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All posts in 2013

The other day I had lunch with Nancy Nord, a former commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Joining us was one of my personal heroes, Philip Howard. Here’s what Nancy wrote on her blog, Conversations with Consumers, a forum that doggedly points out the difference (and distance) between safety and paranoia. As a gal who has seen the Commission inside and out,  she BELIEVES, as I think we all do, in keeping consumers safe. She does NOT believe in regulating nearly non-existent dangers. – L

PLAY AT YOUR OWN RISK by Nancy Nord

Recently I was up in New York and met with two insightful and smart people I want to introduce if you do not already know them. Phillip Howard is a lawyer, civic activist and the founder of an interesting organization, Common Good.  Part of the mission of the organization is to get back to a place where citizens can take responsibility for making sensible choices:  “Making choices for the common good is impossible if everyone is tied up in red tape. Reclaiming responsibility requires a basic shift—where law sets boundaries for free choice instead of dictating choices for the lowest common denominator. . .Common Good has developed practical solutions to bring reliability and balance to law in healthcare, education, and civil justice, as well as in areas such as children’s play. . .”. 

With respect to this last item, the concern is that if all risk is taken out of play, our children will not be prepared for the risks that life inevitably throws at them as they mature. This brings me to the second person I want to introduce—Lenore Skenazy.  Lenore is a journalist, mother, and the creator of Free Range Kids.  The (tongue-in-cheek) purpose of Free Range Kids is to fight “the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.” While Lenore’s writings are amusing, she does make the serious point that when the line between real and speculative risk becomes so blurred—which she contends is happening more and more—our children suffer as a result….

Lenore here: Contend that, I do! It’s great when folks in government, think tanks, and non-profits all recognize the same thing: In seeking to take absolutely ALL RISK out of life, we are making our country (and our kids) too safe to succeed. And that, by the way, is my new mantra: Too Safe to Succeed. – L.

Dear Readers — When you live in a society spasming with fear, it is hard not to flinch. That’s why we are here on this blog together. To support each other when the world mistakes our confidence and rationality for neglect and abuse. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I just finished reading Free Range Kids, over the course of 1.5 days. I never send fan mail, but I couldn’t keep my gratitude and relief to myself.

I am the mother of a 22-month-old boy, and I have been parenting him in a Free-Range style without really having a name for it.  He has always been very independent, so I’ve always given him as much freedom as I feel a toddler can have.  Parents who follow their children around the (fenced-in) playground have always confused me, and I’ve gotten my fair share of concerned looks when he has climbed on top of something really high (again) and I haven’t been rightbyhisside.

Though I knew my parenting style was more hands-off than most of my counterparts, I always felt confident in my choice to trust my son and let him set his own limits (within reason of course – I have yet to let him sit down to play with cigarette butts in a busy parking lot).  But about a month ago, something happened that really made me wonder if I was a terrible parent and wrong to think “stranger-danger” was overblown:

After an afternoon of running errands, my son and I made a last stop at the post office. I needed a flat-rate shipping box.  He was getting sleepy, so I decided that he could stay in the car while I made the 20-second trek to go inside, grab a box, and come right back out.  It was a mild October afternoon and I was able to snag a parking spot that would allow me to keep the car in my line of vision.  I handed him a book, told him I would be right back, locked the doors, and was back within literally 20 seconds.  We were about to be on our way when:

“IS THERE A BABY IN YOUR CAR???”

Oh jeez.  An elderly lady parked in the car next to us was hanging out of her window staring at me. I rolled down the window and hesitantly replied, “Yes?”

“DID YOU LEAVE IT IN YOUR CAR?!”

Oh crap.  “Well yeah, just for two seconds–”

“YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE CHILDREN! YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE CHILDREN!”  Her screaming drew a crowd and I was absolutely mortified. Even thinking about it makes my hands shake and my face flush.  My first instinct was to f-bomb her, but my son was with me and she was well, old, and you can’t f-bomb an old person, even if they are telling you that you should be sterilized.

