Posts Tagged ‘free-range kids’

Stranger Danger

This past summer I was in my local library when the town recreation center’s day camp wandered in as part of a field trip.  The kids, ages 6 – 11, were very excited to be there.  Both library computers were in use by adults and one of them was me.  A little kid came up to me and asked if she could use the computer.

“Well, I’m using it right now,” I replied, “but if there is something you are looking for in the catalog, you can ask the librarian to help you.”

“I’ll wait,” she said.  “And by the way:  my name is Meghan, and I’m 8!”  Without my prodding (I was busy working on a writing project that had a deadline), Meghan chattered away, proceeding to tell me all about her life, her school, her camp, her siblings, where she lives, and where she likes to go swimming.  Finally the other computer became available.  “‘Bye!” she waved cheerily.

I couldn’t really understand why I felt unsettled by her conversation.  She was a charmer!  But then it happened again, this time on the lake where I was kayaking.  An 11-year-old girl steered her kayak over to my boat, and a similar conversation ensued.

“Hi! My name is Cindy!  What’s your name?  Where do you live?  I live in the house over there!” she prattled, pointing to a clapboard cottage on the lake.  Just like it had been with Meghan, Cindy enthusiastically rattled off her age, her school, and what she likes best about summer.  She told me about her parents’ work.  And then it struck me:  I couldn’t even remember the last time a child that I didn’t previously know had interacted with me.  In my home town, and probably in most cities around the US, we’re teaching our kids about “Stranger Danger;” we’re teaching them to be suspicious of anyone unknown to them, lest grievous harm befall them.  Our kids know never to initiate conversation with a stranger, and not even to answer an unknown person’s question unless their parents are present.   Why did I feel uncomfortable, despite our clearly innocuous and delightful dialogue?    What would people think of me, clearly someone previously unknown to that child, making conversation?

Now I’m not saying that rural Maine is immune to danger, or to lurking sickos.  I don’t care where you live:  go to any government website that tracks sex offenders, enter your zip code, and find out who your neighbors really are.  Rural places do hold an attraction for misfits and offenders because they will be mostly left alone.  They can live far from “civilization” and it’s geographically practical for them to keep away from schools and other places like shopping malls where children may congregate.

Surely evil people are in the minority.  We all know and believe that.  But living in the city, where nearly everyone is a stranger, it’s simply not worth taking a chance if it involves our children’s safety; one cannot be too cautious.  And so we’ve worked hard to remove the natural instinct of a child to interact in the uninhibited, curious and vivacious manner that they favor.  Recently in Maryland young siblings were held in police custody and their parents threatened with a Department of Social Services investigation for child endangerment because they allowed their children to walk home from the park on their own, without adult supervision.  Not only did the parents believe their children were capable of finding their way home on their own, they chose to believe that their children would be safe doing so.  This ideology is part of the “free-range” movement, which assumes certain risks are miniscule compared to the benefit of raising children who will be capable, self-sufficient and independent.  I honestly don’t know if these Maryland children’s suburb is safe.  There are certainly areas of L.A. and Baltimore where my own children grew up where I would not feel comfortable letting them roam.

Here in rural Maine, kids are bused up to an hour away from their home to attend public school.  With so few children per town, kids not only end up knowing all the kids in their town, but thanks to community schools that may have attendees from five or ten different hamlets, they know a lot of people from a wide-ranging area.  They need to engage with others if they want to widen their world, and they do, because they can.  Rural Maine allows kids to be themselves, without the cautionary fears or suspicions that have spun out of control in our cities, justified or not.  In general, rural Maine is a safe and comforting place for children to grow up.

Living in Maine, I’ve changed.  I now believe that if you live in a place where the risk for your child’s safety is such that it keeps kids from saying hello to a stranger or walking to a friend’s house to play, it is not a community in which to raise a child.  Period.  There are other choices, places where your kids can be kids, in all their innocence and sense of wonder.

And that’s the way life should be.

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A Discomforting Noise

On Sunday my husband left for a two-week trip to our home town, while I remain in Maine. People often ask me if I’m afraid to be alone in such a rural spot.  Fortunately the area in which I live is pretty much crime-free.  There are people I can call for assistance for other emergencies if necessary.   But of course there is always the possibility of an accident.

The only time this became a reality was when I fell  – – hard! – – on some ice and just quietly lay on my back on the snowy ground looking up at the sky, waiting for the pain to pass and thinking, “This. Is. Not. Good.”  I knew I wasn’t badly hurt, but the drama queen in me did force me to consider the possibility that I could die here and no one would know about it!  (My husband and I do communicate with one another several times a day, so help would arrive before the vultures start circling.)  Fortunately after a few minutes’ rest I was able to get up and go about my business.  I do try to avoid unnecessary risks when possible.  I always let someone know where I’m going and when I expect to be back when I walk, hike, or kayak alone.  My dog usually accompanies me.  I wear bright neon colors even when it’s not hunting season so I’m easily visible while walking on the road or kayaking on the lake.  And I am well versed in self-defense.  I guess I just have the spirit of a free-range kid.

