“What If?”-ing Seniors the Way We “What If?!?” Kids

Hi Folks! Here’s an excerpt from an essay in The Houston Chronicle by 90 year old Leon Hale. He is pondering a personal “test” — driving his pick up around the downtown loop — to make sure he’s still in fine fettle. He feels good, his eyes are good, his writing is great so — why not? But his friends are less encouraging:

Those who want me to quit the test say, “What if you get rear-ended by an 18-wheeler? What if you had a flat tire going over the Ship Channel Bridge? What if a dog ran out on the freeway and you swerved to miss it and hit another car?”

But they’re not trying very hard. Lots more interesting and horrible stuff could happen.

What if a large bird, such as a buzzard, flew through my windshield and shattered it?

What if a helicopter crashed on the freeway and, of all the vehicles on the Loop, landed on top of my pickup? It could happen.

What if, while I was going around, Houston had an earthquake? We’ve never had an earthquake, so maybe we’re due one.

When I was 10 years old, in my school we had an assignment called current events. The forerunner of show and tell, I think. Each student clipped a news story out of the paper and got up at school and summarized the event.

I had found an item about a meteorite crashing through a barn in Germany, killing a cow. Mrs. Carter, our teacher, said after I gave my little talk, “Just think. Even cows in their barns are not safe.”

Just think: We’ve been imagining worst case scenarios for 80 years, and now it’s a national pastime. We think we are just being smart and protective, when actually we are being incredibly pessimistic and distrusting. We especially do it when it comes to our kids and, apparently, our elders. We underestimate them both. — L

Ooh, an old person! How cute and, by definition, in danger!

HELP NEEDED: How to Calm a Parent Who Fears Danger AND Blame?

Hi Readers! Here’s my situation: When I speak with parents who feel they really have to watch their kids ALL the time, often it’s not just because they fear  that otherwise “something terrible” could happen. It’s also  because they fear that IF something does, THEY will be blamed.

So even if parents are pretty sure their son, say, is ready to walk to school, or scooter on the sidewalk, or play basketball in the park with his friends, they still won’t let him do it, on the off-chance of that double whammy: Disaster + blame — blame they will heap on themselves and blame that others will happily heap, too.

My questions for you (since I hope you know I often rely on you for ideas and inspiration): Is there anything that has helped YOU get over that one-two punch? And is there anything that you have ever used that helped anyone ELSE get over those fears? Any psychological exercises or examples or just surprisingly effective arguments?

I find that my rational reassurances — “The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor!” — run straight into the wall of, “Yes, but it only takes ONE TIME.” Or, worse, “It only takes ONE SECOND…” (That “one second” thing kills me. It’s like EVERY SECOND is going to be their kid’s last.)

So I’d love to hear some more ideas of how to talk folks down from constant terror, because it sweeping the globe. (And as for WHY it is sweeping the globe, I’m not even getting into how mad I am at certain cable shows that have recently begged parents to, “Never take your eyes off your kids!” Because my seething goes without saying.)  — Lenore

“Anything Could Happen!”

Hi Readers! To get the blood flowing this Monday morn:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I got a random issue of a parenting magazine in the mail. I don’t subscribe, but I guess it’s a teaser issue to try to drag me in.  There’s a Q&A feature in which a mother asked if it was okay to leave her 2.5-year-old in the living room watching a movie while she put her infant down for the night, which involves nursing the baby to sleep in another room.  (From my experience, this is usually a 15 minute task, 30 minutes, max.)

The response from the “expert” (with some sort of PhD behind her name)?  NO!!!, because Something Could Happen.  The advice?  Put your 2.5-y-o in a “contained” place and don’t nurse the baby to sleep but put him or her down more quickly, if you must be apart at all.  Even better, the implication is, would be to nevereverever let your 2.5 year old out of your sight, not even for a MINUTE.

Yeah, right.  As I was reading that, my 2-year-old was in the living room alone, using a movie to wind down for the night after all the stimulation of grandparents.  I bet that “expert” would call CPS is she saw the neighborhood gang roaming around the semi-country acre lots on our cul-de-sac –“unsupervised,” sometimes.  There is a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, two 6-year-olds, a moderately to severely mentally retarded 4-year-old, and the aforementioned 2-year-old, all playing happily while parents do no more than glance out the window periodically and keep an ear out.  Heck, she’d lead the lynch mob herself if she knew that we let the older four wander in the woods behind the neighborhood by themselves!

My 2-year-old HAS been injured enough to take note–twice, in fact.  And both times, she was being directly supervised by an adult in the same room with her.  Once, she was within arm’s reach and just tripped, fell, and put her tooth through her lip.  The other time, she nose-dived through a screen to an open window that was 10 inches from the ground and scraped the bridge of her nose on the brick.  There was no way to be fast enough.  Accidents happen.

