Posts Tagged free-range kids

Bad Parenting Diseases Spread to Social Services

Published by — Healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.


For years I cringed, watching my brother-in-law drive my super-athletic niece to her elementary school.  It was three blocks away, in safe, famously affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of D.C..  Not so long ago, kids walked to school.  Older kids walked kindergartners.  And thus children began learning how to manage under their own steam.

I might have argued that the drive was a serious disservice to my lovely niece, except that the practice wasn’t his decision, really.  It was a community norm.  In a triumph of bad ideology over common sense, parents’ cars snaked around the block.  Several school staff had to manage traffic and ensure kids were dropped only in front of the school so they weren’t hurt running between cars.  The Principal was often out there.  Greeting students in the morning is nice, but protecting them from convoys of unnecessary cars was a weird use of her time.

It gets worse.  Parents’ fierce clinging to the myth of Stranger Danger has now taken root in culture.  Across the nation Child Protective Services have begun investigating parents for neglect, based on this long-debunked idea.

“I am not lost.  I am a free-range kid.”

Most recently, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s 10 and 6-year-olds got about half way to school when they were stopped by the authorities.  Again in Montgomery County — that hotbed of troubled neighborhoods — people had ratted these kids out to the police as being “unsupervised.”  But rather than tell the busybodies to buzz off, Protective Services threatened the Meitivs with removing their children unless the couple signed a “safety plan.”  Their lawyer’s review is pending.  The couple happen to be scientists with the National Institute of Health, presumably quite capable of effective risk assessment.  In fact, they were so keenly aware of bucking the fear-driven norms, their kids carried laminated cards with contact info and assurance that the kids are “free-range” and know what they’re doing.  But the kids had grown used to their autonomy — going to the park, the store — and forgotten their cards that day.

It goes on.  Last summer a Florida mom was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son play in a park near the house.  Also last summer, a South Carolina mom was arrested and jailed for “neglect” because her 9-year-old was playing in a perfectly lovely park while she went to work at McDonald’s.  How are kids of any parents going to learn autonomy if social services is against it?

Good parents are those who are working themselves out of the job.

By the age of 18, every parent’s precious darlings had better be making good choices, all on their own.  But healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.  In teaching it’s called “release model.”  An adult teaches a lesson — like walking the proper route to the school together.  Then the adult supports from a slight distance, and finally releases the kid to go solo.  Trusting kids to adventure ever further into the world is preparation for the challenges of being responsible for themselves as young adults.

Otherwise they become among those who bomb out in college, unable to handle newfound freedom (drinking), manage their time, be on their own, or just tolerate making mistakes.  Note this nutty story of the rich kid, 30 years old, who appears to have killed his father for threatening to reduce his monthly allowance.  He went to Princeton, for heaven’s sake; what was he doing with an allowance at his age?  Rich or poor, everyone need to learn self-reliance.  Police, schools, social services and parents all need to be eyes on the street supporting kids’ autonomy from that slight distance.  If public services buy into fear-driven insanity, we’ll end up raising a generation of young adults who’ll be dependent on our support for the rest of their lives.

The body politic has panic disorder.

Bad stuff happens.  We can’t prevent that.  We can wish it away, or act all insulted when it happens.  But kids get sick and die despite the best efforts of medical science, for example.  Somehow the parents before us accepted that fact, however painful.  But that one kid who had the bad luck to break something really serious falling out of a tree isn’t proof that tree-climbing should be banned.  This is organizing for failure.  It’s like keeping a kid sit safe in his room to guarantee he’s alive when it’s time for him to run the 50-yard dash.

Panicky parenting is a form of narcissism.  Parent narcissists want reflected glory and won’t take the chance that their kid gets burned taking a healthy, calculated risk.  Conversely, good-enough parents successfully work their way out of their job.  Young adults might rely on them for help or advice.  But neither their survival nor success can continue to depend on Mommie and Dadsums.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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We’re Crippling Our Kids with Fear

Published by — What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “The world is terrifying and you can’t handle it, so we’ll protect you.”

While hiking in the Finger Lakes region, I watched as a three-year-old did a major face plant on a stone path.  Fellow hikers gasped with horrified “Oh, no!”s and were about to lurch forward to… well, I’m not sure what they thought they would do.  But the mom raised her hands in a big back-off gesture and frowned fiercely.  “Let’s see if she handles it,” she said quietly so as not to wreck the kid’s concentration.  The small crowd held its breath.

