Facts be damned



During most of my seven-plus years in New Orleans, I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Audubon Zoo.  It was wonderful work.  Primarily, I helped perform “live animal shows” that starred parrots, snakes, possums, nutria, and a host of other animals.  You ask, “what does this have to do with parenting?”  Well, it turns out, a lot.  I was still 14+ years away from being a parent, yet, I was beginning to learn some important lessons about how parenting worked.  Most importantly,  I got to witness, first hand, just how parents can blatantly ignore facts (that are right in front of their faces) in deference to myths and biases that are demonstrably false, all in the interest of “safety.”  To illustrate, I will compare two different shows that I used to perform.  One of them starred a scary-looking, yet harmless snake.  The other starred a beautiful, but dangerous, Blue and Gold Macaw.

In the first case, the snake, I would go through eight or ten minutes of discussion about snakes’ anatomy, diet, sensors, etc., to include displaying a real snake skeleton.  All the while, there was a 6-foot-long black rat snake lying in a pillow case next to me, waiting to come out and wow the crowd.  When it was time, I would pick up the pillow case.  I would assure everyone in the area that I was about to take out a big snake, and that he was completely harmless.  I told everyone that he was big, he was black, he was scary looking, but, at the same time, he posed no threats to anyone, in any way.  He was not venomous, he was not a constrictor, he was not aggressive, and that I would, at all times, have control over his head (and mouth).  Then, I invited the kids to come up to the front of the stage.  “When I take him out, you will have a chance to touch him.”  They were psyched.  As you can imagine, most of the kids had never touched a snake before.

The parents, at first, seemed to go along.  However, the second I actually pulled the snake out of his bag, many of them would reach out, grab their children by the back of their collars and, literally, pull them away from the stage in terror.  “That snake is going to bite your face off!”, “That thing is poisonous!”, “Get away from that thing, it will kill you!”, “Oh my God, get back here!”.

I wish I were exaggerating.  It was absolutely amazing, and depressing, to watch.  I would think, “if you brought your kids here to learn something today, why not let them learn? ”

Now, lets talk about the Blue and Gold Macaw.  Imagine the same stage, the same crowd, but, in place of a scary black snake, imagine a gorgeous tropical bird.  The most important difference was, of course, that the gorgeous bird actually WAS dangerous.  I would say:  “Do not touch the bird”, “Do not reach in the direction of the bird”, “the bird is aggressive and will bite you”, “the bird will inflict a serious wound on your hand”, “the bird can crack a walnut with his beak; imagine what he can do to your finger”, “None of the staff even touch the bird”, etc.  There was no lack of clarity with regards to the danger.  How do you think the parents responded?  Well, like this:  “can my son hold the bird for a picture?”; “get up there and pet the bird, Joey, I want to get a picture”; “can we feed the bird something from our hand?”; “can you put the bird on my daughter’s shoulder for a picture?”; “is this, like, a pet bird?”; “wow, how pretty, I bet he’s very friendly.”

You see the problem here?

It seems that it’s that way today with our children’s safety.  Ignore the facts, and focus on the sensational and scary.  Riding in a car is perfectly safe, but playing unsupervised in our front yard is terrifying.  Using a public restroom alone is death-defying, but spending time with a questionable uncle is just “family politics.”  I think it’s high time to begin focusing on the facts, rather than on fear-driven myths or beauty-driven fantasies.  Come on, folks, we can do better than that.

As Mardi Gras approaches


Hey, Gang,

As I sat here moments ago, contemplating my family’s pending trip to New Orleans, I remembered that I actually wrote something that looked a lot like a blog post during last year’s trip. I just found it in my files, and have pasted it below. Perhaps the idea of a blog had already started forming? I can’t be sure. Anyway, give it a read and tell me what you think. Thanks!

