Reprint: “Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play”

Hi Folks! One of you sent me this wonderful oped from the Sydney Morning Herald. Then I got in touch with its author, Karen Malone, and found out she is an academic studying, among other things, how to make cities more child-friendly. Which is exactly what I’m going to be talking about in Bendigo, Australia early in May. So here’s to serendipity — and kids walking to school. — L.

Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play, by Karen Malone

Picture this. It is 2005, I arrive for the first time in Tokyo. I am making my way across the busy city to attend a meeting when I encounter a small group of kindergarten children walking home from school. They are oblivious to my presence as they busy themselves crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves, straddling low brick kerbs and chatting. There is not a supervising adult in sight, no older siblings. As a parent I feel a sense of foreboding – I worry about their safety.

I recount my experience to a Japanese colleague and exclaim ”there were no adults watching out for them”. He is a little taken back. ”What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” On average, 80 per cent of primary age Japanese children walk to school. In Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40 per cent. Why? What happens in Japan that makes it so different?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves aged eight in a special place and to describe it. Most recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children, out of earshot of parents: ”I had some bushes where I would play and hide with my brothers and sisters and sometimes friends” (Wilma, 43); ”My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies” (Richard, 36); ”We used to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket” (Andrew, 39).

Tim Gill, author and play commentator, would call this parenting style ”benign neglect” and for many of us, growing up in baby boom suburbia, this was our experience. It made us independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors.

I next asked the audience to consider if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no.

The question is, then, are we killing our kids with kindness? Is our desire to protect our children actually making them more vulnerable?

The big issue pervading the psyche of parents around children’s independence in the streets is ”stranger danger” and child abductions. The irony is, when you look at the statistics on abductions, almost all are by family members, and the numbers have been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia is one in four million and their child is at a much greater statistical risk of drowning in the bathtub or being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, they answer like Andrew, 39: ”I want to and I wish we could. I know the chances are slim but I just couldn’t forgive myself.”

So is there a middle ground between ”benign neglect” and ”eternal vigilance”? There is in Japan and Scandinavian countries, where children’s independent mobility is high. While parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated and participated in activities to increase their safety.

In inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools; shopkeepers who are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program; and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS-connected device that hangs around a child’s neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre.

These concrete strategies, while unique to each neighbourhood, are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment to the belief that children being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient in a civil, safe and healthy society.

So while we might criticise the policeman who decides to take it on himself to deliver a child back home, as reported in the Herald recently, it is heartening to know someone is watching over us. It was reassuring when recent results from a historical comparison in suburban Sydney showed children’s independent mobility in the past 10 years has remained stable and in some cases increased, with many parents looking to get children out of the house and back to parks and playgrounds. So it is timely to have these debates, but if we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it’s our role as community members to step up to the plate and let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.

Dr Karen Malone was recently appointed Professor of Education in the School of Education at University of Western Sydney. Dr Malone is also Chair and Founder of the Child Friendly Asia-Pacific network and a member of the UNICEF International Research Advisory Board for Child Friendly Cities.

Australian Police Chide Parents Who Let their Children Walk Outside

Hi Readers! Down in Australia I’m sort of happy to say a tempest is brewing over whether it is up to parents or police to decide when a child is “old enough” to walk around outside. According to this story  on the home page of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Officers told a Hornsby mother it was ”inappropriate” for her 10-year-old daughter to catch a bus unaccompanied, and warned a Manly father whose seven-year-old son walked alone to a local shop that while they would not alert DOCS [Dept. of Community Services], they would file a report.

Really? File a report to say a child was suspiciously…fine? Tell another parent that her  child is doing something “inappropriate” by…being competent?

Are these officers doing anyone an ounce of good? Don’t they realize that if they have nothing to do but warn parents about their perfectly poised offspring,  there probably isn’t a whole lot of crime going on for anyone to worry about?

And of course the bigger issue is, as always: Who decides what is “safe enough” when it comes to our kids? Free-Range Kids would rather not leave it up to   power-drunk, horror-hallucinating, infantilizing  busybodies with badges. – L.

The Tree-House is Gone

Hi Readers. Yup. The one we discussed a couple posts ago has been dismantled. Here’s the story. It was too dangerous, the local council deemed.

Personally, I liked one commenter’s idea that the folks who voted against it should have been required to spend an afternoon in it first. But I guess that didn’t happen. Sigh. –L.

