TIME Parenting

The Cult of Kiddie Danger

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Getty Images

We think we are enlightened in this quest to keep kids safe. Actually, we have entered a new Dark Ages, fearing evil all around us.

The Richland, WA, school district is phasing out swings on its playgrounds. As the district’s spokesman recently told KEPR TV: “It’s just really a safety issue. Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

Ah yes, those dangling doom machines. All they sow is death and despair.

But while this sounds like yet another example of how liability concerns are killing childhood (seen a see-saw anywhere in the last 20 years? A slide higher than your neck?), it’s deeper than that. Insurance underwriters are merely the high priests of what has become our new American religion: the Cult of Kiddie Danger. It is founded on the unshakable belief that our kids are in constant danger from everyone and everything.

The devout pray like this: “Oh Lord, show me the way my child is in deathly danger from __________, that I may cast it out.” And then they fill in the blank with anything we might have hitherto considered allowing our children to eat, watch, visit, touch, or do, e.g., “Sleep over at a friend’s,” “Microwave the macaroni in a plastic dish,” or even, “Play outside, unsupervised.”

The Cult’s dogma is taught diligently unto our children who are not allowed to use Chapstick unless it is administered by the school nurse, nor sunscreen, lest they quaff it and die of poisoning, nor, for the same reason, soft soap in pre-k. It doesn’t matter that these fears are wildly at odds with reality. They are religious beliefs, not rational ones.

What’s more, this is a state religion, so the teachings are enforced by the cops and courts. Those who step outside the orthodoxy face punishment swift and merciless.

You can’t step outside at all, in fact. Americans are not allowed to believe any public place is safe for their children, ever, without constant supervision. Trust is taboo.

The logical under-current is illogical, as it’s based on a hapless understanding of basic statistics. How many children are kidnapped by strangers in a year? About one in 1.5 million — those are incredibly great odds. But odds don’t matter when we’re evangelizing about a vision of death and destruction.

That’s why, last winter, when a New Jersey mom left her sleeping 18-month-old in the car for 5-10 minutes while she ran an errand at an upscale shopping mall, she returned to find herself under arrest. Though the child was completely fine — he seems to have slept through the whole “incident” — the mom was found guilty of abuse or negligence. An appeals court of three judges upheld this conviction with the comment, “We need not describe at any length the parade of horribles that could have attended [the child’s] neglect.”

In other words: The judges need not spell out their Boschian fantasies. If an authority can envision something “horrible” happening — and even turn that adjective into a noun — it doesn’t matter how farfetched any actual scenario is. (In fact, the danger of dragging your child across the parking lot is larger than letting him wait in the car a few minutes.) Anyone doubting constant danger is a heretic. The mom is now excommunicated — that is, she’s on the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry. Good luck to her if she hoped to work with kids, at least while the case makes its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

And if you can stand to hear another one of these, a similar case concerns a Chicagoland mom who let her young son wait in the car for less than five minutes this September while she, too, ran an errand. An onlooker alerted the authorities, which brought not only the police but also the paramedics, who proceeded to examine the child as if he had been in grave danger. Sure, it’s the same grave danger any of us face when sitting in traffic — four minutes in an unmoving car. But magically, because the mom was not directly supervising the child, it transmogrified into a near-death experience.

Zero Tolerance laws are another code of the Cult, stemming from the same belief that while the danger to a child might seem minimal to the point of non-existent, to true believers it looms large and immediate. And so children have been suspended around the country for a plastic gun the size of a toothpick, a Lego gun the size of a quarter, and the infamous “gun” made out of a Pop Tart. And by “made” I mean “bitten into the shape of, by a 7 year old.”

How can we explain any of this hysteria if not by religious fervor? To see danger where there is none is no longer considered crazy, it’s a mission. Many authorities seem to believe the more danger they can imagine, the holier they are. In a letter home to parents, the principal at the Pop-Tart school wrote, “While no physical threats were made and no one [was] harmed, the student had to be removed from the classroom.”

Had to? Because…he had a Pop Tart? Or because the boy with the pastry pistol was magically dangerous, like a witch with her cat?

In a society that believes children are in constant danger, the Good Samaritans are often terrible people. So, recently, when a woman in Austin noticed a 6-year-old playing outside, she asked him where he lived, walked him home (it was just down the hill), and chastised the mom — Kari Anne Roy — for not being careful enough.

Then this Samaritan called the Inquisitors. Er…cops.

An officer showed up at Roy’s doorstep and despite the fact that the crime rate today is at a 50-year low, a CPS investigator was also dispatched to interview all three of Roy’s children. She asked Roy’s 8-year-old if her parents had ever shown her movies with people’s private parts. “So my daughter, who didn’t know that things like that exist, does now,” says Roy. “Thank you, CPS.”