In the midst of Mardi Gras, I wrote, to nobody in particular:

I suppose it really caught my attention a few years ago, before I actually became a parent. After re-reading Tom Sawyer, I realized that I had more in common with Tom than I did with my nephews, and other kids their age.  I thought that that was quite peculiar; and then it grew to become a bit disturbing. Generational differences are always present, of course, but what was unfolding in kid world seemed like a whole new brand of growing up.
Skip to today; I am a retired military officer, and a stay-at-home dad. My wife and I are Free Range (FR) parents of a five-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl. Even as young as they are, their “range”, relatively speaking, is expansive. They are capable, confident, and well-trained with regards to safely expanding their world of experience. The reason I’m writing this particular piece is because I am currently in the process of bringing them through an amazing parenting crucible: Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And I’m doing it alone. Yes, I imagine that the very thought of such a thing would strike terror in the hearts of helicopter parents (HP) everywhere. And it should; they wouldn’t survive five minutes here. Where HPs recoil, however, FRs advance, explore, and evaluate. So, through the lens of Mardi Gras, let me share some observations and thoughts about our FR experience here.
I am no stranger to Mardi Gras, having lived in New Orleans for nearly eight years, and visited many times since. However, this was the kids’ first time, and the first time that I have ever paid any notice to how kids operate during Carnival. It has been awesome. Those of you intimately familiar with New Orleans, and Mardi Gras, know that the veneer of utter craziness is but a small part of the celebration. You can avoid all of that very easily. Residents here have a deep understanding of Mardi Gras as a very family-oriented event. In fact, the first weekend of Carnival is known, at least locally, as “Family Gras.” When my kids got to their first parade, they were thrilled to find nearly a dozen kids already playing at our “spot.” The parents were close by, I came to found out, but there was not a single helicopter in sight. So, there I was, watching kids play together, in the middle of Mardi Gras, at the edge of a big crowd, lots of noise, lots of movement, darkness falling…and all was well. The kids were playing tag, throwing a ball, hiding in the shrubs, falling down, getting bumped into, and occasionally visiting a parent nearby. They were mostly just laughing and having fun. I thought, “wow, this is something that your average HP could probably not even bear to watch. ”
Another thing I observed was a rare synergy among the parents. Some of the parents knew each other, others were perfect strangers, but everyone seemed to be on the same sheet of music with regards to the kids. The kids played, parents watched for trouble, but kept on sipping their beer, catching beads, and having fun. The collective stress level over child care seemed to be zero. Ultimately, I “joined” the unofficial system, and got to know some of the parents in the area. I actually saw several of them on ensuing days, as we all returned to our “spot” for the next parade (we were Uptown, on Magazine, for those who may care). Here’s the counter-intuitive part of the parenting at parades: there was no “talk” of the parenting at parades! It was just happening. Nobody stood up and said “OK, we’ll watch here, you watch there, we’ve got Joey..” etc. It was just an unspoken phenomenon that struck me as something right out of a 70’s backyard barbecue. It was fantastic.
Did the kids participate in the bead catching as well? You bet they did. My two little ones were right out there on the street with them, waving at parade riders. They were catching beads, stuffed animals, plastic swords, hats, and an avalanche of other stuff. I marveled at how the parenting collective even extended out to the street. Occasionally, a random parent would take a little boy or girl by the shoulder and pull him back: “that’s a little too close, Honey”, or “there’s a band coming next, you need to get back a bit”, or whatever the appropriate direction was. Again, the stress level was zero. This scene has continued to play out at every event we’ve attended and we still have a couple of big ones to go. Fat Tuesday tomorrow! I will return home (to Michigan) with new confidence that the spirit of FR parenting is alive and well here in my adopted home town. I was about to say that it is “surprising” that I would find it here, in the maelstrom of Mardi Gras. However, as an honorary New Orleanian, I should know better. It’s no surprise at all. Laissez le bon temps roule!