But for Monday, with my husband away, I was planning on sleeping in late.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  I was awakened abruptly at 6:30 a.m. by a horrible, loud vibrating noise.  It sounded like a pipe that might be connected to our furnace.  The noise came and went, then started up again intermittently.  I dragged myself out of bed, praying that the furnace would not blow.

It’s times like these that being alone can be challenging.  Unlike in my home town, I don’t ever feel unsafe here in rural Maine, but it’s a hard realization that you can’t rely on someone else to solve your problems for you.  You need to stay calm, and think things through, which is sometimes easier said than done.  Mainers are great diagnosticians and good repairmen, but I didn’t want to call my heating person only to find out it wasn’t the furnace – – I didn’t want the story of that “dumb lady from away” to make the rounds of the local diner that would make me a laughingstock and recipient of quiet smirks the next time I went into town.  So I was determined to get to the bottom of the mysterious noise.  Even if I couldn’t fix it, I could at least identify it.

But when I got to the basement, the noise faded, and I realized the source of the noise was elsewhere.  But where?

There was no regular pattern to the noise.  I kept walking around the house looking for clues.  Then I went to the porch.  It could be the noise was coming from outside.

When I ventured outside, the noise stopped.  To be safe, I carefully checked under the porch, and around all four exterior corners.  Nothing.  But the second I stepped inside, the noise started up again.  Now I determined the sound was indeed coming from outside.  But it was like a game:  when I would go outside, the noise would stop.  I’d go inside, and the noise would start up again. Back and forth, in and out, and I wasn’t any closer to solving the mystery.

Finally I went outside and stayed outside.  Making myself small, I stood silent like a statue, not moving an inch.  I waited for the noise to start up again, whenever that might be.  And sure enough I wasn’t disappointed:  a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which is a type of woodpecker, flew to my roof and promptly began attacking my metal chimney cap!

Why a woodpecker would prefer metal to all the juicy, bug-saturated trees surrounding my house remains a mystery. Perhaps it saw the chimney as an alluring location for a future nest.  And this bird was no dummy.  The minute it would see me, it would fly away, but as soon as I retreated to the shadows it was back, pounding away.  The vibration in my house was actually the entire length of the metal chimney reacting to the woodpecker’s pounding outside.  Besides the genuine annoyance from the noise, I was concerned about damage to the chimney, which would be an expensive repair.  And because I am away for weeks at a time when I visit my family in my home town, I was not going to be able to be on constant woodpecker patrol.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker woodpecker

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker woodpecker

But I was here now and I just wanted my peace and quiet.

Even though it wasn’t particularly cold outside, I decided to build an early morning fire in the wood stove.  I figured the combination of hot metal and spewing smoke from the chimney top would discourage the bird.  Fortunately I was right!  The woodpecker stayed away the remainder of the day.

Alas, the very next morning at 6:30 a.m. the yellow-bellied sapsucker was back, pounding away.  Now the outside temperature was even warmer, but once again I lit a fire and I was undisturbed the rest of the day.

This morning the bird must have decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and left my chimney – – and me! – – blessedly alone.  Considering that outside temperatures are supposed to reach a beautiful 70 degrees next week, I hope I won’t be lighting any more fires in the wood stove to keep the woodpecker away, anytime soon.  And tomorrow, I’m sleeping in.

Free-Range Kids

I just read a fascinating article in the Washington Post which will undoubtedly provoke strong debate.

I am cutting and pasting this article in its entirety:

Maryland Couple Want ‘Free-Range’ Kids, But Not All Do

January 14 at 9:28 PM

It was a one-mile walk home from a Silver Spring park on Georgia Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. But what the parents saw as a moment of independence for their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, they say authorities viewed much differently.

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv say they are being investigated for neglect for the Dec. 20 trek — in a case they say reflects a clash of ideas about how safe the world is and whether parents are free to make their own choices about raising their children.

“We wouldn’t have let them do it if we didn’t think they were ready for it,” Danielle said.

She said her son and daughter have previously paired up for walks around the block, to a nearby 7-Eleven and to a library about three-quarters of a mile away. “They have proven they are responsible,” she said. “They’ve developed these skills.”

The Meitivs say they believe in “free-range” parenting, a movement that has been a counterpoint to the hyper-vigilance of “helicopter” parenting, with the idea that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to progressively test limits, make choices and venture out in the world.

“The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely critical for their development — to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.”

On Dec. 20, Alexander agreed to let the children, Rafi and Dvora, walk from Woodside Park to their home, a mile south, in an area the family says the children know well.

The children made it about halfway.

Police picked up the children near the Discovery building, the family said, after someone reported seeing them.

Police on Wednesday did not immediately have information on the case. But a spokeswoman said that when concerns are reported, “we have a responsibility as part of our duty to check on people’s welfare.”

The Meitivs say their son told police that he and his sister were not doing anything illegal and are allowed to walk. Usually, their mother said, the children carry a laminated card with parent contact information that says: “I am not lost. I am a free-range kid.” The kids didn’t have the card that day.

Danielle said she and her husband give parenting a lot of thought.

“Parenthood is an exercise in risk management,” she said. “Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleep­over? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”

She added: “Abductions are extremely rare. Car accidents are not. The number one cause of death for children of their age is a car accident.”

