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Free-Range Parenting Fails (And Successes!) of 2012

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A mom in Tennessee and a dad in Pittsburgh faced a similar fate this year: Both were arrested for letting their school-age kids play in the park.

Only the mom did jail time.

Welcome to the best and worst Free-Range Kids stories of 2012. Free-Range is the movement I started by letting my 9-year-old ride the subway by himself, because I thought he'd be fine.

He was. He is. That's the whole idea behind Free-Range Kids: We do NOT believe our kids are in constant danger from creeps, cribs, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, bullies, bugs, men, Ivy League rejection letters and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.

We think it's a great time to give kids some freedom, and we've got the facts to prove it. For instance, did you know that crime is lower today than when most of us parents were kids? Yup. But since it doesn't FEEL that way (thank you, Nancy Grace), our culture insists kids can't do anything safely. And I mean ANYTHING. Which explains how these 2012 stories came about:

At least there wasn't a cavity search
One afternoon when a Tennessee mom let her kids, 8 and 5, go to the park a block and a half away, they didn't come home when expected. Panicked, she called 911. By the time the cops arrived, so had the kids. They'd stopped at a friend's. This didn't stop the cops from arresting the mom for felony child abuse and neglect. She was held in jail in lieu of a $5,000 bond. (Uh... doesn't that mean the kids were home alone?)

Officer, hurry! Some children are playing!
In April, a passerby noticed two children, 6 and 9, playing in a suburban Pittsburgh park. This was so strange, she called the cops, who arrived and awaited the dad. He was charged with child endangerment, even though the kids were fine. How dare he trust his kids and his community?

Pre-k bans liquid soap from bathrooms
Some bureaucrats started fantasizing that, left to their own devices, children might drink soft soap -- despite eons of parents using, "I'll wash your mouth out with soap" as a THREAT. That led to a new regulation: Now kids in upstate New York pre-k must come out of the bathroom and have their soap administered by an adult.

Can I see some identification, Squanto?
A mom named Kristine got an invite to her third grader's Thanksgiving party that said all parents were welcome... provided they had an up-to-date background check on file. Because otherwise, I guess, they could prey on the kids in public, at a party.

6 degrees of overreaction
Earlier this month, a high school in Florida went into lockdown and a Hazmat crew rushed to the scene after a student brought in a mercury thermometer as part of a science project. And no, it didn't break. Its mere existence was terrifying enough.

A-hem
This anecdote was submitted to me by a reader. A mom named Neener learned that for her 11-year-old daughter to be allowed a plain old cough drop at school, she (Neener) was required to bring an unopened bag of them, register it with the school nurse, and fill out two forms detailing the dosage, frequency and "reason for administering." Then, if her daughter actually needed one, the girl had to go to the nurse, fill out a different form, and hastily finish the drop before leaving the office. (Isn't that the perfect recipe for choking?)

"I'd like to whup her ass"
To re-normalize the idea of kids playing outside after school, I offered a class in Central Park this fall called "I Won't Supervise Your Kids." This landed me on a bunch of TV shows, including Anderson Cooper. Outraged at the thought of my letting kids play on their own, commenters on Cooper's website suggested my own kids be taken away from me -- after I'd been arrested and "whupped." Like, literally, whupped.

The good news? Ah, there was plenty of that, too, thank goodness. Some Free-Range parents started their own neighborhood camp with older kids supervising younger ones, zero red tape involved. A brilliant 8th grader spoke out against her school's fear-mongering stranger-danger assembly. And the Pittsburgh dad arrested for letting his kids play in the park for less than two hours? Charges against him were dropped -- in part due to the protest from Free-Range Kids readers. The freedom to play is a basic one and I'm proud of Free-Rangers for defending it.

Meantime, on a more personal level, I asked parents to send in their own best "Free-Range Kids" moments of the year.

Writes Brandy: "Last December my doorbell rang at about 7." Outside stood a bunch of teenage boys in hoodies. With some trepidation, she opened the door.

And they started caroling.

May you, too, enjoy some Free-Range surprises this year. The good kind.

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.