The REAL Miracle on 34th Street

Hi Folks! Just got this note about what happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. As a kid, I even had the novelization of it! (The movie was so popular, someone wrote it up as a book.) Who knows? Maybe watching it made me Free-Range! Anyway, this little analysis comes to us from Elizabeth, a 29-year-old social worker in Boston. Enjoy! L.

A mom and two potential pervs?

Dear Free-Range Kids: This Thanksgiving, I watched Miracle on 34th St. with my family, which is a tradition for us.  I had never noticed how different the attitudes towards men being around children were in this movie compared to today.
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At the beginning of the movie, the mother meets her later love interest after finding out that this stranger has been babysitting her daughter Susan, age 6,  for the day.  Instead of being horrified and calling the cops and a child psychologist to evaluate her for abuse, the mother is very thankful to the kind man for watching her child.  The only thing that bothers her is that he took Susan to see Santa Claus.
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Later in the movie, Kris Kringle stays at the mother’s apartment and puts the little girl to bed.  It’s a heartwarming scene where she tells him what she really wants for Christmas is a house.  Again, there is no question about why this old man is in a little girl’s room.  The audience doesn’t question it either, after all, he’s Santa Claus!  I should point out that at this point in the movie, the mother is still questioning whether Kris Kringle is clinically insane.
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Now, I’m not saying that we should all behave like we’re in a 1940s movie.  But I was saddened to think how a movie like this would be perceived today.  I’m sure the mother would be reviled for being irresponsible, or it would be considered unrealistic that the little girl was never abducted or molested.  And what about a old guy who dandles moppets on his lap all day? Don’t ask! – E.F.

Scaring Kids Out of Their Wits — Literally

Hi Readers! I got this note and, in addition to being appalled, I was angry. The 10 year old in the story is literally being scared out of his wits by his mom. By”wits” I mean his brain, his senses. His mom is teaching him never to employ those, but to automatically go straight to fear. There is no way for this kid to learn how to distinguish between “pretty safe” and “dangerous.” It’s ALL dangerous. Good ol’ Worst-First Thinking, for a new generation.  

At Free-Range Kids, we encourage kids to sharpen their wits, not snuff ’em out. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Recently, we had a 10 year old over to play with my sons, ages 7 and 9.  I realized, however, that I had an appointment to go to.  I told this boy he could either go home or accompany us to my appointment.  He said he wanted to stay with us.  With this in mind, I brought a laptop with a  movie to keep the three of them entertained for the 45 minutes I expected to be 5 feet away from them, inside an examination room just off of the waiting area. (This office is not busy and there is only one other practitioner, so I knew they would only possibly encounter one other human “stranger” in the time I was in my appointment.)

In the car, I explained to this 10 year old where I would be and  that they would watch a movie.  Unfortunately the preview threw this kid into a full-fledged panic.  He said, “Oh, no, I can’t do that.  Oh, no. No way.  I’m not supposed to be somewhere alone or I’ll be abducted.”

I asked, “Who is going to abduct you?”

“The people,” he said.

I compassionately explained that I would be five feet away, simply IN THE NEXT ROOM, just like I am when he plays at our house, and that he would not be alone.  If he needed me he could knock on the door or call out my name and I would come right out.

Unfortunately, my explanations made zero impression on this child.  Apparently, his mother had drilled into him a fear of stranger abduction so deep that he could not fathom sitting  in a room with two other kids only feet away from a trusted adult.  I instead drove him home to his mother who thanked me and said she would never let him sit in a waiting room “alone.”

This world she is afraid of is not a world I care to live in, so I don’t.  I choose to live in a different world.  One in which my kids can feel they are safe. — A Frustrated Free-Range Mother of Two

Occupy Halloween! Hand Out HOMEMADE Treats This Year!

Hi Readers — It occurs to me that maybe the best way to fight Halloween paranoia is with cookies.

Start with the fact that there has NEVER been a case of children poisoned by a stranger’s candy on Halloween. That’s according to University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best, who has studied the urban myth since 1985. Nonetheless, the advice we ALWAYS hear is to “check your child’s candy for tampering,” and treat homemade goodies like radioactive waste. All of which is based on the belief that we are quite likely surrounded by psychopathic child killers  (who hold it in till Oct. 31st).