Danielle is a climate-science consultant, and Alexander is a physicist at the National Institutes of Health.

Alexander said he had a tense time with police on Dec. 20 when officers returned his children, asked for his identification and told him about the dangers of the world.

The more lasting issue has been with Montgomery County Child Protective Services, he said, which showed up a couple of hours after the police left.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for CPS, said she could not comment on cases but that neglect investigations typically focus on questions of whether there has been a failure to provide proper care and supervision.

In such investigations, she said, CPS may look for guidance to a state law about leaving children unattended, which says children younger than 8 must be left with a reliable person who is at least 13 years old. The law covers dwellings, enclosures and vehicles.

The Meitivs say that on Dec. 20, a CPS worker required Alexander to sign a safety plan pledging he would not leave his children unsupervised until the following Monday, when CPS would follow up. At first he refused, saying he needed to talk to a lawyer, his wife said, but changed his mind when he was told his children would be removed if he did not comply.

Following the holidays, the family said, CPS called again, saying the agency needed to inquire further and visit the family’s home. Danielle said she resisted.

“It seemed such a huge violation of privacy to examine my house because my kids were walking home,” she said.

This week, a CPS social worker showed up at her door, she said. She did not let him in. She said she was stunned to later learn from the principal that her children were interviewed at school.

The family has a meeting set for next week at CPS offices in Rockville.

“I think what CPS considered neglect, we felt was an essential part of growing up and maturing,” Alexander said. “We feel we’re being bullied into a point of view about child-rearing that we strongly disagree with.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

This is yet another example of government intervention, with the government saying that they know better than you do.  Or is it?  Is it safe to let kids walk around Washington DC by themselves?  Perhaps you remember the story of another “free-range kid”, a 9-year-old boy who was allowed to ride the subway in New York City by himself.  And on the flip side, there is the horrific story of Leiby Kletzky and that tragic ending, despite parents who did everything right.

Were Danielle and Alexander Meitiv putting their children in unnecessary danger, or were they teaching them independence and self-sufficiency?  Is there a fine line between risk management and child endangerment?

I cannot comment on the Metivs specific situation because I don’t know their geographic area well.  I know that where I lived in L.A., we would never have let our children walk a mile alone without a parent, because unfortunately there were genuine risks involved.  On two occasions people attempted to kidnap my son when he was small!

Once I was in a market and had him in the cart.  I turned away for a moment and the next thing I knew a woman who looked very sketchy was pushing my cart towards the entrance of the store with my baby! Naturally I charged towards my cart and grabbed it away from the woman, who quickly ran from the store.

Another time – – this goes back to 1980 – –  I was in my own home, and my son was only 21 months old.  He was playing in our fenced backyard while I nursed my newborn daughter in my bedroom.  Our dog, a Doberman Pinscher, was outside with my son.  My bedroom window was next to the gate that led to the backyard.  Suddenly I heard a voice outside the gate:  “Hey little boy, wouldn’t you like to come with me?  I will give you lots of candy . .  .”  But suddenly my dog ran to the gate, and threw her entire body against the gate while barking and snarling furiously.  It looked like the doberman scene from the movie, “Boys from Brazil.”  The next thing I heard was a car’s wheels squealing as it made its getaway from my dog.  My son was safe, thank G-d.  From my position in my bedroom, I simply could not have gotten to my backyard quickly enough to rescue my son from that evil man.  With HaShem’s help, my dog saved my son’s life that day.  I never saw the man nor his car – – it all happened too fast.

Many of my grandchildren live in Baltimore, and there, too, walking alone is not a good idea.  Little kids as young as 8 years old on bikes are surrounded by gangs of children, and their bikes are stolen right out from under them.  If they protest or attempt to defend themselves, they are beaten by these thugs-in-training.

The real question is, why would anyone want to live in a place where kids – – or adults – – cannot feel safe?  I think we get caught up in complacency.  We get used to situations and that becomes the new normal.  We get rooted in our communities due to our jobs, our families, our kids’ schools, our friends, but meanwhile within this so-called comfort zone things are going to hell.  And we put up with it, because we weigh the risks and decide that it’s not so bad.  Of course we are fooling ourselves.  Yes, it is that bad.  We do have choices, and we can live in a community that has a high quality of life where we and our children can feel safe, but that involves change and most of us don’t like change.

I cannot express strongly enough just how basic a right it is for every person on this planet to feel safe in their own environment.  When you get used to living in a place where you are not safe, you are constantly on alert.  Being on alert is exhausting both mentally and physically (and if you’re not on alert, you should be, because perps choose people who look vulnerable and unaware).  You are suspicious of strangers.  You find it difficult to give people unknown to you the benefit of the doubt.  You are uneasy about trusting someone until they’ve earned your trust.

Here in rural Maine kids feel safe.  I feel safe.  For those who live in unsafe areas, I can only say, you don’t have to live this way.  You do have choices.  Your kids can walk to school or to the store or to a neighbor and you can relax.  This is normal.  If you live in an area where you cannot feel this sense of security, then please, get the hell out.  Do it for your kids’ sake.  Let them be free.  Let them be kids.