Voters in the School? That’s Not Safe!

Hi Folks! Love this column, which ran in The Post-Star in Glens Falls, NY. I think you’ll see why. – L.

Reading, Writing and Looming Fears by Ken Tingley

The Warrensburg Central School District is saving its children from the clutches of voters.

Swear to God.

Its board of education voted unanimously against a county proposal to use one of the school’s facilities for the April 24 presidential primary.

The reason? Too dangerous.

You would have thought the new voting machines contained plutonium. Or all Warrensburg voters are packing heat. Or perhaps there is concern over some insidious political agenda that might pollute impressionable minds.

The school board members believe that opening the school to voters will put the student body at risk. Of the seven members on the school board, not one even cleared their throat to say this is all just a bit silly.

Voting at local schools and firehouses is a tradition that goes back generations. I can’t remember the last time I did not vote in a school. And the greatest calamity I can ever recall was complaints over long lines in Lake Luzerne one year.

Oddly, Warren County’s Republican Commissioner Mary Beth Casey said she understood the board’s concern.

Hopefully, she was just being politically correct in hopes they would come to their senses because what she should have said was, “Seriously?”

The culture of fear that has taken root in our communities is epidemic.

We see shadows at high noon and dangers lurking around every swing set. And now, in voting booths.

We are all privy to horrible crimes that happen around the country and it is in everyone’s best interest to be prudent, especially when it comes to young children, but hopefully, without being ridiculous.

In this case in Warrensburg, school officials had previously moved the voting from the gymnasium to a supplemental recreation room away from the student population.

Polling places are generally busy places, crawling with volunteers. And the paranoia regarding school security is at such a heightened state, parents can’t drop off their kid’s lunch without being patted down in the foyer.

Years ago, I took my young son to the school playground during a school day. I was immediately informed that it was against the rules for me to be there during school hours.

My 4-year-old and I were a security risk.

Only time I’ve ever been kicked off the swing set.

Such is the concern in Warrensburg, where danger lurks, and it is no longer safe to invite citizens to the elementary school.

Ken Tingley is the editor of The Post-Star and may be reached via email at tingley@poststar.com. You can read his blog “The Front Page” daily at www.poststar.com or his updates on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/kentingley.

NOTE: Tingley tells me that now the board has voted to let the election take place at the school. Somehow (maybe thanks to this column?) sanity reigns! – L

Why Johnny Can’t Run

Hi Folks! This is my piece that ran in last week’s Wall Street Journal. Have a good week (and some “vigorous activity”). – L.

The Importance of Child’s Play

by Lenore Skenazy

A new study of how preschoolers spend their days may make you want to run around screaming, which is apparently more than the tykes themselves get to do. After interviewing child-care providers from 34 very different Cincinnati-area centers—urban to suburban, Head Start to high income—researchers found that kids spend an average of only 2% to 3% of their day in “vigorous activities.”

Can you imagine that? Children spending 97% of their day not running around? It’s like a desk job, except with cookie time. Excuse me—apple time. When you consider that three-quarters of American kids aged 3 to 5 are in some kind of preschool program and a lot of them come home only to eat, sleep and go back again, this is beyond sad—it’s bad. Bad for their bodies, their brains, their blubber. Baddest of all are the reasons behind this institutionalized atrophy: The quest for ever more safety and education.

“Injury and school readiness concerns may inhibit children’s physical activity in child care,” writes pediatrician Kristen A. Copeland, lead author on the study, which will appear in next month’s Pediatrics but is already available on the journal’s website. Let’s take a look at both these concerns, the twin fears haunting modern-day childhood.

Fear of injury: The centers, the parents and the state regulators are all so worried about injuries that they end up steering kids away from play. They do this in part by only approving playground equipment that is so safe it is completely boring to the kids. As one child-care provider told the investigators, “We used to have this climber where they could climb really high and it was really challenging. Now we have this climber that looks cute, much cuter than the old one, but it’s not as high and . . . scary.”

“Scary” equals “fun” for kids. (It equals potential lawsuit to everyone else.) Faced with this pitiful excuse for a plaything, the kids started doing things like walking up the slide. But of course, that is verboten, too, because a kid could get injured! As several child-care providers told the authors, “the [safety] guidelines had become so strict that they might actually be limiting, rather than promoting, children’s physical activity.”

