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helicopter parents

Readers — It’s weird enough when we are warned that our bumper stickers are busy attracting predators. Now there is a new line of school bus that videos the cars behind it, on the bizarre assumption that these may be driven by predators so unsure of where else to find a child that they are following the big, yellow kiddie dispenser. And that’s not to mention the thumbprint recognition and tracking of the students, as if THEY were predators: 

A brief glance won’t tell you the new buses are equipped with voice-over-IP communication systems, or that they transmit data on speed, location and acceleration in real-time. The “Thumbs-Up!” thumbprint scanner, which keeps track of which kids are on the bus and whether they’re supposed to be there, is also hard to see unless you’re really pressing your face to the glass, as are the multiple interior security cameras.

Slightly easier to notice is the rear-facing camera, dubbed — no joke — the “Pedophile Finder.” “I wish we could have come up with a better name for it,” says Dallas County Schools spokeswoman Allison Allison. (Yes, that’s the correct name.) The camera, mounted on the top portion of the school bus and positioned to capture the license plate of tailing vehicles, isn’t just to catch pedophiles. It could be a parent who lost custody of their child, or a kidnapper. But “Pedophile Finder” was the name that stuck. “The bus driver can’t tell if somebody’s tailing him but if they recognize a pattern of a car following a bus” based on video, they can take appropriate measures.

I’m really curious what those “appropriate measures” are. Slam on the brakes and wait for the crash? Alert the police, “There’s  a car behind me!”  Get out of the bus and demand to see if the driver is wearing pants? Please, PLEASE protest if your school district even CONSIDERS these add-ons as “necessary for the safety of our children.” – L. 

To catch a predator...while driving a bus.

To catch a bus-tailgating predator.

Hi Readers — Kwasi Enin, a Long Island, NY, high school senior who got into all the Ivies credits his “helicopter parents” for pushing him to excel. So does this mean that helicopter = success and, possibly, Free-Range = failure? Of course I don’t think so. Here’s why.

1  - First is the fact that success can be defined many, many ways, of which “Ivy League acceptance” is just one. But you knew that.

2 – We have no idea where the Free-Range kids are going to college. And even if they all got into Ivies, see #1.

3 – Free-Rangers DO believe in helping our kids to succeed. The way we do it is by loving them (as I’m sure Kwasi’s parents do) and letting them know that we believe in them.  (Ditto.) It’s just that we believe in them —  and basic human nature — so much that we believe they can do many things safely and successfully on their own.

We are still happy to help, and often do, but we don’t think our kids need us to schedule every second, handle every issue, or make every moment “teachable.” We believe in our kids to the point where even when it looks like “all” they’re doing is playing outside, walking to school, or pursuing some hobby that we didn’t choose for them, they are still learning. Note: This may or may not result in higher grades.

We have nothing against helicopter parents, and most likely we are all some mixture of both. I know I am — in part because “Free-Range” isn’t a parenting philosophy so much as a world view: We do not believe our kids are in constant danger, so there’s no need to act as if they are. (Or make laws as if they are.)

All of us want the best for our kids and all believe they can do great things. Free-Rangers may stand back a little more than Kwasi’s parents. But we share the belief that our kids should be grateful, engaged, and kind. And that they’ve all got the goods to be “successful” — however you define it.  - L

Helicoptered Kids Only?



Readers, This is an excerpt from the book, “From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back,” by Julie Gunlock (her real name — not a political statement!).  I love this book for its smart, funny look at the excessive fears foisted upon parents, forcing us to hover, because it really does feel as if everything — from cupcakes to chemicals — is out to harm our kids:

From Cupcakes to Chemicals, by Julie Gunlock. Excerpt from Chapter 2, “Be Afraid of Everything”

A few years ago, I was watching the news and was shocked to learn that my garden hose was incredibly dangerous. Say what? The newscaster anachoring the program that night seemed really upset about this story. He leaned forward in his seat, stuttered…and…wait…did I see him tear up? Did his voice just crack? Oh my gosh, he’s going to cry!

This.is.a.serious.problem. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE! NOW!

