Why does it sometimes feel almost counter-cultural to pack your kids off to camp? Maybe because we’re living in a time that thinks kids are unsafe all the time, unless a parent or bodyguard hovering directly over them, preferably at home. And anyone who questions that model gets shot down.
Is there anyone in any position of authority who EVER says, “Well, the chances are not 100% that your kid will be safe if you do X, but they’re close enough not to worry about them”? Not yet. In the meantime, I present what passes for wisdom and rationality in modern day America — this “advice” column. Sigh.
This might sound like a crazy question, but at what age do you think a 14-year-old student should be allowed to stay home alone? I am an only child who is going into 10th grade (I turn 15 over the summer), and my parents are still married. I know that is a miracle, because at least 60 percent of my friends have divorced parents. One of my parents works outside the house at a regular job, and the other parent has a home business where she makes and sells crafts over the Internet. It is pretty successful and together they make good money.
So at least one of my parents is always home. And even though I am 14, if they do go out, they still get me a baby sitter. They say that it is similar to an insurance policy to have a college student at the house – no need for the student until there’s a huge demand, and then they will be glad he or she is there. For example, if I get really sick and must immediately go to the hospital. If my parents go to the city or to a play, they want someone at the house who has a car and is old enough to drive.
Cherie, I don’t want to do illegal stuff, but it is humiliating when the baby sitter comes and I am almost as tall as he is. Can you convince my parents to stop this stupidity? I am old enough to be home alone. – Home Alone
To Which Cheri Replied:
I owe you one. You gave me a great reminder why it’s important to have a baby sitter with a car when Jeff and I go out at night. We also have a teen who doesn’t drive, and now that I think about it, there are many reasons for him not to be home alone.
You have good parents when they realize that it is not an issue for you to be home by yourself until it becomes a big problem.
It is just better to have an adult who has a car as well as a little bit more of the good judgment that should come with experience. The chances of a catastrophic event occurring are small, but you never know. They are only covering their bases by having a baby sitter there for you, and I think it is smart.
Someday, you may be that baby sitter for someone else. I hope you don’t have to drive a child to the hospital, or call the parent to say the kid broke an arm; however, it could happen.
For now, set up some ground rules about the baby sitter leaving you pretty much alone, and I think you’ll be OK. Thoughtful letter. Thanks!
Thoughtful letter it may have been. Thoughtful reply? Not. – L
Most parents send their kids to camp because they know that kids grow in a different way — faster — when they’re on their own. This is something at odds with the rest of our culture, which is embracing “Bonsai Parenting.”
Over the past few months, the news has brought us stories of a 10-year-old boy not allowed to bring his pen knife on a nature trip as well as the ridiculous rules for adopting a pet that now sometimes include things like, “Pet needs one parent home at all times,” and, “Cat cannot be kept as a mouser in a barn.” One guy wrote to my blog, Free Range Kids, that his home, replete with kids, was rejected by a shelter because it was “too exciting” for a dog.
TOO EXCITING? So it no longer matters how constricted the life of a boy or dog is, so long as it is absolutely SAFE? That is the ULTIMATE goal, for all beloved species?
WRONG WRONG WRONG!
Over and over we are being told that the kinds of things animals and children have done since the dawn of time are suddenly too taxing, difficult and dangerous for this generation. Instead, adults must take care of all their child/pet’s needs and then some. Adults (once background-checked and found absolutely perfect) must keep the kid and/or pet from the fulfillment…excuse me, the DANGER of doing ANYTHING on its own. No mousing for you — I bought you fancy cat food! No whittling for you — I’ll use MY pen knife to cut whatever you need!
That’s not parenting. That’s bonsai.
STUNT THE ONES YOU LOVE!
Our marching orders are to stunt our kids and pets. We’re told to thwart their natural curiosity and desire to be part of the world. But in fact, our job is the opposite. Society is brainwashing us to believe that the world is unsafe immediately outside the door, that any parent not devoting their entire lives to constant child supervision is going to regret it, and that asking anything of anyone other than ourselves is asking for trouble. Only we, the parents, are smart and competent enough to take care of (and take over) our kids’ lives.
So maybe we should adopt the term “Bonsai parenting” instead of “helicoptering.” After all, we’re not instructed to simply hover, we are instructed to keep our loved ones inside and prune their interactions with the big, bad (exciting, demanding) world. Bonsai pets and bonsai kids, kept helpless, dependent and adorable.
Folks — As much as I literally feel my heart pounding every time I hear a story about crazy fear-mongering, or outrageous overreaction to a very small threat, I realize that there is more to life — and even this blog — than just shouting, “But they’re WRONG!” (Even though they are! They’re wrong! I swear they are!)