So, with only grunts, the sturdy little darling hoisted herself up to all-fours, butt in the air, tested her balance, and rose.  She and mom exchanged a glance and a nod that confirmed that she was all set.  The child toddled on.  Mom did not gush “good job!” at her or smother her with sympathy.  She did glare at us.

Mom took the mishap in stride, and clearly felt the rest of us should too.  Falls happen.  Expect them.  Adversity happens.  Inevitably.  ‘Cause that’s life.  Be careful, but don’t be afraid.  Fear is limiting.  And learning to manage your own recovery and restoration will prevent unnecessary future falls better than anything.  The older a kid gets, the less Mom will be there when adversity happens.  And that’s how it should be.

Instead, communities want laws that criminalize youthful independence.

I thought America had reached its peak for over-cautiousness, but no.  Recently a North Carolina mom was arrested for letting her 9-year-old go by herself to play in a safe public park full of kids and fun stuff to do.  Another mother called the cops.  The police collaborated with that helicopter mom to give the “bad mother’s” child a stern lesson in the evils of independence.  The kid hadn’t yet learned the world is an unmanageably scary place.  But thanks to this incident she’ll be scared to death henceforth that her self-reliance will put her into foster care and get her mom some jail time.

That North Carolina arrest was no anomaly. A poll conducted by Reason-Rupe found that a whopping 68 percent of their sample of Americans felt that the law should require 9-year-olds to be supervised in public parks.  At nine?!  We’re making healthy independence illegal and ensuring that kids grow up fearing their own neighborhoods and public spaces.

I hate to date myself, but when we were 9 or even younger, my friends and I were off into the big bad world with only strict orders to be home when the street lights when on.  Often we rode our bikes to a commercial street at least a mile away from the house.  And if we were stupid enough to let our bikes get stolen, oh well.  Such are the consequences of carelessness.  We were expected to handle our own squabbles, our own troubles, unless, as was sometimes the case, we couldn’t.  Once a group of older bullies would not leave us alone, so we agreed to rat them out to our respective parents.  The parents dealt with it.  No one called the cops.  And this was not Mayberry, but Los Angeles.

The recent poll goes on: 43 percent think 12-year-olds should be supervised at parks.  OMG.  Twelve-year-olds who’ve been shielded from unsupervised socializing with other kids become entitled little beasts who don’t know what hurts or offends, or in any case don’t care.  Maybe we want them supervised in order to protect ourselves from what they’ve become.  Parents should be the backup at age 12, not the kid’s first line of defense.  Kids will grow up, whether we like it or not.  So they need to be confident they can solo safely, socially, healthily when no mommie’s around.

Resilient kids fall down, go boom and recover.

Preventing kids from even the smallest risk is now the cultural norm of “good” parents.  Moms such as the one hiking with her three-year-old are often called “free range” moms, referring to the free-range chickens that get to run around instead of living out their lives in cages.  “Good” parents now metaphorically cage their kids by keeping them indoors, supervised at all times, and doing only what adults teach or direct them to do.  (No one seems to care about the substantial risks of kids living in the world of electronic entertainment, risks such as obesity and anti-social behavior.)  But this kind of protectiveness is like dressing kids in a ton of Medieval armor and hoping they’ll dance through life.  Young American can-do spirit is now met with “Watch out!” and “Be careful!” and “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!”  Have we thought through what sorts of young adults we’re aiming towards as the result of all this protection?  Will they have the resilience, autonomy and common sense to solo out there in the real world?

What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “We don’t believe in you.  The world is terrifying and we know you can’t handle it.  So we’ll protect you and prepare you for a life without adversity.  Which is to say we won’t prepare you at all.”

Keeping kids scared will warp their adult chances at becoming resilient, innovative or much fun to be with.  I think that the nation’s poor academic performance stems from shielding kids from learning life’s basics.  What a nasty thing to do to kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Inspirational Virtues of Summer Boredom

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“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” — Dorothy Parker

A 2013 review of the literature published by Behavior Sciences concludes that boredom motivates a desire for change, new goals, experiences and pursuits.  “Boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”  — On the Function of Boredom.

