A Win for a Tree House!

Hi Readers! Here’s a nice story: Turns out an Iraqi war vet who made his sons (age 9 and 11) a tree house does not have to tear it down! How do you like that? Well, actually, he DOES have to tear it down in five years…but at least it has a half-decade reprieve, which is apparently the most we can hope for in this day and age. The sweet little structure violates some obscure zoning law and a neighbor (gotta love ’em!) complained. Anyway, you can read the story here. – L. 

School Inspectors Say: Trees Too Dangerous!

Hi Readers — This is a column I wrote for Creators, my syndicate. (Feel free to ask your local paper to carry me every week!) Anyway, I wanted to make sure you saw this one, so here it is. Happy weekend! — L.


For almost a half-century, kids at the farm-based Moorestown Children’s School in New Jersey have spent a lot of their time stomping in the mud, running through the meadow and visiting the barn, blissfully oblivious to the danger in their midst.


Oh, the child care inspectors don’t use that term. They call it “overgrown vegetation” — the tree branches that dip down to the ground, weeping willow-style. These must be chopped off — every last branch, until inspectors can see 7 feet of bare trunk on every tree — or the school will be cited for safety violations.

“But they play with the trees!” school director Sue Maloney recalls telling the inspection crew. The children “touch the trees! They shake the leaves. It’s what they do.”

Not anymore. Not if she wants to keep her license. This is the story of what happens when two different ideas of childhood collide.

The Moorestown school, which was started by Maloney’s mom, does not look like a typical child care center, Maloney confesses. “We believe in clutter. Leaves, twigs, pine cones, stuff, projects, papier-mâché, things that you don’t put away at the end of an hour” — that’s what the indoor space is filled with. And a cat. More about her later.

Outside, even as suburbia encroaches, the school’s 11 acres remain rural. There’s another cat, and all those trees. Years ago, there was a stream, too, but that has since been fenced off for safety reasons. There were also several fat logs cut into stumps. Kids could place them in a circle for story time or line them up and hop from stump to stump.

But, by regulation, any “play equipment” must be permanently affixed to the ground over safety surfacing. And because the kids played with the logs, these technically were “play equipment,” so now they’re gone, too. Maloney didn’t buck the system. The school opened in 1981 and was never in danger of closing. Till now.

The problem started last year when an inspector visited the school and smelled something foul. This turned out to be an egg a boy had stuffed into his boot for safekeeping (and forgotten!). It made a bad impression on the inspector, who returned with more inspectors, who in turn found more things objectionable.

The 10-year-old tabby sleeping in a basket, for instance. From now on, she had to be leashed or caged or evicted. Then there’s the fact that some of the 15 students, ages infant to 8, were padding around inside in stocking feet. By law, they are required to wear shoes. And there were some other concerns Maloney was happy to fix: a patch of uneven surface on the playground, some mildew in a storage building. Finally, as it said on the Dec. 20 “Inspection/Violation” report, the center had to “cut back low-hanging tree branches.”

That’s where Maloney drew the line. She called me to explain why. “This is a country environment! I grew up here. Honestly, that’s what I wrestle with: Do we even want to remain a child care center if we have to eliminate all the parts we love?” Do away with the cat, the stream, the logs, the bare feet and the branches — what’s left?

Almost absolute safety.

And almost nothing else. — Lenore

Caution! Tree ahead!

If A Tree Falls…

Hi Readers — Last week I wrote a piece on ParentDish about the tragedy that happened here in New York: A mom was holding her 6-month-old, posing for her husband to take a photo just outside the Central Park Zoo, when a tree branch fell killing the baby and seriously injuring the mom.


My piece, however, dwelt not on the tragedy nor the sadness, but on the fact that the father — understandably beside himself with grief — is preparing a lawsuit against the city. This, even though the branch was leafy and seemingly healthy, and the tree had been pruned in March and found sound.

A lot of readers jumped on me for being cold and callous for saying,  I guess starkly, that sometimes we forget that fate exists. Fate is fickle, cruel — well, actually, it doesn’t have any feelings at all. It’s just a word that tries to explain  that terrible things sometimes happen and no human is to blame. People hate hearing this, or at any rate aren’t used to it, and they find it more upsetting than finger-pointing. Or maybe I just put it all badly, and the readers thought I didn’t feel anything for the parents.

Anyway, there were two responses that I really appreciated that I am reprinting here. First, from a guy named Rob C:

….The point of Lenore’s article wasn’t, “Aww, yer babby was killed, suck it up”, it was that sometimes horrible things do happen, but these horrible things are not necessarily anyone’s fault.

How do you propose to prevent a terrible accident like this happening again? Fence off all the damn trees? Then wait for somebody to sue the city when they’re injured climbing a fence to go sit under a tree?”

And from Gever Tulley, author of the book,  50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do):

Topic #19 in Fifty Dangerous Things is “Stand on the Roof”, which encourages parents to help their kids get up on the roof of their house and have a look around. A reporter recently asked me “What do you say to the parent whose child fall off of the roof and dies?” – this is the trump card of the narrow-minded. It is the same end-move in the game of escalation that happens when talking to administrators about letting children ride bikes to school.

