When Risk Visits the Playground

Hi Readers — Here’s a note from reader Althea Smock, a mother of two Free-range Kids, ages 5 and 7,  in Arvada, Colorado. I find myself thinking about  our inability to understand, deal with or accept risk a LOT and, apparently, so does she! — L.
Dear Free-Range Kids:  The risk adversity in the U.S. is out of control. I just read about the CPSC recalling 7 million candle holders because there was a single incident of one (one!!) melting.
This comes on the heels of a discussion we had at our Parks Board last week where the playground designer came in to talk about the safety of playground equipment. The gist of it was: there is such a permeating fear of lawsuits and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) that playgrounds are required to be as generic as possible, lest a lawsuit occur. There was great discussion about the $600 test each playground inspector must take every three years to be certified to be able to even inspect a playground, and the number of people we have employed just to complete inspections on the equipment in our city alone. Each playground is inspected every 3-6 months: every screw and nut is examined, along with the width of all the poles,  and evidence of settling, protrusions, wear, etc. It takes several hours to inspect one playground thoroughly and completely.
Swings are still allowed, but the CPSC rules –“which are treated as law” — are so stringent on how and where they’re installed, it’s almost not worth putting them in. It was so sad to listen to how the paranoia that has determined how playgrounds will be built, resulting in homogeneous, boring play zones for kids.
At the end of the discussion it turned out that in our town of roughly 100,000 people there has been a single lawsuit over the last 12 years regarding play equipment. A grown woman got stuck in a baby swing and couldn’t get out so the fire department was called to cut her out of the swing. She sued for humiliation. And now swings are becoming a rare commodity.
Please, please, please keep up the work you’re doing in calling out the ridiculous paranoia overtaking our country where a single incident can incite a recall.Threats of lawsuits create such fear that now any risk is unacceptable. And as you’ve pointed out, life is risky! We need to collectively get over it! It’s frustrating to hear at every turn we need to be “safe” of there will be a recall or lawsuit. Erg! — Althea Smock

The swing: an endangered species?

Losing Track of My Kid — And Staying Calm

Hi Readers! You’ll like this! L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to thank you. On Saturday I misplaced my 6-year-old son for half an hour, long enough that we had the museum staff and state park ranger looking with us–long enough for most people to completely panic themselves and everyone around them. But I reminded myself that he loves being independent and was likely not freaked out, and most importantly, I remembered the point you make over and over: People are kind and caring. I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t help a misplaced child, including people I know who’ve gone to jail. That thought was a mantra for me to keep calm, so that when we did locate him (after walking to the nearby park that was not the park we were planning to go to he went back to the car, figuring we’d show up there eventually) I wasn’t out of my mind. If I’d started freaking out, I would have made him think the world is a scary place when really, nothing bad had happened. Thank you! — A Calm Mom

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

You Know You’re Making an Impact When…

Hi Readers! You know you’re making an impact when marketers start to try to make a buck off you, as did this one. A friend who runs a parenting magazine got this public relations pitch:

Dear _______:

There has been a lot of discussion about “free range parenting” — letting your kids wander to the park or take the subway alone to build independence. I’m wondering if you’re be interested in writing an article about how cell phone GPS locator services make it easier for parents to let go.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed that 75% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 own a cell phone — and some 48% of parents use a cell phone to monitor their kid’s whereabouts.

On Tuesday, our company [I took out its name. I’m not giving them free publicity here!] will announce its latest cell phone Safety Plan for kids. In addition to other features, the plan offers unlimited online GPS locator services for parents. Would you be interested in speaking with a mom who relies on our company’s unlimited GPS locator services to make sure her 6th grade daughter is safe throughout the day? This parent perfectly illustrates the challenges faced by busy modern families. In an era where sending even 6th graders to the park without an adult can feel risky, GPS locator services are giving kids greater freedom and parents much-needed peace of mind.

Please let me know if you are interested in talking to our CEO and this parent. Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you.

Hi — Lenore here again. Grrrr! Only with kiddie GPS does a parent have ANY peace of mind? Otherwise, the mom is constantly worried that her 6th grader is in harm’s way? Otherwise, letting her 6th grader play in the park is too dangerous? And how does a GPS prevent anything “terrible” from happening, anyway, you fearmongerers out to make a buck?

I understand how Free-Rangers can embrace cell phones some times. My kids have them now and it’s helpful to connect, from time to time. But I am not tracking them throughout the day and I sure don’t think I need to that, for me to be a “good” parent or for them to be “safe.”

So no free publicity here, guys! Go stalk parents someplace else! — L.

