Free-Range House Call on “The Today Show”

Hi Folks — Let’s hear it for Real Simple Magazine which is running anbsdedikh
an article by self-professed overprotective mom
Jennifer Breheny Wallace who wanted to stop worrying so much. It begins:

” A couple of years ago, my then five-year-old son William took a standardized test in which he was asked about everyday objects. The tester noted his unusual responses to some questions. When asked ‘What do candy and ice cream have in common?’ William replied, ‘They both give you cavities.’ For the question ‘What is chewing gum?’ William answered, ‘A choking hazard.'”

Jennifer wanted to be brave enough to let her two older kids, 6 and 7, ride their bikes and play outside on their own, so she tracked me down and asked if I ever did house calls.

Good question. I had done 13 of them on my reality show World’s Worst Mom, which was like the Supernanny, except for “out-of-control kids” substitute “extremely nervous  parents.” My m.o. was to separate the parents from their kids and then give them — the kids — “challenges”  like  crossing the street, walking to the store or even going to a public bathroom without a police escort.

Once the parents saw that their kids not only could do those things with aplomb, but were so HAPPY to be trusted and FREE, well, they sometimes actually wept with joy.  What’s more, they couldn’t even remember WHY they’d said, “No playing on the front lawn,” or, “No you cannot go on a sleepover.” They changed THAT COMPLETELY. (Well, 12 out of 13 did.) Deep-seated fears that looked like they’d require years of therapy disappeared in an afternoon.

I was almost as shocked as they were. But having seen it with my own eyes, I told Jennifer I’d come to her place and see if the same technique worked without a camera crew.

You can hear what she has to say:

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Off camera, she told me that last summer,  she kept her kids inside by playing board games and reading to them. Both are lovely activities! But this year, post-house call, her son is outside “all the time.” He has also discovered how much he loves bugs.

As a result of this kind of transformation, Free-Range House Calls is now a business I’m trying to start. Having spent seven years in therapy myself, I realize that “real” therapy is a wonderful thing. This isn’t that. This is just a visit from me that helps separate parents from their kids long enough from them to see how safe and competent their kids really are.

It’s also something you can try on your own, with a friend. Have them sit with you  while the kids (properly trained not to run in the street or go off with anyone, yada yada) play outside, or take a little walk.

As I’ve come to see: I don’t change parents. The kids do. They show their parents something deep that they’d forgotten: Childhood isn’t a looming disaster to be avoided.  It’s a time of exploring, running, growing up.

And sometimes bugs. — L.


29 Responses to Free-Range House Call on “The Today Show”

  1. In the Trenches August 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Great idea! I hope it works out! If you branch out and have enough people doing house calls, it could have a big impact on the culture!

  2. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Perhaps you could film it, and create a YouTube channel if you have the resources to do so. Even if you don’t have a network deal, it could still be worthwhile to record the process and results of your house calls in a way that more people could access.

  3. LauraL August 5, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    YAY!! Fantastic!!!

  4. ank August 5, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Good for you! I hope it’s successful and becomes something big!

  5. Sarah August 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    Wow, Lenore. You really worked miracles with that woman. I applaud her for working so hard to overcome her paranoia, for the benefit of her children. I will comment on the beach thing, I grew up and still live in a beach community and worked four five years as a lifeguard. The beach can be incredibly dangerous for those that aren’t experienced ocean swimmers- but there is only one way to gain that experience. I often remind my husband that when out boys are teenagers they will be going to the beach themselves, doing god knows what. I would rather they learn to navigate the ocean from me first.

  6. Chad G August 5, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    How about a book with the projects in it.
    I know as the parent of a 6 yr old who just made friends with an entire neighborhood full of kids it is tough to just let him run, and we do try to keep tabs on him, but his social skills improvement and the fact that he has almost completely lost interest in tv and video games has been the biggest payoff this summer. And he is having one of the greatest summers ever.

  7. Are we there yet? August 5, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    I am seeing some of your FreeRange ideas in my own thinking. I am in the midst(?) of an ugly divorce with kids, one of whom has been told and has since told me that she wants nothing to do with me. And the courts can’t make her, sez she. Well, at 14, the courts can but is that what I want for her?

    She didn’t get to this position on her own but I can’t deal with that right now. What am I doing is rethinking the traditional residency/custody protocol to where the kids choose when to move from place to place, not the court or the parents. Adult decisionmaking got them into this mess so why make them suffer from more of it?

    Perhaps not germane to this post but maybe to the larger idea of house calls, nipping some ideas in the bud.

