Dealing with the “What If?” Folks

Hi Free-Rangers and Others!
Below you’ll find a post that I just loved from the blog Rancid risbdrffhi
 It’s about my book, but it’s also about the big issue of, “What if?”  I.e., how come so many parents immediately try to conjure up the very worst case scenario whenever we give our kids an ounce of freedom. (Or half ounce, even.) The post is by a woman named Kelli and I herewith present it to you!


by Kelli Oliver George

What if?? I dedicate this post to a mom I used to hang out with long, long ago. “M” could not hide her complete disdain for my lack of bolted-down baby gates, and naps finished in my climate controlled garage. She was what I called a What If? Mom because for every single scenario you could imagine, she had a magical ability to conjure death and destruction from it. What if? Indeed.

I was at the park last night and there was a couple there with kids the same ages as ours. As we pushed our kids on the swing, the mom and I chatted. I raved about how much I love, love the park. It is just perfect for us! With it being just a mere half a mile away, Arun can easily ride his bike there and back while we walk along with Anjali. In general, it is a beautiful, calm space with tons of shady trees nestled deep into a neighborhood without major crossroads buzzing with traffic.

While the mom agreed the park is wonderful, she lamented that the swings are so far away from the playground area (seriously, not more than 40 feet, folks!) and that when pushing her child on the swings, she has to turn her back to the area, thus leaving her older children vulnerable.

I tried to make light of the situation, mentioned Free-Range Kids and urged her to read it. I also pointed out that statistically, a stranger is not going to whisk in steal her kid. Her response? “Have you been to the KBI website? There are tons of pedophiles in this area! It’s scary! I watch CNN and Nancy Grace all the time to keep up on that stuff.”

Sigh. I chose not to argue because I did not feel like facing it and potentially subjecting myself to the Lazy, Uncaring Mom role to which I have been assigned WAY too often. And yes, I knew damned well what she was getting at regarding the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) site, but could not argue because I did not have the facts.

This morning, I dutifully went to the site and verified there are less than 100 sex offenders in my city which includes TWO zip codes area (Per this site, a sex offender is a generic term for all persons convicted of crimes involving sex, including rape, molestation, sexual harassment and pornography production or distribution. )

Yes, there are still 100 sex offenders around here, but I am going to get Glass Half Full all over your ass and say that there are only 100. And furthermore, this included ALL sex offenders. Which probably means that when 18 year old Jimmy Joe slept with his 16 year girlfriend and her father found out? Jimmy Joe got himself a listing on the website. And if [Mad Men’s] Roger Sterling lived in Olathe and someone finally reported his sex harassing ass?

Roger gets himself a listing on the website. And yes, rape and molestations are included in that list, but in short, not all the folks on the list are  pedophiles lurking playgrounds prepared with lost puppies and candy so they can prey on our  progeny.

Listen. I know things happen and I am not trying to push some Kumbaya Agenda onto y’all. Good grief, I had a Creepy Uncle and a Creepy Neighbor, too. Fortunately, my mom had talked to me about what to do and I did tell my parents what was going on before anything progressed into Scary Serious. In fact, I was so young during the Creepy Neighbor Incident that I do not even remember it. But I did know enough to tell my parents.

And when I was a sophomore in high school, my best friend and I were subject to the stereotypical Gross Guy “asking for directions.” No, we did not get in his truck. And yes, we reported his ass to my friend’s parents, who called the police, who miraculously(!) managed to find the guy and arrest him. And then we got to sit in court and watch him get sentenced.

Folks, these incidents did not scar me for life – in fact, while writing that last paragraph, I only just remembered the whole Gross Guy “Asking for Directions” Incident and realized it was relevant, so it should be included.

Why did these incidents not scar me? Because I had been prepared to report them. My mother had created an environment where it was made clear that she wanted me to tell her when these things happened.

 So, yes, I am teaching my kids to talk to strangers. But only if they are comfortable doing so. However! I am teaching them to never, ever actually go with a stranger. I do not want to teach them that all strangers are dangerous and I want them to learn how to trust their instincts. For real, folks – Creepy Uncle? Gave us the willies from early on. As children, we knew something was not right. And lucky for me, my mom created an environment in which I felt comfortable telling her when things were not right.

Where the hell am I going with this?? I just finished reading Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry (Skenazy is the Official World’s Worst Mom who let her 9 year old ride the NYC subway by himself and then began the Free Range Kids blog.)

This book was a breeze to read. It was reassuring, informative and Skenazy has a way with words that hit home. And now? I am cheering my decision for not allowing my children to sit in a Shopping Cart Condom. And I can now eat raw cookie dough and raw snow with an easy heart. Thanks, Lenore! To boot, she has a great sense of humor — like:

The biggest fear on Halloween, of course, is that somehow, your nice, quiet neighbors – the ones you never got to know but somehow managed to live next to in peace and harmony the other 364 days of the year – have been waiting, like kids for Christmas, for this one day to murder local children. Murdering them on another day wouldn’t be satisfying, I guess, which is why they’ve shown such remarkable restraint. But a child homicide on Halloween — it just feels right.

For the record, there is no recorded evidence that a child has ever died via a contaminated Halloween treat. However, I think the most important message of all from the book is this:

“Don’t talk to strangers” is one of the most useless pieces of advice ever foisted on us to foist on our children. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. “Our message is exactly the one you’re trying to convey. We have been trying to debunk the myth of stranger danger, ” say Ernie Allen.

