A Free-Range Soul (So to Speak)

Hi Folks! I loved this response to the post a few days ago about strangers helping out with tantruming toddlers! This comes from reader Kristi Blue. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: We were stationed in Germany when I gave birth to my twins in 2002.  I am twin, whose mother is a twin, whose grandmother is a twin and whose great grandmother was a twin.  Five straight generations of twins, and from the moment we found out we were having twins, all I could think about was being able to fly home to my great grandmother and place those precious things in her arms.

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Two weeks after they were born we received the call that she wasn’t doing well, and that if we were coming, it needed to be now.  My husband was training so unable to accompany us.  I boarded a trans-Atlantic flight with two nursing newborns and a heavy heart.  The kids both started crying at the same time and as I was fumbling, trying to comfort two infants in the limited space of coach, I see a pair of hands reach over the seat, take one of my babies, and proceed to walk up and down the aisle singing to her as I feed her sister.  It wasn’t until the third lap of coach that I got a good look at the stranger who had my baby.  He was the oddest little man wearing a wide lapeled suit coat, boots with heels and a pompadour, while singing “You Are My Sunshine.”  To this day, my girls still love to hear the story about the time James Brown sang them lullabies! – K.B.

A Toddler Meltdown on the Plane — And Free-Range Help

Hi Readers! Often I post Free-Range outrages. Sometimes, this gets depressing. So here’s a Free-Range success story. Enjoy! L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am the mother of two very small children. My daughter is almost two and my son is three months old. I consider myself to be a Free-Range parent, at least in philosophy.  Though the freedom and responsibility my husband and I can give our kids at this age isn’t that much, it’s growing by the day.  But I recently had an experience that gave me another perspective on the Free-Range philosophy.

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I was traveling solo with my kids while my husband traveled for work. The plan was to have my daughter to sit in a seat by herself and to hold my son in my lap. Emphasis on “plan.”  When we got on the plane, my daughter knew exactly what to do. She walked a few steps ahead of me, carrying her book bag, arriving at our row. However, when the time came for her to sit in the seat next to me (instead of on my lap) she proceeded to flip out.

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She threw herself on the floor. She screamed. She exhibited every single behavior that a parent of a toddler dreads. I could feel people glaring at me. I was convinced that I would be thrown off the plane, because I could not get her to sit in the seat on her own.

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I was on the verge of tears when I heard a voice behind me asking if I needed help. The woman who asked was a complete stranger, but offered to sit with my daughter at least until she calmed down. Then she reached her arms out to my daughter, who leaped at the chance to tell this woman about her family, read some books, and share a couple of snacks. The flight was a about two hours long, and my daughter sat on the lap of this total stranger for the entirety. She was safe, content and quiet.

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Being a parent can be incredibly isolating precisely at a time when we need support the most. Being a parent who is afraid of the world and all the people in it (except for those who have had a background check) makes us even more isolated. The gift that I received on that plane when a stranger offered to sit with my daughter on her lap was the gift of not being alone. It was a simple moment, but it was one that I don’t think happens enough. Free-Range Kids means that parents can trust the rest of the world with their children.

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Thank you for the work that you do. You have encouraged me, as a parent of very small children, to realize that I am not alone. Sincerely, Kira Dault

The Stranger Danger Is…Me!

Hi Readers! This essay by Jennifer Carsen originally ran at her blog,  Mommy Tries, which bills itself as “Bringing you good-enough parenting since 2010.” – L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I’ve been wondering, “WWLD” (What Would Lenore Do?)

My daughter Lorelei was on the swings at the playground today, loving it as usual, when a little girl and her dad ambled over to the swing next to us. It’s hard for me to accurately calculate the ages of other people’s children, as nearly all of them are smaller than Lorelei – including a few incoming UNH freshmen – but she must have been 3 or 4 or so.

“Hi!” I said brightly, as her daddy was getting her settled.

