they would not cut his hair without a parent present to let them how we wanted it cut. He was confused because he had told them exactly how he wanted it done. I sent him back to tell them that if they can’t take instructions from a customer who happened to be 9 years old then he would take his money elsewhere.

They cut his hair.

I guess the way to get Free-Range concepts accepted is to hit ’em where it hurts…the wallet!

Excuse Me? You Need a “Family Locator” To Track Your Tween at the Mall?

Hi Readers — Well, here it is. The ad that a bunch of you alerted me to this week. It shows a mom and daughter in a mall, near an escalator. The mom is letting her daughter shop “on her own” for the first time.  (“On her own” turns out to mean with two friends, who are waiting right at the bottom of the escalator.)  The girl is 3.

No, I jest. The girl looks to be 11 or 12. That’s what makes this ad so ridiculous. Because by the time the girl is at the bottom of the escalator, greeting her friends, her mother has already activated her phone’s “Family Locator” to make sure she can track her baby’s every move.

Why? Does she really need to know when her daughter dips into The Gap, or moseys over to The Body Shop? Or is she worried that her daughter and friends are going to be kidnapped in plain sight, in one of those rare triple snatchings? Or maybe mom fears they’re just pretending to shop, but really auditioning for a strip club? Or taking drugs? Or selling drugs? (And if so: How would that look any different from going to the bathroom on the Family Locator?)

The ad gushes that mom is lucky to have such reliable Verizon service, because this is “when it matters the most.”

Really? If this is when it matters most — when your kid is in plain sight, with friends, in a public place — then the service must not matter at all, because in this situation it is completely unnecessary.  The girl is safe. The only thing in danger is mom’s monthly paycheck, being deftly plucked from her pocket by Verizon.  — Lenore

Ad Council Warns Parents: Watch Out for the Boogeyman!

This ad gives me chills AND the creeps. Here’s what it says, in urgent, caring, chiding tones:

You take the family to the food court. Your wife and Pete head for tacos. You and Danny want Chinese. You look up at the menu. You look down to see what Danny wants . But you don’t see Danny. Every parent knows that feeling. IMAGINE if he were actually abducted. To receieve free Amber Alerts on your cell phone go to A child is calling for help.

A child is calling to CHILL! This scenario — a child snatched from a public space at his parent’s side — is so rare it’s like a  child falling into a sinkhole, or being eaten by grizzlies. Public service announcements are supposed to make us aware of something that can actually make a big difference: Stop smoking. See your doctor if you find a lump on your breast. Support your local food pantry. Plenty more children are calling, “Help! I’m hungry!” than, “Help! I was snatched by a stranger in a mall several inches from my dad.”

What also creeps me out about this message is its insidiousness. Of course “every parent knows that feeling.” I’ve had it too — the temporary terror of not being able to see your kid. BUT as readers detailed here on this very blog, almost every single time we get the kid back again, right after our mind has raced to the scenario this ad is reinforcing: “Imagine if he had been abducted.”

Telling us to be MORE worried about stranger abductions is like telling us to be MORE worried about our cellulite. We are already worried beyond all reason! 

Let’s save Public Service Announcements for promoting practices that actually make kids safer and healthier. “Remember, parents: Your kids need time outside.” “Parents, teach your kid to look both ways before crossing.” “Parents, isn’t it time to get your kid a library card?” 

“Watch out for the boogeyman!” isn’t helping anyone. (Well, actually, I’m pretty sure it is helping someone, monetarily, or grant-wise or something. But I can’t figure out who.) — Lenore

My Take on the Arrest of the Mom Who Let Her Kids Go to The Mall

Hi! Lenore here, feeling it is time to weigh in on the Montana mom case still causing a commenting frenzy.

This is the case where a mom named Bridget let her 12-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend, both experienced babysitters, take their siblings, age 3, 7 and 8, to the mall. After a morning of shopping and lunch, the group went to Macy’s. The 12-year-olds tried on some shirts while the other three waited in the handbag department — the 3-year-old now in a stroller. When the 12-year-olds returned a few minutes later, all five of them were scooped up by mall security, which called the cops. The cops arrested Bridget for child endangerment. Three hundred or so comments later I must say, first and foremost: Let’s try to keep the debate on a nicer, friendlier, agree-to-disagree tone, please.

But personally? I don’t think Bridget did anything wrong. Her kids were not in any danger unless a band of machete-wielding pedophiles happened to be parachuting into Macy’s that day, intent on that ever-popular crime of kidnapping three children at once while store employees look on.

The assumption that the 12-year-olds were wildly irresponsible for telling their younger siblings to, “Wait here,” while they tried on some clothes is strange to me, too. It’s normal to ask kids to wait for a little bit and that’s exactly what the kids were doing, in a safe place, not the Newark bus terminal at 3 a.m. (Sorry, Newark.)

And while I can understand that some people think 12 is too young to be responsible for younger kids — that’s certainly what the Bozeman authorities believed — somewhere between 40 – 80% of the world’s population is raised by older siblings, according to anthropologist David Lancy. Many a 6-year-old is in charge of her younger brother(s) and all the kids are expected to rise to the occasion, which can mean anything from helping to plant seeds, to running errands, to manning a shop.

This is not to say I’d send a 6-year-old to the mall with a gaggle of younger siblings, just that our current assumption of total kiddie incompetence until age 18 or so is new and unprecedented. Twelve is old enough to look after younger children — and the 12-year-olds we’re talking about did. To turn one’s back for a few minutes is not the invitation to instant death we have been lead to believe by CNN and CSI. To assume children are in danger from strangers every second of every day is to assume the only way to keep them safe would be with the kind of surveillance employed at maximum security prisons. Or, better still, to keep them IN maximum security prisons.

I have stated this before: We live in safe times that are represented as very UNsafe in the media, because that’s what drives ratings. We are squandering the incredible gift we have of living in 21st century America, where all crime has been declining for the last 15 years, and four times more children make it to their first birthday now than did the year that I was born. We are not in a famine, we are not engaged in a war at home, our children do not have to dodge bullets, militias and malaria-bearing mosquitoes to drag water home from a brackish well.

Free-Range Kids does not say there is no evil in the world. But our movement believes our children are more competent and more safe than the worst-case-scenario chorus. We believe children don’t have to do everything exactly right – and neither do parents – for them to still be extremely safe.

The bottom line is not just that nothing bad DID happen to those children, it’s that it was extremely unlike TO happen to those children. As I state in my book, if you actually, for some reason, WANTED your children to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to keep them outside, unattended (or in a mall!) for that to be statistically likely to happen? For them to be abducted, I mean?

Guess before you look at the number.

 In fact, I will let you guess now, below. And tomorrow I’ll tell you. (Or if you can’t wait – get the book!)

 Speaking of tomorrow, I will be on the Fox & Friends show at about 7:30 tomorrow (Tuseday) morning debating, “Free-Range Kids.” You may hear the answer then!

Yours – Lenore

ABC News Weighs in On Mom Who Let 12-Year-Olds Take Younger Sibs to Mall

Here it is — looking into the case of Bridget Kevane, the mom who trusted her 12-year-old daughter and the daughter’s friend to take their younger siblings to the mall. For which she got arrested.

ABC found that most people felt support Kevane and believe the authorities overreacted, as do I. And a little later today I’ll post my thoughts on same. Meantime, here is the ABC piece. — Lenore