But that idea isn’t just wrong,  it’s corrosive. Start thinking of your nice neighbors as potential killers ONE day a year and how are you supposed to trust them the REST of the year? It begins to seem just plain prudent to treat everyone as evil, especially where our kids are concerned.

Result? A society where we don’t let our kids roam the neighborhood, interact with adults or do much of anything on their own. It just seems “too dangerous.” All adults are creeps and killers until proven otherwise.

So this year: Let’s prove otherwise.

Let’s be like “The Fudge Lady” my friend Kelley remembers from her childhood Halloweens. Along with her fabulous fudge wrapped in Saran Wrap, the lady included her phone number. Anyone worried could call  her, thus taking the terror out of the treat.

Do the same and anyone who is worried can call us. We can chat with them, explaining that we want  to spread community (and cookies). And we can remind them that even though it seems strange to get a homemade treat, we are part of the the 100% of people who have never poisoned a child on Halloween. — L.

By the way: Witches aren't a real threat, either.

“Worst-First” From Birth

Hi Folks! Got this letter I liked a lot. It’s from a reader named Kimberly Anderson, who describes herself as “a cheerfully misanthropic mom of three in Lexington, Kentucky.” — L

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I have a six month old. I also have a 4 year old and a 6 year old. Now that I’m a Free-Ranger I’m noticing something about all this baby gear that I didn’t the first few times around. Everything is covered with WARNING labels forcing terrifying thoughts into your head at every turn!

Carseat: FALL HAZARD! Ditto the Bouncy Seat. Stroller: STRANGULATION HAZARD! Baby Gym: ENTANGLEMENT! And the biggest downer, the big DROWNING HAZARD sticker ruining the playful mood at bath time. First I tried turning the bath around so that the sticker wasn’t in my view, but it really was a hazard trying to bathe the girl left-handed. Next I tried to rip the sticker off, but that sucker is really on there.

All this to say that NO WONDER parents are afraid of the highly unlikely worst when they’re reminded of it multiple times a day from the minute they get baby home. I’m just waiting for the day the WARNING sticker is applied directly to the baby before you’re allowed to leave the hospital. – K.A.

Lenore here: It’s that potent combo of fear of lawsuits and fear of worst-case-scenario that makes companies warn, warn, warn. But I totally agree: It habitates parents to thinking that if they’re not envisioning the death of their child, they’re not doing their job right. 

WARNING: Baby in pram! Anything could happen!

Criminally Confident in Our Kids

Hi Readers — Here’s my syndicated column from last week. Sorry it took me to long to get to the Tennessee bike rider story. Got overwhelmed by other stuff. Here goes! – L

CALLING ALL COPS…OFF

So, a mom in Tennessee, Teresa Tryon, has been told by the police that she was wrong to allow her 10-year-old daughter to bike to and from school. Do it again before the police discuss this with Child Protective Services, she was warned, and she could face charges of child neglect.

Though Tryon believed her child was safe, the police officer didn’t. And that was enough to put the mom on thin legal ice.

The bike ride is less than 10 minutes each way. The mom herself said she passed a total of eight cars on her two journeys on that same route that same day. Moreover, she had her daughter take a bike safety class before any of this.

Does it get any safer than that? Perhaps the girl should just never get on a bike at all. That would probably satisfy the cop. But what about the kid, who wants a childhood? And the mom, who wants an active, independent little girl? And the town, which could be buzzing with kids playing outside or could be just a barren expanse of empty lawns?

The cooped-up kids and lifeless lawns are collateral damage in the war against terror — the terror we are supposed to feel whenever we think of children doing anything on their own. If you don’t share that terror, you risk trouble with the law.

I know because it happened to me, too. After I let my son ride the subway solo at age 9 a few years back, I also let him ride the commuter train out to the burbs when he turned 10. He went back and forth to his friend’s house many times, but then, one time, one of the conductors noticed him and went ballistic. “You should NOT be riding alone!” he said. Izzy offered to let the man talk to me on the phone, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he radioed ahead to the cops, who were waiting when my son got off the train.

Also waiting, by the way, was the family of the kid my son was going to see.  They always pick him up.

You’d think that would be proof enough that this was a situation both families felt comfortable with, but instead, the train was held for several minutes while the police questioned the friend’s family and then called me. Finally, the cop conceded this was probably OK, so the conductor got back on the train, and that was that.