Boredom can be seriously toxic in certain circumstances — like smart kids enduring a tedious lesson.  But it can also be just what the doctor ordered.

In the pre-electronics age, a time quickly joining antiquity, my summer break from school was punctuated with boredom sometimes verging on physically painful.  Except for the annual two-week family vacation, my parents’ life went on as usual.  Entertaining us was not their job.  We could play, after all.  They worked.  Oh, they’d take us to the movies sometimes, the beach, someone’s pool.  My father might play ping pong or cards.  But essentially we were on our own.  They had zero sympathy for our plight.

Even with my big imagination and epic fantasy life, I could fall into a dull passivity that ached with the feeling I was owed distraction and entertainment.  On one hot mid-summer day, I sprawled out on the slope of the front lawn for all the neighborhood to see how utterly uncared-for I was.  I wanted aliens, traveling circus troupes or any sort of fun-lovers to rescue me with any sort of diverting jumper cables to spark my spoiled, entitled paralysis.  I imagine my mother glancing out the window, dishrag in hand, exasperated with her demanding daughter.  But it wasn’t her problem.

Since the naked ape became upright, kids have hated boredom so badly that it spurred them to act.  Get your own butt off that grass and get engaged in something.  When distractions are unavailable, curiosity will set in.  Besides passive rescue, what does your inner voice want?  What interests it?  Let that voice grow louder.  It has urges.  It has ideas.  It wonders…

One solution was to go find a friend.  But while my sisters had a wealth of playmates in our big-family neighborhood, the kids my age were all boys and no fun.

I liked making things.  Our world was full of tools, scrap wood, sand piles, dirt, water, and random junk for creating environments for imaginary beings or willing pets.

But sometimes the listlessness was so great, I resentfully gravitated towards books.  At summer’s start, books could feel like the school from which I’d been liberated.  In time though, literary adventures in foreign lands and unfamiliar times were a godsend.

Our local library ran summer competitions.  If you read a book and wrote a paragraph about it, assuring the librarians that you didn’t merely skim, they’d post it on corkboard walls put up for the purpose.  They gave prizes — the most books read, best writing, best handwriting, best illustration, best summary, best whatever.  Prizes included candy, because like constant entertainment, candy was also not then in constant supply.  The incentives worked.  Soon the neighborhood kids and I were all vying for the library’s honors.

Besides, the library building somehow stayed cool longer than others.  Comfortable seats looked out on a shady garden, also a pretty backdrop to daydreams.  I scanned the walls to admire my own paragraphs and to monitor the competition.  More than once I emerged from a story mortified to see my mother marching at me with pursed lips, wondering what happened to my promise to be home at such-and-such hour?

Oh I know. Books are passe.  They’re the sort of thing an older writer might mention as a cure for summer ennui.  But these days my electronic in-box is crammed with articles and despairful research on “summer learning loss,” all of which propose solving by giving kids a ton more school.  Yes, these days what most kids do in their downtime is largely brain deadening.  Still, the educational hand-wringers never suggest that the kids need time to build, roam, investigate, settle disputes with friends, invent games.  And they certainly never propose helping them develop pursuits of their own that could ignite curiosity into questions that a nice librarian might help with.  As an industry, Education accidently turned books into a colossal chore, when they really can be entertaining and just what kids want.  Books speak to and with that inner voice.  Video games, TV and texting just shut it out.

As a friend says: attention is currency; spend it wisely.  If good things — friends, construction materials and books are at hand — kids will marshal their own attention to concentrate in healthy ways.  These articles in my inbox are always looking to provide kids with improving experiences, when what they really need are safe neighborhoods with good libraries and fewer e-distractions, where they can invent themselves and worlds of their own.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Expeditionary Learning – Journeying Through Compelling Content

Published by — Expeditionary Learning is a project-based educational approach that takes students on intellectual voyages.

Open since 2010, Greene Charter School in West Greenwich, RI, is one of a network of a large and growing network of “Expeditionary Learning” (EL) schools.

“Expeditionary learning” sounds deliciously exotic, like maybe what Marco Polo was doing or Dr. Livingston on a scientific exploration of the African jungle.  Fact-gathering treks through terrain that requires shots and exotic transportation.

