header image

Infantilizing young folk

Folks — Below is a 1-minute taste of the 13-part reality show I host, “World’s Worst Mom.” It’s like The Supernanny, except instead of dealing with out-of-control KIDS I deal with PARENTS and their out-of-control worries — like the mom who would only let her son stand on his skateboard on the lawn and NOT MOVE. Or the mom who’d take the family’s freshly cooked dinner and nuke it for 5 minutes to kill the germs. Or the mom who insisted her 13-year-old son still come with her into the ladies room.

I spent five days with each of these families, and at the end, 12 of the 13 changed to the point where they could barely remember WHY they had been so afraid.

“I’m a mother of four and prior to meeting Lenore I literally did EVERYTHING for them, from cleaning to cooking to laundry, etc. I didn’t allow my children to take part in any type of activities unless I was with them. My eldest child at the time was 16 and I had NEVER allowed him to take the bus. Yes — I was super overprotective with my children and lo and behold, Lenore came into my life and literally helped me with my crazy issues. I have never been happier as my children help me clean, cook and most importantly, I don’t have to drive them everywhere as they take the bus! Woo hoo! Words can’t express how thankful I am to have met Lenore. Miss her so much!” – S.C., Ontario mom of four 

The show airs on Slice TV in Canada and on Discovery/TLC International in a whole lot of the rest of the world (Russia, Australia, Latin America, Poland, Italy, and it is particularly popular in England). But it has yet to find a U.S. home. So, if you know of a TV executive, or if you ARE Ben SherwoodJeff ZuckerJoshua Sapan, or if you happen to be in charge of scouting programs for any TV, cable or web channel,  please take a look. Feel free to drop a private note at heylenore3@gmail.com. Thanks! — Lenore

UPDATE: Good news! Following talks with the Pennsylvania Council for the Blind, the school district will allow an “orientation and mobility instructor” to appraise Deven’s situation, and possibly allow him to get off the bus on his own (with some caveats). The update is here

Readers — This  story about a blind kid who doesn’t want to be babied by his (lawsuit-fearing) school  is all about making a Free-Range Kid into an invalid:

Born blind, Deven Phillips has been in Nazareth Area schools his entire life. His mother, Paula Smith, has made every effort to raise her 13-year-old son to be independent. But after a year and a half of getting off his school bus unattended, the school district informed his mother that policy must change.

Briefly: Deven had been driven “curb to curb” until sixth grade. Then, at last!, he was ready to join his peers on regular school bus. For the past year and a half now he’d been let off at his bus stop, same as any other kid.  But one day this winter, when snow and ice blocked the regular stop, he got  a little turned around when he got off and the bus driver had to tell him which direction to walk. That was all it took for his school to go nuts with worry, either for his safety, or its own liability. School Superintendent Dennis Riker wrote to the mom:

“The major concern with the bus stop is Deven’s orientation when he exits the bus. … Therefore, it’s my recommendation to our transportation office that an individual be required to be at the bus stop to assist Deven, or our transportation department will provide curb-to-curb service. Both of these options, supported by the (school district’s) attorney, would be in place on a permanent basis, even when the inclement weather season ends.”

Yes, even when it’s nice outside, the proud and independent young man will be treated like he’s helpless.

This story hits close to home for me. My husband’s dad went blind at 16 and his parents fought to have him stay in his mainstream school, where he’d been a failing student. He struggled to finish, and went on to law school where he graduated…valedictorian.

Meantime, Deven’s school is teaching him this life lesson: “You think you can make in the world, but you can’t.” Lovely. – L

(Mis)remember the words of Helen Keller: "Life is a daring adventure...so make sure someone is always taking care of you. Also, avoid lawsuits."

(Mis)remember the words of Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure…so avoid it.” 

Readers — I was giving a talk at St. Stephens & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, VA,  recently, and afterward one of the folks who urged the school to invite me, Cara Weiman, sent me this wonderful post from the blog Mothers of Brothers. It begins with the writer, Emily, saying that she helped her high school son make Valentine’s Day reservations at a restaurant:

I was pleased for him – and proud of myself for the assist.  But then I started to wonder if he would know how to use the debit card with the server when the meal was over.  Sure he had seen Dave and I pay for meals and calculate gratuities countless times.  But when alone in the wilderness of mediocre dining, could he fend for himself?