OTHER Outrage of the Week: Funeral for a Swing Set

Hi Readers — Those clever folks at KaBoom, the playground people, have created a “virtual funeral” for the swingsets of West Virginia’s Cabell County. The sets died an unnatural death, after a painful lawsuit brought by the parents of a boy who broke his arm jumping off a swing. In a response worthy of Greek tragedy, the county responded by murdering all its swings.

They will be missed.  — L.

Pictured here: A child in hideous danger.

Outrage of the Week: Chess Players Ticketed for Being Near Playground

Hi Readers — I’m sorry to say, this is happening in MY town, New York City: Seven chess players have to appear in court for playing the game of kings on the stone chess tables close to a playground — a playground where adults are forbidden unless they are accompanied by a child.

Because, of course, any human anywhere NEAR a child who isn’t personally taking care of one MUST be a monstrosity.

Except these particular monstrosities quietly play chess together. Have for years.  They even teach the local kids how to play. Terrifying!

Oh wise authorities: What makes a community? It’s people interacting, simple as that. People of different ages getting to know each other and, at best, even helping each other.

At least until it’s criminalized. — Lenore

Get a load of these budding miscreants!

OUTRAGE OF THE WEEK: Cops Threaten Mom for Letting Son Play Outside

Hi Readers! This mom, Kimberlee Morrison of kimleeisawesome, needs a pep talk from all of us — and perhaps some legal advice. You’ll see why. L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve been warned. Literally. By the police. My son left the park, went to El Pollo Loco and asked for water. A stranger asked him if he was hungry, the Boy, thinking the guy was being nice, said sure. The guy bought him some food — and called the police.

The police called me and insisted it was not safe for me to let my 8-year-old “wander the streets alone.” They hit me with the normal fear tactics: He could have been hit by a car, he could have been kidnapped. What if he had wandered off somewhere else and the stranger hadn’t been nice enough to involve the authorities?

To which I countered that there is no law against letting my son go to the park, and that the only problem right now is that the supposedly nice person HAD involved the authorities, even though my son was fine. My son was not lost, he wasn’t injured, he wasn’t afraid, he was just thirsty. I was told that since others thought something was wrong, I should too. Now I’m questioning my Free-Range philosophy.

By law, he is old enough to be alone, but the police insisted that the only reason I wasn’t going to jail is because they had decided it wasn’t necessary. They did, however ask to see where we lived, which I agreed to in the spirit of being cooperative.

Now we’re a little shaken up here, mostly by the threat of, “I could take you to jail right now,” and the fear that the Boy might not be allowed to go to the park anymore without me hovering. None of the other kids in our community are allowed outside the gate. So what do I do? Keep him locked inside? Hover? I want to be Free-Range, but not at the risk of my son being thrown into the system because of it.
Oh, yeah, I asked what age would be appropriate for him to go to the park and was told 13 or 14. So he has to be a teenager before he’s allowed to navigate the world without me at his side.
I’m so sad. Kids are supposed to be able to go outside and play. But everyone is so afraid. I don’t know what to do. I could use a pep talk right now, and some guidance. – Kimberlee
Dear Kimberlee: I’m shaken up, too. My blood curdles when the authorities use their own fears and prejudices to decide what is “good parenting,” or even “safe,” rather than consulting the law OR the actual statistics, which show we are living in very safe times. (Crime has been going down for 16 years and is now back at the level of 1974. It was higher in the ’70s and ’80s, when most of today’s parents — and cops — were growing up.)
The idea of curbing your son’s happy, normal childhood and locking him inside for the next five years is tragic. It’s ironic, too, considering that cops are supposed to MAKE the town safe, not tell people, “We can’t! Just stay inside.”
I know, that beyond this site, many folks would say, “The boy CAN go outside! She just has to supervise him.” But since when do adults spend from 3-6 p.m. outside, then come in for dinner, and then head outside again? And spend all day Saturdays outside? And Sundays? A summers? The idea that parents should be in the same place as their 8-year-old children all the time is a new one, born of unreasonable fear.
So what should this mom do?
Well, I’d certainly arm my son with a note from me that says I approve of him being outside, and that he knows how to contact me, and you, concerned stranger, can, too.  Then I’d include my phone number. As in my Free-Range Kids membership card (you can find it in my book), I’d add some statistics about things like the fact he’d be more in danger IN MY CAR than in the park.  And I guess I’d go Xerox any local ordinances that say a child of his age can legally be outside, unsupervised.
Then again, I actually did that when my younger son was 10 and taking a commuter train. I gave him a phone, I printed out the Transit Authority’s home page that said children age 8 and up are allowed to travel unaccompanied, and I still got a call from the police after the conductor felt “nervous” about seeing a boy traveling alone and called the cops. They ended up letting my son go (after asking me the inevitable, “What if some guys had tried to abduct him?”), but the whole thing was unsettling. And who wants the threat of legal action going any further?
After that episode, we continued to allow our son to travel solo, but it became a little nerve-wracking. And Kimberlee had an even closer police encounter regarding an even more everyday activity: playing. I’d like the cops to think about what the parks are for if NOT for kids to play? No wonder so many playgrounds are empty!
So my suggestion, heart-in-mouth, Kim, is to let your son go back outside. If he can find a friend to go with him, so much the better. If you want to give him a phone so he can contact you, I guess that might make some sense (even though, if he’s anything like my own sons, then he’ll spend at least part of his outdoor time fiddling with the phone).
Our Free-Range goal, when you get right down to it, is to change this terrified society. I am pretty terrified of the authorities myself. But I am really terrified of a society that keeps children locked inside — just like the kidnappers it is obsessed by — for no reason other than misplaced fear.
I wish you and your son everything good. And, for what it’s worth, I am in your corner and will support you whatever way I can, if and when you need it. But I sure hope you don’t. — Lenore

