A Shift in the Lunchroom at Work (to Free-Range)

Readers kkhskssfsa
— This letter comes to us from a mom in Alberta, Canada, who is giving me a lot of hope. Change can be swift and, since it makes everyone happier, lasting.
Meantime, this intro  comes to you from Vienna, where I just flew in (arms tired, etc.) to give a talk tomorrow at the international Velo-City conference. Guten tag! – L
Dear Free-Range Kids:  I started a new job about 2 years ago at a small non-profit with about 20 employees.  Most of my coworkers were from a suburb  that is known for being….well a bit uppity and above everyone else.  It’s A LOT about appearances out there.  Anyway, we have a great workplace culture made up of mostly mothers, but it was definitely a culture of overprotecting being what made you a good parent.
I had always stayed quiet because I was new and about 10 years younger than most of them.  But, I remember one coworker coming in and being all hush hush because she had to leave her nine year old daughter home by herself for an hour.  She literally whispered it to us, seemed ashamed by it, and went on about how she would never do that normally and all the safety precautions she had taken that might make it ok just this once, etc, etc.
Although there had always been a “you can never be too safe” mentality, I took that moment to step up and say that I didn’t think that was a big deal at all and if she thinks her daughter is mature enough (which she did) that of course she can stay home for an hour, even without excessive safety precautions.  The look of relief on her face was quite satisfying!
After I chose not be ashamed of the Free-Range moments we have, and started sharing them with the group.  I also started questioning the overprotective parents about what they were truly afraid of, and gently challenged them on their fears when the situation arose.
About a year later, we were sitting at the lunchroom table and the issue of parenting came up, and I noticed that it was the parents preaching about “teaching kids to be safe” and empowering them to be independent and embracing their abilities who were loud, outspoken and confident, and it was overprotective parents who seemed quiet and not wanting to share their tales of how they keep their kids safe.
The norm had shifted. Before, being overprotective was the accepted parenting norm, and now it was the opposite.  Given that we have a very strong culture, I was amazed at the shift in such a relatively short time. – A Free-Ranger Up North
Lunchroom chats can change the world!

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31 Responses to A Shift in the Lunchroom at Work (to Free-Range)

  1. QuicoT June 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    I have a secret theory that a lot of parents (40%? 60%? who knows?) know full well that Worst First thinking is ridiculous and damaging, but they keep quiet for fear of the stigma of speaking out.

    It takes being the one to take the first step and saying “nothing terrible happened when…” to flush out these lurkers, give them the confidence to realize that they’re normal and it’s the media narratives of perverts everywhere that’s insane.

  2. Suzanne June 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    Quico, I think I agree with you. I tend to be surprised when the other parents I’m talking to share my views so I have come to believe it’s just the area where I live but it makes more sense that your statement is correct. If we can just not be afraid to share our views we find out more people are on our side. Also, when other parents find out that we left our 9 year old at home for a bit or they go to the playground on their own it gives them the confidence to follow suit. I am so happy to hear about the shift in this mom’s workplace!!

  3. Hels June 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    Well, it gives me some hope. 🙂

  4. Kim June 11, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    I have a girlfriend who thinks I should move to Alberta. Nice culture change. They don’t have this whimpy no scores in soccer we’ve adopted (gag!) in Ontario either.

  5. Hi, I'm Natalie June 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    I really hope you’re not talking about St Albert. I find that peer pressure is still a powerful influence for adults – if our neighbours reassure us that trusting our kids is a good thing, it’s easier to trust OUR good judgement.

  6. Papilio June 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    Guten Tag, Fräulein Skenazy! (Remember German nouns always get a capital letter.)

    Lenore, I’d LOOOVE to see you on a bicycle! Please, please take the chance of riding around there now that you can without getting flattened by a CitiBike (the Austrian traffic can’t be more dangerous than in the USA) and please have someone take your picture!!!