What’s stunning about this statement is that Allen is the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The organization John Walsh helped found after his son was killed…… The organization that put the missing kids’ pictures on the milk cartons and didn’t tell us that most of them were runaways or abducted by family members……. “Our message to parents is you don’t have to live in fear, you don’t have to feel you have to lock your children in a room,” says Allen. What you have to do, he says, is to talk to them about how to to handle themselves confidently, among people they know and people they don’t.

We all could do with a little bit less Nancy Grace and a little bit more Fancy Nancy, eh? I am weary of being treated like a half-assed, lazy mom who does not care about her children’s safety. How about this: I will not judge you for putting your child on a leash, if you will back off on my decision to let my 3.5 year old run around in a playground that is a mere 40 feet away from me. Deal?

Happy Mother’s Day!


That’s it, from Kelli. And a Happy Mother’s Day to us all  (even the dads, grandparents, non-parents and kids!).

53 Responses to Dealing with the “What If?” Folks

  1. bobb May 8, 2009 at 1:33 am #

    I thought the “what if” post would be about a different question: bad things do happen to kids sometimes. What if something happened to my kid that I could have prevented with a little more caution?

    Maybe the book convinces a million parents to let their nine year olds ride subways and so on. Almost all of them report back that nothing happened, it was fine, the kid made it home safe, etc. So from all of those you get positive feedback, good Amazon reviews, etc. But what if you get a letter from one of the statistically unlucky few, whose nine-year old was one of those very unlikely wrong-place-wrong-time cases. What do you say to them?

  2. Annika May 8, 2009 at 1:43 am #

    Man, people say more dumb stuff to me on the playground than anywhere else. (I don’t suppose it’s a coincidence that I spend more time with other parents at the playground than anywhere else.)

  3. Tim May 8, 2009 at 1:50 am #

    I know where you’re coming from bobb, but I also recommend to all my friends coming to visit me do drive instead of walk because it’s much faster and I want to spend as much time wiht them as I can. If, one day, one of those friends is in an accident on their way to my house, I don’t think I’m any more responsible for their death than the situation you outline. And statistically, mine is more likely to happen!

    Bad things happen in the world, and I just have to make my own decisions about what kind of life I want my kids to be able to lead. I choose one of relative freedom and try to arm them as well as I can.

  4. Dr. Dre May 8, 2009 at 1:51 am #

    @bobb I think you missed the point of this article. Sure, bad things happen to children but these things are less likely to happen if a child is prepared for it rather than protected from it. It seems so many parents these days are trying to protect their children FROM the world rather than prepare them FOR it and that’s just sad. Bad things happen to the best of people, children or adults, and that’s how this world rolls. Those who are better prepared for those awful, random events are more likely to make it out the other end okay than those who are blindsided. My job as a parent is to give my children the tools to face life and everything it throws at them.

  5. Sander de Regt May 8, 2009 at 2:26 am #

    I’ve actually held my kids on a leash – although it was more like a flexibible harnass. But that was because they were so little that holding my hand actually restricted them more in their movements than the ‘leash’ did.
    Also my youngest one never actually listens when I tell her not to run across the street so in this case it was not such an unlikely thing to happen.
    I do take the words of these posts seriously, but I am still a bit apprehensive to go full ‘freerange’ .

  6. Andrea May 8, 2009 at 2:45 am #

    We have an actual rule in our house: “It’s not an emergency unless the blood is dripping”.

    Also, from the get-go we *prepared* our kids for the real world. you know, the one we were in? Now my second oldest is 18 and about to move out. even my mom said, “Wow, you just slap on those wings and give ’em a kick don;t you?”

    yes, I do. It’s for their own good. I cannot tell you the amount of times my kids have met people their own age who cannot do things like their laundry, or buy food and cook it.

    They don’t magically know all this stuff, we have to teach it to them.

    Lest you think I am too cynical, I also have strived ot jkeep their sense of wonder. 🙂 My younges tgives out free hugs to random strangers. And I LET HER.

    We do have sensible rules:
    – never without me
    – never without asking
    – always explain why

    Most people find this is wonderful, and say that she;s doing a great thing to sprea d more love and kindness in the world. Every so often one person likes to spoil it with FEAR. “You gotta be careful,” they say, “Someone could snatch her up!”

    And then I tell them that statistically, it’s far more likely my mother would steal her than a random stranger. (Over 90 percent of all abducted children in Canada last year were stolen by a non custodial relative. The total number is just over 2000. Out of 33 MILLION. )

    So I should squash her light and joy and LOVE over a million-to-one chance of fear?

    And also, as someone has stated above, what if something happens? Yes, accidents happen. My son was also in a bicycling accident and broke his neck. He not only lived, he walks, and rides his bike to work every day. Some relatives asked me how I could “let” him get on a bike again.

    Because I refuse to live in fear, and I have to trust at some point I did my job.

  7. ac May 8, 2009 at 2:50 am #

    Boy, it was refreshing to run across this site. I’m a grandparent now so times have changed but when I was 8 my mother let me walk to the bus stop, 5 blocks, ride to the subway and go to downtown Chicago, about 30 minutes, every Saturday morning for ballet lessons. I did this for 5 years without incidence. My mom then came to meet me and we would go to lunch. We all did things like that without even thinking about it.
    Maybe that’s why children are growing up now incapable of handling life’s every day events…they simply don’t know how.
    Keep up the good work…but it’s an uphill battle against the media today.