A Boy, A Dad, A Tragedy and A Big Question

Readers — I just read this story and am sick to my heart. A dad brought his 5 year old son to the park then crossed the street to talk to some friends. The boy ran after him. He got struck by a car and died. Now the father is in jail and the charge has just been upgraded from “felony cruelty to children, reckless conduct and simple battery” to involuntary manslaughter.

I cannot imagine how that father would feel even if he weren’t in jail. It’s boggling. This is a tragedy pure and simple. But the issues are not so simple at all.

We live in a society that does not believe in accidents any more, or bad luck, or fate, or even, when it comes to children’s safety, “God’s will.” That’s good, in the sense that it makes us strap our kids into car seats, and take some basic precautions. But it’s corrosive in that when anything bad does happen to a child, we almost always blame the parents. The media does it, the DA does it (perhaps for political gain), and the neighbors may well do it, too. Sometimes we do it almost reflexively, as if to protect ourselves. “Well I would never do that so nothing bad will ever happen to my family.”

As if none of us has ever lost track of our kids for a sec.

Now, certainly, it makes sense to keep watch over a young child at the park. But if we slip up for a minute, if we do something human and not  intended to hurt anyone, especially our beloved child,   should that count as “cruelty”? What if it’s something that normally is NOT particularly dangerous? What if we go to the basement to put in a load of laundry and our child follows us and falls down the stairs? What if throw a ball to our child and, trying to catch it, he runs into a tree? What if we go across the street to say hi to a neighbor and unbeknownst to us our child follows and is hit, like this boy, by a car?

Is there no split-second that a parent is legally allowed to not be physically protecting his kindergartener from every possible danger? That’s a tough precedent to set. Think about even a child on a swing. Can we watch him there, knowing he COULD fall off? Or must we sit on the swing and hold him on our lap?

And didn’t a lot of us walk to school on our OWN, starting in kindergarten? I did. My husband and his siblings did. If we’d been hit by a car, no one would have arrested our parents. They would have grieved with them.

Right now, I am grieving for that boy and his family. And I am grieving for a society that is so convinced nothing bad ever happens to the children of GOOD parents that it is willing to put this man on trial.  A man who is already in hell. — Lenore


It's hard to think of any kid dying.


Free-Range in Japan (And Worrying About Coming Back!)

Hi Readers!  One of the things I do in my book (remember that?) is show that what we think of as a “normal” amount of child oversight is actually not the norm around the world. Here’s a mom who is enjoying that gap! — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m living in Okinawa, Japan now, while my husband serves a three year tour on a military base here.  We were fortunate to get a nearly American-sized house off-base with a yard, albeit a small one, so as to immerse ourselves in the culture.

When we arrived in 2008 our kids were 3, 5, and 7 years old.  I was nervous to even let them go out in the yard without me.  Rightfully so, I think, as they were still young and without any Free-Range experience, just as I was.

But after a few months, I let them play alone in the yard with the gate closed, as long as the house windows were open.  Then, a little later, they were allowed to ride their bikes and scooters in the street, but only to the second light pole, and only if the house windows were open — and so on.  It went on that way for the last two and a half years, with me adding little freedoms here and there until I I could trust them enough to, 1:  get along with each other, and 2:  find their way back home.

Now they are 6, 8, and 10!  They have friends in the neighborhood and all the mamas know them.  They speak enough Japanese to make new friends and to get help if they need it.  It has sort of snowballed in recent months, in that this week I gave them the house number of one of their friends who always comes over here. Then I sent them out to find her and go play. They came back two hours later.

