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Hi Readers! Just had to crow. The story about Hunter, the deaf pre-schooler who was told to change his name because it violated the school’s anti-gun policy, was sent to us by a gal in Hunter’s neck of the woods — Nebraska — on Monday night, which is when I posted and tweeted  it. By Tuesday afternoon, the story had gone ’round the world. Google it — you can’t miss it. On Yahoo’s home page alone it got 17,000+ comments. And despite the fact neither this site nor the one where I’m guest-posting this month, The Agitator, are getting credit (see this),   Free-Range Kids was, as far as I can tell, the first to bring it to national attention.

What thrills me about that is knowing that the press is peeking in on us, and ready to take up the anti-stupidity standard. It’s also thrilling to see how obvious it is to most humans that Zero Tolerance too often means Zero Brains. Hunter’s story may go on to achieve “The Lady Who Sued McDonald’s For Hot Coffee” status (but don’t start debating it here!), used as a sort of shorthand for, “Come on — under the pretense of caring, this is just INSANE.”

We could use a story like that, because it is time to re-think so many schools rules and time to remember our kids just aren’t that vulnerable. For me it is also time to thank YOU, readers, for always sending in the best examples of what’s wrong with the way we treat kids, and what’s right.

Keep it up! – L.

Hi Folks — Here’s what the “stranger danger” lectures kids are getting at school looks like to a girl with the X-ray vision of Superman and the snark of a  middle school brainiac.  – L
 
Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in Edison, New Jersey. It’s a town with a large population, but for the most part people know each other pretty well. In elementary school, one of the parents told the school nurse I wasn’t wearing a jacket and the nurse called my parents and threatened to call DYFS, although the coat was in my backpack. This last year I was on a trip where a supervisor told me at 14 I was not yet old enough to decide that 60 degree weather was warm enough where I could hold my windbreaker and not wear it. Basically, I live in a town where everyone looks out for each other, no matter how annoyingly condescending their attempts at protecting us are.
Every middle school here had an assembly on “internet safety.” The man was talking to us about measures to take on social networking sites, which is of course not bad advice, though I’m much more concerned about bullying than rape. He told us two stories, the first of which was about a teenage girl who posted on her Facebook page that she would be home alone for the weekend, as her parents are out of town. Some strange man found this and  basically followed her to school, where she was cheer-leading, then followed her home and tried to invade, where he was stopped by the security system and everything went fine. The details are a little blurry, because honestly, I had my iPod out and was Googling the situation, which I’d decided was either made up or exaggerated. I found no results on Google and wrote it off as BS, I passed the iPod to one of my friends, who nodded, and we were more or less twiddling our thumbs, as I’m sure all schools intend their students to spend a majority of their time doing. Then, he goes onto another story, the kind that is obviously manipulative.
This time he talks about an eight year old girl, who had posted on her Facebook page that she was going to the park. Some man found the girl at the park, called her by name and told her his puppy was missing, then asked the young girl into the car with him. She does. The girl then looks down at the locks and realizes they’ve been duct taped. They go on to say she was raped, and if memory serves, killed.
At this point I’m pretty disgusted at the lengths they’re going to make us fear everything. It’s a sad story, and if it’s true, my sympathies are with the family and the incredibly rare situation which just occurred *also not on Google*. Then, they go on to tell the story of the kids who were bullied to the point of suicide because of things on Facebook. It’s ridiculous to assume that someone bullied on Facebook killed him or herself simply because of that, and as someone who knows victims of suicide, it’s personally offensive to watch it used solely as a way to prey on children and make money.
The way they’re telling the story, though, is obviously the media version. They’re selling propaganda, because the school district isn’t going to write a check for them saying everything is fine, just keep living.
After that, comes the sex offender registry, basically if a girl sends a naked picture of herself, then she’s a sex offender for manufacturing and distributing child pornography, and whichever lucky bloke she sends it to is in for possession, and if he happens to share the gift with one of his friends, then he’s got distribution too. While young girls probably ought not be full-frontal on their cell phone cameras, it by no means warrants (pun kind of intended) an arrest. Then they talk about how social networking allows drugs to be sold more easily, blah, blah, blah.
What they’ve basically done is terrified the five children who “respect” adults enough to believe everything they say; and given bullies the advice that, basically, in-person and physical bullying is better because it doesn’t leave a paper trail; and given a few sleazy kids in the audience a good way to sell more drugs. They have also have completely degraded women and young girls, who now have to feel like they will always be targets, that they are in fact not strong enough mentally or physically to defend themselves without an alarm that alerts the police every time the wind blows too hard, criminalized both teenage boys and men, and wasted the time of everyone in the audience. It basically culminated into a three-period-long assembly where everyone was crammed into the gym that could have been made more productive by handing out jump ropes.
Sorry I got a little ranty here. It just annoys me because my entire life I’ve been told what I’m not capable of deciding for myself. – Hope, a New Jersey just-starting-high school student 
Lenore again: I wrote back to Hope that the only bone I had to pick with her is about sexting — I think it IS a good idea to be warned about that, because the sex offender laws ARE Draconian and can  twist consensual behavior into hard time. And Hope — so brilliant — wrote back: 
 Of course sexting is a bad idea, as it can be permanently circulated. But it’s just not right to put a girl who took a picture of her own breasts in the same category as an adult doing it with small children. The laws should adapt as society does, and unfortunately there’s not enough of that.
Lenore again: Wow! Wish I’d been that brilliant before I even entered high school! Or after! Let’s hear it for Hope! 