But the worst she’s suffered when outside with the boys is a skinned knee because they have been raised to be responsible–as I am raising her.

It’s Pornographer Barbie!

Hi Readers — Thanks to all of you who sent in the wackiest “What If?” worry of the weekend: News reports that the new Video Barbie — a Barbie with a built-in video camera — “could” be used by child pornographers.  The key word for us is “could.” The key words for the media? “Barbie,” “child porn,”  “danger,” and, of course, “parents.” The whole thing was just a big Christmas gift for the news, which jumped all over the story.

What happened was this: The FBI, which clearly has too much time on its hands, sent out a warning to law enforcement officials saying that though there have been NO reports of Video Barbie being used to make kiddie porn, it could be, right? WHAT IF it was? Then we’d all be sorry!

The FBI warning was accidentally also sent to the press, which is always thrilled to remind parents that creeps are out to violate their kids. And lickety split, Barbie was added to the growing list of newly terrifying, child-threatening items. (A list, by the way, that also now includes Horsie-on-a-Stick.)

Anyway, I’d feel bad for Mattel, except the Video Barbies seem to be flying off the shelves. (The perfect gift for that child pornographer on your list!)

Now, coincidentally, I wrote a column about Video Barbie when it — she? –was introduced a few months ago and I had a different take on the toy.  I was psyched that mastering technology (movie making, editing, sharing) was now a normal part of girlhood, same as playing house and dressing Barbie in a gown.

So there we have it: Two different takes on a toy, one celebratory, one speculative, sick and salacious. I think you know which one sells.

A Surprising Trampoline Tumble

Hi Readers: From today’s mailbox, an intriguing little piece. – L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: I have two boys — 6 and 8 — and am learning about letting go. Can I talk about a “What If?”  a little in reverse?
I took the stupid netting off my kids trampoline because I thought it was making them complacent about how to jump safely. The net was always there to stop them from learning.
A month ago my boys and a friend were all jumping and the friend decided he would push my older son off the trampoline and guess what? He broke his arm. And you know what? That has been the best experience for him.
He has learned to write with his other hand( better than his previous script). He has played with Lego with his one good hand and has never complained. His resilience has been remarkable and he was not that resilient before. It’s all because, “What if I took the netting off and they had to learn how to jump safely rather than rely on the nets to keep them in?”
I am so very proud of how he has handled this whole situation. — Caroline

Needed: Your Encounters with “What If?” Thinking

Hi Readers — One of the biggest frustrations in Free-Ranging is dealing with other people’s “What If?” fears. Why? Because they can never be answered! If a parent starts worrying about, “What if X, Y or Z happens while my child is doing…” anything, there is no way to say, “Don’t worry, it won’t.” Because, of course,  something bad always COULD possibly happen.

“What if??” doesn’t take into account probability, or even reality. It just builds big, bright, horrible possibilities and projects them, Power Point-like, into the conversation: “Ha! You tell me not to worry, but LOOK at this! This COULD happen! What if it DOES? Then what, huh? You’re going to say you’re sorry? THAT’S NOT GOING TO MAKE THINGS ANY BETTER! I simply will NOT allow this, that or the other to (possibly) happen to my child!”

And pretty soon there’s no sleepover (because what if it’s an orgy?) and no field trip (because what if the bus flips over?) and no time to play, unsupervised, with friends (because what if he breaks his arm? What if they bully him? What if he’s thirsty and he forgot his water bottle?).

I’m trying to come up with great examples for my (potential next) book because WHAT IF I don’t? Yiiiikes!

I’d like stories of other folks’ “What If?”s and your own “What If?”-ing, too: A time you worried about something, and managed to put those fears aside, and what happened next.

So I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and now let’s rock this pessimistic, paranoid culture to its core! — Lenore

How Do You Change a Lily-Livered School?

Hi Readers — Here’s another plea from a Free-Ranger trapped in a helicoptering vise. Do you have any suggestions that have worked at your school? Please share them! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Something terrible has happened at our school.

I wrote to you a while ago about how wonderfully free our village kids are.  Things are changing….. and not for the better.

My children are 7 and 9.  I live 1 mile from school, and our route takes us through a nature reserve, so no traffic and no road crossings necessary.
I have been taking baby steps towards letting my children walk to/from school.  I started by walking the children to school and then I started leaving the children at the school boundary approximately 50 meters from the school gates, they then walked over the boundary line by themselves.

That’s as far as I got…. they walked 50 meters unattanded (but I watched them).