Until about a month later, when it all happened again.

The same cop called me. And when I said that Izzy was now carrying a printout from the train’s own website that said kids as young as eight can ride alone,  and that furthermore that I personally felt my son was safe — at rush hour, surrounded by hundreds of commuters — the officer said, “But what if someone tries to abduct him?”

I said that in that very unlikely scenario, I thought the other people would help him.

Countered the cop: “What if TWO guys try to abduct him?”

This is what I call “Worst-First” thinking — jumping to the very WORST scenario FIRST and acting as if it were likely to happen. Two guys waiting at a commuter train platform just in case a 10-year-old might happen to be riding by himself that day and they could somehow grab each arm with no one noticing? (And as my son asked later,  “Isn’t the policeman there to KEEP me safe?”)

Of course, there are police officers who understand that kids are not in constant danger and allow them to go about the business of learning to navigate the world. But when a cop comes knocking on your door or calling you from the train platform, you realize that until we abolish “Worst-First” thinking, kids can’t be kids — and the police get to parent.

An Alert for an 11-y.o. Missing for 2 Hours?

Hi Readers! Just got this note from “Emily in Ohio.” Loved it! And her! — L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: Last week, at 4pm, I received an automated call from the police station about an 11-year-old that was missing.  When did the boy go missing you ask?  That day at 2 pm.  That’s right, he was missing for TWO WHOLE HOURS before the police called every single person in the city, asking for any information whatsoever regarding his whereabouts.
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A whopping five minutes later, I received another call — he had been located. Yeah, that’s right.  Why is it the American standard that if our children should ever leave our sight for a microsecond, that we need to issue a lockdown over the whole country?  Kids don’t need to be supervised every hour of every day. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe this boy wasn’t abducted and murdered but decided to go out with his friends and didn’t have a cell phone with him?
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I could understand if the boy had been missing for two or three days, but two hours?  And since the call went out two hours after he went missing, I’m sure the police were notified less than hour after he went missing.  It really annoys me that people are going so crazy about child safety.
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I guess I have been raised “Free-Range,” more out of necessity than principle, having been raised by a single mother for most of my life.  I’m only 16, but I already appreciate the style with which I was raised.  I started staying at home alone when I was about 7 or 8, and have turned out perfectly fine and probably more independent than most kids my age.  However, my own extended family still treats me like I am 5.  Over the summer, I was at the mall food court with my aunt and cousin.  I wanted to go to a restaurant that was on the other side of the food court. My aunt asked me if I thought it was okay with my mom if I walked across the food court by myself to get food, which really irritated me.  Apparently I am capable of driving a car but not old enough to walk by myself.
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My mom’s brother has two daughters, 7 and 10.  His wife balked at the concept of allowing the older one to walk two miles home from school alone.  Even in my government class, when we were talking about issues that concerned us, and I shared about the fact that crime rates are as low as they have been since the ’60s, but that parents are attempting to make their kids too safe, everyone stared at me like I was crazy.
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On a final note, I feel compelled to share something I read on a “mommy blog.” This woman was talking about her new house, and how her almost 10 year old still sleeps with a baby monitor because she fears that “he is going to be sick or hurt in the night and need her or someone will break in and abduct him” and she won’t be able to hear any of this happen because he sleeps a floor lower than she and her husband.  I rest my case. — Emily

The FBI Says: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid for Your Kids

Hi Readers: Firsts off, thanks to all of you who sent this in: The very first app the FBI is releasing to the public. It’s the “Child ID App,” allowing you to store your kid’s photo, height and weight in one easy-to-retrieve place, and to forward this info instantaneously to the authorities. It was developed, according to the FBI’s site, to put “Child Safety In Your Hands.”

After all, the site notes: “A child goes missing every 40 seconds” — that’s 800,000 kids a year. “Many never return home.”

My question: Does the FBI read its own statistics? Because I do. And from what I read, about 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year. Of these, 50 are murdered. We live in a country of about 60,000,000 children age 15 and under. So the idea that “many” children never return home makes sense, if by “many” the FBI means 1 in over a million. And while perhaps a child goes missing once every 40 seconds (I know I went missing when I hid in the closet as a tot), one goes missing permanently, due to a stranger abduction, once a week.

