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All posts in 2011

Hi Readers — I’m sharing this reader’s story because I like to remind us, from time to time, that the intense fear of our kids being beyond our sight, doing ANYTHING on their own, is not just “normal parental concern” kicking in. It is NEW. It is born of this era. (I explain how it came about in my book). And, just like the fear of neighbors-as-witches in Salem, some day it will seem weird and inexplicable. I’m just hoping to hasten that day. And here’s a note from a reader in Florida that may help! — L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I had written to you a little while back about my neighborhood, my kids, our friends, etc.  I have 3 daughters: ages 9, 7 and 5.  We live in a closed-off (not gated, but it could be) community in South Florida.  It is a very family-friendly community.  I’ve been very influenced by the Free-Range movement, and I would like my kids to do more Free-Range things, but none of their friends are permitted to join them.  In fact, I had no idea how neurotic my friends and neighbors were with their kids until I started to “push the envelope” about Free-Range.  Believe me, I’m not suggesting anything crazy.  But, can my 9 year old daughter go with a friend to a movie by themselves?  Hell, I went to the movies with my friends when I was that age (circa 1976).  Why should I have to endure movies like “Gnomeo and Juliet” when my daughter can perfectly well see it herself, and feel really great and grown up doing so?  I recently gave her a key to the house.  She feels so proud.
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This past Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year], while my 9 year old was getting tired of services (who can blame her), I told her to go to the synagogue playground.  The playground was full of little ones and their parents/nannies.  She invited a friend to join her, to make it more fun.  Her friend’s mother declined the invitation.  You see, her 9 year old daughter is not allowed on the playground without specific adult supervision.  This, at a synagogue playground, full of kids and their parents, most of whom we know, in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah morning services!!!  And HER DAUGHTER IS 9!!
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Anyway, I got to thinking about your post about the “Your 6 Year Old” book — about how a child that age at the time that book was published (1980?) was supposed to be able to walk to a corner store and buy a little something.  That was something a child that age should be achieving, just like a 3 year old should be toilet trained.
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It reminded me of an old family story we used to tell to illustrate how people are just “wired” to be the way they are, but there is an unintended “Free-Range” message too.  My family is from Poland.  They escaped to Russia just before the war, but returned after it. In or around 1946, my father began 1st Grade.  He was expected to walk to and from school by himself.
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As you can probably imagine, Poland in 1946 was undergoing massive reconstruction.  My father, even at that tender age, was enthralled with building construction.  On his way home from school, I guess more than once, he would pass by a construction site and be hours late coming home because he spent so much time watching the buildings go up.  My grandmother, of course, was sick with worry.  Her Jewish son was wandering around Lodz – who knew what happened?  She would spank him and admonish him never to do that again.   The story was told to show us kids how Dad was destined to be a builder himself.
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But, you know, nowhere in the story was there any suggestion that my grandmother should go get my father from school herself.  To say that was considered and dismissed would be to give the idea too much credit.  It just wasn’t on the radar.  No, a 6 year old boy was supposed to be able to get back and forth from school, from local stores, from friends, etc.  If he was late and worried his parents needlessly, he would be spanked and punished.
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Clearly, my grandmother was aware of dangers.  What Jewish mother in Poland in 1946 wasn’t aware of danger?  Still, letting that stop you from allowing your son do normal things like walking to school — well, that was like letting fear stop you from doing your laundry!  You have to be able to do normal things.
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If you post this comment on your web site, I’d really be curious to hear people’s (and your) thoughts. – A Reader from Florida
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My thought is this: You are right. We have completely lost perspective about danger and now believe that almost anything involving our kids out of our sight is “too risky” to try. Stories like yours — and even more prosaic stories from our own childhoods — serve to remind us that GOOD and CARING and CAREFUL parents always let their kids do things on their own, until very recently. It is time for our generation to get a grip. – L

Readers — As we enter 2012, there is cause for hope, as this article shows. Legislators in Colorado, home to the Columbine massacre, are taking a new and rational look at their zero tolerance laws. These are laws that REQUIRED schools to act brainlessly and not distinguish between, say, a wooden replica of a rifle and a smoking AK47. Laws that told school administrators they’d be WRONG to treat a butter knife as a butter knife rather than as a deadly weapon. According to the website TimesCall.com:

A legislative committee moved forward with a proposal that seeks to give education officials more discretion over expulsions and police referrals, which lawmakers say became more common after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, where two students killed 13 people and then themselves.

Committee members said zero-tolerance policies adopted during the last decade have tied the hands of school administrators, who are forced to expel students or involve law enforcement for minor infractions.