    On topic: Yep, in every disagreement there’s a lot of gray in the middle and it’s time those people stop feeling ashamed of not being entirely on the helicopter side, because ‘think of the children’ and safety above all.

  7. nina June 11, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    There is a new alstate commercial that starts something like that:”there are a lot of sharks in the ocean, but we still like to swim; poisonous snakes are found in 49 out of 50 states, but we still go looking for an adventure…and so on and so forth and it ends with a little 8 yo girl stepping from her front porch into the street all by herself with no adults hovering nearby. I thought it was a very interesting message coming from an insurance company. I know companies like that spend a lot of money on research and hopefully it means that public attitude is slowly changing and moving away from helicoptering.

  8. Havva June 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    That is great to hear. I know I get a lot of my parental sanity support from the grandpas around my office.

  9. Angela June 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    I’d hope more parents, especially those with multiple children, realize how capable their children are fairly early on. When I discuss childrearing with others, however, I quickly realize there are people who believe in how they raise their children more like a religion than a science. They don’t learn from what has happened in the past or try other strategies when one isn’t working, they just keep going with what they believe is right regardless if it has worked in the past or not.

    My ex likes to tell the story about how he was a biter when he was 2-3 years old. His mother tried everything except physical punishment (she was told it was wrong) and nothing worked. Finally she lost her temper and bit him back once and he never bit anyone again. On the other hand, I know someone who has a biter now who bites her kid back every time and it does nothing. Since it has worked with others, she sticks with her method hoping it will eventually work without even trying any other method to teach him.

    It didn’t take me long to realize that if I adjusted and corrected my methods to best fit the child to teach them their lessons, they learned their lessons younger and better and I didn’t have to worry so much. It also gave me great insight about who my children are and taught them a lot about themselves, and taught them to look into and evaluate themselves, which has helped a lot for the older ones.

  10. anonymous this time June 11, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    I saw that you filed this one under “community,” Lenore, and that’s exactly what I was thinking: it is community, sharing with others, and being willing to release ourselves from the prison of self-talk like “I’m the only one who…” that will be our salvation.

    Hooray. One lunchroom at a time.

  11. pentamom June 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    A culture change like this can be really powerful. For myself, I was more protective when my kids were little (more than their younger ages would have warranted, I mean) because the excessive caution/fear mentality was just “in the air and water” so to speak. I didn’t really think about it, and when I started getting introduced to more FR ideas I didn’t really resist them, because I didn’t “buy into” all the fear-mongering, I just sort of assumed it was the way to think by default. I can’t think I’m the only example of this kind of thing.

    So if a culture shifts like this, there will be fewer people just over-protecting by default, and that will be all to the good.

  12. Warren June 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    A good lunchroom, breakroom, smoke breaks and such are better than therapy, or instructional classes.

  13. Kay June 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    I wish there was more of a culture shift. This post gives me hope. Sometimes comments on news articles makes me think that hope is lost. The “never let them out of my site” comments. I am trying in my neighborhood by setting the example, I see other parents letting their kids out more and do more because mine are. There is still a mother, though, who does walk her 9 year old to school, just around the corner!

  14. Donald June 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    @Quico T

    I’m sure that you’re right. Peer pressure plays a big part in many things. Bubble wrap parenting is based on fear. Therefore I’m that sure it would be even more susceptible to peer pressure. There are many overprotective parents that have some Free Range beliefs but they are too afraid to implement them. It takes one brave person (like in this story) to step forward. When parents see that they won’t be ostracized if they allow their children some freedom, I think that we’ll start seeing the floodgates opening up.

    Free Range is gaining momentum.

  15. Donald June 11, 2013 at 6:51 pm #


    Reality (for the media) is whatever sells. When Free Range becomes popular and the con of fear mongering starts losing it’s effectiveness, we will see a lot more of this. (people are becoming less gullible)

    Bonsai Parents will become the ones that are ostracized instead of the Free Range ones.