Stranger Danger Craziness



Dear readers,

Welcome to my first official post. Thanks for dropping by! Linked here is the story that pushed me over the edge. After being a long-time observer, I was finally forced to fight through my profound computer illiteracy, and launch this site. For that amazing motivation, I can thank the author. Just in case you’re reading this, Christine, thank you. However, it all started when Lenore Skenazy (FreeRangeKids.com) posted the link. So, she certainly gets an assist on the play. Thanks, Lenore!
I believe this story is a nearly perfect example of the kind of fear-based parenting advice that mass-media and (some) law-enforcement seem to endorse and, unfortunately, probably practice at home. There is also an embedded video of a “professional” providing further paranoia and ill-conceived guidance about child abductions, including how to make sure that your child never trusts anyone, anywhere, ever. Don’t buy it, folks. As this page develops (and I hope it will) I’m actually going to introduce a feature called “Stranger of the Week”, where you get to meet the cool strangers that the kids and I encounter in our daily adventures. Just as soon as I figure out how to do some photo, link, click, post, organize stuff. I’m not actually sure if the forum I’m currently using even supports what I am envisioning (see above comment on computer illiteracy). I may need an upgrade, or two…or perhaps just some good coaching. Check back later. 🙂
So, I sent the author, Christine Coppa, the below note, as her email address was published at the bottom of her article (Chrissicoppa80@yahoo.com). I received no reply. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. A follow-up email about two weeks later went unanswered as well. After reading her article, perhaps you can give it a try. Maybe she’ll be willing to share some thoughts with you, rather than with me. Anyway, here is the email, as it appeared. Let me know what you think. Again, thanks for visiting the site; I hope to see you back here soon.



