A Win for a Tree House!

Hi Readers! Here’s a nice story: Turns out an Iraqi war vet who made his sons (age 9 and 11) a tree house does not have to tear it down! How do you like that? Well, actually, he DOES have to tear it down in five years…but at least it has a half-decade reprieve, which is apparently the most we can hope for in this day and age. The sweet little structure violates some obscure zoning law and a neighbor (gotta love ’em!) complained. Anyway, you can read the story here. – L. 

Help Needed: A Friendly Kid, a Scolding Neighbor

Hi Readers! Can you help this mom? L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve been reading your blog and readers’ comments for better than a year now.  Never really thought I’d have an experience similar to the ones I read about on your blog, but yesterday it happened.  My children are nearly-5 (boy) and 3.5 (girl).  We live in a very safe neighborhood in the Midwest, with wide sidewalks.  Thankfully, I can report that I frequently see many of children playing in their yards or at our local park (without helicoptering parents), and riding their bikes to our neighborhood school.  There is definitely a Free-Range mentalilty among many of my neighbors.

Yesterday I was outside with my children, cleaning out the garage while they were playing out front.  My daughter was riding her scooter up and down the sidewalk.  She knows she can take it as far as the neighbors’ homes that are two away from us on each side.  She never goes farther than she should, and at any given time, she’s no more than 50 feet from our front yard.  My son was playing with his trains on the driveway.  Periodically, I’d walk out of the garage (doors were open) to check on them. During one of these checks, I saw her at the neighbors’ driveway where she is allowed to stop and turn around.  There was a minivan parked on the street and a lady getting into it.  My daughter is a very friendly, chatty soul.  If she sees someone near her, she’s going to say hello and chatter about whatever strikes her fancy.  I also, however, have no doubt that if someone she didn’t know tried to get her to go with them, she’d scream and kick and struggle LOUDLY.  I have no desire to quash her naturally friendly and open spirit.

The lady she was talking to was giving her a strange look.  I assumed my daughter was annoying her and called my girl to come back.  She did.  The lady then got in her van and pulled it up to my driveway.  She got out and waved me down.  When I approached, she said to me, “You know, your daughter doesn’t know me at all, and she just started talking to me.”  I replied, “Yes, she does that.  She likes to talk to people.”  She responded, “Well, you know, I run a home day care, and you really need to talk to her about speaking with strangers.  There is a really good video that John Walsh put out about teaching kids who it is ok to talk to — you really should get it and have your children watch it.  Because, you know, anything can happen, and they need to know not to talk to people they don’t know.  I could have been anyone.” Um, okay.  I was totally taken aback.  I thanked her and headed back up to the garage with my daughter.

After the lady left, I thought about it and realized I was offended.  While I know she thought she was only doing something nice — and, therefore, it wasn’t worth starting a fight over — it really was none of her business.  I didn’t want to get into a debate with her at the time, which is why I just thanked her and ended the conversation.  But what I really wanted to say was, “I understand you’ve bought into the media propaganda about the frequency of child abductions, but you really need to understand that crime is down significantly in this country.  And yet, you’re recommending I show my kids a video that might scare them into not speaking to people. For what it’s worth, you obviously weren’t someone intending to do my child harm.  In fact, the chance of her meeting such a person on our sidewalk in front of our house is less likely than her falling off her scooter and hitting her head.”

Probably wouldn’t have done any good, and she’d have driven away feeling even more self-righteously justified in having told me what she thought about my heathen parenting ways.

I’m not sure I handled the situation as best I could have, but then again, maybe just smiling and saying thank you without further engaging someone is best.  I just don’t know.  I would love to hear what your readers’ suggestions would be, regarding how to handle a situation like this.  I’ve found they often have great advice that is sound and based in logic, rather than emotional fearmongering. Thanks. — Heather

I Walk By Kids, They Run Away (Because I am a “Stranger”)

Hi Readers!  Here’s a note from a doctor, Par Donahue. He’s author of the book and blog, Messengers in Denim, all about the things we can learn from teens (and life). Here’s one lesson he got from kids that he did not like. (Nor I.) — L 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am a retired pediatrician who walks my dog twice daily in our neighborhood and enjoys talking to kids — after all, that’s what I did for almost 40 years. But, now I feel like bogeyman.

When kids are outside, they see me coming and run into the house. If they are waiting for the bus, they stare at the ground or cross the street when I approach. If I say good morning, or, “Have a nice day,” they either do not respond or they grunt without looking up!