The truth is that there are more than 81 million children living in the United States at any given moment, and chance plays a part in their lives. Someone in California will get bitten by a shark, someone will get hit by a piece of debris that falls off of an airplane, someone will be struck by lightning – for any given individual, the chances are infinitesimal, but when you multiply even the tiniest number by 81 million and again by 12-14 hours of activity, the chance that someone, somewhere, will meet an untimely end in a seemingly random manner becomes non-zero. As a physicist once told me, everything that can happen, will happen, eventually.

My heart goes out the parents of the child killed by the falling branch, but if they had been walking in a National Park, or hanging out in their grandparents’ back yard would we think of the “blame” equation differently?

That’s it. Just trying to talk about a tough topic — fate — and having a hard time. — Lenore

When are we ever completely safe?

Lady Helps Boy Down from Tree, School Accuses Her of “Trespassing”

Dear Readers: This one just proves what monkeys we become when we refuse to use our brains (or tails). A 5-year-old boy in England climbed up a tree at the end of recess. Fine. But rather than helping — or even ordering — him down, the teachers followed their “health and safety” guidelines…and left him there. Their rules apparently say they are supposed to  “observe from a distance” (lest they distract the child) rather than actually DO anything.

Well they observed from such a distance that it wasn’t until about 45 minutes later that some lady passing by saw the boy, still up the tree, and helped him down. Then she walked him back into school whereupon she was reported to the police for trespassing.

As a school official put it, “The safety of our pupils is our top priority and we should like to make it clear that this child was being observed at all times during this very short incident…. To protect children we cannot assume that people who enter the school grounds without permission have innocent intentions and must act accordingly.”

Yes, let’s not judge their intentions by the fact that they are showing up WITH a child, rather than running off with one.The “trespasser” herself put it best: “I am a mother myself and I find it a bit ridiculous that the school’s policy is to leave a child up a tree.”

As you know, Free-Range is all for kids climbing trees. It also very unlikely that the boy was in danger (as the Samaritan worried) of being “snatched.” Nonetheless, we are all for kids coming down from trees when it’s time for school to begin again. To go by “rules and regulations” rather than common sense when a kid is stuck up a tree makes as much sense as leaving a family in a burning building because the sign on the door says, “Authorized Personnel Only.”

Actually, what this whole incident comes down to, as so much Free-Ranging does, is this: When we rigidly adhere to oppressive, catch-all rules — rules that are sometimes only in place for legal reasons, or “cover your rear” reasons — we lose the great thing that makes us human: our ability to think and reason and do what makes sense.

It’s enough to make you climb a tree. — Lenore

The root of the problem.

Do We Really Have To Worry About Kids Impaling Themselves on Batman Dolls?

That, my friends, is the question I ask today in my alternate life on ParentDish.com. I am really getting sick of all the warnings about dangerous toys.

On a very related note: Today there was a report about all the hideous dangers of holiday  ornaments. I agree: You probably don’t want to put a hand-blown crystal ball from Bavaria in the crib next to the toy hammer.  But please. The report  mentions 76 Xmas-occasioned hospital visits over the course of 13 years, or about 7 a year.

Maybe while we’re at it we should start issuing  warnings about holidays requiring dress shoes, because of the danger of tripping over untied laces. Or holidays where the family gathers together in a single room,  as overcrowding on the couch could cause someone to slide off.  And let’s not forget the very real dangers of candy canes!

There must be some very real dangers of candy canes, right? — Lenore

Boy Ticketed for Climbing a Tree — But This is NOT Our “Outrage of the Week”

So here’s the story, as reported in The Daily Mail: A 9-year-old boy from Germany visits his five cousins in England. They go to a park, the boy climbs a tree, a neighbor complains that the kids are being rowdy, the tree-climber gets a ticket.

It’s crazy to ticket a boy for climing a tree. But I have to say, while I would normally make this an “Outrage of the Week!” the boy’s dad  blew it for me by saying that now his son will be too scared to come back to England.

The whole problem with the world today (since you asked) is seen here twice. What is it? OVER-REACTING! The police over-reacted to a boy in a tree by giving him a ticket, for gosh sakes. But the dad is over-reacting, too, as if this one weird incident is going to traumatize his son for life. Let’s give a little credit to human resiliency, shall we? This will be a strange memory and possibly, in time,  a treasured family story. It’s not a plane crash.


Remembering that kids are resilient is KEY to raising a Free-Range Kid. If every sad, scary, or just plain screwed up event is seen as permanently scarring — or cause for a law suit — there’s no way we could let children do anything on their own. We’d have to HELICOPTER around, making sure everything is perfectly fine, all the time.

The world is not perfectly fine. We are babies, and we treat our kids like babies, when we insist it has to be. For the dad and the policeman I have one suggestion: 

Go climb a tree! — Lenore