How wonderful to untie the hands of school administrators and free them to reason rather than to blindly (over)react. If Colorado is where the Zero Tolerance Revolution began, let’s hope that this is where it begins its demise.

The proposed legislation would make expulsions mandatory only in cases of students bringing a firearm to school and would amend school discipline codes to distinguish minor infractions from violations that need police involvement. The proposal would also direct school boards to create discipline codes that limit suspensions and expulsions to cases where a student’s conduct threatens school safety.

Significantly, this new legislation is co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican — more proof that, rather than taking knee-jerk umbrage at something the other party suggested, people are starting to use their brains (and not, I guess, their knees). Let’s hear it for rationality, compassion and no longer overreacting to “threats” that don’t threaten our kids at all. — L.

If she brings a butter knife to school, she will no longer be considered armed and dangerous.

Hi Folks and Merry Christmas, Hanukah and whatever else good is going on. In the spirit of reaching out, creating community and, of course, eating, here’s a great idea I just heard about: The Big Lunch. Check it out:

The Big Lunch is a very simple idea from the Eden Project. The aim is to get as many people as possible across the whole of the UK to have lunch with their neighbours in a simple act of community, friendship and fun.

This year it happened on Sunday 5th June when the best part of two million people took part. Next year it falls on the same weekend as The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations on Sunday 3rd June 2012. A record number of people are expected to take part. Make sure you’re one of them!

A Big Lunch can be anything from a few neighbours getting together in the garden or on the street, to a full blown party with food, music and decoration that quite literally stops the traffic.

How I love this idea! So simple and so fun. Let’s get The Big Lunch started everywhere! I’ll remind you again as summer comes around. In the meantime, bask in the joy of the season upon us, and look forward to more connecting in the year to come. — L.

Hi Folks! This reader talks about an issue that I am of two minds about. On the one hand, I truly believe — based on FBI statistics — that schools are extremely safe places and school shootings/terrorist attacks/mayhem are rarer than rare. On the other hand, tornadoes are pretty rare, too, and we had our share of those drills when I was a kid.

Of course, preparing for tornadoes (and fire) had a different social message to it. We were preparing for acts of God, not acts of unspeakable human depravity that just might be committed any day by anyone  – even a fellow student. So mostly, I think that these lockdowns are unnecessary and based on an excessively, nay, outrageously pessimistic view of our times.  And now let’s hear what you think. Here’s the letter that prompted such musings. – L 

Hi Lenore: I’ve just been reading Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature,” and he gives you a generous few paragraphs in his section on violence and children. … Lately I’ve been having a fun time banging my head against a wall at the school I work at, where lockdown drills are mandated twice a year.

Our theme for school improvement this year is “Critical Thinking,” and in the interest of just that, I questioned the usefulness of such drills in a general e-mail in the school’s public folder, using yourself and Pinker, among others, as sources.  I pointed out that there have been only ten incidences of gun violence in Canadian schools in the last hundred years, with most of the casualties resulting from two of them.

Not only did my colleagues not want to listen to my arguments, they actually became angry and resisted the whole process of public debate!  One colleague actually took issue with the statistics, suggesting that we could extrapolate a “trend” from the microscopically rare incidents I had enumerated, and which therefore supported the kind of drastic action our board seems to think makes sense.  I’m still kind of shocked that there should be so little regard for either fact or debate amongst educators.

I’m sure you must feel the same frustration I do.  School violence is actually WAY down.  Here’s an interesting excerpt from a Q&A session with Pinker on the Freakonomics website, which is salient:

Q: Other than writing best-selling books what can people do to help society at large resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case? –Joshua Northey

A: A small portion of the population is willing to be reasoned with, but when I tell my reasonably intelligent sister that “children are probably safer today than at any time in human history,” she scoffs at me as if I am telling her that cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. She is so dismissive she won’t even read the few things I have given her about it, and her attitude is not uncommon.

One necessity is greater statistical literacy among the population and especially among journalists. People need to think in terms of proportions rather than salient examples, to appreciate orders of magnitudes (ten thousand deaths versus ten million deaths), to distinguish random blips from systematic trends, and to be aware of—and thereby discount—their own cognitive biases. When Harvard revamped its undergraduate curriculum a few years ago, I lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a statistical and analytic thinking requirement.

Also, journalists have to rethink their policy of featuring only gory events and terrifying threats. Tensions that fizzle out (e.g, remember how a decade ago India and Pakistan were allegedly on the verge of nuclear war?), wars that sputter to a halt, “war-torn” countries that are no longer torn by war, and other happy events and non-events should be just as newsworthy as things that go bang.