Some years ago my wife and I moved into a new neighborhood where a family with two small kids lived next to us. They were usually in the fenced back yard when we came home from work and would always run into the house as we walked from our garage to the house. After 6-8 months of this the younger boy, 4 or 5 years old, stayed out and actually said, “Hi.”  His older brother, 6 or 7, quickly grabbed his arm and said, “Don’t talk to them, they might be kid-nappers.”

What a terrifying life parents make for their kids when they teach them to be this afraid. With very rare exceptions, kidnapping is done by estranged parents or other relatives. We, of course, hear  about the half dozen kids in the USA who are kidnapped each year by strangers. Fear, as Michael Crichton said in “State fo Fear” controls! So sad! — Par Donahue

Lenore here again: Par’s note reminds me of a great essay someone sent me the other day that I have to go dig up. It’s about a parent deciding NOT to teach the kids that strangers are “bad.”  There IS an alternative to automatic distrust and fear! 

Two Stories You Won’t Hear on the News

Hi Readers! Here you go! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in a small town (less than 300 residents) in Southwest Pennsylvania,  and regardless of the image the local-ish news channels portray, it is VERY safe. I grew up in the house I am living in, my  parents live next door.

The other day I was working in the yard, repainting some furniture. I heard my 2-year-old come out  then turn around and bang on the door she just exited. My mom came to the door and asked Gwen if she wanted to come in. I didn’t hear anything else, and when I looked up a few minutes later and didn’t see my daughter, I assumed she had gone in with my mom. A couple minutes later, I went in to clean up. When I didn’t see my daughter, I asked where she was. Mom said she thought Gwen was outside with me. This started a search of the yard (large, nearly 3/4 acre, all fenced in), something that happens a couple times on most days. When we determined Gwen wasn’t there, we started walking up the street. Mom found her standing in front of a neighbor’s house three homes away, looking for the back-hoe she’d seen the day before. The neighbor who lived there was just walking over to Gwen to bring her down and see if she was ours. My next door neighbor, who was leaving for work, was also just coming out to see whose child it was.

Total result? A minute of semi-panic when we realized my two-year-old wasn’t in the yard. A five-minute conversation with a normally anti-social neighbor about her grown daughter at the toddler stage. And when my father came home, he moved the gate latch to the outside of the fence so Gwen can’t open it again. Nobody called the police or child protective services, no injuries occurred, and Gwen wasn’t even fazed  — though she WAS disappointed that the big machines were gone.

This is a big deal to me because Pittsburgh news (our closest “local” news) runs nearly weekly reports of parents going to court-mandated parenting classes or even losing their children because of similar occurrences where toddlers get out and wander unsupervised. In all of these occasions, when neighbors find random children, they don’t look for a parent, they seem to START by calling the police.

Then, today we went to our nearest park to play on the big swings. The park is right against the Youghigheny River, so there are a lot of water fowl. Gwen played until she realized the ducks were there! She wanted to go look. While there, she had a lovely conversation about the ducks with an older gentleman (75 or 80 years, probably), who was sitting on a bench watching the ducks, too. I actually walked back to the car (about 20 yards away) to get her drink while she sat and watched with him. She probably sat still for longer than anywhere else today. He was polite, patient, and seemed to find her constant observations about the ducks adorable.

Thankfully, the local city has not succumbed to the temptation to bar adults from enjoying the same areas as children, because both my daughter and the gentleman had a wonderful time.

Moral of the story: There are some areas of the country that haven’t completely succumbed to insanity, and I am SO happy to live in one of them, since we have been Free-Range with Gwen since she first became mobile. — A Happy Pennsylvania Mom

WTD? What happens when a toddler watches ducks with someone other than her parent?

And So, Things Change

Hi Readers! Have a great weekend! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I just wanted to share with you a small but happy Free-Range story that probably wouldn’t have come about if your site hadn’t given me the courage to articulate the reasons why my children should be allowed to do strange things like walk to school alone.

Every morning I stand out on the footpath to wave goodbye to my 7-year-0ld and 5-year-old as they head off to school on their own. They now no longer want me to wait until I can no longer see them, and I don’t get the lovely waves and blown kisses that they used to give me as they disappeared over the hill – they are too big and independent for that now!

Sometimes the girls would be leaving as our neighbor across the road was getting her girls into the car. I never asked whether her 6-year-old wanted to walk with the girls, as I am always worried that people will think I’m a little strange. But one morning the mom asked if her daughter could walk with my girls.