“Hi,” she replied – and then got a worried look on her face.

“Daddy, is that a stranger?” she asked, pointing an accusing finger at me.

He looked me over, menacing in my turtleneck and mom jeans, and said (with a slight smile at me over his daughter’s head), “Yes.”

“She talked to me,” the little girl said, her tiny voice dripping with equal parts horror and disgust.

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” he said, laughing. “I’m right here.”

I understand that teaching our children to be cautious is a good thing, but there’s got to be some better way to distinguish “stranger” (mommy at the next swing; merely a friend we have not yet met) from “STRANGER” (creepy guy who separates you from the rest of the herd with promises of puppies and van candy).

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Me (Lenore): Agreed! And the thing is, even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children — the folks who put the missing kids’ photos on the milk cartons — now formally distances itself from the idea of “stranger danger” — because it’s useless.
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First of all, the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they KNOW. So it’s like warning kids about the dangers of spoons, when — if we’re talking cutlery — the bigger danger is probably meat cleavers, right?
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Secondly, when we warn kids never to talk to strangers, we are taking away a safety net for them. If they are ever in trouble, it is GOOD to ask for help from anyone, fast! As the late, great Mary Duval once said, “I think we can trust random people not to suddenly become child molestors just because they happen to see a child.”
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And thirdly, if we tell kids that everyone unfamiliar to them is a potential child killer, we are effectively stunting any street smarts they might otherwise be cultivating. If you automatically distrust EVERYONE, how can you develop that tingling sixth sense of, “Something feels a little weird”? EVERYTHING feels a little weird — you’re surrounded by killers!
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So here’s “What “Lenore Would Do”:  Teach kids you can TALK to strangers, you just cannot go OFF with strangers. That way, they get to see the world for what it is — basically good — with a dollop of caution, which is also basically good.
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And as for that dad, who is teaching his daughter she’s safe as long as SuperDaddy is around, but otherwise she’s a delectable hors  d’oeuvre for the crowd of slavering wolves at the swingset,  maybe it’s time to put HIM on a milk carton with the caption: “Have you seen this well-meaning but clueless dude?” — L

Yikes! I see some strangers at this playground. Run, kids! Run!

“Today I Trusted a Complete Stranger with my Child”

Hi Readers! Here’s a lovely story from reader Deborah Halliday Mills. Remember it when you find yourself between a rock, a hard place, a child and a stranger! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I have always prided myself on being a common sense parent.  I don’t follow “experts,”or the latest trends or pop culture.  I believe strongly in community and that the vast majority of people are good, kindhearted and helpful.  My husband and I do what feels right in our hearts and minds.  And sometimes that means making split second decisions when it comes to safety.

Today I had to make such a decision.  My youngest of three boys, age 4, was home from preschool with a 102 fever.  I desperately needed to get to the grocery store to pick up a couple of items.  He was feeling okay for the moment, so we hopped in the car and headed out to the store.  My 15-month-old dog came along for the ride as well as she often does.

My son and I were in and out of the store in minutes while the dog waited in the minivan.  My son was hanging on to the side of the grocery cart when we got to the car.  I opened up the back of the van and within a second the dog  darted out and started running around the parking lot.  She was excited and refused to come to me, and then ran into the road.  So my dog was running in traffic and my son was standing by the car.  I was beside myself with  panic.  A woman pulled up in her car and asked if she could help.  She said she would stay by my son while I ran after the dog.  I made a split-second decision and said yes and ran after my dog.  Bringing along a sick 4-year-old while chasing a dog in traffic would have been a stupid thing to do.  So I left my son with a stranger, with my purse, phone, wallet and keys in her full view, and took off running.