…Yet the facts behind the “killer garden hoses lurking in your backyard” are hardly scary. The news story centered on the fact that most garden hoses are made of polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC. PVC has high levels of lead and other chemicals and, therefore, the claim was that since children and pets sometimes drink from garden hoses, they were getting big doses of toxins when taking the occasional sip.

But before you read any more, just think about it: Do children and pets really drink a lot of water from garden hoses? Is the garden hose a main source of water for children and pets? Are they drinking gallons of water this way?

Sure, during summer months, kids consume some “garden hose water” as they play in the sprinkler or splash in the kiddie pool. They make take a gulp or two when mom’s watering the garden. But in general, kids do not get the bulk of their water in any given day — much less during their lives — from the garden hose.

…I was lucky I had time to look into this story and question its merits. I was able to ignore the hysteria and consider the facts. And those facts are reassuring. Most garden hoses are indeed made of polyvinyl chloride, which is toxic if consumed in large quantities. Yet it is impossible — let me repeat that word, impossible — for a human to consume enough water to reach toxic levels of PVC exposure. Why is this impossible? Because the amount of chemical that leaches into the water is so minuscule that a person would have to consume massive amounts of garden hose water in order for it to be a problem. And if a person attempted to drink the amount of water required to reach PVC toxicity, they’d first die of dilutional hyponatremia — death by water overdose.

…[But] right now there are moms out there who are sitting on patios watching their toddlers run through the sprinkler or jump in the kiddie pool who are filled with fear of their garden hose. You can almost envision the scene: Instead of just enjoying the moment watching their kids play and laugh, these moms are periodically stopping to pester junior not to drink through the hose.

Remember: Nothing is safe and your kids are under constant threat.

Remember: Nothing is safe to eat, do or buy, and your kids are under constant threat.


Parents at North Farmington High School in Michigan want the school to halt production of “Carrie” as this year’s musical, reports Aileen Wingblad in the Detroit Free Press. They say it is disturbing and insensitive. My favorite complaint from a parent at the Board of Ed meeting was this:

Lyrics refer to sex, alcohol, marijuana and violence, she noted, which “is making our job as worried parents even harder as we try to keep our children physically and emotionally safe. These lyrics throw all our efforts back in our faces.”

I love that she actually refers to her cohort as parents who have a job to do: worry! In this case, they are worried that a musical is somehow powerful enough to make children emotionally and even PHYSICALLY unsafe. …Does she think Carrie has REAL telekinetic powers?

Abandon hope, all ye who watch the musical based on the movie I was in!

Abandon hope, all ye who watch the musical based on the movie I was in!

But, as a lover of musicals —  and I must add, the lyricist of one that played Off Broadway, back in the day — I must admit part of me is thrilled that anyone would ascribe that much life-changing power to lyrics!

Meantime, here’s a comment on the Detroit Free Press piece I found spot on and inspiring:

I have known [North Farmington High School's theatrical director] Dean Cobb for over 25 years. I was fortunate to be the first person at NFHS to be in 4 musicals at North, having been a freshman when the musical theatre program began in 1990 (I played The Wizard in the Wizard of Oz). Dean not only taught me to love theatre, he taught me to believe in myself and he taught me to work hard to achieve my goals. At a time when I was having a hard time talking with my parents (as many teens do) Dean became a confidant and mentor. In the years I have known Dean, I have seen and heard him teach students about positive self worth, respect for one another and to celebrate diversity. Today, I am the artistic director of a theatre company in NYC (www.illuminart.org) that is dedicated to using theatre as a tool for change and inspiration of social justice. I owe my fulfilling career to the lessons and inspiration of Dean Cobb.

I encourage anyone who objects to the performance of Carrie at NFHS to take a good look at the story. It shows how young people suffer at the hands of bullies. It shows that mental illness differs from religious belief. It also shows what constant isolation and taunting can do to the mental health of young people. It is a story that bears repetition.

I applaud the administration of NFHS and the FPS for its continued support of the performing arts at North Farmington High School and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Dean and Sue Cobb and Lucy Koviac for their years of guidance and support.

Randy B. Topper
Artistic Director,
IlluminArt Productions
NFHS Calss of 1993

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 — There is something poignant, sweet, weird and wonderful about what you’re about to read. Remember it when friends say they can’t possibly go Free-Range because it’s too scary. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Back in ’09 I read your book, and allowed my boys to walk to get ice-cream for the first time. About a 5-7 min. walk from our house.  Rob was 12, and Isaac would be 11 in a few months.