It was almost seven years ago that I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone and wrote a newspaper column about it. The result? A media firestorm. Back then I thought my crime, in the eyes of the public, was putting my child in danger.

But gradually I’ve come to realize my real crime was that I publicly disavowed the state religion. Talk show host after talk show host tried to get me to recant, asking: “How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?”

I could have sobbed and fainted, claiming it had been only a momentary lapse when I’d trusted my son in the world. Instead I said, “I wasn’t thinking that way. If I did, I could never let him do anything.”

Today it is a sin — and sometimes a crime — NOT to imagine your children dead the moment we take your eyes off them. The moment they skip to school with a Chapstick, wait in the car a minute, or play at the park.

We think we are enlightened in this quest to keep kids completely safe. Actually, we have entered a new Dark Ages, fearing evil all around us.

If we want the right to raise our kids rationally, even optimistically, it’s time to call the Cult of Kiddie Danger what it is: mass hysteria aided and abetted by the authorities. But as earlier holy books so succinctly instructed us, there is a better way to live.

“Fear not.”

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range kids. Her show “World’s Worst Mom” airs on Discovery/TLC international. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

How Overparenting Makes Kids Overweight

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Digital Vision.—Getty Images

A study found that maternal overprotectiveness increased the odds of children being overweight.

Maybe if we stopped calling it The Obesity Epidemic and started calling it The Fear Epidemic we could finally make a dent in the widening waistlines of our country’s kids.

A study just published in the journal PLOS One is the first to prove a link between helicopter parenting and obesity: Between ages 10 to 11, the researchers found, maternal overprotectiveness “was associated with a 13 percent increase in the odds of children being overweight or obese.”

This link makes intuitive sense. The fear of predators is part of what’s making kids fat, by keeping them inside, sedentary, and near the fridge. After all, most of us grew up on cookies and milk every day after school – whole milk! – and no one was worried about the big O. That’s because we’d walk home, eat, then run outside to play some more.

But today, to keep our kids “safe,” we drive them back and forth to school. “Arrival” and “dismissal” have morphed into “drop-off” and “pick-up.” Kids are delivered like FedEx packages. About 1 in 10 use their legs to get to school.

This intense oversight happens not just in neighborhoods riddled by crime and drugs, where a tight leash makes sense, but in areas parents deliberately chose because they wanted to raise their kids someplace nice and safe.

And yet, when are the kids taking advantage of all that nice safety? After school they’re either off to a supervised activity or they’re back home, never to venture out again, in part because of massive homework loads, in part because of endless electronic options, but also in great part because they are not allowed to go outside on their own. Their parents, even if one of them is at home, are afraid they’ll get abducted.

While the overprotectiveness study concentrated only on moms (in Australia, no less), we have become an entire generation afraid for our kids. Predator panic is not a minor part of the culture. ABC appointed Elizabeth Smart its special correspondent for missing children. It seems America’s got four main categories of stories: news, weather, sports — and kidnapping.

No wonder parents are terrified! I heard from one mom who was actually outside with her kids, reading while they played on the lawn, when a woman walked by shouting, “Put down that book! Don’t you realize your children could be snatched at any time?”

That is the exact fear of our era: If we take our eyes off our kids, even for a second, we will never see them again. Another mom wrote to tell me that, despite a twinge of trepidation, she decided to let her six-year-old walk four houses down to his friend. This was in a gated community, during the day.

The boy came back from his playdate happy as a clam (who can walk). But when this mom told other friends about her son’s big adventure – or what passes for a big adventure in 21st century America – one of them said, “Oh my goodness! You just kill me! Anything could have happened.”

Anything? That’s true. But the odds of “anything” being terrible are tiny. The U.S. crime rate today is lower than any time since the advent of color TV. That means any parents who grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s were playing outside when the crime rate was higher than it is today. Yes, higher! Nobody called their parents negligent for letting them stay out till the streetlights came on. That was just a normal – and incidentally fat-defying – childhood. Today the number of children age 9 to 13 playing outside, unsupervised, in any given week, is 6 percent.

That’s ridiculously close to zero.

“It doesn’t take much to see that this generates a vicious cycle. Captivity breeds inactivity,” says Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and author of Parentonomics. “If you fear letting your kids loose outside, that is when the risk of obesity expands.”

But we can’t just blame fearful parents for keeping the kids cooped up. The government, which should be encouraging outdoor play, is busy doing the opposite. A man in suburban Pittsburgh dropped off his kids, age 6 and 9, at the park while he ran some errands. This sight was so unusual – children playing on their own – that a passerby called 911. The police came and charged the dad with two counts of child endangerment. This happened recently in D.C., too. And again in South Carolina, just last week. In fact, I hear about an incident like that almost weekly now.

Why is it endangerment to let your kids have fun and burn calories, but it’s not endangerment to keep them inside where they run the risk of getting fat and diabetic?