I wasn’t certain, and made a mental note to run through it with him before the big night.  Yup —  before my son heads off to college, he needs to know how to confidently execute this social maneuver that we adults have taken for granted.  Hmm.  He probably needs to know how to make a restaurant reservation as well.

Damn.  In helping him arrange his evening, I had missed a teachable moment.

The parental slip got me thinking about all of the lessons my boys have yet to learn before they leave the nest and frankly, the list I came up with in a minute’s time left me a little panicked.  So, in an effort to maintain some semblance of control of a situation over which I have no control, I created The Bubble List.

The list is great. Check it out. It itemizes things like:

Deal with a cancelled flight

Take a taxi

Catch the subway [Lenore's note: Yay!]

Plunge a toilet

Change a tire

And now — any items you’d like to add? Please do. And of course, not every 18-year-old has to master every one of these. For instance, us city-dwellers know how to take subways but not how to change a tire. And not everyone is going to take a flight. But you get the idea: What basics should most of us be making sure our teens know? Bubble on! – L

The list that lets kids float away.

The list that lets kids float away.

Readers, my Facebook friend Ali Bergstrom recently showed me a child development form filled out for her son. This is to assess 5-year-old with disabilities:

How many of these do we let our "normal" 5-year-olds do?

How many of these do we let our “normal” 5-year-olds do?

In case this is too hard to read, the benchmarks are:

Child may play safely at home without being watched constantly.

Goes about familiar environment outside of home with only periodic monitoring for safety.

Follows guidelines/expectations of school and community setting.

Explores and functions in familiar community settings without supervision.

Makes transaction in neighborhood store without assistance.

What’s fascinating is that this test is measuring whether a child with disabilities can do the things we no longer allow children WITHOUT disabilities to do.

Contrast the assessment’s expectations with this story from a while back: The 6-year-old detained by the cops for walking to the local post office. The cops thought she was just too young to be out on her own, and that her parents (who had practiced this trip with her) were dangerously negligent.

Negligent? Try empowering! As we can see from the form above, the professionals who work with special needs children understand that for those kids to MAKE IT in the world, they must go out and embrace it!

That goes for ALL kids. Heck, it even goes for adults! It goes for everyone! So, many thanks to Ali, for sharing this. And good luck with your obviously capable child! – L.

Readers — One of you sent me this fascinating piece on hitchhiking that ran in the New York Times last year. The writer, Ginger Strand, author of  Killer On the Road, points out that hitchhiking had been a normal mode of transportation, never considered particularly dangerous, until the late ’50s when:

The F.B.I. began warning American motorists that hitchhikers might be criminals. A typical F.B.I. poster showed a well-dressed yet menacing hitchhiker under the title “Death in Disguise?”

In the ’60s, the focus began to shift, emphasizing dangers to the hitchhiker instead of the driver. Although many states had some kind of regulation of hitching on the books, communities like Los Angeles, Boston and Nantucket, Mass. began debating municipal bans on soliciting rides. Officials in Cambridge, Mass., took an unusual approach, voting in 1971 to levy fines on motorists who picked up hitchhikers. In towns across the nation, the police arrested underage thumbers and distributed pamphlets. Police officers at Rutgers University handed out cards to hitchhiking women that read, “If I were a rapist, you’d be in trouble.”

Women, in particular, were said to be “asking for it” if they put out a thumb. The news media took the bait, writing scores of articles denouncing the practice. “In the case of a girl who hitchhikes,” a 1973 article in Reader’s Digest declared, “the odds against her reaching her destination unmolested are today literally no better than if she played Russian roulette.”

That was an absurd exaggeration. There were some well-known cases of murderers preying on hitchhikers, but there was no evidence that hitchhiking actually increased the murder rate. The one agency to commission a study on the subject, the California Highway Patrol, found in 1974 that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63 percent of crimes in the state. That’s hardly Russian roulette. The patrol agency concluded that reducing hitchhiking would probably not reduce crime. But by then the public perception had been transformed. Hitchhiking was considered so reckless that few drivers would encourage it by stopping.

Read more here, and then think about how hitchhiking died the same way (and the same time) walking to school did. Suddenly, nothing was safe beyond one’s own home or car. Young folk, especially, were told not to hitchhike, and so were stuck at home. So as we fight for Free-Range Kids, let’s bring hitching back, too.

Over the summer I was driving with my younger son and we picked up a hitchhiker who was otherwise stuck walking a mile or two to his construction job. Made my day (and his)! And I was happy my son saw me helping and trusting a stranger. A man, even! – L. 