So today, I’d like to ask you for a story that begins: “Nothing bad happened when my kid…” And then fill in the blank with something your child did, indeed, do that other parents might consider “dangerous.” Or even that YOU , at first, considered dangerous.
Maybe your toddler climbed the jungle gym officially designated, “Age 5 and up.” Maybe your 6-year-old went to the drinking fountain outside the playground gates while you stayed inside with your baby. Maybe your 8-year-old rode her bike to the library, or your middle-schooler met up with friends for pizza at dusk and “forgot” to bring his phone!
In short: Do you have a story that can inspire other parents to dip a toe into the Free-Range world? If so, please include the age of your child and, if possible, answer these questions:
1 – What activity did your child do?
2 – Whose idea was it?
3 – Why did you permit it?
4 – What was the upshot?
5 – Would you and yours do it again?
And if your children would like to write to me themselves, they are, of course, most welcome.
Check out some initial responses here.
Hi Readers! Here’s the sign a nature center director is about to take down from the local preserve where, for the record, there are no cliffs, no plunging ravines, no standing water, no wild animals beyond the usual squirrel-type thing, no snakes, and no evil trees. There IS some poison ivy. Anyway, as he put it, “It is really a welcoming sign, isn’t it?”
The great thing about camp? There’s “caution,” of course, but it’s not extreme in the face of non-extreme, day-to-day, child-and-nature encounters.
And a tank battalion, when possible.
In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.
The rest of the article is her talking to people who believe in the value of independence and play (a lot of the folks I like talking to, too), and realizing that unsupervised time is at least as valuable to kids as the super-saturated parent time she had been bathing them in. Not that the answer is to neglect our kids. (Well, maybe a little.) But anyway: giving them space is not neglect.
My favorite anecdote came from her chat with Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd who –
… tells a story about how, years ago, his 11-year-old daughter and several of her friends were planning an overnight campout with some younger neighborhood kids in his backyard. Before the big night, the parents of the younger kids began scouring his lawn for nails and shards of glass. “It just seemed like, Whoa, what is going on with this anxiety?” Weissbourd recalls. The problem wasn’t just the parental anxiety itself — it was how it was actually reshaping the experience for those kids: “I felt like these 10- and 11-year-old girls were so conscientious and these parents came and undermined them.”
Shards of glass they were looking for? What a perfect example of Worst-First thinking: Gee, it’s a suburban lawn. What terror could lurk there?
Great article, great stories, great revelation. And a great argument for letting our kids go to camp and spend some time without us. It’s not neglect, it’s Miracle Gro!
“Men never philosophize or tinker more freely than when they know that their speculation or tinkering leads to no weighty results. We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential. Hence the remarkable fact that many inventions had their birth as toys. In the Occident the first machines were mechanical toys, and such crucial instruments as the telescope and microscope were first conceived as playthings. Almost all civilizations display a singular ingenuity in toy making…
On the whole it seems to be true that the creative periods in history were buoyant and even frivolous. One thinks of the lightheartedness of Perclean Athens, the Renaissance, the Elizabethan Age, and the age of the Enlightenment. Mr. Nehru tells us that in India ‘during every period when her civilization bloomed, we find an intense joy in life and nature and a
pleasure in the art of living….’ ”
Hi. Lenore here again: It’s cool to think about play leading to “real” results, including joy and telescopes. So, as I suggest in my book, if you think your kids might be slightly over-scheduled, consider letting them drop an activity. And then, when the days grow warm and long and delicious, consider letting them go to camp, rather than summer school. Be prepared for lightheartedness (and maybe even breakthroughs) all around.
Readers — This is such a fantastic example of the way our society is going: Better not to experience ANYTHING than to be exposed to a single ounce of RISK. That’s something that camp parents realize just doesn’t make sense. Apparently, some cat parents realize it, too. This note comes to us from Julie Saxon, a university lecturer turned stay-at-mom of two in San Jose, CA. – L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to share this story that happened yesterday. My family has decided it’s time to adopt a pet, and we’d like a cat or kitten. My husband and I both grew up with cats in the household and we both had indoor/outdoor cats. I know there’s a lot of controversy about what’s best, but we both believe that it is better for the cat’s well-being to allowed outside sometimes. (Plus no litter box is awesome!)
So we set out to a local pet store yesterday that was holding an adoption fair. It was being put on by a local cat rescue that had very specific requirements of the homes in which the cats are to be placed, and one — written into a contract — is that the kitten will be kept indoors only. So, obviously, this wasn’t the rescue for us. But what was really interesting was the rhetoric the volunteer used in trying to convince us that cats are better as indoor only. It mirrored almost exactly what the media is telling us about children! Some of the things she told me:
* We all used to have outdoor cats when we were kids. Everyone did. But “things are different now.”