  8. Merlin Silk May 8, 2009 at 2:52 am #

    Last weekend I really had to think about “What if?”
    I was in a little mountain village and my son (9) and I had taken two of his friends up for the weekend.
    The center of the village is a bit over a mile away and when they wanted to get into ‘town’ for some ice cream I sent them on their way “You can WALK!” They were back about three hours later with stories to tell because they had stopped at a yard sale – did not buy anything because they wanted to save the money for ice cream but wanted to go back the next day.
    Where I had to ask myself the What If question was when I considered that I gave this freedom not only to my son but to two of his friends as well and I did not know really what their parents would think of it. But I had one assurance that I would be OK – yes, I – not the kids. Because one of the biggest dangers I consider when letting kids go is not the predator but the ‘protector’ – cops and child services. The person, who actually introduced me to this little village, described it as “No cops – no crime” and indeed I had never seen a cop up here who could spot three 9-year-olds alone and pick them up and get me into trouble over a perceived danger that was not there.
    The fact that there are no cops in this village was actually the deciding fact for letting the kids go by themselves.

    To finish up the story – the next day I gave them all a few dollars and they went on another spree. They bought some little things at the yard sale – got a big teddy as a gift for the sister of the two friends, made it into town again for some tacos, but then were to lazy to walk home, called me, and begged me to pick them up at the Grizzly Bear Cafe – – – I did 😉

    But isn’t it amazing that these people with the yard sale were actually nice people who just gave the kids stuff (they did not need any more, but would please the kids) and were not predators that had this yard sale only set up at the chance that three kids all by themselves would come by, lure them into their house and molest them – and probably kill them afterward?

  9. Sarah M May 8, 2009 at 3:00 am #

    haha, great article, love the end. thanks for sharing!
    Sarah M

  10. Kimberly May 8, 2009 at 3:21 am #

    Just one nitpic. There have been no documented case of random killings of kids via poisoned halloween candy. There have been cases of parents trying to make their child’s murder look like a Halloween poisoning. One happened in Houston when I was 7, the father, Donald O’Brien , was executed when I was in University.

    I had someone do the what if thing with me. I walked my niece (4 yo) and nephew (15 mo) to the park. They were playing. I was reading and keeping an eye on them. This woman started scolding me about watching them. What if someone grabbed them, what if the toddler tried to climb to high. I fixed her in the eye and said – they will scream bloody murder, and went back to my I-Pod to read my book.

    A little while later nephew did scream. I went over – he couldn’t figure out how to get down from the platform. I asked him How did you get up? He pointed. I said how can you get down. He sat down and scooted till he could touch the step down.

    The woman asked rudely, “would it hurt you to pick him up”:

    I said, Not me him – now he knows he can solve the problem.

    I warned sis that she might have an irate neighbor talking about her neglectful babysitter.

  11. Sara May 8, 2009 at 3:23 am #

    Well, I consider myself pretty free-range, my poor 2 year old does have a leash for when we go to the mall. It’s only because she’s a runner and cant tell people what her parents names are yet, although she does now call me “mommy *insert last name here*” so we’re getting closer to the age where, if she runs off, I know she can go to someone and tell them who her mommy is so we can find her again. I can remember having to do that at the state fair when I stopped to look at something and my family didnt, and it didnt scar me for life, since my parents had shown me where to go if I got lost.

  12. Summer Kinard May 8, 2009 at 3:29 am #

    Thank you for pointing out that parents can give their children safety by teaching them how to respond should a dangerous person actually approach them. I would find it helpful to know the sort of steps parents such as Kelli’s took or can take to help children talk about unsafe grownups.

  13. Kelli May 8, 2009 at 3:32 am #

    Lenore, thank you for printing this on your site. I wrote the post to stir discussion and I am excited about the comments.

    I am sad that bobb completely missed the point, though.

  14. Jen May 8, 2009 at 3:41 am #

    Gabe is 2 1/2 and he’s still in the leash in areas of high traffic (parking lots) and at the mall in stores. Out of stores we let him wander on his own within view and he has a blast looking at things and ‘talking’ to people. He hates holding hands and doesn’t look both ways but he will stop at the curb when we’re out for walks but only if I say his name and point out he’s at the road. Then he stops and looks at me like “What? Is there a problem? Can we keep going now?”

    Andrea and others have it right on here; What IF?! cannot rule our lives. Living in fear is no way to live. We can keep our children safe by giving them the tools to cope when bad things happen or when creepy people approach them.

  15. Amy May 8, 2009 at 4:26 am #

    This reminds me of our family reunion this past summer. We were at a park and had rented a pavilion to put our food, plates, whatever on…well the kids were out playing and it started to rain…OH NO!…all the parents started YELLING at their kids to come in under cover, while mine looked at me confused. I went out in the rain with them and we laughed and played on the swings and ran and had a BLAST. Well when I finally walked back into the pavilion soaking wet, I got some serious stink-eye from the parents whose kids were begging to go out and play. I also had 2 different ladies make shrewd comments about my “immaturity level” and that I didn’t care about my kids getting sick. I wanted to tell them to get a grip, it’s just water!!! but just laughed and knew that was something my kids would always remember. LET THEM GET DIRTY! LET THEM ENJOY LIFE!

  16. KateNonymous May 8, 2009 at 4:30 am #

    When someone tried to drag a local child into their car, my parents told us that it was okay to answer requests for directions, but that we had to stand well back from the car so that we couldn’t be grabbed–no “show me on the map,” for example. And if the person got out of the car, we were to run and scream.

