More evidence that kids are capable

Another great video from German fire educator Kain Karawahn that might shock American parents: pre-school kids making bonfires.

What I love about this video is that the kids are not only lighting fires — they are cutting wood, preparing food, and cooking it on the fires they made and tend together. These kids are ages four to six. It really challenges our notions of what children can do:


Read more about this different approach to teaching fire in this Psychology Today  post or this New York Times article. And of course, you can read more about how Germans raise self-reliant kids check out my book Achtung Baby!

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Helicopter parents, race, and class: why the cops were called on two Native American teens on a college tour

Recently, a mother on a campus tour of Colorado State University called the police on two Native American teens because she found their behavior “odd” and their clothing disturbing. They were wearing heavy metal band t-shirts and didn’t answer her questions the way she liked.

The teens’ mother believes they were racially profiled. Would the caller have summoned the authorities if the kids were white? It’s a valid question. But I think there’s something else here at play as well: would she have called the cops if they had a parent with them?

One of the biggest problems with today’s “helicopter” parents is they work not only to control only their own children but everyone else’s as well. They are obsessed with supervising kids. For this kind of parent, seeing two young adults without parents must have seemed immediately like an abnormal, potentially dangerous situation.

Of course, the two young men are also of a different class than their privileged peers who were driven or flown to campus along with their relatively wealthy parents. The Native American teens had saved up their own money for the trip to CSU and drove seven hours in their family car to get there–all of which shows a good deal of motivation and self-reliance, exactly the characteristics you might want in prospective college students.

Many ambitious upper-middle-class American parents spend a huge amount of money and time making sure their kids are prepped for college. They push their children to go to the right schools, take the right classes, and join the right extracurricular activities. They pay for tutors, SAT-prep courses, special sport teams, music and language lessons. And they go with them to visit college campuses — sometimes several of them.

After all that investment, for these intense parents to then see two unaccompanied teens dressed in heavy metal t-shirts on the same campus tour as their carefully curated kid must have hit a nerve. 

I don’t know for sure the caller is a helicopter parent, but some signs are there: the fact both she and her husband were on the tour with their son, her overblown fear, and her need to control behavior. The Native American teens did not look, dress, or act in a way she felt was acceptable. Therefore, they were suspicious, and her first instinct? Call the cops.

Earlier this year, novelist May Cobb wrote about how someone called the cops because her kid’s hair was messy. (My blog post about it is here.)  Her son is autistic and didn’t like his hair combed. The police stop not only ruined the family’s day at the park but weighed heavily on a mother working so hard to help her kid adapt.

Having the police stop you, for whatever reason, is incredibly stressful, but yet many still think that any minor suspicion is enough. (View the video above and imagine for a moment this happening to you or your kid.)

This is the real danger—not just to parenting but to our society. We live in a country that supposedly cherishes freedom and bravery, not one drowning in control and fear like the former GDR where regular citizens would turn each other in to the police.

I wonder what the campus caller thought these two young men might do? In her call, the woman said “I’m probably being completely paranoid, but with everything that’s happened…” Did she think they were going to shoot up the campus? They don’t fit the profile of school shooters, who are overwhelmingly lone, white males. The two also weren’t carrying any weapons or even a backpack to conceal one. With so little evidence, the woman was still extremely afraid, telling the dispatcher that “…they, it actually made me feel, like, sick, and I’ve never felt like that.”

I wonder how she feels now, knowing what she did to those two young men. At the very least, I hope this incident makes her hesitate the next time she has an urge to call the cops. It should give all of us pause, especially those in America’s more privileged classes.

We should have more evidence before calling the cops—and the police should demand more before responding. A piece of clothing, a hair style, or, for goodness sake, someone’s skin color – is not enough to call the police — neither is the simple fact of a young person being out in the world on their own.

We should be encouraging young people to be independent, not criminalizing them for it. The police should not be used to terrorize regular people doing regular things, like taking a walk in the park or visiting a college campus.

Because if we start calling the police every time we see someone who is different, we’re going to need a lot more police. And we can no longer call this country the home of the free.