I decided to roll up my window and just drive away. Then I became worried that she had probably written down my license plate and was on the phone with the police.  I began to wonder if I have actually been making choices that were endangering my son.  My stomach was knotted for days and I couldn’t sleep.  My husband was assuring me that she was crazy, or maybe she knew a child who steamed to death in a car.  Either way, my confidence was gone.  Never had my parenting skills been so publicly condemned, and never had I felt so much FEAR about parenting.

Then I read your book and found this blog. Ahhh (that is a sigh of relief).  I stopped feeling so alone and fearful.

Parenting is hard enough without living in fear. Thank you a million times.

Sincerely, Catherine in Richmond, VA
It is hard to stay sane in a society that sees a boy like this as hideously endangered.

It is hard to stay sane in a society that sees a boy like this as hideously endangered.

Hi Readers — I like this article in the current Economist, “School Discipline: The Perils of Peanut Tossing,” because it nails something that has gone sort of unnoticed. Not just that when schools suspend kids willy-nilly for minor infractions they often end up harming the kid far more than helping the school. No, it also points out that Zero Tolerance laws are as obtuse, cruel and pointless as our Mandatory Minimums. Both these travesties REFUSE to take into account any of the actual circumstances, and vastly overreact to small, even non-existent “dangers.” Once again, the Free-Range mantra, “Our kids are  not in constant danger!” is what’s needed. When a Pop Tart “gun” and normal horseplay are elevated to crimes, we are hallucinating danger and responding with overkill.

When pupils get in trouble for silly reasons, the results can be serious

EARLIER this autumn a school in Canon City, Colorado suspended Hunter Yelton for violating its sexual-harassment policy. His crime? Kissing a girl on the hand. Hunter is six years old. Other dangerous acts that have warranted suspension in schools across the land include chomping a Pop-Tart (an American breakfast pastry) into the shape of a gun, firing an imaginary bow-and-arrow and talking about shooting a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. In Mississippi, infractions serious enough to bring in the police include wearing the wrong shoes (a five-year-old boy’s school dress code mandated black shoes; his mother used a marker to blacken his red-and-white shoes, but apparently bits of red and white could still be seen) and wearing the wrong socks. Five pupils tossing peanuts at each other in the back of a school bus ended up charged with felony assault when one of the nuts hit the driver.

Many of these students attend schools with zero-tolerance policies, which have been around for years; some date their inception to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required schools receiving federal funds to expel pupils who brought in firearms. According to John Whitehead, founding lawyer of the Rutherford Institute, a law firm focused on civil liberties, they really began proliferating after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Like the mandatory-minimum sentences established by Congress at the height of the drug war, zero-tolerance policies in schools were intended to make sure that all bad behaviour drew a uniform response. Instead, also like mandatory minimums, the responses they mandate are often wildly disproportionate to the “offences” committed; they do little, if anything, to improve discipline; and they can cause lasting harm to pupils.

Read more here.

Howdy, kids!

Howdy, kids!

Readers: Remember the saying, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel?” Now it’s predators. To wit –

Dear Free-Range Kids: I hope you don’t mind me sending you a link to a report on NPR this morning about a concerted effort to overthrow a law that affects transgender people. The part that bothered me I underlined and bolded below:

 At Azusa High School in Southern California, Pat Cordova-Goff is the student body president, a varsity cheerleader, homecoming princess and a straight-A senior. But she isn’t always comfortable at school. She is Azusa High’s only openly transgender student, and when she’s at school, she tries to avoid using the bathroom altogether.

“If I were to go to the boys’ restroom, there’s a chance I might be bullied, hurt, even harassed. But if I go to the girls’, I’m kind of not allowed. I might get in trouble, so it’s kind of like I have nowhere to go,” she says. Under California’s new law, Cordova-Goff’s school would be required to allow her to use the girls’ bathroom. And it’s precisely this bathroom policy that has riled opponents.