Good day, I hope this note finds you well. A friend recently forwarded me your posting, “Moms and Dads, can we talk about stranger danger?” After reading it several times, I felt compelled to write you a note and offer some reactions and opinions. I hope you don’t mind.
I am a 48-year-old retired military officer, and a stay-at-home dad to a 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. My bottom-line assessment of your piece can be summed up in this way: what frightens me far more than any mysterious strangers, are parents who subscribe to the brand of corrosive, irrational fear that seems to have you in its grip. If it were purely your own demon to manage, that would be fine with me. Unfortunately, it is not. In addition to your son’s psychological and emotional development, my family may also be put at risk, as you teach, model, and act in the spirit of a baseless “stranger danger.”
As I go about my stay-at-home dad business, my cohort consists almost completely of 20 and 30-something women. In that community of parents, I present a rather unconventional “look”, I suppose, being a rather burly man with a military haircut. As I regularly appear at parks, schools, and other places where children gather, I guess I make quite a terrifying stranger. As I sit back and watch my kids play at a park, my “stranger danger” consists of meek, frightened moms who would just assume snap my photo and call the police before saying “Good morning, how are you? Which ones are yours?” Whether you accept it or not, you contribute directly to that culture of fear, which, in turn, threatens my family.
Of all the alarming passages in your piece, I’ll begin with the bookstore. The man you describe in the bookstore “could have been harmless”, yet, when you “told someone in the store about the encounter” you set in motion a chain of events that instantly moved beyond your span of control. All it would have taken (and has taken in cases like this) was for a similarly “concerned” employee to pick up the phone and call the police. Two telephone-game steps later, a local patrol car receives a radio call of a man possibly molesting a child at the bookstore. You can imagine what happens (and has happened) next. I, for one, don’t want to be browsing in a bookstore (or anywhere for that matter), only to have a couple of cops put me face-down on the floor because I had the gall to say “That’s a a great book” to the wrong kid. “Stranger” simply does not equate to danger. I have a great idea! Why don’t you try talking to the person instead?
You write, “If you ever see a lost kid who needs help, tell me and we’ll call the police and help the child out.” Wait just a moment. Why would you think to call the police? Sit and think about this. If a child “needs help”, then the best initial course of action is simply to be a good neighbor and parent: HELP him! Also, it’s important to keep in mind that just because a child seems to be lost, or alone, that does not mean that he is necessarily in distress or danger. However, once the police are involved, the danger becomes very real for that family. My children have often been mistaken as “lost” as they were going somewhere by themselves (to the cereal aisle to fetch Cheerios, for instance, or walking down a hotel corridor). My children are well-trained to manage genuine “getting lost” scenarios, so I don’t worry about them. They’ll be fine. Unless, perhaps, you try to help them first. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at night. You are the stranger I hope they don’t encounter. Also, how would you feel if, while helping a child, you were approached by the police and told to step back and put your hands up? Perhaps another bystander thought you were trying to make off with a child? You would offer the excuse that you were just trying to help, to which that bystander would respond, “yeah, likely story, you pervert.” Does that make sense to you? That is your logic at work, come full circle. After all, you are a stranger, and all strangers are bad.
I was also shaking my head while reading about sending your son into the women’s bathroom at his age. Wow. I don’t know what to say here except, “poor kid.” Also, I was chagrined to read that “[you] smiled in solidarity” with another like-minded mom while you were keeping your son “safe.” A great way to spread and reinforce the fear, I guess. If you continue to use “it could have taken one second for something bad to happen” as your standard, then you have set yourself up (and your son, unfortunately) for a very, very challenging existence indeed. Anything can happen in a second, anywhere. There is no escape from “what if?” Why don’t you let him try it alone and see what happens? My son has been going to public bathrooms on his own since he was five. No tragic encounters with strangers yet. Could it happen? Sure, but he’s more likely to be hit by lightning.
This note could continue for several more pages, but I’ll simply invite you to research and review the facts as we know them regarding “stranger” abductions, etc., of children in the U.S. Then, juxtapose what you find with the depth and intensity of your “stranger danger” mindset. I would urge you to not simply dismiss the facts. Instead, I sincerely hope that you might enjoy some sense of comfort and relief. Stranger abductions are extremely rare. But, of course, every rare case triggers sensational coverage on every national news network, often for days or weeks. So, at a time in our history when it’s actually never been safer for children, the prevailing opinion seems to be that it is the exact opposite. That is not only demonstrably irrational, it is tragic for our children. Teaching and modeling this brand of irrational fear has no upside. It stifles what used to be a vibrant “kid culture” of independent play, parent-free adventures, development of self-reliance, leadership, social competence, and genuine independence. Please note the current wave of distress in our university populations, as kids often show up helpless, terrified, and unable to manage their own lives. Google this: “college students call 911 for mouse.” Is that where you would have us go?
Allow me to suggest this: if you are truly determined to provide genuine hard-core safety for your child, I recommend you insist on a real, measurable, and easy step that would actually make your child safer. Stop driving him in cars. He is far more likely to die in a car accident than ever encounter a stranger with ill-intent. In fact, being in a car is the most dangerous place for a child to be in the U.S. If I may ask, just how quickly did you dismiss that suggestion as ridiculous? Real danger, real deaths, real threat. Yet, you accept the risk, and drive on, presumably in return for a mobile life, and an easy way to get to activities. That’s fine; we do too. Now, let’s consider imaginary danger, rare deaths, and a nearly non-existent threat. We depart our senses, and compromise our children’s mental health, self-confidence, and childhood birthright of independent exploration. Hypocrisy on parade, is it not? Our kids are also more likely to drown in a pool, or be murdered by a person they know. (“Friend and family danger?”) So, just how safe are we going to try to make our children’s lives? At what cost? An important question to ponder.
For my part, I will continue to marvel as my children engage fascinating strangers, much to the benefit of their social skills, cultural awareness, empathy, and nuanced judgement. Just yesterday, my son received a complete briefing on the B-2 bomber, delivered by a total stranger on an airport shuttle bus. This “stranger” saw him playing with his toy B-2, and asked him if he knew what it was. It turns out, he was a former Air Force pilot who had a lot to offer. My son was fascinated, and now knows more about the B-2 than I do! After all, if one is never allowed to discover that 99.9% of strangers are perfectly fine, then 100% of them will continue to offer nothing but threats, danger, and never-ending stress. And, should my kids ever encounter the .1%, we train for that too. No easy targets here. But, can the worst still happen? Sure. Are there any guarantees of safety? Never. Am I going to lose sleep over it? No. Will I regret having “cut them an inch”? No, I will not; I’m cutting them a mile. And they certainly won’t be calling 911 over a mouse.
If you’ve actually read this far, thanks for your patience! I’ll leave you with this: if you are entertaining any thoughts beyond deleting this email, I invite you to visit freerangekids.com. See what you think. I have no affiliation, it’s just a great site that challenges misconceptions about child safety.
Of course, I would be happy to hear what you think about my note as well, if you’d like to respond. If not, no big deal. Thanks again for your time. My best to you and Jack.

Brian W.