    I’ve had people tell me that they were taking an unconscionable risk, and that the correct thing to do is to teach children that adults never require help from kids.

    Which, when it comes to things like directions, is crap. And it undermines a useful way to teach hands-on skills to your own child.

    Instead, my parents taught us to pay attention to our surroundings and our instincts, and then act accordingly. Much more useful.

  17. bernadette May 8, 2009 at 5:11 am #

    And to the “what iffers” I like to give the good “what if” scenarios. What if we go to the park and just have a good time? What if we go trick or treating, in our black outfit, in the dark, and get a bag of delicious free candy! What if we’re all just fine and happy and healthy.

    I see the pendulum shifting. Or maybe I live in a bubble and just get to enjoy living in my bubble with others who believe that everything will be fine. Including our kids.

  18. metricula May 8, 2009 at 5:42 am #

    “Sex offender” can also include drunk frat guys pissing in public and people caught having consensual sex in cars. It’s stupid. They ruin peoples’ lives for nothing. How does labeling these types of people sex offenders protect me?

    We’ve totally diluted the term in the eyes of the law but not in the eyes of the public.

  19. KarenW May 8, 2009 at 6:01 am #

    Amy, you’ve got to be kidding. Your family believes that you can get sick from getting wet…in the summer? Do they let their kids go to water parks?

    And Kelli – good stuff! I’m very glad that you brought up the fact that all kinds of people can get put on the sex offender list for really stupid reasons. I think that we as parents should protest the inclusion of non-violent, non-predatory petty crimes in the same category as rapists and molesters. These lists should exist for our safety and if we can’t trust this information then the lists are worse than useless.

  20. spider123 May 8, 2009 at 7:03 am #

    Thank you so much for this site!

    My wife and I are trying to raise free-range, balanced, thoughtful kids. Both are under 8 yrs old and do chores on weekends. they set the table sweep the floor at dinner time. they fold and put away their clothes. We are an outlier as far as other parents are concerned. And yet the more they are able to do, the better off they will be down the road. Also, it gives our ‘team’ more time together when all pitch in. This has not come easy and takes a lot of energy (mainly from my wife). But both parents setting examples and thoughtful limits produces a better person. Teachers are impressed by the maturity and confidence our kids have.
    thanks again for the site and the great comments!

  21. Julius Green May 8, 2009 at 8:21 am #

    @KarenW, those ‘sex-offender’ lists exist for two basic reasons:

    1) to prove to you that your public officials are “doing something,” (so if someone on the list repeats the crime, the public officials have sufficiently covered their butts), and

    2) because–like being forced to remove your shoes at the airport—this is the perfect “cure” to the “problem” of our being overrun by people with sexual problems. The problem is there is no such problem, and this is not a cure.

  22. DJ May 8, 2009 at 9:48 am #


    My parents also taught me how to recognize the “creepy” adults and I’m trying to pass that on to my kids. One tactic is to introduce the kids to every adult they are left with — whether at school or church or another activity. That way, they know who I expect them to be with and listen to. I am amazed at how many parents warn their kids against “strangers” and then drop them off with someone the parents know, but the kids don’t (or teachers who pass them off to another teacher without a similar introduction).

    The other is to LISTEN to your children when they tell you they don’t like something or someone. Ask them questions and you’ll find out when they don’t like that the babysitter wouldn’t give them ice cream and when they find the neighbor creepy — and then you can deal properly with both situations. I run into so many people who dismiss their kids’ feelings and thoughts. Yes, my kids often don’t want to do things or don’t like things and I listen to the why and make my determination about how to proceed.

  23. Jeri May 8, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    When my daughter was 6 I crossed the street to move away from a homeless bum. My daughter looked up at me and told me that her teacher said homeless people were nice and that we should be kind to them. I looked at the man wearing rubber gloves, who lived under the bridge by the grocery store and told her the truth…some people ARE scary and ARE to be avoided. It might hurt their feelings? Big deal. Trust your instincts kid – they’re there for a reason. We are breeding a generation of inattentive, over-protected people. Laws will never protect them, they will only put someone away after the deed is done. Children have got to learn to look out for themselves, and the best way to do that is supervised practice. Let your kids walk 2 miles to school. If you need to tail them in the distance – so be it. But let them learn. My parents used to let my 8 year old sister and I (I was all of 11) take a pony cart and a rather untrained pony out to go miles down the roads. Sometimes it was scary, but we learned, and today we are both extremely independent women with great careers, wonderful husbands, and well-adjusted children. I’m sure my parents worried while we were gone – they weren’t brain dead, just confident that they had instilled some values and intelligence into their daughters. I never thought of myself as “free-range” but I sure hope I managed to “free-range” my own kids. I think maybe I did. My son drives race cars. My daughter can get on an airplane and fly to Europe on her own. So let’s stop making it national news when someone does something with backbone. We don’t want a generation of scaredy-cats, but that’s where we’re heading.

  24. ja May 8, 2009 at 10:51 am #

    I really have mixed feelings about this. I don’t believe that the Catholic sex abuse crisis would occur now because parents have become more protective. Parents in the past were too irresponsible with their kids. They were too trusting of authority figures like priests and teachers. I have read a couple of Skenazy’s articles and she is really dismissive about parents’ concerns. Many parents really struggle with how to protect their kids without smothering them.

    My parents gave me a lot of freedom as a child. I was sexually assaulted by a stranger at 16. It was a devastating experience that took years to recover from. I also never told anyone about it. Don’t pay too much attention to crime rates. A lot of crimes, especially sex crimes, are seriously underreported.