Rides from strangers also fell victim to "stranger danger."

“Stranger-danger” fells another great, communal idea.  

Readers — Over and over I keep realizing how grateful kids are when we lean OUT of their lives a little and let them show us how competent they really are. I love this letter! – L. 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I stumbled on your site when a backpacking guide friend asked me what approach she should use in talking to Girl Scouts and their moms about camping and other “risky” outdoor activities.  I’ve been witnessing the changes in outdoor programs since I joined the Brownies in 1955!

My parents gave me my first jackknife when I was 8.  Mom taught me how to cross streets and how to walk against traffic so I could walk to school.  I camped out alone in our yard all the time.  Rode the city bus to downtown Bridgeport, CT, every weekend, starting at age 10.  I had the same streetlight curfew as every other kid I knew.  I learned to build campfires, cook outdoors, ride my bike, and swim.  My mom didn’t hover, she taught me.  She TRUSTED me.  I trusted me!

I handled myself just fine when I met a flasher.  It didn’t scar me for life.  I learned about death and loss and wasn’t shielded from difficult truths about being human.

I was free to fall down.  I figured out that everybody faces challenges.  Nobody rushed in to defend me in the principal’s office.

When I was 18, I had a chance to fly to Switzerland to study for a summer.  My mom said, “Go for it!”  Her favorite line as I was growing up was, “I didn’t raise any stupid kids.  Use your own judgment.”  The woman was a saint!

And I rose to the occasion BECAUSE she trusted me!

Kids need freedom and respect, training to take risks, opportunities to find their own strengths.

What the heck have we done to them except tell them how helpless and incompetent they are?

Whose idea was it that children are fragile and stupid? — Holly

Lenore here: It wasn’t MY idea…

Girls -- stand back! There's a fire!

Girls — stand back! There could be fire!

Readers — What a perfect way to start 2014, with a great story of two boys walking to the store and the mom who fought for that right.

Yes, that RIGHT. It is OUR RIGHT to believe in our kids.  And it is our kids’ right to grow up FREE from the limits imposed by delusions of danger.This story was sent in by Ben Rossiter, head of Victoria Walks, an Australian non-profit dedicated to getting people back to doing just what these boys did: Walking around their neighborhoods. How radical. – L.

Women call police after spotting young boys walking alone to Port Fairy shop — but mum is not happy

By Jarrod Woolley

PATRICK Blythe doesn’t understand why a group of women stopped their car and told him and his brother William to go home when they were walking to the shop yesterday morning. …“I was holding Will’s hand, we weren’t running and we stopped and looked properly when we had to cross the road,” the six-year-old said yesterday.

“I told them Mum said we could go, but they just said go home. It made me feel sad, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

It was the first time the brothers had been allowed to walk to the shop without their mum Kelly, a walk they had made together hundreds of times.


…Ms Blythe said she understood why the women stopped their car to check on her boys, aged six and four…. But what she can’t comprehend is why they called in the police.

Read the rest of the story here. Then MAKE YOUR DAY by reading the mom’s incredibly wonderful, Free-Range letter to a local paper that begins:

To the car of women who pulled over and stopped my two sons on their first unchaperoned walk to the shop to purchase milk, I would first like to acknowledge your concerns about the welfare of my children and I appreciate that you may have a different opinion about whether they were old enough to undertake such a task without adult supervision.

I understand that we do not live in an ideal world where we can presume our children are always going to be safe.

I would love to think that I could protect my children from any sort of harm and I shudder with horror like any parent when I hear about child abductions and other abhorrent abuses innocent children suffer, which are reported by all forms of the media on a daily basis.

I do not, however, want my children to grow up being afraid of the world.

I am a teacher and in my job I am responsible for the welfare and education of my students on a daily basis.

I teach many students who have limited independence and their reliance on myself and others to help them navigate their way through their daily world leaves me concerned about how they will cope with the realities of life once they leave school and have to look after themselves…

Here’s the rest! It ends:

I believe in raising my children to be intelligent, independent beings who will have a lot to offer the world as adults. I am teaching them to be aware of the dangers and realities of life, but to not be afraid of it. Yours sincerely, Kelly Blythe

Kelly is my hero! – L 

PORT FAIRY, VICTORIA: What a terrifying looking town!

PORT FAIRY, VICTORIA: What a terrifying looking town!