Uh, “might”?

Fear #2: Falling behind. The trembling triumvirate of child-care providers, parents and regulators also worries that kids must perform at a certain level when they reach school, so play time is sacrificed for academics. Some parents specifically request that their kids not participate in outdoor activities but “read a book instead”—an attitude that spans the economic spectrum.

The funny thing is, if you are really concerned about children’s health and school-readiness, there is a very simple way to increase both. It’s called playing.

Kids learn through play. When kids play, they’re not wasting their time. They’re learning everything from motor skills to social skills and numbers. Think of all the counting that comes with hopscotch, or with making two even teams. Those activities are a lot more fun than flash cards, but they teach the same thing: math. Kids playing outside also learn things like distance, motion, the changing of the seasons—things we take for granted because we got time outside. But many of today’s kids spend all their daylight hours in child care.

Then there are the social skills. The planning (“I’ll throw the ball to you, you throw it to Jayden”) and the compromise (Jayden always wants to go first), and the ability to pay attention. These are key lessons for anyone about to go onto another 12 years of education, not to mention another 50 years of meetings after that.

And on the physical side of things, kids outside literally learn how to move. Joe Frost, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of 18 books on child’s play, has been watching for decades as dwindling time outside and increasingly insipid equipment got to the point where many 21st-century kids “are unsafe on any environment, because they have not developed the strength, the flexibility, the motor skills that come with being a well-rounded child.” They don’t even know how to fall safely, which makes them more likely to hurt themselves. So much for making kids safer by limiting their playground time.

As for the biggest health risk of all: 19% of kids are showing up at kindergarten already obese. They’ve started out on a life of couch potato-dom. Some don’t even know how to skip. “We’re seeing what we used to call ‘adult’ diabetes in children as young as 3, 4, 5,” says Dr. Copeland.

In striving to make our kids super safe and super smart we have turned them into bored blobs. Fortunately, the remedy is as simple as it is joyful: Just see the playground the way kids do. Not as an academic wasteland. Not as a lawsuit waiting to happen. Just the very best place to spend a whole lot of time.

Outrage of the Week: Mom HANDCUFFED for Tardy Kids

Hi Folks — This blog, as you know, is always trying to distinguish between real threats to children and the over-hyped ones. In this case, the fear of children being neglected or falling behind has gone overboard.  The mom is due in court this morning  — Wednesday. I wish her a lot of luck, and a judge with compassion and common sense. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Here in Loudoun, VA,  I am a the mother of three little girls at an elementary school who was just ARRESTED for getting my girls late to school. After the fifth offense there was a meeting with a truant officer. We were late twice since then, which resulted in the surprise of three officers showing up on this Sat night ( 1.21.2012),  where I was literally handcuffed and brought to the Adult Detention Center to meet with the magistrate who chose to release me with a $3,000 bond promised to be paid if I fail to show up for the arraignment in a few days.  [N.B. The court date is Weds., Jan. 25.]

The charge is “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children.”  The VA code is written that after five absences the truant officer meets with parents and then works with them in cases in which students are absent without awareness and notification from a parent.  My truant officer seems to miss the rather obvious distinction between ABSENCE without a parent’s knowledge, and TARDINESS.  Our lateness has been, on average, less than ten minutes.

Considering that all four of us — the kids and me — have had medical care for disabilities (some with a diagnosis of ADHD, others with other psychological issues, which the school is very aware of),  I find it not only a waste of resources and taxpayer dollars to engage our police and courts for this, but  also an absolute failure on the part of our school to service those with disabilities with any sort of empathy and understanding. There is nothing short of animosity in their treatment of me as a mother, as if I am incompetent due to the one problem of having difficulty getting my children to school on time.

While it is debatable whether or not I am a decent mother, EVEN IF I WERE NOT it would hardly be CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR to be so imperfect. — A Virginia Mom

Lenore here again: I agree. Once we start criminalizing imperfect parents, all of us are at risk…because there are no perfect parents.  

Where Have All The Jungle Gyms Gone? Long Time Passing…

Hi Folks! Here’s a great article from the L.A. Times about one of our recurring themes: The dumbing down of playgrounds to the point where they are, well, pointless. The writer, Gale Holland, reports:

Last fall as state inspector strode into Great Beginnings preschool and declared the tree house and climbing structure too high. They would have to come down or be surrounded by extra padding.