    I have two daughters. I want to both protect them but also give them freedom. I want them to be cautious but also grow up without fear. It’s a delicate balance. Dismissing and putting down parents who struggle with these issues is unfair. I see where Skenazy is coming from and agree with her to some extent. Maybe the world isn’t as dangerous as the what-if parents think but it isn’t as safe as Skenazy claims either.

  25. Anna May 8, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    Merlin Silk, you raise a good point. Did you hear back from the other kids’ parents?

    I am very passionate about giving my child independence and opportunities to explore the world on her own. But I also learned that if there is one thing that makes parents more defensive than suggesting they are careless with their childrens’ safety, it is suggesting that they protect their children too much. My daughter is in first grade and we are friendly with the parents of one of the boys in her class. The kids love spending time together and in the past, the parents would often let me pick up the boy for an impromptu play date (I think they needed a break). But lately (after spending perhaps too much time reading this blog) I started mentioning that I let my daughter go alone to the playground (right under our windows) or that, if we were living as close to the school as they do, she would be walking to school by herself (yes, there is one busy road to cross, which is why there are 10 thousand crossing guards there every morning.) And after that I started noticing they are a lot less eager to let me take their kid. I don’t think they are overprotective, just older and more cautious. If I had my first kid at 42 instead of 22 I might be a lot more like them. And I am feeling pretty guilty about not holding my tongue and depriving my daughter and her friend of spending more time together. I wonder if there is anything I can do to remedy this situation?

  26. Uly May 8, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    Anna, you might suggest that you’ve noticed they’re concerned about how you watch their kid, and ask if they have any safety rules they’d like you to use for their own kid if you watch him. Assuming they’re reasonable (asking you to supervise the kids at the playground, whatever your beliefs about it, is reasonable in this culture. Asking you to duct tape him safely to the porch probably isn’t), you can agree to it and confirm that you wouldn’t let your parenting philosophy interfere with your having-guests-over behavior.

  27. Uly May 8, 2009 at 12:50 pm #

    Ja, you’re talking about two different things (or three, even): The sex abuse scandals of the Catholic church, and sexual assault by strangers.

    You’re right, sexual assault is underreported. Because of this, it continues. However, the cure isn’t to isolate children – it’s to teach them how to avoid (as much as possible) bad situations, how to defend themselves should they get into a bad situation, and how (should both of those fail) to tell another person as quickly as possible so as to catch the menace fast. (It’s not your fault for being assaulted, no matter what you did or didn’t do.)

    As far as the Catholic church thing, that’s not at all the same as stranger danger. Indeed, stranger danger has become so common a catchphrase in our culture that people NEVER listen when you suggest that trusted authority figures are more likely to harm your kid than strangers! I wouldn’t be surprised if the scandal started all up again because people don’t want to think their kindly old priest (or teacher, or brother) could have nefarious purposes. So they chant “stranger danger” and tell themselves that’s enough. What they need to do is make clear to their child that they can say no to things, and that they can talk to you (or other adults) even if it means talking against some respected grown-up, and teaching kids, as I said, how to handle the world.

  28. Misty May 8, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    Thanks so much for keeping up this blog. I have two free range kids and sometimes feel alone as the “lazy uncaring mom” so it’s nice to come here and see I’m not the totally insane one.

  29. Marvin Merton May 8, 2009 at 1:04 pm #

    Playgrounds and parents. Somehow discussion with fearful parents generally eludes me, not that I would invite it. In fact, my biggest complaints about playground parents theoretically fall into opposing camps.

    1. Helicopter parents on cell phones at the playground. This is ludicrously common, in my experience. These parents are talking away, while doing everything they can to stay in arms reach of their children, even getting on the playground equipment and sometimes coming perilously close to trampling other children in the process.

    2. Parents and pre-school teachers who fail to talk to “older” kids who have just trampled over a smaller child in their haste to be first to the slide or the standard playground steering wheel. Yeah, it’s going to happen. I’m not trying to prevent kids from enjoying themselves. That doesn’t mean discussion shouldn’t occur. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great time to teach the kid to apologize.

    OK. If I don’t stop, I am going to begin to sound like a helicopter dad. I might even start giving my opinion of restaurant “play areas.” See “Lord of the Flies” for reference.

  30. Anna May 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Ja, I agree with you that such crimes often go underreported. There is, unfortunately, a small but significant percentage of adults who are sexually attracted to children, and most of us, like the author of this post who had “a creepy neighbor AND a creepy uncle”, can testify to this from our own experience.

    Fortunately, the same experiences lead us to believe that the majority of these people are not up to kidnapping, rape and murder. For the most part, they are pathetic individuals riddled with guilt and shame, and their fantasies rarely go beyond exposing themselves to a little girl in a public place.

    A 16-year-old girl, on the other hand, is sexually attractive to 90% of males between the ages of 8 and 80 and so stands a much greater chance of meeting a creep who will pose significant danger. That is why I think it is important that children learn to deal with creeps at an early age, that they get a chance to practice the skills – follow your instincts, run and scream, tell a parent – that may save their life later on.

    My parents let me roam the streets and get myself to school and activities from a pretty early age. (I repaid them by getting hit by a car when I was 11; as soon as I got out of the hospital 2 weeks later, I was back to crossing the same busy street every day, and I thank them for it.) But now that I think of it, I was always surrounded by people – on the street, on the bus, at the playground. I still met creeps who would try to cop a feel or start inappropriate conversations, but it would have been incredibly foolish of them to try anything more – and incredibly easy for me to get away or seek help.