Listen up children…and do NOT consult Snopes!

Hi Readers! Over in jolly ol’ England,  there’s a man I revere named Tim Gill who runs the blog Rethinking Childhood, and wrote the book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society. This most recent post of his is SO GOOD — and asks such an important question — I asked if i could run part of it here. Replied Tim, “Take the whole thing!” See what I mean? A great guy. – L

WHEN ANXIOUS PARENTS ARE THE PROBLEM, WHAT IS THE SOLUTION? by TIM GILL

How should schools, nurseries, kindergartens and other education, childcare and play services respond to anxious parents? I was asked this question recently by an Australian early years educator who heard me speak a couple of months ago.

She explained that her setting’s outdoor space was very small and sparse, but that it was located in some more extensive school grounds. She was keen to take the children into the grounds, so they could play games that they do not have room for in their own yard. She wanted to do this, not only because of the extra space, but also to prepare the children for the transition to the ‘big school’ that many of them would soon be joining. She continues:

Unfortunately, one parent has refused permission for their child to have anything to do with the school, because “she’s not going to that school next year”. I’ve spoken to my managers, and there’s nothing I can do about one parent preventing all the children from going to the school. I am not able to ask the child to stay home on those days. I am not able to leave her with one staff member at the setting. I am not able to leave her at the school office. And when I appealed to the mother she said that it is my problem.

It is amazing that one parent can determine what all the other children will be able to do! I asked my managers if they could make it a compulsory policy from next year’s enrolments that parents give permission before enrolling to access the school grounds. However, they said no, as I am supposed to engage with our community, according to regulations.

They did say they would look into it, as they hadn’t come across a parent like this before. I said they should, because there’s always one parent! If a parent doesn’t give permission then it’s certainly to their child’s detriment, but to affect everybody else’s rights to go on an excursion or to do an activity that is deemed beneficial and educational is not right.

Note the real problem here. It is not parents as a group. It’s that because of the policies and procedures of the setting, the views of a single parent are enough to derail things.

baby-knee-padsParents, like the rest of us, are on a spectrum when it comes to their attitude to risk. At one end of this spectrum, some parents apparently feel the need to protect their children through against all possible harm, even the harm from crawling on a hardwood floor.

All too often, systems and procedures effectively give risk averse parents a veto. Schools, services and settings feel under pressure to set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parent. Often, the result is that all children lose out on some vital learning experiences.