I had written you a few times back then. I had experienced a stranger abduction when my pastor’s daughter was abducted and murdered in an area pretty country and quiet. So letting go was huge for me.

Anyhow, my boys are 15 and 16 today, and this fall I put them in public school after homeschooling them exclusively their whole lives. We just finished their first quarter, and I finally got to read my son Rob’s personal narrative. The story he chose to write about was — the first time I let them go. I was gripped by how much I had scared my boys — apparently the older more than the younger. That this is what made the biggest impression on him in his life.

I thought I’d share it with you if you’re interested.

Deb Turner

My Turning Point, by Rob Turner

The summer’s breath filled the air as I stare down M. road, towards that busier street which I didn’t remember the name of.  Rather, I attempted to stare – there was an annoying amount of shrubbery blocking the view from our yard.  Normally this would be a blessing, because nobody really wants a better view of a busy road, except that the shrubbery also blocked the rest of M. leading up to it. In other words, I could never figure out whether a car was coming or not, except by sound. And the fact that you could usually hear cars either way, going up or down that busy street, did not help at all.  Of course, the reality was that I was being paranoid; it wasn’t especially difficult to differentiate the noise of a car on M. and on the other road. But it was hard not to be, given what I was about to do.

Normally, I would only even be thinking about crossing the road because I was going to get the mail, or… well, that was really about it.  I didn’t see the neighbors across the street — they threw snowballs at cars, so we weren’t allowed to be friends — and I didn’t get on any school buses, and I never walked anyplace at all – at least, not without some sort of parental supervision.  That last one, I guessed, was about to change.

For any other kid, this probably wouldn’t be a big deal.  But to me, well.  From a very young age I’d been taught about the danger of strangers, and how you should never walk alone, and how to escape the grip of a captor — probably too often for my own good. To be fair, it was mostly because the previous pastor of our church had had his daughter kidnapped, which kind of shook up basically everyone, but that had taken place either when I was an infant or yet to be born.  In any case, my mother had finally come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t exactly a regular occurrence, so she decided it was finally time to let my younger brother Isaac and I walk down to the C. Ice Cream Parlor by ourselves.

It was probably mostly because Isaac had been pushing for it for a while, but it was happening nonetheless.  I was still somewhat apprehensive, of course, but Isaac could be pretty convincing when he felt like it.  He managed to cross the road (still taking precautions, of course, but quite a bit faster) and, since he went through the trouble of assuring me that no cars were coming, I followed him.  From there, it was an easy walk, going down a paved hill and finally seeing the ever-so-busy street ahead.

It wasn’t actually that busy, I decided.  Just the busiest road that I encountered with any sort of regularity.  And then, of course, we’d have to cross it again to get to the ice cream parlor.  The long, rocky driveway ate away at my shoes as I walked to the familiar, and yet now so different, building. I’d been here before, of course, but never without my parents, or at least my older brother to watch me.  I could feel the protective bubble around my home stretching to accommodate me. I could feel it pressing against my skin as I took step after step past its boundaries, until I finally went through it. But I couldn’t back down now; I had to do this.  My mother had assured me that she had probably been wrong, and not literally every person was a kidnapper, so I would be fine.  I took five dollars out of my pocket and held onto them like they were precious gems, but once I realized I was doing this I loosened my hand, because I did not want to appear nervous. My brother asked for the money and I said, “No, I’ll do it.”

After figuring out exactly what ice-cream we would buy (chocolate peanut butter cup and moose tracks for me, mint chocolate chip and peanut butter cup for him), I faced down the ice-cream guy, and, albeit with a few “umms” and “uhhs,” I made my order.

The man seemed somewhat suspicious of us, like we were the ones out of place in this busy and somewhat terrifying land that was so close to our home.  When he asked how we got there, I told him we walked, and when he asked where we lived, I apprehensively said that we lived up the road. Being rather nervous (oh no, why did I tell him where we live, now he’s gonna kidnap us), I made my best effort to not participate in this questioning any longer, and when we got our ice-cream we circled over to the side of the place, where there were tables with umbrellas and a fair number of bees.