It dawned on me why the Japanese mamas seem so calm and put together: They don’t have children under their feet in the house all afternoon, arguing over toys and video games.  Their kids are outdoors playing! Japanese families know how to do Free-Range!  It’s expected that kids play outdoors without their mama, and we have seen them starting as young as 2 or 3 years old, usually playing with older siblings.  There is a large park in our neighborhood which is almost always full with kids and not a mama in sight.  The whole island is pedestrian-friendly, and many Japanese don’t own cars.  The pedestrian traffic is high and so drivers are extra careful.  Kids who want to cross the street need only stand at the curb and raise their arm in the air. Traffic stops.  Really.

This week has been full of Free-Range moments. My middle child is upset with me this morning because I have neglected to restock the fridge with milk.  He’s 8 years old and he must have milk for his cereal.  So he has taken all the spare change he could find and gone to the small grocery store about three blocks over.  He’ll have to wait for the stoplight to cross the last street.  He knows where to find the milk, how to ask for help, and how to use the currency.  The first time he went was about a year ago with his scooter, and he turned right back around and came home when he couldn’t figure out where to park it.  The next time he went with his little sister and they walked, so no parking issues.  The funny thing is,  it is his older brother who watches the clock when he’s gone and waits for them at the front door!

Little Man returned yammering on about a new route he found, and I swear he grows an inch every time.

Yesterday, his little sister came to me crying (literally) because someone (my oldest son) told her that in America it’s against the law to ride your bike outside without someone watching you.  I don’t know if he was trying to tease her, or if that’s really his impression of life back there.

We actually just got our orders to move back to Virginia.  I have been trying to imagine what it will be like for our kids to return to a place where we will have to argue for our right to be Free-Range.  Our friends who live on-base out here don’t seem to have the same freedom to let their kids roam outdoors.

A few years ago, I saw a document that had been published on base, outlining at what age and how long kids are allowed to be left without supervision.  On the one hand, the guidelines are helpful, but they are also limiting.  It’s purported to be safer on-base than off in most stateside military towns. But here in Japan, I feel safer off-base!  Safer from well meaning authorities and one-size-fits-all guidelines! — Jackie Lewis

Just a cool old photo of kids in Japan. Couldn't resist.

From Our Friends at KaBOOM!

Hi Folks! Here’s a note from KaBOOM!, the non-profit dedicated to making sure there are playgrounds everywhere, and that kids actually get out and enjoy them.  Like “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day,” KaBOOM! has a week in September when it encourages communities to get all the kids outside, playing together. And now the community with the best plans for revamping a playground, or getting kids active, or creating community connectedness seems to be eligible for a grant, too. A biggie!

So here, without further ado, I present to you: KaBOOM! (a name with vaguely terrorist connotations, at least to this New Yorker, but what the hey. Too late to change it, I guess.) — L.


Hi Free-Rangers! — If you’re following this blog,  you already know how important play is to keeping children happy and healthy.  Play is in jeopardy across the country, and national non-profit KaBOOM! is dedicated to saving it. You can help, too!  To spread the word around the importance of play plan a KaBOOM! Play Day for the week of September 18-26th. KaBOOM! Play Days encourage communities to come together for fun activities and to improve local parks and playgrounds.

Last year, more than 1,250 communities in all 50 states and on all 7 continents (yes, even Antarctica) got together to celebrate a KaBOOM! Play Day. This year, the KaBOOM! Play Day program is presented by Mott’s.

KaBOOM! Play Days help communities:

  • Have fun! A KaBOOM! Play Day is about adults and kids coming together to have fun and enjoy games, fresh air, and good company.
  • Connect. Planning a Play Day strengthens community ties and gives participants a chance to meet and work together.
  • Improve your playground. Many KaBOOM! Play Day events include improvement projects, such as planting flowers or trees, building benches or picnic tables, painting murals, and much more!
  • Advocate for play. Play is on the decline. By participating in this program, you are joining a national movement and helping KaBOOM! spread the message that play is vital for America’s children.

Free-Rangers, parents, teachers and community leaders who want to get their kids outside and active can visit www.kaboom.org/playday to plan a Play Day in their community.   Once there, you’ll be able to choose games and activities, self-organize, recruit volunteers, invite attendees and receive event planning help.  When the events are over, stellar Play Day communities with the best improvement projects will be eligible for $25,000 in grants to help them further improve their local park or playground.

By hosting a KaBOOM! Play Day, you will not only ensure children in your community get out and play for an afternoon, but you can help make your local park or playground an inviting place, where families can spend time together for years to come. — Your friends a KaBoom!