Of course, even once a week is terrible. Heart stopping. No one would ever say otherwise. But by offering this app to America, the FBI is reinforcing the idea that children are in constant danger.  It feels as if the FBI has raced to fill a need that doesn’t exist while feeding a fear that’s already out of control. Maybe even at FBI headquarters.

Because as the FBI should know better than anyone, crime is DOWN since when most of us parents were kids (check out the charts toward the bottom of this link). It just doesn’t feel safer when the nation’s top crime agency is telling parents that children are disappearing, perhaps forever, all day long. That is a very scary thought, the kind that makes parents think they can’t ever let their kids out of their sight.

What is the down side to an app like this?  I mean, it IS nice to have a photo of your child available, if only so the pretzel lady at the mall can say, “Oh, your little boy is just on the other side of the kiosk!”

But the app comes with a tie to the  National Child Identification Program, which provides a physical kit to gather your child’s pictures, fingerprints, personal characteristics, and DNA “to keep with you in case of emergency.” What kind of emergency would that be?

Well, it’s not the kind when your kid is goofing around on the other side of the pretzel kiosk. It’s the kind when your kid’s body is decomposing.

Even granting that this app may indeed be helpful in some very rare, worst-case-scenarios (and not just running our law enforcement officers ragged with false alarms), turning it into just a handy-dandy thing you’d want to carry with you — the parental equivalent of a jack — makes it feel as if murdered children are as common as flat tires. The consequences of that dread are real, and I’m not just talking about obesity, diabetes and depression as we park kids at home, to be “safe.” There are other costs: Empty streets, because parents are too afraid to let their kids play. A line of cars in front of the school, because parents believe their kids aren’t safe to walk. Children never  organizing their own game of kickball, or climbing a tree, or riding their bike to a friend’s house, because the FBI is telling parents that every 40 seconds one of them will disappear.

I try not to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to safety products because I love some of them — like safety belts, and helmets. But when the product’s benefits seem slim and the societal repercussions loom large, I say: Keep a photo of your kids in your wallet and go about your day. And FBI? Get a grip. — Lenore

A Divorced Dad Sick of Being Taken for a Perv

Hi Folks! Here’s a note from a free-lance writer in Australia who had to vent. I see why! – L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I would like to share with you my experience of danger lurking in many suburban supermarkets. I’m the type of modern father  you certainly wouldn’t see on television 40 years ago. I go shopping with the kids, I can use a washing machine and fix a loose button without accidentally sewing my pants to the tablecloth. A few days ago, I take my three children (13,9,3) on a regular trip to our local supermarket when my little one starts a tantrum in the candy aisle. I direct my older kids to another aisle while I take Lucy aside to get over her craving for Snickers bars and disappointment that I won’t purchase a hundred. I don’t expect anyone to know this, so to anyone else I’m just a guy in a supermarket holding a crying toddler.
For the next few minutes I’m observed by some other creepy looking guy. That disapproving glare all parents feel when their child is acting up in public.  It feels like a menacing thundercloud and you can almost hear the slow rumble beneath, “MY kid wouldn’t behave like that, for shame…” We eventually make eye contact and creepy guy demands to know “Where’s her mother ?” Awkward, since we’re divorced. I reply “Somewhere else. I’m her father.” Indicating my child.

I appreciate people looking out for my kids’ safety but there’s a difference between a protective community spirit and a belligerent, accusatory busybody. Creepy guy’s attitude gets deadpan. “I just want to be sure, ya know?” Sure of what exactly ? And what evidence should I supply to a complete stranger that I’m innocent of whatever concern he has ? Of course, I’m a potential predator simply because I’m a guy. It must inconceivable for a man to comfort his own child, so the obvious conclusion is I’m attempting to abduct a kid in broad daylight and pick up some half-price noodles and toothpaste at the same time. Slightly less offensive is the notion a woman can be automatically granted a free pass.

IN THE UNDERWEAR AISLE, I BECOME A PERVERT

The life of a potential predator is difficult sometimes. It’s adorable when I take my daughter shopping for a new dress, but as soon as we turn into the underwear aisle I become a pervert. I’m a cool dad to cheer my kids at soccer, but the local swimming pool is another story. I enjoy the condemnation, the stares and  mistaken assumptions. I enjoy the inconvenience and discrimination. I enjoy it because every little petty indignation I overcome gives me that little more dignity so my kids can look up to me a role model for principle.

