If I had a list of people who I'd like to have lunch with, the author of the Free Range Kids website, Lenore Skenazy, would be on it. Her blog, http://www.freerangekids.wordpress.com/, is one of my favorite sites. Ms. Skenazy posts a lot of items about the culture of fear and helicopter parenting in the States. Parents in the States don't let their kids do what they did as kids, such as walk to school alone or ride their bikes to a friend's house, because they are so afraid of pedophiles and kidnappers. Stateside schools seemed to have stepped into the role of an overprotective parent through such things as: no recess when the temperature is below 10 C (50 F) because a kid may get cold, no Valentine's Day parties because a child in the class may have allergies, and rules about teachers not talking about themselves or touching a child on the shoulder. In the States there is such a fear of "stranger danger" that even senior citizens who smile and say, "Hello" to a child are viewed as potential perverts or kidnappers. Ms. Skenazy has posted stories of children who ran to their parents screaming, "Mom! That stranger talked to me!" when a senior citizen smiled and said, "Hello" to them in a store. I must be a horrible parent because I let my son accept candy from grandmotherly-looking ladies on the train when he was younger (it's a requirement for every German woman over age 60 to have a stash of candy in her purse to give to children that she encounters). Ms. Skenazy also posts positive stories of kids whose families are bucking the helicopter parenting trend.
Here in Germany kids grow up free-range. They walk to school by themselves starting in first grade. In fourth grade they can start riding their bikes to school without parental supervision. In fifth grade kids start taking the public bus or train to school if they don't live nearby. My son rides his bike to school when the weather is nice, usually meeting up with a friend or two along the way. Kids here grow up with a sense of independence. When my son was 10, he rode the train by himself for the first time and loved it. When I picked him up at the station, the first thing he told me was, "I want to ride the train by myself again. That was fun." He skis with friends at the local ski area without adult supervision and knows what to do if someone gets hurt.
Here are a couple of Free Range stories that would probably get me turned in to the Child Protective Services people if they happened in the States. Let's see the violations: leaving a child unsupervised, letting a child talk to strangers, and inviting a child to be kidnapped because of being in a crowded area.
Last September, my family (husband, son) and I went on vacation in Italy. We were near the three big amusement parks in the Lake Garda area. When we were at Gardaland, the biggest park in the area, my husband and I wanted to go on the roller coaster with the loops. My son didn't want to go on it, no matter how hard we tried to convince him to do it. We decided that it was best not to force him to go on that roller coaster because he would be too scared to enjoy it. Next to the roller coaster there was a teacup ride, exactly like the teacups at Disneyland. My son really wanted to go on the teacups. My husband and I decided that our son could go on the teacups while we were on the roller coaster. We picked a place to meet when our rides ended, then went our respective ways. When my husband and I got off the roller coaster, my son was waiting in the appointed spot. We all then went on the teacups together because my son said that he wanted to share his enjoyment of them. OK, he really wanted to ride in them again. Nobody questioned an 11-year-old boy standing by himself for three minutes about where his parents were. All of the other families at the park were minding their own business. There was no park security waiting to haul my husband and me into his office for child neglect. When I was about my son's age, I was allowed to go off by myself or with a friend at Disneyland. I just had to meet up with my parents at a designated place and time, which I always did. This was back in the days before mobile phones, so my parents couldn't check up on me.
My next Free Range story happened last Sunday. The 2011 Alpine Skiing World Championships were here in Garmisch. We had tickets for the men's slalom race, which was the last race of the championships. My son loves collecting autographs and autograph cards from the skiers. After the race concluded, my son wanted to take his autograph pad and go to where the skiers exit the stadium so that he could catch them for autographs. We let him go. My husband and I stayed in the stands to watch the medal ceremony. Every skier that my son approached obliged him with an autograph or card. None of them questioned a child on his own with an autograph pad and pen. Nobody said anything to my son about talking to strangers. After all, he doesn't know any of the professional skiers personally. Therefore, they're strangers. I thought that it was wonderful that my normally shy son would ask the athletes that he watches on TV every weekend from November to March for autographs. When my husband and I finally caught up with him, he was bubbling with happiness about his autograph pad being almost full. He showed us all of the autographs and cards that he collected.
I may never have lunch with Lenore Skenazy. But I will contine to read her Free Range Kids website and feel sorry for children in the States who are so overprotected. Those kids with helicopter parents and overprotective teachers are really missing out on life.