Fighting 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.
Readers, this comes up often: terrified grandmas who were fearless moms (or at least feared less):
Dear Free-Range Kids: Funny thing about my mother…
I was very much raised Free-Range. From the time I was six or so, I left the house in the morning, returned for lunch, and then got called home after dark. The only rule was don’t leave the block without telling someone. My friends and I ran in a pack, organized our own games, settled our own rivalries, and learned important lessons like ‘poking sticks in the gutters is only fun until you bother a raccoon.’
I am incredibly grateful for my childhood. I honestly grieve for children who are never allowed outside without supervision and aren’t even trusted in their own homes without an adult until they’re sixteen (if then). But what I find most maddening is that my own mother, who raised me to be independent and dance in the rain, now firmly believes those parents have the right idea.
Why? Because, “The world has changed.”
And when I show her the stats and explain how times are actually LESS dangerous than in the days when I was roaming the streets, she says, “Well, everyone has their own beliefs.” I cannot convince her that the lower crime rate is an actual, verifiable FACT, not an opinion. She tells me “anything could happen,” and when I remind her that nothing happened to her own children, she says, “It’s just not safe these days.”
That’s how insidious the media machine is. Here we have a woman who once trusted in the world enough to let her children experience it…yet who now firmly believes in the face of all evidence that children are now being snatched off street corners every single day. Data and facts do not sway her, because this isn’t about reality…it’s about perception, and ONLY perception.
My brother recently had his first child. They came to visit, and his wife scolded him for turning his back on the baby in a restaurant for less than thirty seconds. He had dropped a fork, and while his wife was in the restroom my brother got up to grab a waiter’s attention. “Anyone could have taken him!” his wife said, and my mother agreed.
It’s just so damn sad. – Frankly Frustrated
Dear Frustrated: It IS sad. And to live in such safe times and treat them like we’re living through the Plague Years is really ungrateful, too. So, if any of you readers have managed to make your own parents shake off the fear, please tell us how you did it!
Yesterday’s Free-Range Moms are today’s terrified grannies.
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.
What kind of monster bakes cookies for kids and bus drivers?
Readers — This is a fantastic essay from Parents, by Kara Corridan, the magazine’s health editor. Read the whole thing here. - L
Worry Doesn’t Equal Love by Kara Corridan
Lately I’ve felt as though I’m part of a competition I didn’t enter. It’s called “Who Loves Her Child More?” And I seem to be losing–if the only way to succeed in it is to worry.
It started at the church carnival. My almost-4-year-old found one of the few rides she was tall enough to go on, the kind where you sit in an “animal” that goes up and down while rotating around the center pole. Each time my daughter passed me in her flying unicorn–roughly every 30 seconds–she’d gleefully wave and shout “Hi, Mommy!”
A mom I know appeared at my side. “My boys kept asking to go on that,” she said by way of greeting. “I was like, ‘Forget it.’ There’s no way I’m letting them on that thing.” She visibly shuddered.
“This is Lila’s fourth time,” I replied, not taking my eyes off my child’s delighted little face.
The mom shook her head. “I would be sick if my kids went on that. It looks so rickety. And check out the guy running it.” While not the most attractive man I’d ever seen, he seemed to be doing his job perfectly well. Mother Doomsday moved on, perhaps to spread fear at the teacup ride.
A few months later I was chatting with a woman in the pediatrician’s waiting room. The subject of drop-off birthday parties came up and I shared my view: They’re awesome, and I couldn’t wait for the day when my younger girl was old enough for them.
I rely on those precious 90 to 120 minutes to scramble around and complete as many family-related errands in a 15-mile radius as I can. The woman explained, “I’m not big on drop-offs. But that’s just me. I’m a worrier. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to my daughter when I wasn’t there.” More…
Lenore here: The rest of the essay is every bit as wonderful. Let me just add my frustration with the, “I’d never forgive myself if…” deal. Thinking that way makes the parent’s feelings paramount. It’s not only worst-first thinking, it’s “my-neurosis-trumps-any-upside-for-you-kiddo” thinking. It’s all about calming the parents’ nerves. There’s something creepy about seeing your child’s life through the lens of how guilty you’d feel if anything even unpredictable happened to them, so your “only” alternative is to bubblewrap. – L.
Help for Overprotective Parents by Jennifer Breheny Wallace
A couple of years ago, my then five-year-old son William took a standardized test in which he was asked about everyday objects. The tester noted his unusual responses to some questions. When asked “What do candy and ice cream have in common?” William replied, “They both give you cavities.” For the question “What is chewing gum?” William answered, “A choking hazard.”
I was raised by risk-averse parents, and they were raised by risk-averse parents, and now I find myself raising risk-averse children. It’s an emotional family heirloom—but even my parents think I’ve taken it too far. They have two smoke alarms; I have 10. They worry about sunburn; I worry about skin cancer. And how well does sunscreen really work, and why can’t the kids just wear full-protection hazmat suits?
William, now seven, is my oldest; his sister and younger brother are six and three. Last year William and I had an exhausting summer as we struggled between his desire to grow up and my desire to keep him safe, which basically means locked in our house: no playing on the front lawn, no crossing our busy street, no swimming in the ocean. This year I vowed to break free. I was tired of saying no all the time, and I knew that as William grew older, he would only want to become more independent. But I knew I couldn’t get there alone—I needed a copilot who could stop my anxious mind from spinning. So I called Lenore Skenazy.