I have been doing as Pinker tried to do, and arguing for a greater emphasis in on analytical thinking in the curriculum, as I’m more and more convinced that universal cognitive biases such as the Availability Heuristic and the Confirmation Bias, among others, ought to be taught formally, so people are at least aware of them.  As Northrop Frye told us, thinking is a skill, not an innate ability (but my students react angrily to that assertion as well!) — A High School Teacher to the North

Hi Readers: Is there some way we can convince Americans (and then the world, and then the galaxy) that taking pictures of a child who is out and about in public is not the same as sexually violating them? Because the fact is:  Most people taking pictures of kids are not doing it to get off on ‘em. And for those few who are, dare I ask: So what? It’s like that disclaimer at the end of a movie: No child was harmed in the making of this photo.

I think the hysteria about kiddie picture taking stems from a lot of sources:

1 – The belief that anyone interested in kids other than their own MUST be a pedophile. (And what a lovely notion that is.)

2 – The deep-rooted fear that a picture really DOES capture the soul.

3 – The conviction on the part of some parents that their kids are SO preternaturally attractive that they are going to be singled out by everyone, including talent scouts, college admissions officers, and perverts.

4 – The idea that, “I once heard something about a picture of some kid that ended up on the Internet and…” I.e., some half-baked urban myth that doesn’t even make SENSE, but rattles around in the collective consciousness.

So here’s the story of a middle aged woman who wanted to take some sweet Christmas photos at the mall (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms to some of us). She shot some photos of kids talking to Santa, and the kids’ mom kicked shot her dead.

Well, not quite. But the mom certainly killed the photographer’s Christmas spirit. So did the security guard who demanded she delete the photos of the kids.

Now the weird twist is that the photographer lady is actually a former West Virginia State Senator. And in a column she wrote about the mall/photo experience she says:

The woman who had stalked me through the mall did not know that I am a former state legislator who initiated and succeeded in creating strict laws against pedophiles in the West Virginia legislature. To me, the random child in my picture was simply a representation of a special moment in a human life and an innocent attempt to capture the magic of Christmas.

I just wonder how her “strict laws against pedophiles” dealt with other folks just trying to capture a special moment. Let’s hope her laws were measured and sane. And let’s hope that what we all get this season is the gift of calming down and connecting, instead of fearing everyone and everything. — L.

Hi Folks! This article on tv.msn talks about the trend of using kids in danger — or actually murdered — as the “newest” hook on TV dramas. It lists several of this season’s shows — “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “American Horror Story,” “Dexter” – that feature poisoned, executed and/or potentially eviscerated kids, including baby twins.

I totally agree that these shows are using the ultimate terror as the ultimate hook. But I don’t see this as a spanking new trend. The handful of “Law & Order” episodes I’ve watched  over the years involved kids snatched off the street to their doom. And certainly, in the movies, missing or dead children catapult a legion of righteous cops and crazed parents into action.

So I’m asking you, folks: Do you have any thoughts about how long this trend has been mounting? A professor friend I was talking to the other day, Leonard Cassuto, said that the very SIGHT of a dead child had been taboo on TV until recently. I’d love to hear from some of you who watch and digest TV fare: What are the trends on TV dramas right now, vis a vis kids in peril?  Thanks for cogitating on this with me. — L.

Hello, children! Won't you step into my edgy TV drama?

P.S. And if you need a break from thinking such somber thoughts, you will LOVE this short video.

Hi Readers: I was just very impressed by this boy’s sense of sorrow, connectedness and respect. While I don’t recommend kids defying their parents’ rules, sometimes, as they say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Anyway, here’s what I’m talking about, from the MSNBC website:

Jared Flanders faced a dilemma Wednesday evening: He had heard about the firefighter who was killed while looking for victims inside a burning building last week and he wanted to pay respects, but at only 11 years old, Jared wasn’t allowed to go outside by himself and he had no one to take him.

Jared, who lives in Worcester, Mass., ultimately decided to defy his father’s orders and go to firefighter Jon Davies’ wake. He carefully put on a coat and tie, hopped on his bike and went down to the funeral home, about a mile away, reported NBC affiliate WHDH.com.

Jared didn’t know the fireman, but he knows the pain of losing someone: His older half-brother fought in Iraq and died this summer, said Jared’s dad, Gene Flanders,on his Facebook page.

Jared sounds like a boy any parent would be proud of. (So does his half-brother.) Also sounds like he’s ready for some new rules — like letting him go out of the house on his own. — L.