The metal ladder to the playhouse, which had been there 30 years, could pinch the children, said Beverly Wright-Chrystal, a state child care licensing representative. Also, a log worn smooth by generations of boys and girls playing horsy and hide-and-go-seek would have to be sanded and painted because of a potential “splinter hazard,” Wright-Chrystal determined.

How have we evolved to a society that sees splinters, blood and lawsuits every where we turn? Especially in light of my hero Phillip Howard’s contention that (according to the LA Times piece) there is no data showing an increase in playground injuries or lawsuits!

We are drunk on safety and hallucinating pink liability issues. (Elephants are too big to safely be hallucinated anymore.) Time to sober up and let kids have fun. — L.

Paper Airplane? Late for School? Shouting Too Loud? You’re Under Arrest!

Hi Readers — Here’s an incredible report on how the “School to prison pipeline” plays out in Texas, as published in The Guardian:

In 2010, the police gave close to 300,000 “Class C misdemeanour” tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time. What was once handled with a telling-off by the teacher or a call to parents can now result in arrest and a record that may cost a young person a place in college or a job years later.

The other appalling fact is that parents who don’t or can’t pay the fine, which can be $500, sometimes ignore it. Which means that when the kid turns 17,he or she can be arrested and go to jail — adult prison — for non-payment.

The draconian nature of this situation has not escaped notice. Reports The Guardian:

 Texas state legislature last year changed the law to stop the issuing of tickets to 10- and 11-year-olds over classroom behaviour. (In the state, the age of criminal responsibility is 10.) But a broader bill to end the practice entirely – championed by a state senator, John Whitmire, who called the system “ridiculous” – failed to pass and cannot be considered again for another two years.

Two more years of criminalizing everything from shenanigans to defiance? All in the name of “safety”? What about keeping kids safe from an unwarranted,  lifelong criminal record?

This is a Free-Range issue because, once again, we see what happens when we lose perspective on crime. Usually I write about how we keep our kids inside because we wildly over-estimate the chance of kidnapping. Now we see what happens when schools, politicians and police wildly over-estimate the chance of “another Columbine.” Either way, childhood is compromised.  Either way, out kids pay the price for our paranoia.  — Lenore

Boozy Babies & Other Overhyped Panics

Hi Readers! Here’s my Wall Street Journal oped from last week. Enjoy! (Or whatever.) — L.

Perhaps 2011 will be recalled as the year that a toddler accidentally got served an alcoholic drink at a Michigan Applebee’s. Not the biggest news this year, but the fact that it was a national story at all shows we can’t seem to tell the difference between one stupid accident and a terrifying trend that we must do something about immediately!