If we are going to be obsessed by a fear for our kids, let’s at least choose the right one.

Because in a panic, it’s impossible to think straight. That’s why I keep getting letters from parents who have been harassed or even ticketed by the authorities for letting their kids play outside, sometimes right next to their house. One mom got a visit from Child Protective Services because her children were playing in the rain! It has become a radical act to let kids play beyond the living room. This results in weird things, like one of the original public service announcements for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. It was almost guaranteed to make sure kids move less.

The spot shows a mom in her kitchen chopping healthy veggies (natch’), when her daughter leans over the banister and says, “Mom, can I have a dollar?” The mom sees her wallet right next to her on the counter but then gets a clever idea. “I think my purse is upstairs on the bed!” she tells the girl, who bolts up the stairs. When of course it isn’t there, the mom says to “Try the downstairs closet!” then the upstairs closet, etc., etc., with the girl running up and down until finally she spies the wallet in the kitchen. Then the ad reminds parents it’s our job to find ways to get kids moving.

No, it’s not! It has never been any parent’s job to come up with 365 days’ worth of clever ways to trick our kids into moving their limbs for an hour. It is simply our job to get our kids outside. In turn, it’s the government’s job not to criminalize, demonize or criticize parents who let their children play outside the way our parents did.

Until we all get over the idea that our kids need a security detail every time they leave the house, inside the house they’ll sit, getting older and wider. We are overprotecting them from incredibly unlikely crimes, while making them lots more likely to end up Santa-shaped.

If we are going to be obsessed by a fear for our kids, let’s at least choose the right one.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range kids. Her show “World’s Worst Mom” airs on Discovery/TLC international. This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Parenting

How Kitty Genovese Destroyed Childhood

We once may have been too slow to call the cops. Now we'll dial 911 if we see a couple kids walking alone to get pizza.

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death 50 years ago today. She was 28. A tragedy. The press reported 38 onlookers heard her screams and decided not to intervene. That account has since come under fire, but it nonetheless created a perception of ourselves (and certainly New Yorkers) as unconscionably reluctant to get involved.

We’ve been making up for it ever since — and that’s too bad.

We may once have been too slow to call the cops (though that’s still disputed), but today we are definitely too fast. Oh, I don’t mean we shouldn’t dial 911 if we see someone being murdered, or threatened, or hurt. Of course we should! In fact, the simple 911 number to call for emergencies was developed partly in response to the Genovese murder: Now everyone could have a quick, easy way to summon the cops anytime, anyplace. A great leap forward.

The leap sideways, or perhaps downward, came as the general public gradually became convinced that it not only had an obligation to help anyone in danger, it had the obligation to call the cops anytime it noticed people who could be in danger, especially kids, even if they were fine and dandy at the time.

This has given rise to a near mania for calling the cops when people spot a child on his or her own anywhere in public. And so we have a Connecticut mom charged with “risk of injury to a minor” and failure to appear after police said she allowed her seven- and 11-year-old children to walk to buy pizza unsupervised.

That’s right. Someone noticed kids off to get pizza and alerted the cops, as if stopping a potential tragedy.

Then there’s the dad who was arrested for child endangerment after a woman noticed “two children playing on the swings and slides alone without a guardian” in a suburban Pittsburgh park for two hours. (The charges were later dropped.)

And let’s not forget the mom in Jonesboro, Arkansas, who made her 10-year-old son walk 4.6 miles to school after he’d been suspended from the school bus for bad behavior. A bank guard saw him walking alone — horrors! — and called the cops. The mom was arrested for child endangerment. In the end, she plead guilty and was fined $520.

None of these kids encountered any danger other than a concerned citizen with 911 on speed dial. It has become so unusual to see children outside on their own that a nervous public immediately picks up the phone at such a sight, hyperventilating about danger.

” ‘If in doubt, call 911 to play it safe.’ That’s the lesson that was taken from Kitty Genovese,” says David Pimentel, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University. “But it stems from a faulty assumption, which is that there’s no harm in calling.” But unless the child is in true danger, “There is harm done. The harm that comes from the overreaction of everybody to this.” The courts get involved, CPS gets involved. There are fines, arrests, the threat (and sometimes the reality) of jail time.

Most of the folks calling the cops — and most of the cops themselves — remember walking to school and playing outside as kids. They are convinced that times have changed and made these activities dicey, even though, nationally, the crime rate is down from what it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. (And that’s not because we don’t let kids outside go anymore. The crime rate against adults is down, too, and we don’t helicopter them.)

So anyone who walked to the post office or the pizza shop as a kid was no safer than a kid today. But back then, bystanders didn’t dial 911 when they saw kids on their own. They waved.

Maybe the lesson from the Kitty Genovese era should be this: Let’s get more people back outside, including children. That way we can be looking out for each other, instead of freaking out.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

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