    I think the greatest risk factor to children today is that there are so few people – adults and children – outside these days. I would even suggest that this makes spreading the free-range message to as many people as possible vital to the safety of our children.

    There also needs to be an attitude shift. The first time I left my daughter at the playground by herself (100 feet from our front door) I was so nervous I came running back a few minutes later. There was a woman there with her own kids who very nicely told me “I would not let a six-year-old out by herself in this neighborhood.” I wanted to tell her “but she is not out by herself, you are here”, but I realized how irresponsible it would have sounded – it is not her job to look out for my child, right? Wrong, I think.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if most parents, when they saw kids who were by themselves at the playground, did not chastise their parents (and did not call the police) but looked in their direction every once in a while to make sure they are not being bothered by anyone? I only came to the States 10 years ago, but judging from some of the comments here, it used to be like this once. Why do you think things changed? Everybody still obviously cares a lot for the safety of all children, but when did people go from looking out for kids to sending the authorities after their parents?

  31. KW May 8, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    We live 4 blocks from the former residence of a serious repeat sex offender who ended up making national headlines for a very serious crime when he murdered most of a family then kidnapped and molested the younger ones. He is still being tried for molesting cases all throughout the country (he would travel the train etc and stop along the way and commit crimes). At this point, we have a registered sex offender two doors down from us and several more scattered throughout this area. I know there are many, many more who simply haven’t been caught. In addition to offenders, we have our occasional druggies, drunks, meth lab busts, stabbings and shootings. It’s not a terrible neighborhood, by any means, but it’s not Mayberry either.

    Nonetheless, we do not live in a state of fear. We do keep an eye on the offender situation and when a new one moves in, I read the blurb on the website. Often, their profile doesn’t pose a threat to our family (statutory rape, for example). If it looks like there may be concern, we show the kids the picture and the house and discuss whatever safety measures are deemed prudent.

    Our oldest two have been walking and biking all over the place for the last 5 years since we moved here when they were 12 and 10. Early on, we went over safe routes to take when they were going to activities and requested they call when they arrived. Sometimes they forgot to call and we forgot to notice. After the offender made national headlines, we all got a little more serious about that. Now the teens are older and wiser and we have a spare cell phone for them to take with, so that’s changed things for the better (especially since most of the time I am merely wanting to track them down to say, “it’s time to be home”). The teens have taken judo for several years also, becoming empowered in self defense. We equip them to live life instead of being afraid.

    Our kids hang out regularly with priests. Without fear. Clergy sexual abuse has been a huge national scandal but the rates of abuse among Catholic clergy is actually pretty low compared to other professions. The media has just had a hay day with it. Of course, abuse is awful when it happens … but it’s ridiculous to be afraid of all priests or to equate priests with abusers. The kids understand priests are people too and have the same potential for sin. But they also know tons of awesome priests who are a very positive part of their lives.

    Like another poster, we empower our kids to know what to do if they run into something creepy. Our younger kids are given their wings as their maturity develops and in a step by step kind of way, so our current 10 year old is more free range than our 2 year old (obviously). They are all growing into strong, independent, smart kids. We have no desire to wrap them in cotton. Long ago, one of my mom friends wisely stated in reference to kids climbing trees, “It is easier to heal from a broken arm than from a spirit of fear.” I agreed wholeheartedly to what was then a new concept to me. That statement has had a huge impact throughout my years of parenting. Kudos to Kelli on “What if” and to Lenore for starting this blog!

  32. Karen May 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm #

    @ja: That you were sexually assaulted by a stranger at 16 is horrible. And I can certainly see why it makes you more concerned for your children. But, let me ask you, having experienced that, do you now avoid places where you might run into a strange man (I assume it was a man)? Do you insist that any time you are with a man you don’t know there be a chaperon that you do know so that you are not assaulted again? Or do you still go to the grocery store, still go to the mall, still go on job interviews? Have you taken steps to insure that you are safer? Or do you just live in fear knowing it will happen again because you are just as unprepared to deal with it now as you were when you were 16? When you were 16 were you angry with your parents for leaving you alone in that danger, and do you intend to always accompany your 16 year olds to insure this does not happen? Or are you going to teach them how to deal with it? Since you bring up the Catholic priest scandals . . . Those parents KNEW those priests. Are you going to make sure that you are never leave them alone with anyone who could possibly constitute a threat, including your parents, their father and yourself?

    Ms. Skenazy doesn’t callously dismiss parents’ concerns as stupid; she acknowledges where they came from and points to knowledge as the antidote to fear. Statistically, a safely driving parent is more likely to lose their child in a car accident than to lose their child to kidnapping. Does a parent looking down at a casket tell themselves “at least they didn’t get kidnapped?” Statistically, a child is more likely to be kidnapped by a relative than a stranger. Do parents reassure themselves that “at least it was their abusive father that kidnapped them instead of a stranger?” Or do all these scare the beans out of parents? Yet we still drive them everywhere and we still let them see their non-custodial relatives. Why? The danger is THERE, not just, or even primarily, in strangers! Why do we expose our children to the greatest danger they face (car accidents) EVERY SINGLE DAY? More than once?

    We do it because we just can’t live that way. We can’t protect them even from the most common dangers, because those dangers are ourselves. We have exactly the same problem when we (as women, for those who are) focus on avoiding strange men at night only to go home to a man who is statistically more likely to hit us. We focus on the danger in strangers because we don’t want to have to face any important truths about Creepy Brother who should not be let near our kids.