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The Applebee’s saga, back in April, was just this: Some waiter grabbed a mislabeled container and poured the 15-month-old a very potent cup of juice. The parents noticed something was wrong when, the mother reported, the boy started saying “hi” to the walls.
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Applebee’s went apoplectic with pro-activeness, declaring not only would it retrain its entire wait staff that instant, but from now on it would only use single-serve juices.
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Which is not an evil response, of course (except environmentally), but it sure is overkill. Applebee’s reacted as if serving toddlers stiff drinks had been company-wide policy.
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The child’s parents, meanwhile, reacted as if the kid had been deliberately served a plateful of steaming plutonium. Their “emotional distress” was so great that they—this will shock you—sued. Whether the individuals are mirroring corporate hysteria or vice versa, the final score was: Overreaction, 2. Common sense: 0.
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This collective decision not to distinguish between rare screw-ups and systemic dangers is turning us into neurotic Nellies who worry about, warn against and, finally, outlaw very safe things. My favorite recall from the Consumer Product Safety Commission a few years back concerned a chair that had a screw protruding from the underside. While the commission reported that there had been “no reports of injuries to humans,” there had been “one report of a dog’s fur becoming entangled in the screw.”
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Woof—call my lawyer! When a twisted tuft is enough to prompt a 20,000-chair recall, that’s setting the safety bar pretty high.
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The bar gets set even higher when a human being is hurt. Consider the fact that this past year a Toronto grammar school outlawed all balls except the soft Nerf kind on its playground, after an adult was hit in the head by an errant soccer ball and suffered a concussion.
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Concussions are nothing to sneeze at. Neither is the idea of kids standing around during recess. You could argue that if kids don’t get the chance to toss a ball around, they themselves are at risk of everything from depression to obesity to Kinetic Fun Deficit Disorder. (Okay, I made that one up.)
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Play, like life, comes with the possibility that someone may get hurt. When we overreact to that possibility, the only acceptable activity left is to sit on a chair and wait to die. And let’s just hope that chair that doesn’t have a screw protruding underneath.
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The Toronto school eventually got its balls back, as it were, after parents protested. But there are schools around our country that do not allow running, or tag or playing in the snow, for the same reason: Something terrible once happened to someone doing that somewhere on earth, and that’s enough to spook us.
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As usual, the media are at least partly to blame, because they are the ones bringing us these awful anomalies and acting as if they’re relevant to our daily lives. The 2011 story that best illustrates this was the case of Carlina White, a 23-year-old woman finally reunited with her birth mom after being abducted as a 19-day-old baby from a New York hospital.
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Despite the fact that baby abductions are exceedingly rare — CNN reports that last year a single baby was abducted from a health-care facility — that same news network felt compelled to give its viewers tip after tip on how to make sure this does not happen to them. Overreaction or ratings grab? Same thing.
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“Know who wants to steal your baby,” warned a CNN.com article that went on to explain that most baby-stealers on the maternity ward are women in their mid-20s to mid-30s—as if that doesn’t describe almost every non-baby-stealer there, too.
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The piece also stated that, “The single most dangerous time is when mom goes to the bathroom,” so “Put your baby in a bassinet and roll it into the bathroom with you.”
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I’m sorry, but if the chances are literally about one in 4 million that a baby is going to be abducted, the idea that a mother who has just gone through childbirth now has to drag her bassinet into the bathroom to be safe from a nearly nonexistent threat is more than ridiculous. It’s cruel.
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So if you want to enjoy a happier, healthier 2012, it’s very easy. Just ignore the temptation to overreact to miniscule threats . . . and have a shot of whatever that toddler was drinking. — L.S.

“Pervy Principal Means I’ll Never Go Free-Range”

Dear Readers:  As the new year begins, I’m looking back on things I meant to comment on and here’s a piece from November that gets my goat. It’s an essay by a mom who declares she would like to be more of a Free-Range parent, but she simply cannot. How come? Because she recently heard the story of an elementary school principal in some city not her own, who secretly videotaped boys using the bathroom.

Now, this sounds like a disturbed and disturbing guy. Yecch. But the mom strikes me as disturbed as well. She seems to be saying that since sometimes some people in the world are bad to children, she simply MUST assume the worst first. And hence she will never be “Free-Range.” As if…Free-Range parents posit there are no bad people in the world?

That is not our position at all. In fact, our position is that since there ARE rotten people and situations — always were and always will be — the best thing we can do is prepare our kids to be street-wise, confident and self-reliant.

The other thing the writer seems to believe is that one single incident is enough to indict the entire human race. That’s a problem I encounter all the time:  The belief that ANY travesty, ANYWHERE in the world means that all bets are off EVERYWHERE, for EVERMORE, for THEIR kids. It is overreacting in the extreme and somewhat self-absorbed, too because it boils down to: I don’t care if the odds are a million to one. If something is going to happen to anyone in the world, surely it will happen to MY child and therefore it is MY job to be constantly on guard duty. (It also confers superhero status on the parent.)

Finally, while I think the principal sounds like an absolute creep, the essayist’s description of his crime seems to be that he videotaped the boys, period.  This is an invasion of privacy and certainly revolting. But let’s not conflate it with molesting or rape.

