It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood—that neighborhood being Queens in New York City. I was walking by one of the local elementary schools and slowed down to watch the girls doing cartwheels at recess. They practice it over and over again, which is proof that kids learn frustration-tolerance and focus during unstructured free play. That's why I'm such a fan of it.
I stopped to watch another gaggle of kids playing hopscotch like I used to do. The teacher or teacher's aide looked over at me through a 20-foot-high chainlink fence and said: "Ma'am, you cannot stand there. You have to move."
"I can't stand here on the public sidewalk?" I asked.
"No," she said. "You're not allowed to watch the kids."
"I think I am," I replied. "I'm on a public sidewalk. I'm not taking pictures and I don't even have my phone out."
"You have to leave."
"I really think I'm allowed to stay here," I said, half angry, half baffled. I am allowed to stay on a public sidewalk, separated from the kids by a fence, aren't I?
"If you don't leave, I'm calling security," she said.
I shrugged but decide to leave. I hate confrontations.
After walking a bit beyond the playground, I paused to think about what had just happened. I took out my phone and tweeted this:
Walked by my local elementary school. Stopped to watch the kids playing at recess. So much joy. Teacher told me I, on public sidewalk on other side of fence, no phone or photo taking, am not allowed to stand and watch the kids. She is calling security now.
— Lenore Skenazy (@FreeRangeKids) May 11, 2022
Out of curiosity, and also a growing ember of rage, I went back to see if security had indeed been called. The teacher (or playground worker or paraprofessional—I don't know her exact job title) was talking to another woman, who walked to the fence and told me that she is security and I have to move along.
"But why?" I asked. "I'm not doing anything bad. I'm just watching the kids."
"That's not allowed."
"Because we get bad people coming by here. They expose themselves. They take pictures of the kids."
"But I'm not exposing myself or taking pictures."
"We can't let anyone watch the kids. There's just too much bad stuff out there. People expose themselves. These are someone else's children and it's our job to keep them safe!"
"How many men have exposed themselves this year?" I asked, feigning curiosity, but really hoping to make a point.
"This year? So far, none."
"Zero the whole year?" I asked.
"The school year isn't over yet."
She's right. There's another entire month of school. I don't think she's secretly hoping for a least one flasher, to reinforce the importance of her role. But I don't think that actual facts—no exhibitionists in recent memory—seem to matter very much to her.
"It's sad, but that's just the way it is," she said.
As I have said since I founded Free-Range Kids in 2008, and since starting Let Grow in 2017, our society is set on overestimating danger and underestimating kids. The same society that arrests moms for letting their kids wait briefly in the car is the society that won't let kids off the bus without a (pre-approved) adult waiting to walk them home is the society that won't tolerate a person watching children frolic at recess, even when separated by a fence.
Fear has twisted its way into everyday life. It has choked off common sense. Now it's taboo to trust anything, or anyone—even a lady on the sidewalk, smiling as she thinks back on her own hopscotch games long ago.
And so I was shooed along, collateral damage in the quest to wrap every child in a bubble of perfect safety. Now I sit at my computer, wondering: What would it take to give every one of them a nice, sharp pin? (Though some authority would no doubt accuse me of distributing weapons to children.)
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