  16. Kay June 11, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    Donald, I wish but there is a market for the fear mongering, starts with the baby safety products and the helicoptering promoted in the parenting magazines. Parents who don’t have the confidence buy into this stuff, anything to help/protect/promote their kid to great heights.

  17. pentamom June 11, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    Cultural shifts do not happen globally or all at once. They start small, in pockets, until they reach a tipping point. Pockets of shift like this are encouraging. No cultural shift ever obtains universal hegemony anyway — there will always be those who do things differently, and in a way, that’s healthy (though in this case not terribly ideal for their own kids.) But a tipping point can be reached where it becomes “more normal” to have a Free Range approach than a protective one.

    I am not saying I am certain we are on the way to this at the moment, but I also see no reason for a pessimistic assumption that these little pockets of change aren’t enough to make a difference.

  18. Peter June 12, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    They don’t have this whimpy no scores in soccer we’ve adopted (gag!) in Ontario either.

    They don’t have the sheer pointlessness of a zero-zero tie? Or am I missing something?

  19. Donald June 12, 2013 at 12:59 am #

    The tie score comment reminds me of a funny story.

    When I arrived in Australia from California I got lots of ribbing, comments, and criticism about American Football and how it is a boring sport. Then they would tell me (in all seriousness) about how test match cricket is about the best sport around. It can last for 5 days and the game can end up as a draw. When you see it on TV, you can see most of the seats are empty and even some of the spectators sleeping! These die hard test match cricket fans (that I spoke with) criticize American Football (Gridiron) because it’s boring!

  20. Marion June 12, 2013 at 2:50 am #

    Velo-City? In VIENNA?!!!

    If people want to know about cycling and livable cities (and children cycling around independantly without the need for helmets), why don’t they just go to Groningen (60 percent of all trips are made by bicycle there) or any Dutch city?




  21. Wendy Constantinoff June 12, 2013 at 4:10 am #


    test matches boring never. Can’t wait for July when we beat the Aussies again. Or don’t.

  22. pentamom June 12, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Peter — a lot of places that do kids’ soccer don’t keep score, even if there is score.

    Most kids who aren’t too brainwashed keep it on their own anyway.

  23. lollipoplover June 12, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    I think the majority of parents start out wanting their child to be happy and healthy. But everyone has different methods on how they will achieve what they believe “healthy” is. My mother always said that flowers bloom in their own time, and so do children. Milestones cannot be forced by the parents, we just mess things up.

    I don’t think age as a number has anything to do with it. Your 8 yo may be far more mature than my 10 yo and it’s a parenting judgement call that only you and your family should make. When I have conversations with other parents with different views (helicopter) I try to concentrate on what we have in common- which is usually happy and healthy. And the shift as they grow older, especially when they can build self-esteem by doing more things on their own, is towards mentally healthy and physically healthy.

    I find it more disturbing that many of my daughter’s girlfriends at ages 10 are too scared and worried that someone will break into their house and steal them. When you require an adult for feelings of security, I think we can agree that you overstepped your role as parent and protector to just protector and aren’t on the road toward a mentally healthy teenager. Kids are way more capable than us stupid adults think they are.

  24. Emily June 12, 2013 at 9:13 am #

    About the idea of Free Ranging catching on, I really hope it does, but I’m not counting on it, for the simple reason that Free Ranging is free, or at least, much cheaper than all the uber-safety junk on the market these days. For example, hiring a babysitter costs money, but trusting your child to stay at home alone for a little while is free. Bathtub thermometer ducks cost money, but sticking your hand in the tub to test the water is free. The Electronic Talking Cartoon Character of the moment costs money, but a child tying a beach towel around his or her shoulders like a cape, and pretending to be that character, is free. Kindermusik, baby gymnastics, and Fetus Fusion Hip-Hop classes (coming soon to gullible people near you) all cost money, but sending your kids outside to play freely, is free.