  33. stevie May 8, 2009 at 11:00 pm #

    My mother was born in 1916. As a young child, a creepy neighbor tried to lure her to a motel room and later, her 6th grade teacher tried to kiss her on the mouth. In college, she was almost date raped. These things have always happened, but were just not reported immediately and internationally.

  34. Alexicographer May 8, 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    True story: visiting friends in NYC when their first child was perhaps a month old. Serious debate ensued (between the parents) when an outing was planned to a location too distant to walk to (walking being their usual mode of transport and on that felt familiar and safe to them). Which was less dangerous for the baby? The subway (very, very, low chance of an accident but actual accident could be a fireball in a tunnel) or the bus (higher chance of an accident than the subway, but accident more likely to be a fender-bender).

    (For the record, my only response besides internally chalking this up to new-parent nerves was to say that I’d be happy to pay for a cab if they felt safer about that choice. In the end, we took the bus. No accidents occurred, no babies or adults were injured in the making of this outing. Which was in fact great fun once we got going.).

    Sadly, shortly after I departed the city I saw a story in the NYT about an NYC woman who was killed, along with one or more of her kids, when she was walking the children to school one morning. This seemed not only tragic for the family involved (obviously), but ironic in the context of my visit and our activities.

    On a lighter note, @Amy, when I was a child and didn’t want to go out in the rain, my mother always told me I was “not sweet enough to melt.” The empirical evidence supports her claim. Perhaps you can use this as your response next time!

  35. pamela May 9, 2009 at 12:09 am #

    When I was in junior high (long before the days of middle school) growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, my friends and I would take a city bus to the subway and spend the afternoon in downtown Chicago. We would window shop and eat lunch at a lunch counter, walk around and be home by dinner. Even my daughter who is now 16 and used to a fiar amount of freedom is aghast that her grandmother would allow that!

  36. Aliza G May 9, 2009 at 12:45 am #

    For the record, I’m a free range mom of one.
    I was molested by a male babysitter when I was 8. I was hit by a car that same year. My mother made me – at age 8 – babysit for my brother who was 5 while she went on dates. Yes, we had next door neighbors, but still.
    Flip forward to my own daughter – she has been molested by her cousin – in my mother in law’s home. The same cousin whose mother was molested by her uncle many years ago.
    But…….I cannot avoid things like this – you would think she’d be safe in my mother in law’s home, right? Thankfully my daughter tells me things. Even at 13 she still tells me things. Because she knows I will listen and not judge her. Because she knows I will give her good advice and not try to scare her.
    I have been told more than once and by different people that I treat my daughter like a second child. That I’m not a nervous-Nellie and that I give her the skills with which to live her life.
    She and I laugh about the friends she has who can’t be left alone, who are fearful, who can’t do their own laundry or make their own dinner. I am giving her a wonderful gift – the gift of independence and a feeling of confidence.
    I can’t protect her from bad things happening to her but I sure can give her the tools with which to make good decisions.

  37. BMS May 9, 2009 at 1:37 am #

    “How about this: I will not judge you for putting your child on a leash, if you will back off on my decision to let my 3.5 year old run around in a playground that is a mere 40 feet away from me.”

    This says it all for me. I don’t expect everyone to be as relaxed a parent as I am. But I also would like others to give me the benefit of the doubt and not be speed dialing CPS every time my kid walks out the door without me walking 3 millimeters behind him.

  38. Elizabeth May 9, 2009 at 3:43 am #

    As this poster alluded to, children have good instincts when it comes to assessing people and what happens when we over-protect is we stifle those instincts with fear, making them less capable of making good decisions. This is about teaching adaptive, responsible skills in risk assessment, empowerment, and communication.

    My sister is a “What If” parent and her husband is even more so (he’s convinced it WILL happen). And instead of teaching their children what mature and responsible things to do if they get separated from the group on a class trip they are teaching them to scream for help! Seriously, not, learn how to be safe and protect yourself and communicate effectively to resolve the problem, but scream the word HELP as loudly as you can. You can’t tell me that kid isn’t learning how to be afraid and think of himself as a perpetual victim in waiting.

    Show me a kid who knows how to ride the subway by himself and I’ll show you a kid who knows how to be safe, protect himself, and learn from experience.

  39. Jules May 9, 2009 at 5:36 am #

    Danger is everywhere, it is called life and fate and you can have them wear one of those suits a police dog trainer wears whilst being chained to your ankle and something bad could still happen.
    Life is supposed to be lived and kids need freedom and autonomy to live it.

  40. Jules May 9, 2009 at 5:40 am #

    “Yes, there are still 100 sex offenders around here, but I am going to get Glass Half Full all over your ass and say that there are only 100. ”

    Oops, forgot this….

    The molester you know is MUCH better then the one you don’t know. I’m always amazed when people get bent out of shape because a sex offender is living somewhere nearby. Be glad you know that person is there, tell your kids to avoid them (after finding out why they might be on the list) you and your kids are much safer from them then the perv down the street that no one knows about.

  41. DJ May 9, 2009 at 6:46 am #

    Let’s adopt Finding Nemo as the official Free Range movie — remember when Dorey said to Marlin (not an exact quote here):

    If you don’t let him go out, nothing will ever happen to him.

    Great double meaning there.