Yes, let us teach our children to recognize, resist and report abuse. But no, let’s not look at every adult as a probable pervert, and every moment as quite possibly our children’s last. Free-Range parents don’t clip terrible stories from the newspaper as proof that our kids need our constant supervision.  We figure that if those terrible stories make the paper, they must be  rare enough to be noteworthy. In other words, we try to keep things in perspective. That is indeed a Free-Range trait. — Lenore

The Backlash Against the Columbine Backlash

Readers — As we enter 2012, there is cause for hope, as this article shows. Legislators in Colorado, home to the Columbine massacre, are taking a new and rational look at their zero tolerance laws. These are laws that REQUIRED schools to act brainlessly and not distinguish between, say, a wooden replica of a rifle and a smoking AK47. Laws that told school administrators they’d be WRONG to treat a butter knife as a butter knife rather than as a deadly weapon. According to the website TimesCall.com:

A legislative committee moved forward with a proposal that seeks to give education officials more discretion over expulsions and police referrals, which lawmakers say became more common after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, where two students killed 13 people and then themselves.

Committee members said zero-tolerance policies adopted during the last decade have tied the hands of school administrators, who are forced to expel students or involve law enforcement for minor infractions.

How wonderful to untie the hands of school administrators and free them to reason rather than to blindly (over)react. If Colorado is where the Zero Tolerance Revolution began, let’s hope that this is where it begins its demise.

The proposed legislation would make expulsions mandatory only in cases of students bringing a firearm to school and would amend school discipline codes to distinguish minor infractions from violations that need police involvement. The proposal would also direct school boards to create discipline codes that limit suspensions and expulsions to cases where a student’s conduct threatens school safety.

Significantly, this new legislation is co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican — more proof that, rather than taking knee-jerk umbrage at something the other party suggested, people are starting to use their brains (and not, I guess, their knees). Let’s hear it for rationality, compassion and no longer overreacting to “threats” that don’t threaten our kids at all. — L.

If she brings a butter knife to school, she will no longer be considered armed and dangerous.

When Kids Have to Play Tag on the Low-Down

Hi Folks! Just got this disturbing little note from reader Jeff Johnson who, I am happy to say, is writing a book about the importance of play. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wondering how much you’re hearing about the death of games like tag on school playgrounds.

I volunteer in a local kindergarten once a week. Last Thursday I had this exchange with some students during recess:

Me: Let’s play some freeze tag!

Kindergartner #1: We aren’t sposed to play tag.

Kindergartner #2: Yeah, you want to get us in trouble or something?

Me: What The Fu…n-killing kind of rule is that? Why can’t you play tag?

Kindergartner #3: ‘Cus it’s The Rule.

Kindergartner #4 (Whispering, as if the playground is bugged ): We still play sometimes in secret when the teachers are just talking.

I emailed the principal–she says it is just “too dangerous” with so many kids on the playground.

In a year, this school will merge with another into a shiny new building (which looks kind of like a perky prison) with over 700 elementary students. I’m afraid to think about what will classified as too dangerous then. — J.J.

Johnson then wrote another note to report:

UPDATE: Today at recess I learned that the kids are not allowed to play in and/or with snow on the playground. The kids are restricted to the cleared asphalt area of the playground. I also saw two great looking perfect-for-play sticks taken away from children and put in protective custody.

I shudder to think what would happen to a child caught playing tag in the snow while holding a stick. — J.J.

Kids having fun at recess? This must stop!!

Tracking Kids on the School Bus?!

Readers: It seems like in ancient times — that is, pre-iPhone — nervous parents just had to suck it up. Now, they create apps. The latest is an, “I’m on board the school bus!” alert, the brainchild of Manhattan mom who, according to this article, went into a “panic” when her 10-year-old son’s school bus was half an hour late one day in the second week of school.

Now, I understand that not knowing your kid’s whereabouts can be a miserable moment in parenting. But if you’ve been around the block (or your kid has!), you know that at the beginning of the school year the bus drivers haven’t gotten the hang of the route yet. Some of them take the long way home. It’s annoying, but does that mean the kids on the bus are in danger? Or that this new app does anything more than give the worried parent a new GPS’d dot on a map to obsess about on a daily basis?

My worry is that this app will go from novelty to must-have in a matter of years, and once again we will have a new layer of parental supervision that will start to FEEL necessary, though in reality, it isn’t. It’s just a new twist on the current cultural notion that if a parent somehow has his or her eyes on a kid, that kid is magically protected from everything bad. And if the parents’ eyes are NOT on the kid at all times, well, that indicates a bad parent. I still believe you can be a perfectly good parent and not track your kid like a shipment of plutonium (that happens to ride the school bus). — L.

Do we really have to know where our kids are every second of the day?