“That is so confusing, and so it opens the door for predators,” says Judi McDaniels, a mother and grandmother who went door to door in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino Hills petitioning for signatures to repeal the law.”

Here’s what I find disturbing: How do we get from “that is so confusing” to “and so it opens the door for predators”? Putting aside everything else for a minute, isn’t this a somewhat dated view of who sexual predators tend to be and how/where they operate? Hasn’t the idea of pedophiles swarming public bathrooms waiting to molest children been proven to be somewhat rare, and that instead, predators tend to be people who are generally well-known to the child?Furthermore, I think the implied (though maybe unconscious) meaning is also that transgender people are “perverts”—just like pedophiles—and will be more likely to do harm to children. Or anyone.

How about if you feel weird about sharing a public bathroom with a transgendered person, you don’t go in there?

Keep up the good work! Yours, Ellen Shea

Lenore here: Ellen, I totally agree that this woman’s “argument” was trotted out only because often enough appealing to children’s safety — and sanctity — can win points, especially if an audience doesn’t care about logic. But as for the fear of predators in public bathrooms, that worry is SO alive and well that it’s not uncommon for moms to drag boys of 7, 8, and even 9 into the ladies room. Or, in the case of one mom I met on my TV show, a boy of 13! The good news? Once that particular mom was encouraged/prodded/sort-of-forced by me to send her son into the bathroom solo and he — surprise! — emerged just fine, her fear just crumbled. It so often does,when faced with reality. And so I expect fear and prejudice of transgendered people to start crumbling, too, once they are afforded their rights and simply a part of the kaleidoscope that is our country. 

Readers — This story from Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins is heartwarming, and enraging.

Seems a mom there, Anne Tabat, wanted to thank her kids’ school bus driver. So she baked some cookies and brought them to the bus stop — one for the driver and one for each of the kids on the bus, too. Her idea was to reach out. Connect. She did this every Friday for 15 years…until last week.

That’s when some anonymous person officially alerted the school district to this unofficially sanctioned practice.  We don’t know why the caller called, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that once alerted, the school district felt compelled to shut her down. So,  my proposal:

To honor the cookie lady and to connect with each other, why not do one of the two things Tabat did? Either bake a treat for your bus driver and the kids. Or hold a cookie open house. That’s what Tabat is doing this weekend, and does annually. She just bakes a ton of cookies and invites the neighborhood to drop by. This year, of course,  they’ll all have something to talk about:

Some of her neighbors, [Tabat] says, are more upset about the cookie-bus indignity than she is. “I kept saying if you’re going to do something about this, go out and thank your bus driver. Get to know people, not just your neighbors. Get to know everyone on the planet you’re rubbing shoulders with. There are so many people doing things to make your life better, and they never get thanked for it. People are good.” 

The vast majority are. (And then there are the ones who alert the authorities to random acts of kindness.)  To win one for our team, I pledge to do some cookie baking today, and to use those cookies to connect. – L.

Contraband!

What kind of monster bakes cookies for kids and bus drivers?

Readers — The Onion gets it. They always do: 

EVERY PARENT’S WORST NIGHTMARE IS LOSING A CHILD TO GORCHUL, THE DARK SORCERER OF TIME

As a parent, worrying is second nature. You’re constantly afraid that something could go wrong. Your child could get sick, or get in an accident, or even just not fit in at school. Sure, there’s joy and pride and fulfillment, but there’s also an unavoidable stream of dread. And all of these worries of course pale in comparison to every parent’s worst nightmare: losing your child to Gorchul, the Dark Sorcerer of Time.

It’s a terrifying thought that crosses the mind of any parent from time to time. Because Gorchul is real, he’s out there, and you never know if it’s going to be your child who will one day be abducted in their sleep by the mad chrono-wizard and dragged screaming to the nether planes of time.