Lenore is the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts With Worry, ($12, amazon.com) and she is my polar opposite. In 2008 she let her nine-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone and wrote a column about it for the New York Sun. After national media picked up the story, Lenore was dubbed America’s Worst Mom, so she founded Free-Range Kids, a grassroots movement to give children more autonomy. According to Lenore, hyper-protective parents like me are not only driving ourselves crazy but also depriving our kids of the satisfaction that comes with mastery and self-sufficiency. She even makes “Free-Range house calls,” in which she visits nervous parents to help them see how competent their kids can be.
I was ready to change, but I couldn’t resist asking Lenore, “Isn’t there a safe way to teach children to take risks?”
“Of course,” she said. “I’m a big fan of safety measures—bike helmets, seat belts. I just don’t think kids need a security detail every time they leave the house. Risk and risky are not the same thing, but our culture is determined not to see the difference.” Whenever a child gets on a bike, he’s taking a risk, Lenore told me, because he could fall and break an arm. (I resisted the urge to hang up.) Riding a bike at night without reflectors, however, is risky. “You can limit risky behavior, but you can’t eliminate risk,” she said. “If a child never tries gum, he’ll never choke on it. But he could choke on a bologna sandwich.” I had to admit she had a point.
Readers — This story is getting a lot of attention: A woman in North Dakota has declared she is going to give out letters, not treats, to kids she considers “moderately obese.” She feels it’s her job to bring their weight to their attention, and she’s mad at the parents for letting them forage for candy.
My take? Aside from the fact that pointing out someone’s weight is both rude and pointless (does heaping shame ever change anyone…for the better?), Halloween is the often the one night of the year kids get to discover how fun it is to leave the house. It’s a night to re-normalize the bizarrely uncommon activity called “being outside,” and its subset, “walking around the neighborhood.”
Anyone anti-obesity should ENCOURAGE that. (Perhaps even with a candy incentive.) – L.
P.S. The lady hails from around Grand Forks. Feel free to make some puns.
Readers — Here’s a feisty comment that came in response to the post about a reader’s YMCA that requires kids who haven’t passed the swim test to stand not more than an arm’s length away from their parents in the shallow end, and also to wear life jackets — virtually ensuring that the children can NOT learn to swim, because they don’t get a chance to practice. It comes to us from reader Emily. She was responding to “Jill,” who opined in favor of the measure.
And then we’ll see things from the Y’s point of view:
Jill — Maybe you can “never be too safe,” but forcing children to wear life jackets in the pool, and making it impossible for them to practice swimming isn’t “safe,” it’s stupid and short-sighted. The life jacket rule ends at the age of eleven at some pools, seven at others. So what happens when the children get to the “magic age” and still can’t swim, because they haven’t been allowed to practice in the relatively safe environment of a life-guarded pool?
At some point, you CAN be “too safe.” “Too safe” happens when “safety” becomes the be-all, end-all concern, at the expense of allowing kids to develop skills, and parents to encourage them — without being kicked out of the YMCA pool for teaching their child to swim. You can be “too safe” when parents worry about being ratted out to the authorities for letting their children play outside unsupervised, or background-checked within an inch of their lives upon applying to become a scout leader. I know people say that, ”If it saves just one child, then it’s worth it.” But for every “one child” that these policies save, many more children are being robbed of important childhood experiences — not just learning to swim, but riding their bikes to get Popsicles, or joining a group like Scouts or Guides because there aren’t enough “perfect” adults to meet the demand for leaders, or going on hiking/camping/canoe trips once they get into one of these groups, because those activities require miles of red tape. The saddest thing is, a lot of kids don’t even know what they’re missing, because to them, it’s normal to live a sanitized, supervised, “safe” life.
As for water safety, the best way to prevent drowning is to teach kids to swim. It’s also a real boost for self-esteem, especially since a lot of kids who aren’t good at traditional team sports can be good at swimming. I know this, because I was one. However, we’ll never know if we never let kids take off their life jackets. – E.A.
I showed this to Ben Miller at Common Good, the organization bent on restoring common sense to everyday life, and he wondered why a Y would insist on arbitrary rules like this. “A swim instructor, or a parent, knows what protection the child needs in order to learn and to be safest in the long run — not a one-size-fits-all rule like this one, designed around paranoia and liability fear.”
See? Common sense. But THEN, readers, I just got this article in today’s mail: A Massachusetts couple is suing their local Y camp because their daughter fractured her leg and twisted her ankle on the camp’s new “jumping pillow.” This time, it’s the parents who, while understandably upset, are nonetheless over-the-top, insisting the pillow be removed. To its extreme credit, the Y replied (boldface mine):
“Although our insurance carrier assures us that we have one of the best safety records of any YMCA in the country, occasional injuries happen in our programs regardless of the level of precautions, training, and close supervision by our staff,” the Y said in a statement to the Globe. “To date, we’ve found the jumping pillow to be as safe as any other of our program venues including our playing fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, and gymnasium.”
I do fear a day when tennis and gym go the way of swimming and maybe the jumping pillow: Off-limits to kids unless their parents are right next to them, with a doctor-lawyer team right next to the parents. - L
The Jumping Pillow at the South Shore YMCA outside of Boston.