    So rock on, free range/child-centered parenting…down with control and worst-first thinking

  8. Merrick August 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    Chad – have you gotten him a WATCH?
    I think the number one tool for a free range kid is a wristwatch.

    My son’s say “I’m going to John’s house. What time should I be back?”

    I set a time for them to check in and expect them to do so. The responsibility is on them. I have a general idea (They’re going to be at John’s house, or we’re going to the park by the school) of where they are and if they don’t check in by ~15 minutes after they’re supposed to, I can follow up.

  9. Merrick August 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    sons not son’s LOL

  10. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    That’s a good idea Merrick. I think my 6 yr old is ready for a watch.

    Also, I second Chad’s idea for a book chronicling your house calls. Less resources are needed than to make videos on a YouTube channel.

  11. Edward August 5, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    When properly trained to use them, all any kid needs is a bicycle – to get away from home, and a watch – to tell him when to be back. I had both as a kid and they worked perfectly, everywhere all the time.

  12. Tsu Dho Nimh August 5, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    I could let him plug in electronics, but he had to do it in front of me.

    That is seriously out of whack … I’m glad she realized that she was not just continuing her risk-averse family culture but getting too extreme to be called “risk averse” any more.

  13. Papilio August 5, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    …I seem to recall a very old post of you Lenore, in which you were going to do something very similar? That also involved you going to people’s houses for a FR chat and trying to help them with stuff? That didn’t work out?

    And, at the risk of sounding very, eh, ‘shallow’ is the word I guess: I like the simplicity of your outfit. It draws the attention to you rather than to scarf & necklace 🙂

  14. Hels August 5, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    At least this mom was realizing she was not doing the right thing and that she needed help. That recognition is the crucial first step towards healing, and one, unfortunately, missing for a lot of parents out there.

  15. Rachel August 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    I think that is a great business idea! Good luck! I’ll keep you in mind and pass your name along to parents who are looking for some hands-on guidance.

  16. Crystal August 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    I love how you come across: modern, intelligent, confident and stylish to boot. 🙂

  17. Papilio August 5, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    Yeah – I didn’t notice the nervousness.

  18. Rachel August 5, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    Hopefully your coverage/network will expand. I already know of one family I’d like to nominate.

  19. Kenny Felder August 5, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    That’s such a great idea, Lenore. I hope so much it works. I mean, of *course* it will work on the kids and parents who try it, but what I mean is, I hope lots of people take you up on it, and then tell their stories.

  20. Meagan August 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    Ooh… Ok, she actually touched (very briefly) on one of the issues I’ve been thinking about lately: deer ticks.

    Lenore, feel free to repost this… I’d love to get advice from all the free rangers here.

    So we have a half-wooded lot. We have a nice shady backyard, then behind it, woods. It’s sort of the perfect childhood back yard. It’s one of the reasons we bought the house. And now we have a toddler (2) who I’m not allowing into the woods.

    We have a ton of deer, and presumably ticks to go along with them. We also have poison ivy… I think. I’m not 100% sure.

    So… How do I do this? I love the idea of nature, I want my son to love nature, but honestly I’m just not nature girl. Right now it’s summer, so both my son and I are usually in shorts and sandals. I’ll let my son go bare foot in the grass, but for some reason striding through the brush, even in my own backyard doesn’t see like a good idea. Do I say “no woods” except when we’re in jeans and shoes?

    He’s too young to learn to identify poison ivy, though not too young to teach I suppose if I can figure it out in the first place. He has a cashew/pistachio allergy which is apparently the same oil as all the “poison” plants… does that mean he’s more likely to have a serious reaction if he touches the plant? Is there even any such thing as serious reactions to poison ivy? I guess these at least are questions for our pediatrician.

    I’m just not sure how to approach the woods. I want my son to grow up loving this space, and as he gets older, to make it his space. In most areas, I’m pretty good at giving him as much independence as a 2 year old can handle. I let him fall off the swings, I let him climb the 5-12 climbers if he thinks he’s ready. I don’t intervene when another toddler snatches his toys. But I didn’t grow up in the woods. I don’t know what’s appropriate, and I don’t know how to let him explore safely.

  21. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    Meagan, where do you live? I know in certain areas of Mass, deer ticks/Lyme disease are a serious problem. Like in Lincoln. But not everywhere. If your area is not known for deer ticks, don’t worry about it. I read that mice carry deer ticks, not necessarily deer.
    About poison ivy, learn what it looks like (smooth edged leaves, two leaves together and a third connected by a stem). And take your toddler with you.