My take-home message to services – and especially service managers – is simple. If you want to allow all children the chance to spread their wings a little, you cannot set your bar at the level of the most anxious parent. In the nicest possible way, you need to be assertive with the ones at the fearful end of the spectrum. They should not be allowed to think that they have a veto on what you offer to children.

Readers: How about you? How worried are you about the influence of anxious parents? What messages do parents get about your values – for instance, in your publicity materials, or your mission statement – and how well do these values square up with your practice? Have you succeeded in winning the more risk-averse over to the idea of expanding children’s horizons? Or do your procedures get in the way? I would love to hear your views and ideas. – -T.G.

Me too! – L.S.

P.S. You might want to check out the comments on Tim’s blog. Some good ones! 

 

Hey Readers — Here’s a really wacky story from Iowa. An elementary school principal, Terry Eisenbarth, was investigated for “whapping”  kids as part of their birthday celebrations at school — that is, hitting the kids lightly with a super-padded paddle.
Sounds like one of those things that just becomes a goofy tradition, but in our abuse-crazed culture, I’m sure you can guess what happened next: Even though only the kids who WANTED a whapping got one, two families objected to the practice as if the principal was practicing bondage and discipline (in plain sight of the other kids, and teachers, and possibly a pinata).  An investigation began, the principal resigned, and a year later,  here’s what the judge decided:

In a ruling dated June 14, administrative law Judge Robert Wheeler dismissed the charges of physical abuse against a student, failure to protect students’ health and safety and exposing students to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement.

Whether those “whaps” were harmless fun or psychologically damaging formed the bulk of the complaint, with several parents alleging the birthday ritual was an attempt by Eisenbarth to “establish his dominance and cause the children to act submissively.”

But more parents came out to support the former principal, testifying that the experience was harmless and optional, enjoyed by those who opted in and witnessed by other students and staff.

Principals Steve Brand of Mount Vernon High and Noreen Colbeck-Bush of Mount Vernon Middle School testified on Eisenbarth’s behalf, saying their own children had participated in the birthday ritual and neither of them considered the practice abusive.

Colbeck-Bush said parents who objected did so because the birthday “whaps” appeared to resemble disciplinary “spankings,” but that she easily distinguished between the two behaviors. Brand said he’d observed Eisenbarth at work as part of professional rounds of Washington Elementary and found him to be a good administrator.

… After conducting a criminal investigation, Sergeant Harvey Hall of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office determined no children were traumatized by the “whappings,” and no crime had taken place.

Hey, I’ll bet SOMEONE was traumatized — the principal! To have his public, offbeat ritual called a psychologically damaging form of child abuse is like  calling a high five “hand-to-hand combat,” or a backslap a “beating.” But during a year of investigation, that’s the soul-crushing cloud he was under. Kudos to a sergeant and judge who were able to distinguish between silliness and sadism.  You’d think that would be pretty easy, but in a culture beloved of Worst-First thinking (a man, a kid, a pat — SEX ABUSE!), it takes guts to stand up for what’s right.  Whap on! — L.
 
(Only picture of a principal I could find.)

Readers — As much as anything, this blog is dedicated to the idea that we MUST use our brains and compassion and not blindly follow orders that exist only to avoid liability or blame. So take a look at what happened to these girls at their school’s field day. (Warning: The pictures are painful!)

The girls were kept out in the sun and severely burned, to the point where the adults at the school were noticing and commenting. Later, the principal explained her…what’s it called in a war when you don’t stand up and fight for justice? …her that. Her blithe justification for why she didn’t do the right thing:

 Her response centered around the the school inability to administer what they considered a prescription/medication (sunscreen) for liability reasons. And while I can sort of wrap my brain around this in theory, the practice of a blanket policy which clearly allows for students to be put in harm’s way is deeply flawed. Not only does a parent have to take an unrealistic (an un-intuitive) step by visiting a doctor for a “prescription” for an over-the-counter product, children are not allowed to carry it on their person and apply as needed.

TALK ABOUT INSANE!

Folks, I am thinking of writing a book — a mini-one — on this whole issue. The issue of our safety fears becoming so ornate and far-fetched (“What if a child uses sunscreen inappropriately?”) that we not only lose all common sense, we lose our ability to think or even feel. We become stunted.