My dog ran in and out of traffic and I was screaming and crying.  Numerous people stopped to help.  One man stopped traffic and ran after her with me.  It took us at least 15 minutes to catch her, running across roads, around drainage ditches, all the time me crying hysterically.  She finally conked out and laid down for a tummy rub.  (Typical dog!)  The man offered to carry her to my car for me because I was so upset.  But I declined, and mentioned that a stranger was watching my 4 -year-old son.  He smiled and said he had two sons too.  Please take care, he said,  and have a good weekend.  I thanked him profusely.

I carried my dog back to the car (a good distance away).  My son was sitting in the back of the van with this lovely “stranger,” talking about ducks and geese.  He was as happy as could be.  The “stranger” asked if I was okay, did I know where my keys were?  Was I okay to drive home?  Then she gave me a huge hug and told me what a wonderful son I had.  I couldn’t thank her enough.  I couldn’t thank both “strangers” enough for the time and efforts they had given me, my son and my dog.

I can honestly say that I not once feared for my son. We’ve never taught our kids to be afraid of people.  Instead we teach them to be kind and respectful and to use their own commonsense –- yes, even a 4-year-old.  That’s why he didn’t panic when I ran off and had a fun time talking. I’m sure there are plenty of parents that would be aghast at my decision, but I knew, thanks to you and my own common sense, that my son would be fine.

I still haven’t stopped shaking from the stress my dog caused, but I am so thankful for the strangers in my community that saw a woman in need and thought nothing of offering help.

Sincerely, Deborah, a proud, Free-Range Parent

Most strangers LIKE to help kids.

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

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.

Disgusting

Hi Readers — Here’s today’s hint of the coming apocalypse. This sign:

And here’s the note I got, alerting us all to it:

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I was visiting a dear friend yesterday in a nearby town and drove by this sign.  I was so shocked by it I had to stop and take a picture.  I wondered what on earth it could be about – perhaps the school district is getting rid of background checks for employees?  Perhaps volunteers don’t need background checks and fingerprinting?  Perhaps the door to the school would be left open and unlocked for the day?  I figured none of that would be true.

Turns out the story is that the school district is considering privatizing the custodial staff in order to save money.  Sure this can be disruptive and hard to accept and distressing for those involved, but calling future employees “Strangers” and insinuating that somehow they are evil?  Come on.  I’m sure that the people they would employ would have all the necessary back ground checks,  etc.,  that one needs to work in a school.  Perhaps the new employees would even be residents of the school community!  Does that make them dangerous “Strangers”?

Talk about fear mongering.  I think this is a disgusting campaign, no matter what the reasoning behind it. — Deborah Halliday Mills

Me too! Not only because EVERYONE is a stranger until we get to know them, but also because this is automatically equating stranger with danger. As if it’s official: Absolutely anyone you don’t know is out to get your kids. Ugh. — L

Guest Post: Stranger Danger Stupidity

Hi Readers — I think a lot of us have been in “stranger danger” situations like the one described by Renee Jacobson, a teacher for 20 years, below. Her blog is called “Lessons from Teachers and Twits,” and it’s a twit that she learned this particular lesson from. — Lenore

HEY LADY: I AM NOT A CREEP! by Renée Schuls-Jacobson

I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than three stood in her bright red cart while her mother, standing an arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.

“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”

“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”

Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness. “We don’t talk to strangers!” she shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear, but for everyone in the entire department. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. Then she pushed the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.

Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.

Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother includes teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people.

At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service and calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother and ask her – this stranger – to call me.

He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of them into practice. I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings.

So, really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly unequipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous.

In short: That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. And as far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude. –Renee Jacobson

Guest Post: Trust A Stranger at the Park?

Hi Readers! I’m in Minnesota to give a Free-Range talk. Always happy to spread the word because then things like this — see below — start happening! This post originally appeared at the blog Last American Childhood. by Rachel Federman. Enjoy!

