A Child Visitor to America Asks: “Where Are All The Kids?”

Hi Readers — This note was originally a comment on the post below this one. Its poignancy hit me particularly hard because today’s New York Times has a piece by Jane Brody — “Communities Learn Good Life Can be a Killer” —  about the effect of sprawl on health, autonomy and, of course,  childhood. I’m not sure how to suddenly re-urbanize vast swaths of suburbia, but I’m glad that city planners are looking into it. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Before moving to my current home in Germany 6 years ago, I lived in a small town (about 5,000 people) in a different part of Germany. It was very Free-Range. Kids of all ages played outside in the smaller streets without adult supervision. The older kids watched out for the younger ones when a car drove by. Kids were always out playing in the neighborhood, either in the streets or at a local playground.

When my son was about 4 or 5, my family (husband, son, me) took a trip to California to visit family. In all of the neighborhoods where we stayed, nobody was on the streets. My son finally commented, “This must must be a really lonely place. Nobody is here.” He was so used to seeing the German streets in his neighborhood alive with kids playing and adults walking, cycling, or running. The empty streets in nice neighborhoods in California really threw him off.

During another CA trip, when my son was 9, he commented that he wouldn’t want to live there because you have to drive everywhere. He likes being able to walk or ride his bike over here and doesn’t really know anything different.

Kudos to Lori for making her town less of a “lonely place.” She is a beacon of hope for the Free-Range movement.  — Sue Biegeleisen

Helloooo? Anyone NOT home?

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

Free Range FAIL

Hi Readers! Ah well — it doesn’t always work out as planned.  Read on:
Dear Free Range Kids:    One of my friends is a stay at home mom and went to a play group where your book was discussed.  One of the moms in the group decided to let her 8-year-old son spread his wings by having him walk a few blocks home from a friend’s house.  It’s a nice, safe neighborhood, and the little boy was making the walk in the middle of the day.
Well the mom went outside on the porch to wait for her son and she spotted him running toward her, looking quite scared!  A car was trailing him.
Apparently the woman in the car was a “concerned” citizen who stopped and asked the boy how old he was and why he was walking alone.  She was worried for his safety, but of course she only ended up frightening the poor kid who was trying out his independence.  God forbid an 8-year-old walk a few blocks in a nice neighborhood in the middle of sunny Saturday!!! — Jennifer

“When I Was a Kid, My Neighbor Was Abducted. How Can I Go Free-Range?”

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I just got:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m generally in agreement with Lenore’s views.  It’s ridiculous to try to protect our children from EVERYTHING out there.  The article about not having a baby on board sign because it could decapitate the baby … fear-mongering at it’s worst!  Gave me a good lol.

My mom and I talk fairly often about this blog.  And there is one argument that she brings up that I don’t know how to combat.  When I was 14 or 15 a girl down the block was kidnapped.  She’s not been found to this day.  She was walking 3 blocks in a safe neighborhood to the local grocery store.  All of us neighborhood kids did the same thing.  She went with a friend.  Sure, it’s a VERY rare scenario, but it happened in my life.  I knew the girl and her friend.  That could have been ME!

So when it comes to things like letting the kids play alone in the park … that’s very scary.  My neighborhood couldn’t BE more typically suburban and safe.  But, how do I work up the nerve to let my daughter do something that feels so dangerous?  I don’t want to be a helicopter mom, but I don’t know how to justify something that in my experience has turned out so disastrously.  Maybe that’s the shift in thinking that I need to make … it’s not what makes me comfortable, but what is best for my daughter.  Because the likelihood of her being kidnapped is very, very low.

BTW:  For those interested, the girl is Michaela Garecht.  Her mom writes a blog here.

To which I replied:

First of all, what a tragedy. It’s impossible to contemplate it without feeling hopeless and disgusted with the world.

But then, as you point out: there is your daughter and her life and childhood to think about, too.

As far as going out and about in the world, there is no reason to start by sending her alone to the park. It would be more fun and more safe for her to go with a friend. I realize the girl in your neighborhood WAS with a friend, but an abduction like that is rarer than rare. So you can take some steps that allow your daughter out and about, but still with someone else, which is very safe.

Secondly, I think most of us feel better when we take action. So take a self defense class with her, or have her take one. Why not? Even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children says the safest kids are the confident ones. There is confidence that comes from being prepared.

Thirdly, I don’t know how to get over the abduction fear, since it happened to someone you know. All I can say is I do know people who have been in car accidents and I still get into a car.  My friend’s boss died slipping in the tub. And, you’ll be happy to hear, I still bathe.

The sad truth — the truth we think we always have control over, but we don’t — is that sometimes tragedy happens. For some reason, we are able to compartmentalize some of our fears. Car accidents haven’t scared Americans off of driving. They say, “Well, when I’m driving, I’m in control.” But as a reader once pointed out so cogently here, if you are killed by a drunk driver, it doesn’t matter how great a driver you are (were!). Things happen. We don’t think about fiery crashes every time we put our kids in the car. We don’t leap to the headlines, and imagine all the sorrow and guilt we’d feel — and we shouldn’t. That would be an obsessive way to live our lives.

But abduction is another story. We feel it’s always a possibility, even if it’s rare, and that therefore we must actively prevent it all the time. And the only way we can think of preventing it is by never letting our kids out of our sight.

The fact is, it is rarer than lightning and we must not give our kids a Rapunzel life. The odds are very much in our favor. Meantime, it is not as if we aren’t making a trade-off, every time we refuse to let our children explore the world, or go about some of their day without us hovering. Childhood is a time to grow up. If someone else is doing all the growing up for the child —  suggesting the games, deciding the teams, watching out for the cars, finding the route home — that adult has sucked all the lessons, and joy, and even frustration and disappointment — out of the experience. Sure, they do it with the best of intentions. But they have outsourced the work, and fun, of childhood.

It is our job to prepare our children as best we can for the world. To teach them, train them, and then, gradually, to let them go. Yes, with some fear in our hearts. That’s the part about being a parent that really bites.

So good luck to you as you deal with this. And good luck to your daughter, too. And keep us posted! — Lenore