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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 Readers: Firsts off, thanks to all of you who sent this in: The very first app the FBI is releasing to the public. It’s the “Child ID App,” allowing you to store your kid’s photo, height and weight in one easy-to-retrieve place, and to forward this info instantaneously to the authorities. It was developed, according to the FBI’s site, to put “Child Safety In Your Hands.”

After all, the site notes: “A child goes missing every 40 seconds” — that’s 800,000 kids a year. “Many never return home.”

My question: Does the FBI read its own statistics? Because I do. And from what I read, about 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year. Of these, 50 are murdered. We live in a country of about 60,000,000 children age 15 and under. So the idea that “many” children never return home makes sense, if by “many” the FBI means 1 in over a million. And while perhaps a child goes missing once every 40 seconds (I know I went missing when I hid in the closet as a tot), one goes missing permanently, due to a stranger abduction, once a week.

Of course, even once a week is terrible. Heart stopping. No one would ever say otherwise. But by offering this app to America, the FBI is reinforcing the idea that children are in constant danger.  It feels as if the FBI has raced to fill a need that doesn’t exist while feeding a fear that’s already out of control. Maybe even at FBI headquarters.

Because as the FBI should know better than anyone, crime is DOWN since when most of us parents were kids (check out the charts toward the bottom of this link). It just doesn’t feel safer when the nation’s top crime agency is telling parents that children are disappearing, perhaps forever, all day long. That is a very scary thought, the kind that makes parents think they can’t ever let their kids out of their sight.

What is the down side to an app like this?  I mean, it IS nice to have a photo of your child available, if only so the pretzel lady at the mall can say, “Oh, your little boy is just on the other side of the kiosk!”

But the app comes with a tie to the  National Child Identification Program, which provides a physical kit to gather your child’s pictures, fingerprints, personal characteristics, and DNA “to keep with you in case of emergency.” What kind of emergency would that be?

Well, it’s not the kind when your kid is goofing around on the other side of the pretzel kiosk. It’s the kind when your kid’s body is decomposing.

Even granting that this app may indeed be helpful in some very rare, worst-case-scenarios (and not just running our law enforcement officers ragged with false alarms), turning it into just a handy-dandy thing you’d want to carry with you — the parental equivalent of a jack — makes it feel as if murdered children are as common as flat tires. The consequences of that dread are real, and I’m not just talking about obesity, diabetes and depression as we park kids at home, to be “safe.” There are other costs: Empty streets, because parents are too afraid to let their kids play. A line of cars in front of the school, because parents believe their kids aren’t safe to walk. Children never  organizing their own game of kickball, or climbing a tree, or riding their bike to a friend’s house, because the FBI is telling parents that every 40 seconds one of them will disappear.

I try not to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to safety products because I love some of them — like safety belts, and helmets. But when the product’s benefits seem slim and the societal repercussions loom large, I say: Keep a photo of your kids in your wallet and go about your day. And FBI? Get a grip. — Lenore

Hi Readers! I’m busy filming my TV show, so I was glad to get this pithy guest post on Caylee’s Law. It’s a proposed law I’ve been disturbed by, mostly because often when we make laws named for tragic children, they seem to make sense only in very specific situations, and retroactively, to boot. Like, “If only we’d had a law against moms buying duct tape, this never would have happened!” Then we get saddled with a law that doesn’t keep anyone safer, but does impinge on everyone’s freedom.
So here’s an essay by suburban Chicago dad Mark Buldak, who says his motto is, “Common sense isn’t as common as it used to be,” and is active in the Facebook group “Ban Dihydrogen Oxide.” — L
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“CAYLEE’S LAW” COULD MAKE ME A CRIMINAL, by Mark Buldak
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The knee-jerk reaction to bad motherhood being proposed, labeled Caylee’s Law, is a blow to Free-Range Kids.
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As proposed, the law would make failure to report a missing child in a timely manner a felony.
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I’ve received numerous requests from friends on Facebook to “join the cause” and sign the online petition favoring the passage of this bill. I refuse.
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I have problems with “in a timely manner.”  That’s vague and open to whims of interpretation. For example: My 13-year-old daughter tells me, “Dad, I’m going over to Brittney’s house for the afternoon.  I’ll call you later.”
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Four hours have gone by.  I haven’t heard from my daughter, so I call Brittney’s mom.  She tells me, no, my daughter isn’t there and, in fact, has not been there all afternoon.
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I call my daughter’s cellphone; no answer–only voicemail.  Of course I don’t have Brittney’s number—why would I need that?
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Seven hours after she left, my daughter walks in.  I’m relieved, and a little angry.  I demand to know where she’s been.
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“Dad, I’m sorry!  We ran into Madison and decided to spend the afternoon at the mall.  I tried calling, but I forgot to charge my phone.  It was dead, and Madison’s and Brittney’s couldn’t get signals.  You know the mall took out its pay phones last year.”
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With Caylee’s Law and an eager district attorney, I could be charged.  After all, my daughter was missing for seven hours.
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Granted, Casey Anthony did not graduate from the June Cleaver School of Motherhood.  That’s no call to punish all other mothers and fathers out there. — M.B.