* The cats’ biggest problem is PREDATORS. We think it’s cars, but it’s not. It’s predators. She then began to speak about COYOTES, despite the fact that I live in the suburbs of a fairly big city and have never–NOT ONCE in the 16 years I’ve lived here–seen a coyote. Off-leash dogs, yes. Raccoons and possums, yes. Coyotes, not so much.
* Kittens should never be outside, and these in particular because they’ve never been outside. They don’t know how to be outside. (As if I’m going to toss the kitten in the front yard and let it fend for itself.)
* Indoor only cats live longer.
* Besides, they don’t know what they’re missing.
Whether you believe the same way as this volunteer regarding cats and kittens isn’t my point. But I was shocked at how closely animal rescue folks mimic helicopter parents or possibly vice versa. Have we reduced our children to the state of 4-month-old bottle-fed baby kittens? We have to keep them inside because they’ve never been outside and they would instantly become prey to wild predators? Training them isn’t even considered? Besides, depriving them of what comes naturally is fine because they will live longer and they don’t know any different anyway? Wow! – Julie
Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog, “Free-Range Kids” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement.
This Wall Street Journal piece of mine about sending kids off to the first day of school applies to sending kids off to camp as well. Our hand-wringing, expert-consulting culture has managed to make saying goodbye into a much bigger and more traumatic event than it has to be, thanks to all sorts of over-the-top advice on how to help our kids adjust.
Maybe they’ll adjust as soon as we leave?
When Separation Anxiety Goes Overboard
As yellow buses start heading back to school, you might notice some of them being trailed by a little line of cars. Predators? Pervs?
“I was talking to a bunch of parents and found out they all follow the bus for the first week or so,” one mother told me the other day. “I sat there thinking that I was a really bad mom because that thought had never even occurred to me!”
Although I am officially the World’s Worst Mom—I even have a TV show with that name—the thought had never occurred to me, either. But apparently it’s becoming par for the course as the line gradually blurs between shipping a child off to school and shipping a child off to ‘Nam.
“They can’t seem to let go,” says Natascha Santos, a school psychologist in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island—and she’s not talking about the kids. This could be because everywhere parents turn, the advice-o-sphere keeps harping on how incredibly hard they must work to ease their child’s incredibly harrowing adjustment to school.
“Practice how you will say goodbye,” urges one of the zillion or so websites featuring first-day-of-school tips.
“Goodbye!” Hmm. That just doesn’t seem very difficult to me. Maybe I’m heartless. In fact, I know I’m heartless, because I never bought a “Nesting Heart.” That’s a toy made by a company called Kimochis that is meant to “help ease the separation” when you drop your kid off at school.
How does it work? “Your child can take the inner Heart to school and you can keep the outer heart at home,” says a Kimochis news release. “Create a playful ritual for separating the hearts at drop-off and putting your hearts back together at pickup. Reassure your child (and yourself!) that the Nesting Heart keeps you connected even when you are apart.”
Oh yes, how incredibly reassuring it must be as junior watches you—playfully!—break your heart in two. But at least this psycho-toy lays it on the line: Mommy is incomplete whenever she’s not with you, and you are incomplete without mommy. Got that? Now go have a great first day!
But who am I kidding? If you have followed any of the other parenting tips out there, that first day of school won’t really be your child’s first, because that would be too overwhelming. “Change can be scary,” says the website Care.com. “When possible, help to familiarize your child with a new school and teachers. Drive the bus route, tour the building or classroom, locate lockers and cubbies.” Heck, why not just move in for a few weeks in July?
Another site suggests that you have your child practice eating a sack lunch to make sure there are no last-minute snags. Still another tells you to have a picnic on the school playground, lest the sheer unfamiliarity of this particular patch of asphalt throw your child for a loop. But my favorite advice-nugget says to ask your child’s teacher for photos of the kids who will be in the class. “Then cut out and laminate each picture so your child can learn names and become comfortable with each new friend while playing in the comfort of home.”
Ye gads. Day one arrives and your child has already bonded with imaginary versions of real people. “Oh, so you’re Olivia,” she greets a new playmate, adding under her breath, “I saw what you did with Gumby.”
So now, with your loving help, your child has practiced eating lunch, broken your heart and detached herself from reality. But can she detach from you?
Not yet; not so fast. First, “Give your child a picture of you to keep in her supply box,” says another parenting site. “Write love notes in her snack bags.”
Television producer Jane Charlton actually tried that one year, to cheer up her daughter. “The notes said things like ‘Don’t forget we love you!’ and ‘Have a good time!’ I was trying to be nice,” Ms. Charlton told me in a phone chat. Unfortunately, this brought little comfort to her daughter. “She said that every time, just as she started to feel happy and get involved with something, she’d find a note and it would knock her right back.” Pretty soon the girl was bawling.
What an almost-perfect mom and an absolutely perfect reminder: When it’s time for your kids to go, let them.