A Free-Range Exeperiment by Rachel Federman
In the playground this morning I tried to apply a bit of Free-Range parenting to my usual routine (albeit with someone else’s kids). A lady with a newborn was trying to round up her boys (3 and 4) so she could put her laundry from the washer to the dryer in a nearby building. They of course did not want to leave even though they could “come right back” (which in kid-speak translates to Don Corleone saying, “Someday, and that day may never come”).
I stuttered, “You can leave them with me,” which was maybe a bit forward, given we hadn’t met or even engaged in any of the usual playground banter. She went silent for a moment, probably not thinking, “Hey, what if this lady playing in the sandbox with her toddler changes her plan for the day and abducts Max and Jackson?” But more like — “Can she handle all three?” (Especially when most days it’s clear to even the most casual observer I can barely handle one.)
She asked her kids if they wanted to stay. They did. She told them, “Rachel’s in charge.” The 3 boys seemed to intuitively understand they should now play together and stay local. They chased each other around the monkey bars and returned again and again to the water. My main concern was that one of them might run out of the gate while I had to be on the other side of the playground catching Wally before he dashed in front of high-speed swings. Nothing close to that even happened, in fact hardly anyone was even on the swings.
When she came back the mom of 3 said she worried only that someone might get hurt and then I’d have to attend to that on top of the others. I guess you could say it was lucky, but it was all so easy. So natural. The odds were stacked pretty high for us. How ridiculous to have to shuttle three kids back and forth from the playground to inside and back just to move a few pairs of shorts from a washer to a dryer. I did notice a few quizzical looks from other parents. The kids though couldn’t have been happier. When the second adult returned to her post, they scattered out again. Had it not been for the free-range experiment, I wonder if they would have played together at all. – R.F.
Lenore here: Can I repeat that one of the basic ideas of Free-Range is that community — connecting — makes us all safer and happier? And that when we  go to that dark place where the fearmongers want us to go — “Remember! Everyone is a a potential predator!” — we let terror govern our days instead of common sense. And joy.

A Normal Day at the Park (It Can Be Done!)

Hi Readers! Here’s a nice note about a normal day — so normal it deserves comment. THIS is the kind of thing I’m talking about with,  “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” Fun, sociability, community. NO BIG DEAL! Read on!

Dear Free-Range Kids: The past few times I’ve written to you, I’ve shared stories about anti-Free-Range experiences that I’ve had: the background checks now being done on visitors to the school my daughter will eventually attend, the mom at Target who seemed to want her daughter superglued to her side, instead of being three feet away from her with me standing between them…you know, the typical depressing stuff that makes Free-Range Kids sound so appealing to those of us who want to raise normal human beings, rather than “teacups.”

Fortunately, this is not going to be one of those stories. :o)

I took my two-and-a-half year old daughter to the park today. We sat at a dirty, splintery and very uncomfortable picnic table to eat our lunch, and didn’t care too much that there was really nowhere to wash our hands. I let her climb the curved metal ladder on the back of the slide–something I would have been too scared to do, even when I was much older than she is–and the jungle gym. I let her check out the creek up close, to see if she could spot the frog we spooked when we first arrived.  We talked to a dad and his two young sons, who were also playing there, even though they were all complete strangers.

But the best part–speaking in terms of Free-Range Kids, at least–was when I saw three UNATTENDED children (I’d guess their ages might have ranged from about 8 to 11 years old) come riding down the big hill on their bikes. The oldest one wiped out on the gravel path and scraped up her elbow, but she barely even batted an eye about it. No screaming as though she was about to die from her very minor injury. When she decided a little while later that ignoring it probably wasn’t the best thing to do, she walked right up to me and asked me if I had a Band-Aid. Ridiculously excited that she wasn’t afraid to approach me–a stranger!–I told her yes, I had a first aid kit in my car, if she wanted to follow us over so I could get it. She did, and I cleaned up her wound, stuck a bandage over it and then told her to wash it more thoroughly when she got home, before sending her back to her brother and sister.

And no one even reported me for “luring” a young girl back to my vehicle. Score one for the Free-Rangers! :o) — Kim