The Not-So-Magic Tree House

Hi Readers: Use this instead of coffee to get your heart pounding on a Monday morning: A tree house that has been delighting children in the Bondi neighborhood of Sydney, Australia, for six years could be torn down soon, says the Sydney Morning Herald:

Made by a builder, the Bondi cubby has attracted complaints ranging from the suggestion that vagrants have moved in, that people come from other neighbourhoods and spoil the quiet of the street, that the structure is unsafe, that the tree harbours spiders, and that children are left to play unsupervised.

Those against the treehouse are mostly concerned on safety grounds. Sylvia Grosslight, who has been in the neighbourhood for about 30 years, said: ”I don’t think it’s safe at all. I don’t know how well the wood has been treated and there are bugs in it.”

Those battling for its rescue are parents of children who find the controversy hard to fathom.

Hard to fathom? Ye gads! It’s so simple: Children should never come into contact with bugs, or spiders, or the natural world, or a tree (see post below), or anything not made out of plastic and screwed into the ground, which itself should be made of plastic and securely affixed to the earth’s crust with no protruding grommets. (Not that I’m quite sure what a grommet is, but it sure sounds right.)

Moreover, no child should be frolicking more than three inches off the ground, or three inches below another child (lest the smaller child be bullied), or more than three inches away from a loving parent or pre-approved caregiver who has undergone a background check and taken babysitting lessons and is at least 25 years old and willing to kill spiders.

As for a tree house — I know we will all start cursing the fact that liability laws will fell it in the end. But does anyone have any great ideas on how to change that? How to stand up for sanity and against the insidious idea that in life there is either perfect safety or untenable risk? In other words, that ANY risk at all is unacceptable?

I LOVE safety. But I think I’d love the tree house, too. And in my mind, they are not polar opposites. How can we get other folks to hold those two ideas at once: That something can be safe enough, even if it’s not PERFECTLY safe? How do we get that to sound sane again? — Lenore

P.S. Here’s an update. The tree house has been granted a temporary stay of execution.

No, this is not the treehouse in Bondi. But it sure is cool! And no photo copyright issues!

Outrage of the Day: Toddler on Dad’s Shoulders “In Danger”

Hi Readers — This is less about a society than gone crazy than something that drives ME crazy: Power in the hands of people without brains.

This particular incident involves a family at a festival in Sydney, Australia. The dad hoisted his not-quite-2-year-old onto his shoulders to get a better look. A guard told him to put the child down — she was in too much danger. After all, WHAT IF the dad got knocked to the ground (as so many parents do at family festivals)? The child would be hurt! Then a gang of guards surrounded the dad to make him comply.

What’s great is that the organizers of the fest and everyone else in a position of authority quickly distanced themselves from the guards’ actions. It was really more of a case of the guards being busybodies than anything else. Busybodies with uniforms and an attitude.

My favorite. — L.

A Nice Note from An Aussie (About Serial Killers)

Hey Readers — This was an extremely nice reaction to my talk at the Sydney Opera House yesterday, so how could I resist posting it? Tomorrow I’ll be at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (free!).  And after that…back to America!

Dear Lenore: I loved what you had to say about how news was once finite, but now it’s an endless loop (first on TV, then in our heads forever after.) We almost have our own personal “Canon of Crime” that we carry about with us in our heads.

For the first time, I let my 6.5 year old son use the Men’s Change Room at the pool this week (without me, obviously!) As he dashed in and the door shut behind him, the very first thing that came into my head was a picture of a girl named Natalie. I taught Natalie briefly back in 1992, in my first year out of Uni as a teacher, and the following year, she was murdered literally as she walked home from school. To be murdered walking home from school (by a ‘serial killer’, no less) must be the rarest-of-the-rare subset of child murders, but it still happened. The details are beyond sickening. And I still see Natalie’s face in my head every time I let my son have a bit of Free-Range Freedom.

After hearing your talk, I finally realised that I am using this horrifying, rare, extreme incident as a measure of risk. Even when my son uses a rest-room alone! This is NOT being ‘careful’ or ‘responsible as a parent’. It’s neurotic! It’s a crime that happened almost 20 years ago, a crime statistically so rare that you’d struggle to find another one like it, at least in Australia. It gives the actions of one nutter even more power, like a wave that goes on and on.

It takes a bucket-load of energy and humour to dispel fear. Thank you. — Fiona

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