Heaven knows some students have a daily expedition riding Greene’s bio-diesel buses from as far away as Westerly, to the south, or super-urban Central Falls, north of Providence.  They arrive at the Greene campus out in Rhode Island’s boonies after as much as an hour-and-a-half each way, but boast an attendance rate above state average.  A donor gave the school the buses to support the Board’s insistence on creating a diverse school available to urban students.  (The current 9th grade class has 41 percent students eligible for subsidized lunch, up from the 12th grade’s 9 percent.  Word has gotten out.)But Greene’s expeditions are actually classroom voyages through topic areas, although working out in the field, outside or off-campus, is integral to the EL experience.  These academic explorations are semester-long, in-depth examinations of an issue that integrate at least two core academic subjects.  Greene has an environmental science focus, so one of those two is usually science.  (Most EL schools are either science or arts-focused.)

For example, the 9th graders begin their high-school careers studying food in all its complexity.  Greene’s Vice Principal, Melissa Hall, says that the students start by reading the The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  “They write food journals (recording precisely what they eat); they study mass-produced food products versus local.  What does organic really mean?  They look at food over the course of time and food seasonality.”  Together, kids and teachers draw a 100-mile radius from the school site itself to figure out what’s within that reach.  What does it cost to bring local produce to table versus the price of transporting strawberries from Mexico?  And what are the trade-offs of energy-intensive indoor farming in wintery New England, where nothing grows outdoors in the winter?

Fun questions.

Greene’s EL consultants work with the faculty to backwards-design such projects, so while kids pursue their hot topic, they’re also learning the straight-up academic requirements, specifically of the Common Core.  With students lured into questioning the food they generally take for granted, teachers make sure they test well, at least comfortably above state average.

A central idea of this approach is students “owning” their own learning.  Every classroom has a copy of the 10 EL Design Principles.  Number one, “The Primacy of Self-discovery,” explains that “People discover their abilities, values, passions and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected.”  If kids aren’t invested in their own learning, it’s an uphill battle for the teachers.  Head of School, Deanna Duncan, puts it this way:  “Good teaching happens when the teachers themselves are engaged in learning.”  Turning the pages of a textbook is a tedious way to teach and learn.

Demona, an 11th grader from Providence, describes “expeditionary” this way: “They take a large topic and put it in English, science, history and get it to all come together.  (The food project) makes you really aware of what you’re putting into your body.  I’ve changed my diet.”  She adds, “It’s a really rigorous course.  I did not feel prepared for the level of rigor here.”

So these expeditions are the ultimate in hands-on learning.  The originators of the approach wanted to infuse public education with the best practices of Outward Bound.  While expensive, OB has had great success with getting disengaged kids out into the wilderness, where skills and courage they didn’t even know they had rise to the surface.  Prospective Greene students too must be willing to go camping, which has been a deal-breaker for some.

The academic expeditions always result in some sort of product that demonstrates — or not — that students actually understand the topic at hand.  The food project culminates in an 8-course dinner that the 9th-graders prepare, only with local food, to the extent possible.  Kids work with local suppliers, farmers and chefs, bringing the real world to their learning.  Preparing the dinner has become one of the week-long courses called “intensives,” learning experiences that happen both in the spring and fall.  Intensives give the school a change to support the strong achievers’ pursuit of a big project or personal passion, or to give struggling students the academic help they need to keep up in academically-rigorous classes.  The dinner intensive is a plum project that motivates students to get their academic act together.

EL is growing quickly, with 32 schools in New England and many more elsewhere.  Two-thirds of the EL schools are regular district schools; the rest are charters.

The Greene Board is thrilled with how EL is working out for their students.  The reasons include EL’s approach to school culture and climate, which I’ll discuss next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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It Takes Guts To Depict A Healthy, Happy Childhood

Published by — This film’s 1950s vision of heaven for children’s play is as relevant today as it was when it was made.

Medieval storytellers and play-masters always faced the huge problem that Evil was so much more fun to portray than Good.  Devils often made their entrance from the back of the audience, delivering sin’s pinches to real bodies as they made their way to the stage.  The characters World, Gluttony and Lechery could flaunt their drunken or sacrilegious naughtiness, even as they were doomed to the fires of hell.  Virtue, Kindness, and Modesty?  Dull, dull and dull.  Tough work competing for attention.