The principal didn’t frame it this way, but it was her decision to LET those girls burn. Sure, she was “just following orders” — the insurance company’s, perhaps, or the school district’s. But we’ve seen where just following orders can lead. – L.

Oh…does that thing burn?

Hi Readers — Our definition of a good parent these days seems to be one who sees every incident as upsetting — possibly even devastating — to his/her child, and is eager to tell the press about it. Latest case in point? This story, from the Chicago Sun-Times, about a 6-year-old who told his mom he got “locked in jail” on a field trip. The mom sounds livid.

Note, please: This was a field trip to the local precinct, not a 2 a.m. visit by the secret police. And the boy wasn’t locked up. And it shouldn’t be a big deal because it’s NOT a big deal. Why do we see everything through “OMG!” lenses, when it comes to kids? – L.

Now THIS boy really was locked up -- for a month -- for stealing two rabbits. That's different from a school field trip!

Hi Folks! One of you sent me this wonderful oped from the Sydney Morning Herald. Then I got in touch with its author, Karen Malone, and found out she is an academic studying, among other things, how to make cities more child-friendly. Which is exactly what I’m going to be talking about in Bendigo, Australia early in May. So here’s to serendipity — and kids walking to school. — L.

Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play, by Karen Malone

Picture this. It is 2005, I arrive for the first time in Tokyo. I am making my way across the busy city to attend a meeting when I encounter a small group of kindergarten children walking home from school. They are oblivious to my presence as they busy themselves crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves, straddling low brick kerbs and chatting. There is not a supervising adult in sight, no older siblings. As a parent I feel a sense of foreboding – I worry about their safety.

I recount my experience to a Japanese colleague and exclaim ”there were no adults watching out for them”. He is a little taken back. ”What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” On average, 80 per cent of primary age Japanese children walk to school. In Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40 per cent. Why? What happens in Japan that makes it so different?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves aged eight in a special place and to describe it. Most recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children, out of earshot of parents: ”I had some bushes where I would play and hide with my brothers and sisters and sometimes friends” (Wilma, 43); ”My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies” (Richard, 36); ”We used to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket” (Andrew, 39).

Tim Gill, author and play commentator, would call this parenting style ”benign neglect” and for many of us, growing up in baby boom suburbia, this was our experience. It made us independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors.

I next asked the audience to consider if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no.

The question is, then, are we killing our kids with kindness? Is our desire to protect our children actually making them more vulnerable?

The big issue pervading the psyche of parents around children’s independence in the streets is ”stranger danger” and child abductions. The irony is, when you look at the statistics on abductions, almost all are by family members, and the numbers have been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia is one in four million and their child is at a much greater statistical risk of drowning in the bathtub or being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, they answer like Andrew, 39: ”I want to and I wish we could. I know the chances are slim but I just couldn’t forgive myself.”

So is there a middle ground between ”benign neglect” and ”eternal vigilance”? There is in Japan and Scandinavian countries, where children’s independent mobility is high. While parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated and participated in activities to increase their safety.

In inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools; shopkeepers who are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program; and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS-connected device that hangs around a child’s neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre.

These concrete strategies, while unique to each neighbourhood, are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment to the belief that children being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient in a civil, safe and healthy society.

So while we might criticise the policeman who decides to take it on himself to deliver a child back home, as reported in the Herald recently, it is heartening to know someone is watching over us. It was reassuring when recent results from a historical comparison in suburban Sydney showed children’s independent mobility in the past 10 years has remained stable and in some cases increased, with many parents looking to get children out of the house and back to parks and playgrounds. So it is timely to have these debates, but if we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it’s our role as community members to step up to the plate and let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.

Dr Karen Malone was recently appointed Professor of Education in the School of Education at University of Western Sydney. Dr Malone is also Chair and Founder of the Child Friendly Asia-Pacific network and a member of the UNICEF International Research Advisory Board for Child Friendly Cities.