  22. Donna August 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    “Is there even any such thing as serious reactions to poison ivy? ”

    Yes!! But it still is just a skin reaction. Poison ivy rash is just an allergic reaction to the oil in the plant. Some people are very allergic and get a major rash from very little contact. Others are not allergic at all. Most people fall somewhere in the continuum. None of it is deadly; just uncomfortable.

    Learn what it looks like. It is pretty distinctive. If you have it in your woods, you probably shouldn’t let your son out there alone until he is old enough to know to stay away from that area.

    As for deer ticks, bug spray with DEET will repel them.
    Or wear long pants, long sleeved shirts and closed shoes when in the woods (good for repelling ticks and poison ivy). I wouldn’t suggest jeans unless it is cold. There are plenty of light-weight fabrics that will be cool in the summer and will protect against both deer ticks and poison ivy. If it is really a concern, tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt tails into your pants. And wear light colored clothes so that you can more easily see dark ticks.

    Either way, give Jr. a bath that night (and yourself a shower) and check him thoroughly for ticks while you wash. Ticks need to stay on the body for 36-48 hours before they can transmit lyme disease. Deer ticks are very tiny though.

  23. Meagan August 6, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    @Natalie & Donna

    We’re in Cleveland, Ohio… I think it’s a problem here but not as much as further east. My father in law’s dog (PA) died of Lyme disease. :-/ That’s really good to know about how long it takes to incubate (?) … my son gets a bath every night, so that and light clothing should take care of it.

    I’m fairly sure I know what poison ivy looks like, and that we have some, though fortunately not a huge amount. But I also spent about a week thinking our yard was covered in poison sumac, and I’m more or less satisfied that it isn’t really. It looks just like the photos, but it just seems really unlikely (plus the deer eat it… They wouldn’t eat poison sumac, would they?). I don’t think I’ll be taking many walks, with or without my son, until I get a friend with more plant knowledge to come by and identify things.

    Thank you both for your replies!

  24. Kay August 6, 2013 at 3:21 am #

    This is really a great public service you’re doing, and I’m so glad the Today Show was so positive toward Free Range, aka normal childhood.

    I still wish some kind of intervention for school districts, though. Just found out from a front page article in our local paper complete with “graphic” pictures, that the local high school did one of those “shooter” scenario practices. At least they didn’t use students, but adults pretending to be student victims, but still.

  25. nancey August 6, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    My son is on his second case of poison ivy this summer. He took the dog out in the woods, through the section of the yard that is known to be full of the stuff! He had his closed sandals on and shorts. (he’s 14) and has been treating his itchy feet for 2 days now. Just be sure to wash your hands after touching poison ivy as you can easily spread it to other parts of the body.

    As someone else mentioned, individual reactions vary greatly. I get a barely itchy rash, while my stepmother had to see the doctor after cleaning the yard.

  26. Natalie August 6, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    This might be an excellent time to get to know your neighbors. They’re going to be more familiar with the environment, I bet they’ll be glad to get to know the new family in the area. Invite them over for coffee and cake, get advice on ticks and poison ivy, and get to know your community.

  27. Tsu Dho Nimh August 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    @meghan …So we have a half-wooded lot. We have a nice shady backyard, then behind it, woods. It’s sort of the perfect childhood back yard. It’s one of the reasons we bought the house. And now we have a toddler (2) who I’m not allowing into the woods.

    I grew up in Montana, where Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever was a definite threat. The father of a classmate was hauled out of the mountains wrapped in a blanket, strapped over a pack mule, because it killed him on a fishing trip.

    Nevertheless, we were not banned from the woods.

    1 – we got “tick shots” … the now unavailable vaccine for RMSF (there was a vaccine for Lyme disease and it was taken off the market for reasons of vaccine hysteria)

    2 – we checked ourselves for ticks after every outing and when we were younger, were checked by parents

    3 – had we come down with RMSF, we would have been promptly treated.

    Lyme is the same, but you have some control over the environment …

    1 – Keep the deer out of your back yard … fencing works.
    2 – keep the underbrush pruned up. Baby ticks like to wait in low brush and transfer onto any passing mammal.
    3 – check the child for ticks every evening, at bath time. Learn how to properly remove them
    4 – if the child shows symptoms, prompt treatment with antibiotics is effective.

  28. Frau_Mahlzahn August 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    From a European perspective: are you serious that the fact that a kid _crossed a street_ is actually newsworthy???? That is… well, frightening.

    Are things really that bad over in the States?

    So long,


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