But compete they did, because they had to.  Affirming visions of Good was the point of the stories, after all.  Facing adversity with triumph, in comedy, or noble defeat in tragedy, upheld an ideal of what it looked like when the community had it right.  However hard to achieve, good character was the basis of a good society, and so it had to drive a good story.  Performers had a moral obligation to imagine heaven on earth, because ultimately that was more satisfying to the audiences than cynicism.

These days, Hollywood has lost interest in ordinary, Leave-it-to-Beaver stories about healthy kids and families.  On the news we see children involved in violence, shootings, bullies, and toys that maim.  Frightened parents wrap their kids in bubble wrap, shielding them from life’s greatest lesson:  falling down, going boom, and making sense of what happened.  Actually, if we’d only let kids explore, watching them manage risk — climb a tree, build with tools — can be heart-stoppingly exciting.

So I was delighted to see that the Alliance for Childhood had dug out an old 1957 film that shows just such a bit of a heaven on earth for children.  It looks like a newsreel of the sort that used to play before the feature film.  In it “The National Playing Fields Association” promotes “Adventure Playgrounds,” described as having “originated in postwar Europe, after a playground designer found that children had more fun with the trash and rubble left behind by bombings — inventing their own toys and playing with them — than on the conventional equipment of swings and slides.”

Today adventure playgrounds are all over Europe and Japan.  Many call them “junkyard playgrounds” because they’re full of cast-off wood scraps, wire spools, paints, old pool slides, whatever.

As a 1950s vision of heaven, the children are spotless, even as they dig deeply in the dirt, dive into holes and dam streams.  Boys build while the girls cook, wearing dresses.  A gorgeously-voiced BBC radio announcer enthuses his way through a delightfully prosy script.  The camera lingers on kids having a blast learning that “Work is fun and service is satisfaction.”  The aesthetic is cornball, but every one of his words is just as relevant to today’s children, if not more so.

The narrator focuses on two conditions essential not only to having fun, but to building character.  Again, modern children hear a lot about bad behavior, with few if any images of attractive behavior other than getting good grades and excelling in organized sports.

The first condition is that children need to create worlds that belong just to them.  Everything in these playgrounds is created by the children’s hands.  “Nails and junk bring happiness,” and as the village of little structures develops, “so does character.”  Children choose what to build and do.  They begin or stop as they wish, and if they want to pull off to the side to be alone, that’s okay too.  This isn’t school or home; it’s their world, and no one else’s.

Douglas Rushkoff makes the point that kids are never the drivers when playing video games or other electronics.  They’re passengers in someone else’s software vehicle.  Likewise, organized sports are managed by adults.  But having a world of your own is critical to developing a sense of who you are.  Developing that world with others teaches you who you are in relation to them.

The second essential condition is the “Playworker,” whom we don’t see in the film.  Today European colleges offer 2-year degrees that certify playworkers to work for municipalities in parks, public playgrounds and the streets themselves.  The narrator notes, “Conspicuous by his or her absence, the leader guides, but never organizes; watches over them, but never interferes; is always there, but never in the way.”  The kids aren’t abandoned to create their own world; there’s attention, recourse to help and a potential relationship with a functioning adult.  Talk about an image of Good!  Imagine if U.S. municipalities cared enough about their kids to invest in people to watch over them out in the field.  Kids desperately need to feel safe in their own worlds, but neglect makes the streets dangerous.

As it is, we ignore children’s innate urges to build, dam, make things, climb, invent, interact, and make choices about their own lives.  Better to give kids a bit of land, some junk and to have someone standing watchfully to one side as they do so.  The last line of the movie is:  “And your reward is just this:  the sound of children’s laughter.  No music was ever sweeter.”

Good image.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Boring Neighborhoods Mean Boring Childhoods

Published by — Mike Lanza’s book Playborhood has fascinating things to say about how need to transform our neighborhoods and communities into places where kids can play.

Mike Lanza, neighborhood-revival nut, makes an excellent point.  From a kid’s point of view, the choice between going outside to play with friends in most neighborhoods and plugging into the wealth of indoor electronic entertainment is a no-brainer.If Mom pulls the plug and kicks the kids out, what’s out there?  Nothing.  Certainly no other kids.