It has now become a daily event! I let my 7-year-old cross over to pick up her friend, then they cross back together, and the three girls walk up the street. I can’t think of a more satisfying, heart-warming sight.

Recently, the girls started asking me if they could see if their other friend from further up the street (whose house they have to pass) would like to walk with them. Now, this little girl’s mother is definitely not a subscriber to the Free-Range philosophy, if her constant exhortations to her 7- and 5-year-olds to “stop running, walking only” on the way home from school are anything to go by. So I wasn’t sure how she would react, but I said yes. So my 7-year-old asked. And she was thrilled when her friend — same age — was allowed to walk. So was I. Four little girls laughing and skipping to school together, no adult to stifle their “just being.”

I have been planting the seeds in the minds of the two mothers that I hope will continue this next year, even though the oldest girls will no longer be with them, and I think I might have succeeded. I am looking forward to seeing a gaggle of 5 happy children heading off to school next year!

Thanks again! — Janet Matthews

How Do You Tell A Total Helicopter to Back Off?

Okay, Readers. Let’s help this mom out!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  Finding this blog several years ago validated my desire to back off and let my kids be kids. At that time, I was mostly associating with “helicopter parents” and feeling inadequate for not wanting to micromanage my children’s every waking moment. And yet, one helicopter parent I continue to associate with is really starting to get on my nerves, to the point where I don’t know how to respond any more.

My 9-year-old son is good friends with a boy in our neighborhood, who lives only a couple of blocks away in our quiet suburban town.  The mom and I are friendly, but not friends. Today the kids played at her house after school.  And today was the second time she flat-out refused to allow my son to walk home from her house by himself.  Even after I told her that’s what I wanted him to do — and in spite of the fact that that’s what he enjoys doing.  So she had another woman who was visiting her drive him home!  TWO BLOCKS.

I am flabbergasted and what I really want to say is,  “How dare you completely disregard MY wishes for MY child?”  But alienating her would not be a good thing!

A bit of back story for this specific instance:  In recent weeks there have been several break-ins in the neighborhood, but all at night, when no one is home.  And, unfortunately, someone was robbed at gunpoint in front of their house on the next block over.  But again, this was late at night, well after dark.  All of these incidents are extremely unusual for our quiet town.  And really: Who the hell is going to hold up at 9-year-old?  Even ignorant thieves know the kid won’t have a watch or money.  And the “bad guys” are not abducting children in broad daylight.  They’re committing crimes of opportunity under cover of darkness.  Moreover, the last time this mom refused to allow my son to walk home alone was at 11 in the morning on a beautiful, sunny Saturday in May, when there hadn’t been any crime in our neighborhood for at least a dozen years.

So here’s the question:  what do I say to her NEXT time? I need to formulate a rational, civilized response to keep the peace.  Otherwise, I’m going to go crazy on her ass!!!  Yeah, I’m kidding.

Sort of.

(Bad) Advice from “All You” Magazine

Hi Readers — This note is RIGHT ON!

Dear Free-Range Kids:  Just thought I’d let you know of this snippet from the most recent All You Magazine. It incensed me to the point of writing an email to the author scolding her for her “professional advice” (this column is written by “Relationship Expert” Nancy Carol Rybski, PhD). Here is the article:

Q. A 6-year-old boy in our neighborhood stops by often to play with my 7-year-old son. His mom and dad never check on him or pick him up – he just walks home when I say it’s time to go. I end up babysitting him for hours! How can I talk to his parents about this?

A. Next time, walk the boy home and chat with his parents. Explain that you’re glad the kids are buddies but you’re busy and can’t have their son over all the time. Don’t be accusatory, but say you’re concerned for his safety when he goes home alone. If they’re still hands-off, tell them he can’t come over, because you just can’t be responsible for his safety.”

Here are my thoughts: First of all, why does this mom even have to talk to the parents? If this boy is coming over too often or staying too long, she should talk to the child directly, perhaps negotiate what times he can come over and for how long.

Second, why is so unsafe for this boy to walk down the street to his neighbor’s house to play with a friend? Rybski is just encouraging people to worry about all the horrible things that might (but mot likely will NOT) happen if a kid goes outside without an adult.

Finally, why does this mom feel like she has to babysit this boy? She should send both boys outside and give herself a break! Instead of obsessing unnecessarily about their safety, why not bask in a little sanity while the kids enjoy a walk around the block together?

Anyway, I wrote this “Expert” a letter using the email provided in the magazine: relationships@allyou.com. Perhaps a few other Free Range readers might want to do the same? — Lauren Ard

I think they just may. Thanks! — L.