So if anyone you know ever needs to confront a suspected predator, I recommend some diplomacy. I know its unlikely, but there’s just a small chance that guy isn’t a child molester or the orphan catcher from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” or a serial killer looking for the next ingredient of delicious kid soup. Some of us are good dads just trying to make our way in the world.– Byron

What is that man doing to that poor child?!

STORIES NEEDED: Has Your Kid’s Camp Become Less Free-Range? Or Even Nutty?

Hi Folks! I’m writing a column inspired by the Maryland law that was about to be enacted that would have prohibited counselors from applying sunblock to kids. The state was, of course, afraid of perverts. But when parents heard about the measure, THEY were afraid of sunburn. So the law did not go into effect (but parents still have to sign a waiver saying they agree to counselor-kid sunscreen application).

Anyway, that got me to thinking about other ways camps have changed and even contorted, in response to parental fears, lawsuit fears, and just fears in general. If you have any examples, I’d love to hear ’em. Especially after just finding the FIVE PAGE health form I have to fill out for my son to go to Boy Scout camp for a WEEK. I know, I know — some kids have allergies to surprising things, but really: I have to check off whether the camp is allowed to give him calamine lotion for an itch or Bactine for a scratch? Yes indeed I do!

And so: I”d like to hear from parents, camp counselors, camp owners and anyone else with any camp connection. As you know, I love safety, but I also love sanity and a soupcon of summer freedom. Hope yours is a happy one! — L

Kids waiting to go to camp in the days before parents had to authorize the use of sunscreen. In fact, the days before sunscreen, period.

Hey Kids! School Needs Volunteers to Play Massacre Victims

Folks — Sometimes I’m just stunned by what our culture chooses to focus on. See below. And remember, as you read this, that one of the places children are very SAFEST is at school. — L
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in NJ where the current governor has been slashing the education budget like the chainsaw massacre killer. So, what is my district spending money on these days?  That’s right, an active shooter drill. Because, you know, Columbines happen all the time.
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This is a suburb that is chock full of supermoms and security nuts.  But the principal is asking for volunteers to act out this remote scenario and doesn’t appear to see the irony that  “rubber ammunition” will be used.  It’s the most bizarre email I’ve gotten this year and I thought the last one forbidding high school students from using Super Soakers to play Assassins was stupid.  So, let me get this straight: It is NOT okay for 16-year-olds to douse unsuspecting students with Super Soakers when they are off of school property because the water gun looks “too realistic” and the cops can’t tell the difference between it and a Glock. But it is PERFECTLY okay to ask for student volunteers to play the victims of a drill where rubber bullets and realistic sights and sounds of a mass murder in progress will be used.
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I’m the one with the problem, right? I’ll bet some administrative assistant’s job was cut to help pay for this nonsense. – A Mystified Jersey Mom
THE EMAIL WE GOT:
Subject: Active Shooter Drill at High School on 6/24. Student volunteers requested. See website or email for details.
General – Email Only
Complete Message: On Friday, June 24, 2011, our high school will be conducting an Active Shooter Drill at the school in conjunction with the Police Department, the Office of Emergency Management, the Rescue Squad, and the district Community Emergency Response Team members. The purpose of this drill is to provide a simulated training activity to help emergency responders prepare for an actual emergency in any school setting..To make this a productive and authentic training activity, student volunteers are needed.The drill will run from approximately 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM. Because this will be a training exercise for the police, rubber ammunition will be used, and the sights and sounds will be very authentic and potentially upsetting. Student volunteers will not be utilized in any way that may cause injury and will mostly serve as students in a typical classroom setting under lockdown conditions or as students with simulated injuries to which the EMS and CERT members can respond.Current high school students, including graduating seniors, are welcome to attend. Students who are involved in this drill will earn certificates for four hours of community service. A permission slip is required for participation in this activity, and submission of the permission slip is how students will officially be signed up. Permission slips are available on the website and in the office, as well as in the email attached to this Instant Alert. Completed permission slips must be submitted by Friday, June 17, in the first floor office.Thank you for your willingness to help our schools and emergency responders train effectively to keep everyone safe.