As Lanza points out in his book Playborhood, “children have the Internet, lifelike video games, hundreds of television channels, dozens of new structured activities, and relentless marketing messages that draw them into malls and stores.”

Decision made.  Call of Duty wins.

“Neighborhoods rate very low in the minds of children when compared to all other alternatives to allocate their attention and time.  As a child would say, “Neighborhoods are B-O-R-I-N-G.”

So, for example, a kid can’t head out, as I could in my youth, to walk the tops of fences into the Brooks’ backyard, where kids met up in the terrific fort their dad built.  We had clubhouses, treehouses, places where we could be on our own.  When we rang the doorbell to ask if Katie or Maureen could come out and play, Mrs. Kelly had us wait in “our” corner of the yard behind a hedge, while the girls put their shoes on.

In a TEDx talk posted on his site, Lanza talks about how the three big categories for places in people’s lives – all people, btw, not just kids.  There’s home, and there’s work or school, and finally there’s a social world.

As any recent college graduate will tell you, making a social world on your own is tough.  No longer can you roll out of a dorm bed and wade directly into a wealth of friends and potential friends.  Those of us of a certain age grew up with “socials” of various kinds, block parties, regular faith-based gatherings, or family get-togethers in some pre-determined spot at a park or beach.

Well, the 3rd place for most modern kids own is online.

How scary is that?

Lanza says, “…kids today spend so much time in front of screens, inhabiting virtual worlds rather than real ones, they lack strong real-world skills like face-to-face conversation or organizing a pickup ball game.”

And, I’d like to add, resolving their own disputes – a critical skill.

Furthermore, research shows that because kids “are dealing with heightened pressures and fears from parents (see last week’s column on “stranger danger”), far more of them are experiencing serious emotional problems.  The first sign, anxiety, appears on average at the tender age of 6.  Behavior disorders start on average at 11, and mood disorders (primarily depression) start at 13.  An incredible 22.2 percent of teens aged 13 to 18 suffer from mental disorders grave enough to result in ‘severe impairment and/or distress’ (8.3 percent with anxiety disorders, 9.5 percent with behavior disorders, and 11.2 percent with mood disorders).”

In other words, we’re not raising resilient kids who are flexible and confident about coping with adversity.

So, with the zeal of a new convert, Lanza vowed to give his own three young boys a vibrant, kid-filled neighborhood that would balance — if not beat out — the electronics.  He started by transforming his front yard into a public play space and conscripting his neighbors’ help bringing the streets back to life.

Kids with access to woods, streams and nature obviously have an easier time of making a terrific 3rd place for themselves.

But Lanza is a tech entrepreneur whose home is in Mountain View, a bedroom community for Silicon Valley and Stanford University.  I warn you that in the video he can be a little annoying about the ample options, time and resources he and his wife have to devote to this project.

But he also tells a terrific story of a heroic woman in Brooklyn.  She worked with the city to return her dead-broke street into a place where kids could safely explore, knowing that adults, mostly herself, were watching over them.

Lanza notes that when the 1950′s TV show Leave it to Beaver began, the Beav was in first grade, six years old, and walking to school on his own with no one fussing about it.  The presumption was that the kids know and trust that caring adults are close by.

I admire Lanza for thinking through the difficulties of redeeming dead neighborhoods. Playborhood is a compendium of the issues involved.  The key is to pull your neighbors together so it really is a ‘hood project.  That involves knocking on doors of neighbor strangers to get them interested, which takes some nerve.  Lanza describes a widow, living too much unto herself, who was delighted to be included as part of the collection of people whom kids know are available for help, bathroom, or drinks of water.  Lanza hardly knew who lived nearby until he started this project.

Lanza is just plain right.  Turning neighborhoods into “cool places to play,” as his sub-title puts it, will take heavy lifting.  But without question, kids need us to fill the ‘hoods with pals to horse around with, and cool stuff to do – hide-outs, forts, clubs, and streams to dam.

Well, that or drive them to Grand Theft Auto, cyber-bullying or that TV vegetative state.  Electronics are here to stay.  Balancing their appeal with a fun neighborhood is, frankly, work we all need to help with.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Stranger Danger is A Uniquely American Insanity

Published by — The fears that convince parents to keep their kids from free-range summer activities are unwarranted and harmful.