I have received a letter from the school explaining that children have to be taken to and picked up from the school gate. I challenged the school on this rule, and asked them why.  They said, “It’s not worth the risk, SOMETHING TERRIBLE COULD HAPPEN.”  Though they would not spell out what that something terrible could be, and neither has anything ever happened before.

The head master also indicated to me that other parents had been reported to social services for allowing their children to walk to school by themselves.

Please note that the majority of the children live within a mile of the school, and we really do live in quite a safe village.

What can I do? Are they really allowed to dictate to me how my children get to and from school? — Rachel

P.S. I have heard that this has nothing to do with insurance!

Why “Worst-Case Thinking” Gets It Wrong

Dear Readers — Oh my god, this is a BRILLIANT essay by security expert Bruce Schneier. He’s a guy who thinks a lot about terrorism, but his words will make sense to all of us who are concerned with the difference between real danger (which we’d like to guard against) and “worst-case thinking,” which over-reacts to unlikely scenarios. Listen to this Schneier-ism:

There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability…”

Just like people who assume if their kid goes out to play, she MAY be kidnapped, so she probably WILL be kidnapped, so why take that awful risk? That’s the kind of worst-case thinking that leads folks to believes they can never let their (soon to be preyed upon) kids out of their sight. And listen to this:

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

So true! The “cost” of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in. In other words: “Why risk my sweet child’s safety?” is never countered by, “What does my child GAIN by walking to school, and playing outside, and  becoming street-smart and self-reliant,” etc. etc. And then there’s this!

Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planetis bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.

And that’s the only point I disagree on. Because if a fear would make a good television plot, it works, too.

Finally, regarding our inflated sense of doom, regarding our kids (and everything else):

…worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don’t know — and what we can imagine.

And then he quotes the venerable Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting (a seminal book in my house):

“Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, the government and institutions should organize their life. It institutionalizes insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularizing the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats.”

Thank you to so many readers who sent this in. The essay really puts everything in focus: When we jump to the worst case scenario AND assume that because we can PICTURE it, that’s proof enough it could happen,  we are living in a nightmare.

And thank you to Bruce Schneier for helping to wake us up. — Lenore

What if you leave your child at home while you get milk and a bomber comes by?

Cool, Smart, Free-Range Idea from a Reader

Hi Folks! In response to the blog post below this one — the one about the kid getting lost on her way home and miraculously NOT being abducted — a reader named Davonia wrote this note. It’s so helpful and straightforward.  Voila:


by Davonia

The best way I can think of to counter this is to play the what-if game with your children. We do this all the time at dinner.

What if you miss the bus in the morning: what do you do? Walk back to the house, use key and call Mom or Dad.

What if you miss the bus in the afternoon?  (Return to school; call Mom or Dad. If school is closed, walk to library or Walgreens; call Mom or Dad. Walk to friends’ house close to school; call Mom or Dad)

What if you are hungry on Sat morning before Mom and Dad get up? (make toast w/ jelly or eat fruit)

What if you get lost; what do you do? (Ask a store cashier to call mom’s cell # which is on a piece of paper in backpack)

What if you forget your key; what do you do? (Open front door and sit on steps; wait for parents to get home- usually 20 mins) If it gets dark, go to a neighbor’s house and explain; call Mom or Dad)

What if (god-forbid) someone tries to  put you in their car and abduct you? (Scream “You’re not my parent” and “Don’t abduct me”. Run to nearest house in the opposite direction that the car is facing- so they would have to turn it around- and knock on the door. Explain to neighbor what is happening. Ask to call Mom or Dad)

Thanks for this, Davonia! A little preparation goes a long way toward making kids confident, independent and Free-Range. (Because, contrary to popular belief, we don’t just throw them outside and hope that somehow, someday they come back.) — Lenore

OK, Now: When Is BOWLING Perfectly Safe? (Hint: Never.)

Yes, Readers: That was the conclusion over in less-than-jolly, indeed, downright macabre England. According to this article, a  group of safety experts was assigned to assess the sport’s dangers:

After two years and £250,000, they found that ten-pin bowling alleys up and down the country could be a ‘very dangerous’ environment for families.

They concluded that it was too easy for children or teenagers to run down lanes and get trapped in machinery that sets up the pins – even though there was no record of any such accident having happened.

I love this study,  not just for its conclusion, but for its classic “what if?” reasoning. And by the way, “what if?” kids playing jacks start eating them? And “what if” kids playing baseball start hitting each other over the head with the bats? And “what if” all the runners in a race decide to tie their shoelaces together at the starting line? They’ll fall down and possibly suffer life-threatening brain injuries!

Start thinking “what if?” and absolutely no activity is safe — not even blogging! Because “what if,” using my chin, I slam this laptop shut on my wrists? Yikes! I’m signing off — Lenore