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Reevaluating Our Prohibition of Fire

“Don’t play with fire!” is such a common warning in the U.S. we take for granted that it is true. We believe that the best way to deal with kids’ fascination with fire is to prohibit it entirely. But this is not universal to all cultures.

I wrote about how Germans teach kids how to use fire rather than forbid it for the New York Times  and in my book Achtung Baby, but it is perhaps more compelling to see it in practice:

Check out my full post on why we might want to reevaluate our prohibition on fire for Psychology Today, including another video of kids making fire from Kain Karawahn’s fire workshops at a Berlin Kita. Check it out!


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My son’s sign for the March for Our Lives


My son’s sign for March for Our Lives got some attention today. He told me after the march that his school does not always tell him when a lockdown is a drill, and it scares him. I wrote about the unnecessary terror of having real lockdown drills in a post for Psychology Today. Read it here.

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Conquering a Dragon in Psychology Today

My first post for Psychology Today is about bringing some reasonable risk and more creativity to American playgrounds — so our children have the chance to learn how to manage risk and face their fears. German kids enjoy playing on structures with greater height, faster speeds, and more risk. Our kids deserve this advantage too.  Read about it here.



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Talking at Google

A little while back, I had the opportunity to visit the Google campus in Seattle to talk about how Germans raise self-reliant kids. And here’s the video!


Couple highlights:
About 12 min: there’s a comparison of US vs. German playgrounds
About 16:10 mins: a video of real kids making fire at a German kita (day care center). Yes those kids are ages 4 to 6!)

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Rebuilding the American Community — First: Stop Calling the Police on Parents

police_photoCCPhoto by Matty Ring

When I heard that Americans were calling the cops on parents, I hoped that maybe a few incidents would make people see reason and stop. Then, it happened to one of my friends.

Recently, my friend May Cobb, a novelist who lives in Texas, wrote in the Washington Post about how someone called the police because her son’s hair was messy. It was particularly devastating because her son is autistic. The stranger who called assumed he wasn’t well taken care of when in reality May and her husband have spent countless hours and resources attending to his needs.

This problem could have been solved in about five minutes if the concerned stranger had taken the time to talk to them. But no, the first step was to call the police.

And it’s not an isolated incident. Another friend on the East Coast commented this had happened to his son who was riding a bike by himself in front of his house. Yet another friend, this time on the West Coast, told me about a seven-year-old girl who was walking two blocks to her grandmother’s house — again the cops were called.

What has happened to our sense of community in the US? Why do we suspect only evil and nothing good of our fellow citizens? 

Many Americans hear one horrible story and assume that is the norm. It isn’t. Kids are not kidnapped on a regular basis. They have more of a chance of getting hit by lightning. Yes, parental abuse and neglect happens, but please gather more evidence than a kid having a bad hair day.

Calling the police or CPS brings an enormous amount of stress into a family’s life, even if it’s a mistake.

It is dangerous to normalize calling the cops on regular people in your community–just ask the Germans, especially those who grew up in the GDR. They know what it’s like to live in a culture where neighbors report each other to the police.

In Achtung Baby, I write about how today’s modern Germans have a greater trust of their community – despite their history, or perhaps in reaction to it. They assume that most adults will help a child in trouble, and that it is only the rare person who will hurt a child.

Before calling the cops on parents, please consider doing the following:

Put your fear in context. Hearing one terrible story does not mean it happens all the time. Pay attention to statistics not anecdotes. A little more than 100 kids a year are abducted by strangers. There are 74 million kids in the US. This is not a pressing danger for most kids.

Observe for a moment. A child alone is not necessarily a child in danger. Children have a right to navigate their world on their own, and most places are safer than they were in the past. As the free-range mom Lenore Skenazy has suggested: if you are worried about seeing a child alone, watch them for a few minutes. See that they make it to where they are going.

Talk to the parents, if you are worried about a child’s care. Ask them about what you’ve noticed. You may discover there is something else going on than what you assume. Most likely these parents need your understanding and support, not your vilification.

Meet your neighbors! You don’t have to be best friends, but you shouldn’t be strangers either. Introduce yourself. Meet their kids. If they live close by, give them your phone number or email. Hopefully, you can watch out for one another and help each other out in times of need.

Because that’s what being a community is all about.

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