Of course, being completely terrified of bees, I wanted to just eat and walk home at the same time and be done with the whole thing. But they weren’t especially near us, so I just nervously edged away from any that flew within a ten foot radius of me.  So we ate our ice-cream (which was somewhat melty, but that only made the rich chocolate even more delicious), and threw away our messy napkins. Then we walked back home, retracing a few confusing steps, and when we got there our mom was sitting on the porch because she was so nervous. But we were fine.  Our dogs were rather exceptionally excited to see us, it seemed, like when we would come home from family camp, and we were somewhat excited as well, both due to the ‘ice-cream whenever we want now’ aspect and the somewhat increased freedom it gave us. We forgot about any sort of suspicious man entirely, which actually turned out fine.

In any case, the barrier of my home slipped over me once more, ever prepared to guard me from the dangers of the outside world, but it would only become easier to escape, each walk we took down to the ice cream parlor taking less and less resistance until it hardly seemed a bother at all.  But while I was inside it, there was nothing on Earth which could break through the impenetrable barrier. And I rather liked it that way. – Rob

It's hard to be brave after being held back.

It’s hard to be brave after being held back.

Readers — Here’s a letter I just got from a fellow journalist I’ve met a few times, and like:

Dear Lenore: I hate to say this but I think the helicopter mommies are right. Now that I am seeing kids in college who grew up this way, I have to admit they are pretty darn perfect. They are getting into the best schools, they are well behaved, they are kind and smart and lovely, they are getting great jobs (oh yes, with their parents’ help but hey it’s working for them!) and they never seem to get into trouble.

I thought I was doing the right thing by letting my kids take the subway at age 10 and go to Europe alone at 16 but I don’t feel like those real-world things are helping them do well in areas where society seems to care most – you know, things like SAT scores and where they go to college. Sigh. And of course the helicoptered kids do eventually learn to take the subway, even if it’s a few years later than mine did.

Signed, Wondering if Everything I Hold Dear is Wrong.

P.S. Some day can you please do a blog post on this?

Dear Wondering: Before I launch into a whole thing about Free-Range, just remember that whenever we compare our kids to anyone else’s, we never know the whole story. So try to resist.  And now — my response:

Teaching your kids to take the subway and travel to Europe isn’t all you’ve done for your kids — or all that Free-Range is about. It’s about encouraging their curiosity, independence and self-reliance, all of which can go hand-in-hand with being a good student, or not. But it certainly goes hand-in-hand with being  a young person at home in the world rather than wary of it. And if you want examples of a Free-Range childhood leading to a “pretty darn perfect” adulthood, consider Richard Branson, founder of Virgin. On page one of his autobiography, he writes about his mom making him walk a mile home…when he was four. When he turned 12, she asked him to bike over to his uncle’s, 50 miles away. The confidence his mom had in him and the confidence he developed in himself formed the bedrock of his success.

This doesn’t mean helicoptered kids won’t be successful, too. Most kids of all stripes eventually are, even if at times they are floundering. (We all flounder!) Free-Range Kids have no reason to be less polite or hardworking than helicoptered kids, because Free-Range isn’t about neglecting, or never disciplining them. It’s just about letting them know that they are not in constant danger, and that we believe in them gradually making their own way.

That’s what seems to be the sticking point right now: You’re wondering if you can believe in your kids.

It sounds like at this particular moment, you are wishing you’d hovered over every book report and forbade every afternoon at the park, because you imagine your kids would be very different if you had. But from where I sit  (and this is why we can’t compare kids!) there’s still no saying what your kids would be like. Successful? Resentful? Grateful? Suicidal? We have no idea.

But I do hold likely that if your kids could navigate Europe, they will eventually navigate the working world. (And once they do — write back!)

So if you are wishing you had “created” different kids, all I can say is: We don’t create them. We don’t even know the “best” way to raise them, because (drum roll) there isn’t any.

Free-Range  does not create successes or failures. It does not create good or bad students. All it does is remind our kids and us that they are not in constant danger, that we believe in them AND the world, and that failing  isn’t the end. It’s part of the process.

Which, come to think of it, is a good thing for you to remember right now, too. – L.

Do only helicoptered kids succeed?

Do only helicoptered kids succeed?