  42. Nicola May 9, 2009 at 7:00 am #

    Great post. Love it. Love it.

  43. d May 9, 2009 at 8:18 am #

    I’m just going to say that even *you* are overstating the dangers of sex offenders.
    Guess what? Public urination = registered sex offender.
    One more reason not to worry.

  44. Aliza G May 10, 2009 at 6:50 am #

    I love the comment about adopting “Finding Nemo” as the Free Range Kids movie! Great quote too, by the way.

  45. Freakedout Fathers Guy May 11, 2009 at 5:47 pm #

    Man, I find this empowering and challenging at the same time. I had parents who panicked over EVERY what if. Now I have to fight it every step of the way, while balancing it with an appropriate level of protection and care and instruction with my boys.

    Appreciate the encouragement to continue teaching my boys to be brave and embrace the world…

  46. Sherry May 11, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    I’m trying. My mom had 2 “sets” of kids. Myself and my younger sister grew up together, we were pretty free-range. I rode my bike more than a mile to the store, with permission, actually by request, many times. When my youngest sisters came along, my mom had gone the opposite direction, the kids couldn’t ride their bikes unless an adult was watching them and they couldn’t leave a certain radius from the front door. It was hard to watch and yet it was drilled into my head as I was often responsible for them. My youngest sister was still being told to wear the harness/leash at 7… we took it with us but I didn’t put it on her. Now that my 2nd to the youngest sister has 2 kids, we’re trying to break away from that paranoia. It’s a battle with ourselves. It helps my sis that her hubs is more on the free-range side. Outings with my mom are stressful because she is even more “what if” than she was 25 years ago when my younger sisters were little…

    I let my 2 and 3 year old nephew and niece run ahead at the park yesterday and got an earful. They have been taught that they can have their “rein” but if their adults say “Stop” they have to stop and wait for their adults to catch up. Its a struggle for me, fighting the paranoia that has been drilled in for 20something years, to let them go too far ahead but it was nearly impossible yesterday at the park with mom.

    I’m so glad I found this site. It’s liberating.

  47. Uly May 11, 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    “My youngest sister was still being told to wear the harness/leash at 7”

    OMG, seriously?

    I’m all for toddler leashes. They give the child more freedom than holding your hand or being stuck in a stroller, and yet they allow you to keep them from randomly running in the street. But at seven, they’re not toddlers… surely your sister wasn’t prone at that age to bolting off without a glance back?

  48. Nancy Davis May 11, 2009 at 11:45 pm #

    What if my daughter tripped and skinned her knee? My mother-in-law would spray her down with Bacitracin and keep her in the house all day. Me, I kiss her oopsie, clean it off, put a band-aid on it and send her on her merry way. I hate the current thinking that “danger lurks around every corner”. Kids panic when parents panic . I’ve never worn a bike helmet or elbow pads and I’ve survived for 39 years “all by myself” and as any parent knows, band-aids last for three minutes before they get pulled off.

  49. Nancy Davis May 12, 2009 at 12:14 am #

    Jules:I just had an experience with my step-daugters. They grew up in a very sheltered environment and met a “friend of a friend” in middle school. The boy took them shopping after school, and in their naivete went missing for 36 hours. The boy tried to “turn them out” at the ripe old age of 14. They were never informed about such things and just thought he was a really nice guy.

  50. segue May 12, 2009 at 2:33 pm #

    What bothers me is these AMBER alerts. I mean, I think that it is a great idea for those rare rare occasion when a child is snatched and in immediate danger, and getting the word out can make a difference. But 95% of the alerts I’ve ever heard were essentially custody disputes. No offense, but that’s not my problem, so stop interrupting my tv show!

  51. Uly May 13, 2009 at 9:20 am #

    What’s really bad is that, segue, Amber alerts are ONLY intended to be used in a very limited situation: When the child has DEFINITELY been snatched by a stranger, is CERTAINLY in danger, and the stranger and his/her vehicle CAN be identified. Nothing else is supposed to qualify.

  52. Culdesachero May 20, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    I was hoping for a daughter so that I could teach her to fish and do all of those great and dirty things that only boys are supposed to like.
    When I was in school, there were plenty of pocket knives brought to school. If a child was foolish enough to get caught with one, it was confiscated until the end of school. Usually, the parent would be called. Not the police. It would have been just ridiculous to assume that a pocket knife’s only purpose is to cause harm.
    I always brought my baseball bat. How else was I going to play scrub? Or is that not allowed anymore?
    As for streams, I always played near or in them. Careful attention must be paid to the weather! Even a small stream can turn into a deadly torrent if a flash storm occurs – even miles away.

  53. Kristina August 30, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    I looked into the ‘poisoned candy’ myth a while back, trying to convince my mother to let us go trick-or-treating. Plan A (“but, MOM! our new neighborhood gives out the best candy in the CITY!”) didn’t work. Plan b, though, did.

    Plan B was: look, mom. The only known case of poisoned candy is when this kid’s drug addict uncle tried hiding cocaine in his nephew’s basket. When the police came, he told them it must have been the neighbors on Halloween. It fooled them for…oh, 10 whole minutes. So tell me now if uncle Steven does drugs and is coming to our house from Colorado within the next hour.

    Yes, I had a bit of an attitude. I’m a teenager. But I got to take my little sister trick or treating. Luckily enough, our house is a corner house that connects to the long main road. So when she took me deeper into the neighborhood that I didn’t recognize, I knew to walk towards the mountains until we hit the irrigation ditch. We made it home under three minutes.