Hi Readers: Just got this note. Read on!

Dear Free-Range Kids: I swear, I could just cry at the stranger-danger hysteria these days.

I have the good fortune to be self-employed.  As such, I can work whenever and wherever I want, so today I chose to work at the mall.  (I know, right?)  Did a little shopping, had a little lunch, now I’m ensconced in the bookstore cafe, latte in one hand, mouse in the other, waiting for my husband to get off work so we can go home together.

I am not a conventional looking woman, I guess, which makes me a rather attractive target for curious children.  I have long purple hair, wear gothy makeup, and don’t look like your typical mother of teenagers.  Add my little cloud of technology – a huge purple laptop with a matching purple mouse and a cell phone with a purple cover serving as my wireless hotspot…well, kids want to come look and ask questions.

Usually, I’m very happy to entertain them.  They either want to gawp at my hair (“Does your Mommy let you color it like that?”) or pet my computer or ask me what I went shopping for (there’s a big bag from Torrid at my feet.  It’s very pink and very eye-catching.)  Today, though, it’s been nerve wracking!  The kids come over and start to chatter while their parents are distracted, I invite them to sit and I smile and answer their questions, and then their parents come swooping out of nowhere, gasping and huffing and giving me the stink-eye whilst hustling their progeny off quickly in the opposite direction.  One woman even threatened to call Security!

The worst, though, was the gaggle of teenagers.  The teenagers weren’t bad.  Actually, the teenagers were pretty awesome.  There were four of them — three girls and a boy, all looking to be high school students close in age to my own kids.  They bounced about and asked me where I bought my hair dye and what kind of makeup I used, and the boy had a million questions about my computer and what I was doing.  He was delighted to hear that I work for a large search engine company, and proceeded to tell me all about how he wants to work for my client some day.  His sister poked him and told him she had a better chance there than he did, and they good-naturedly argued over who was the bigger nerd.  They were perfectly charming and funny and sweet and I was rather enjoying their company, even if they were sort of interrupting my work. They were not the bad part.

The bad part was their Mother.  She came into the cafe, found them sitting with me, chatting happily, and FLIPPED OUT.  How DARE I speak to her children, what was I doing there?  The boy protested.  “Mom, we were just asking her about her computer and stuff!”  Mom was not satisfied with that and ordered them away.  “You just never know what kind of freaks will try to sneak you out some back door!”

Merry Frellin’ Christmas to you, too, lady.  Sheesh. — M.

Hi Readers — Remember that story? A mom let her 12-year-old daughter and the girl’s friend take their combined three siblings to the mall. The kids shopped and had lunch but afterward, when the two older girls went into a dressing room to try on some shirts, they left the younger kids — 7 and 8 and a 3-year-old, who was in a stroller —  in the cosmetics department. Fearing God knows what (an attack by triplet pedophiles who snatch kids in public while nearby adults continue calmly selling cosmetics?), the clerks summoned mall security. Security brought the kids to the Macy’s office and hauled in the mom. The mom was arrested. And this is where the follow-up story, by Spiked Online’s fabulous Nancy McDermott, picks up. Read it here. And weep. — Lenore

Hi Readers — Remember that story? A mom let her 12-year-old daughter and the girl’s friend take their combined three siblings to the mall. The kids shopped and had lunch but afterward, when the two older girls went into a dressing room to try on some shirts, they left the younger kids — 7 and 8 and a 3-year-old, who was in a stroller —  in the cosmetics department. Fearing God knows what (an attack by triplet pedophiles who snatch kids in public while nearby adults continue calmly selling cosmetics?), the clerks summoned mall security. Security brought the kids to the Macy’s office and hauled in the mom. The mom was arrested. And this is where the follow-up story, by Spiked Online’s fabulous Nancy McDermott, picks up. Read it here. And weep. — Lenore

Hi Readers — This just in. Read it and grin. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My 9-year-old son and I went to a little strip mall yesterday. It has five stores. Joey needed a haircut and I needed thank you cards and wine. I sent him with money to get his hair cut while I hit the other two stores. This is where he always gets his hair cut and he knows what clipper setting he needs them to use and such.

He came running into the store saying that they would not cut his hair without a parent present to let them how we wanted it cut. He was confused because he had told them exactly how he wanted it done. I sent him back to tell them that if they can’t take instructions from a customer who happened to be 9 years old then he would take his money elsewhere.

They cut his hair.

I guess the way to get Free-Range concepts accepted is to hit ‘em where it hurts…the wallet!