    So, if the Free Range movement can’t be bought and sold, if it can be done without money changing hands, then I don’t think the media is going to be in a huge hurry to promote it. Of course, there could be a market for outdoor toys for kids to play with, as there was when I was a kid, like Pogo Balls, Skip-Its, scooters, and things of that nature, but I think a lot of that has been lost to fears of lawsuits, along with junk food ads. When I was a kid (not long ago; I was born in 1984), there were ads on television for both junk food, AND outdoor toys that could result in injury, which would never fly today.

    However, the message I got from that was, “Have fun, be active, and if you do this on a regular basis, it’s okay to have a Pop-Tart once in a while,” which seemed pretty sane. Right now, the message seems to be, “Junk food and sedentary lifestyles are KILLING our kids, and it’s ALL the parents’ fault!!! But, don’t let them outside, because they’ll be ABDUCTED!!! Now, buy these video games to assuage your guilt, and keep your kids entertained, and lock them in the house until they leave for university.”

  25. pentamom June 12, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    “So, if the Free Range movement can’t be bought and sold, if it can be done without money changing hands, then I don’t think the media is going to be in a huge hurry to promote it.”

    With cultural stuff, the media is usually the follower, not the leader. Nothing would ever change if it required the media risking their current advertising stream to promote a new (or forgotten or out of style) idea. But we know that things do change, so evidently it doesn’t happen that way.

  26. Havva June 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    This morning I was looking at an excellent example of (potentially) combining Free Range and marketing. My sister let me take her copy of Family Fun magazine (unfortunately now owned by Parents, the original source of my new-mom neurosis.) I was reading the “Get Outdoors” article. Some of which goes with the assumption that adults will be part of these activities. But in another place talks about alternatives to just saying “go outside and play.” Which implies mom staying inside. And almost all of it is talking about what the *kids* can do. With out a hint of (now for this step you will need a parent).
    In the print version this article was interrupted with an advertisement/article on how to encourage your kids to stay hydrated ($9 for 3 bendy straws anyone? And a little silicone thing to turn any faucet into a fountain.) They suggest you could combine all this outdoor adventuring with rainy day scrap booking, for leaf rubbings etc (Oh, look add for Michale’s). Because of course while those leaf rubbings can be done with paper and a crayon, but they do suggest velum and pastels. They also suggest keeping toys even art supplies outside. In water proof containers. Of course one open lid, or seal failure and yo may need to buy more supplies. (Oh look, ad for scotch adhesive dots, no mess when the kids do independent artwork). And lots of Apps to identify the stuff kids find. Also books about outdoor activities so you can encourage them to go out.

    On page 3 they get really explicit about the spending.

    But, my toddler has been loving the photos of kids doing things. And so have I.

  27. Papilio June 12, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    “With cultural stuff, the media is usually the follower, not the leader.”

    There are people out there who say the media actually *caused* a lot of helicoptering… 😀

  28. pentamom June 12, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    I honestly don’t think it “caused” it, though it definitely reinforces it. But that’s following.

  29. Kay June 12, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Emily’s and Havva’s posts depict exactly what I mean. We’re fighting commerce.

    I scanned through Havva’s article she linked, funny how they start off saying “unstructured” and from what I read, it seemed all structured and orchestrated by the parent with so many things you have to get, including apps.

  30. Beth June 12, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    @Peter, I immediately love anyone who quotes Sports Night, especially my favorite episode. I squealed when I read your post!

  31. Natalie June 13, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

    It’s difficult. You have to explain without alienating. My sister and I disagreed today about letting the kids play outside without an adult. 2 1/2 and 3 yrs old.

    I said it depended on the kid, she thinks it’s negligent. She cites Megan’s Law and the 2 sex offenders that live in her neighborhood, a woman getting pushed into a car and raped in the parking lot where she shops in broad daylight, etc.

    It’s funny, because there are reasons which I can identify with – going out into the street, etc but she didn’t cite those. I wonder why cars aren’t first and foremost in everyone’s mind. Really, they’re the real danger.

    It’s a kind of thinking that is difficult to reverse.