It’s summertime, summertime, sum, sum, summertime!!

It’s time for kids to roam the ‘hood and reclaim it as their own.  Time to build forts, dam streams, invent games, and figure out fun excuses for getting wet and cooling off.  At a minimum, it’s totally time to ditch Mom and Dad, or at least get the adults off to a comfortable distance — around, of course, but out of kids’ business.

In short, it’s a time to develop some resilience, gain grit, and suffer creativity-inducing boredom.


Where are the kids?  Neighborhood streets that once teemed with young life are now ghostly.  Only car movements indicate the presence of human life.

Instead, kids are being super-supervised by a sports, art or educational program.  They might be sequestered in a backyard.  Or hanging indoors in front of LCD screens.

But they are not out marauding in packs, because their parents are paralyzed with fears of “stranger danger.”

Actually the hoards of predators lying in wait to abduct children don’t exist.  Stranger danger is a myth, a belief that has taken root in the collective parental consciousness, against all reason.  Since the 1990s crime in general has consistently dropped, along with the tiny risk of abduction.

Kids are about 1,600 times more likely to be injured by a car than abducted.  Yes, abductions do happen, but mostly by divorced or divorcing parents, or other family members engaged in some intrafamily dispute.

Kids are 40 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than killed by a “stranger,” who, when you look carefully, is often a relation, neighbor or other person known to the child.  In the case of teenagers, “stranger” abductor/murderers include criminals and gang members whose victims have gotten themselves involved a deal gone bad.

Annually, only about 100 kids and youth fall into this last category.

The media never mentions how unusual such cases are when they milk every detail of a spectacular abduction case for weeks, if not months.  It can feel like the Visigoths are blood-lusting for your child.  They’re not.  Yet believing the myth is a mark of a good parent.

So parents opt for the hugely-higher risk associated with cars, driving kids to school or to visit a friend.  Driving deprives kids of exercise that could stave off obesity, and stupidly puts yet more potentially-lethal cars on the road.

In 2009, the number of young kids, 5-14, who committed suicide was 265.  That’s well over double the risk for even the most generous definition of stranger danger.  But you don’t see a national movement among parents to promote kids’ mental health.  Sadly.  We focus myopically on their safety instead.

Kids are more likely to die of a dozen other things, including playground accidents – which is ironic because our risk-aversion insanity has also been responsible for stripping most playgrounds of fun.  Stranger danger is only one aspect of the epidemic of fear driving the need to scrub risk from children’s lives, here in the land of the free and the brave.

How does a kid learn to be brave in a risk-free environment?

Google “stranger danger” and you’ll find endless sites brimming with tips and tools to help parents scare the bejeezus out of their kids.

Interestingly, the dire warnings not to talk to strangers don’t often make exceptions for the police.  Nor do they consider exceptions like the kindly retired couple puttering in their garden who might be of real help in the case of a scare or emergency.

The message to our kids is: Be afraid.  Other people are potentially dangerous; avoid them.  People want to hurt you.  As the adults, we’re certain that you, the child, can’t learn to assess risk, cope with challenges, reach out for help, and generally learn to protect yourself.  We don’t believe in you.  This is one way we love you.

In fact, interacting with other people, especially immediate neighbors, gives kids a sense for the sorts of people who are out there, so they can keep themselves safe.

And kids playing in the ‘hood puts eyes on the streets, keeping the place safer for everyone, including themselves.

The problem is that as parents – including me – we are not satisfied with a statistically tiny risk.  We want zero.

But at what cost?

The main job of a “good-enough” parent is not to keep a child safe, though that’s important.  Because merely preserving life is a pathetically low bar compared with the challenge of nourishing a thoughtful, careful, confident, competent adult-in-the-making.  Emerging adults need their care-takers to let out the protective leash a bit more all the time, even though it makes us nervous.  Good-enough parents cope with the risks by assigning new responsibilities as conditions of new freedom.  Kids love freedom.  But when she screws up, doesn’t call home on time, blows curfew, the leash snaps back while the parent holds the kid accountable.

The message that will grow resilient kids needs to be something like this: Take precautions and be smart.  But in general, the world is a safe and loving place, and it’s your job as a kid to help us keep it that way, and even improve it.

There is no significant stranger danger.  Get over it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.





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