That’s the hardest thing about being a parent, really: the reality that, no matter how hard you work to keep your kid safe, in the back of your mind there’s always that nagging feeling that you don’t really have control over what happens to them after they leave for school. Or even when they’re at home, standing right in front of you, as Gorchul has been known to appear anywhere, tear a rift in the fabric of space-time, and pull a child down into his primordial lair of darkness and murk before your very eyes…

Read more here.

I hate it when kids get abducted this way.

There goes another one. Sigh.

Readers, this is just a fascinating Texas Monthly story about a lockdown drill that everyone but the principal and a few administrators thought was REAL. At the heart of it lies the question the reporter asks (see below). And also: How does a terrifying drill  make the staff better prepared than a calm one? And the uber question: What kind of administrators think a shooting is so likely, it is worth putting everyone in their school through a horrifying experience? That’s the kind of thinking that gets us all sorts of drastic laws: “I don’t care if the odds are TINY, I still demand we do something huge and inconvenient that could easily backfire!” 

Is It Possible to Prepare Teachers and Students For School Shooting Situations Without Traumatizing Them? by Don Solomon 

When Hans and Jessica Graffunder sent their kids to school at Small Middle School in Southwest Austin last Thursday morning, they didn’t expect that by mid-morning, their children would be in the middle of a lockdown situation. The Graffunder’s couldn’t have anticipated that their daughter, 11, would find herself in the school library with a librarian urging her to find a better place to hide so she wouldn’t get shot, or that their son, 13, would be locked in a room with a teacher who drew the curtains at the windows as unknown people rattled the door handles from the outside.

And when these terrifying scenarios happen, there is no anticipation, no warning. But what about when there is no actual shooter? When there is no emergency? What happens when it’s a lockdown drill simulating a gunman on campus planned by the Austin Independent School District and the middle school itself? Shouldn’t parents and teachers anticipate that because they’ve been given plenty of advanced notice?

On the morning of the December 12—after they’d sent their kids to school—the Graffunders and other parents at the school received an email from the school informing them that there would be an unannounced lockdown drill later that day. According to Hans Graffunder, the unannounced nature of the drill, which happened almost a year to the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, had both students and teachers in a panic.

“The only people at the school who knew it was going to happen, or knew it was a drill, were the principal and a few administrative staff,” Graffunder said in an email to Texas Monthly after the drill. “The teachers did not know it was a drill. The simulation took place in a passing period, so all the kids and teachers scrambled for a place to hide. My daughter ended up in the library. The emergency team went around to rooms where kids and teachers were hiding and proceeded to rattle door handles and beat on locked doors to simulate someone trying to break in. The librarian told my daughter that she better find a better pace to hide or she would get shot. She was told that a bullet could dome right through the library window and hit her. She was absolutely terrified. Kids and teachers were screaming and crying. One of her teachers had a complete meltdown, which made all of her kids break down, as well.”

Graffunder’s interpretation of the drill is pretty consistent with that offered by the school’s principal, Amy Taylor. (Taylor does say that door handles were checked to ensure that they were locked, not to simulate someonewas breaking in.) Both the school and the outraged parent agree on the basics of what happened: The school simulated a lockdown without warning teachers, and parents were informed the day of the drill with, at least in some cases, insufficient warning to give them the opportunity to pull their kids out of school for the day.

While no one would dispute the importance of emergency preparedness, the way the unannounced drill was carried out raises an important question: Is it possible to prepare schools for this sort of emergency without traumatizing the students and teachers involved?…

Read the rest here. And if you’ve ever been traumatized by a scary situation, I’d particularly like to hear your take! – L. 

UPDATE: In response to the commenter who plans to hold an unannounced drill at this school sometime soon to make everyone “better prepared” than an announced drill would: There’s just  zero reason to make people temporarily believe they are at the hands of a madman, considering this is still one of the very rarest of crimes (even though it gets a lot of attention). It’s like snatching kids off the street in a windowless van without first explaining this is not a real abduction.

Small Middle School, Austin, TX.
It began as an ordinary day….