Hooray for Australian Media! (And Especially The Sydney Morning Herald)

Hi Readers! The Australian media have been very keen on the Free-Range Kids story. I’ve done more than a dozen TV, radio and print interviews so far,  but it wasn’t until this morning, when I was on a drive-time radio talk show, that I finally heard the words: “Oh, I could never let my child out of my sight. I just couldn’t live with myself if something terrible happened.”

What’s amazing is that this is pretty much what I hear EVERY time I am interviewed in America. So it seems as if catastrophizing every aspect of childhood has not yet fully taken root here. Oh, yes, fear is creeping in, and so is the idea that parents can and should control every aspect of their kids’ lives. But this obsessive outlook just doesn’t seem quite as pervasive here in Australia. And trying to make sure it never is, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this wonderful, even lyrical editorial today:

Pack away the cotton wool

LENORE SKENAZY, the New York mother who let her son find his own way home when he was nine, has started a long-overdue debate in this country about the way children are overprotected by anxious parents. Paradoxically in our increasingly safe and peaceful society, anxiety about the diminishing dangers threatening everyday life is growing.

As a society, we are starting at shadows. We fear children may be at risk from crime. Though crime rates have fallen, the public perceives them as having increased. In an issues paper in July, Brent Davis and Kym Dossetor of the Australian Institute of Criminology pointed to the ANU’s 2007 Survey of Social Attitudes which found that, despite generally diminishing crime rates, 90 per cent of those surveyed believed they were rising or static.

The nature of news itself helps sustain a climate of fear: stories of child abductions or murders in distant countries are flashed instantly round the globe, heightening the appearance of a dangerous, threatening world, even though the statistical likelihood of a child becoming a crime victim is extremely small. Products and services are sold through campaigns that heighten fear. In some suburbs gated communities have been built, which in their very design imply that the normal state of mind outside the gate is fear, which can only be absent when the ordinary world is shut out.

Litigiousness adds another element. It has become regrettably common for those injured in minor accidents to sue, and for responsible authorities such as councils to seek to eliminate the possibility of injury. The fear of risk not only deprives the public of valuable amenities such as children’s playgrounds, but also reinforces the message that the public realm is a risky place, and best avoided.

Parents are particularly vulnerable to this cluster of anxieties. Ideas of nurturing go hand in hand with protecting children from danger. But if some protection is good, more is not necessarily better. Before long it becomes stifling and stultifying. It prevents children from learning to assess danger for themselves, and from thinking how to avoid it. Driving children to school rather then letting them walk, ride bicycles or catch the bus not only wastes energy, it encourages laziness and the lifestyle diseases that afflict growing numbers of the young.

Life is not perfect and cannot be made so. Certainly a small number of children are hurt each year. But by trying to eliminate risk from children’s lives, overzealous parents are stunting their development, and inhibiting the ability of the vast majority to respond to challenges.

A line I hope to internalize is this:  If some protection is good, more is not necessarily better.

Also: Life is not perfect and cannot be made so. It’s funny we need to be reminded of this…but we do! — Lenore

PIN Numbers for Tiny Pre-School?

Hi Readers! This woman needs our help devising good arguments to bring to her pre-k’s PTA. Over to you! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I’m a regular reader of your blog and love to hear your input and that of your readers on Free-Range issues.

Well, my Free-Range issue came up while I was at preschool orientation for parents the other day. The orientation leader announced that all the fund-raising money this year will be used to buy a security system. I first thought I’d misunderstood. I wondered why a small co-op preschool in a church in a quiet neighborhood would need a security system. So I asked about it and the leader said every family will have a PIN number to punch in to open the one entrance door, and that this is the norm at preschools.

I was sort of stunned into silence at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me. First, in the two years I’ve been a parent there, I’ve never heard of a “security breach” or any kind of threat, or even a minor incident like a confused church visitor wandering around the preschool. In fact, I’ve never even seen a parishioner or church employee in the preschool part of the building.

Second, the kids are all in classes with a teacher and two adult helpers and they don’t go anywhere alone, even the bathroom or the drinking fountain. (The kids are ages 2, 3 and 4.)

Ultimately, I think there will be more problems with people forgetting PIN numbers, or holding the door for other parents, which I’m sure will be against the rules. Plus, once this security system goes in, it just seems like it will feed the feeling that there is something to fear and that this is actually a good use of our donations and fund-raising dollars.

I am curious about your general opinion on this and also to hear from you or others in the know if this is the norm at preschools now. — A.

I don’t know if this is the norm now — I hope it isn’t, but I did just hear of another instance of this in a college town pre-K.  I totally agree it is a waste of money that could be spent on so many other things — books, blocks, art supplies. And if a school is already so well-funded that it lacks for nothing except excessive security measures, maybe (in the spirit of a church-run institution) the money should be diverted to a  school that lacks the stuff yours has.

This is like putting a five point harness on a swing: A new, unnecessary security precaution that could catch on, if and when it starts to seem just “better safe than sorry.” Even though it’s actually insane. — Lenore