Keep Idaho kids free

I once lived in a kids’ ghost town. It was a safe neighborhood filled with families, but with no kids anywhere. Not on the sidewalks, or the playground or even their own front yards.

When I dared let my children walk to school by themselves, I was warned about predators and others who would call the cops on me for not supervising my kids. This was not a dystopian warzone or crime-ridden slum: it was suburban California.

Then we moved to Idaho. Suddenly my children weren’t the only ones walking to school by themselves. They met friends at the park or went fishing at a nearby pond.

Now a “Free-Range Kids” bill is up for debate in the Idaho legislature that will help keep this independent childhood alive. The Reasonable Childhood Independence bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Nate will help ensure that Idaho kids can walk to school by themselves, ride their bikes and meet friends at the park without their parents getting investigated for neglect.

Idaho places a strong value on independence and freedom. In many other states, the ghost town I described is very real even in the safest neighborhoods. Unfortunately, fear is infectious. Even in freedom-loving Idaho, people can still call the police at the sight of an unattended child.

This bill will help ensure that the culture of fear doesn’t take hold in the Gem state. It simply clarifies the language of child neglect laws, so that children doing something independently are not automatically assumed to be a case of negligence. It allows parents to determine when their kids are ready for more autonomy. As Free-Range Kid author Lenore Skenazy says: it lets parents be parents, and kids be kids.

Whenever we talk about giving kids more freedom, inevitably someone will bring up predators snatching kids off streets. These terrible tragedies do sometimes happen, but they’re extremely rare. A child has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than being abducted by a stranger.

The majority of child abusers are someone the kids know. The best way to protect against those type of abusers? Raise self-reliant, confident kids. These abusers try to manipulate children. They look for ones who are scared and compliant. Strong, independent kids who aren’t afraid to yell ‘no’ and go for help, are not easy prey.

The truth is that there is no way to make anything 100% safe for our kids, and the attempt to do that, while well intentioned, can rob kids of the very thing they need – the experience of doing things for themselves, of feeling capable and free. We are already seeing the results of this over-protective “helicopter” parenting style in rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among young adults.

Helicopter parenting also makes kids, and ultimately our future, less free. A German child advocate once told me that controlled kids become controlling adults. I would add that controlled kids might also grow into adults more willing to accept a government that controls them because it is all that they know.

As Nate points out, “This isn’t just about protecting parents, but giving kids the opportunity to grow into responsible, healthy adults who are productive members of society because they’ve grown up in an atmosphere where they were able to grow and learn.”

The best thing we can do for our kids, and our future, is to prepare them to handle the risks in life, and let them have a reasonable amount of independence. This common-sense bill will give parents the support they need to do just that.

Read more about this bill: Idaho introduces Free-range parenting bill.

Contact your legislator to support a Free-Range Kids bill in your state.

Join to advocate for more childhood independence.

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Bored kids during COVID-19 isolation

boredWe are fortunate that our biggest problem right now is boredom. We are healthy and safe. We just have to get through this period of isolation with our relationships, and our sanity, intact.

I recently had the opportunity to interview a boredom researcher Elizabeth Weybright, through my job as a science writer at Washington State University.

And I learned something. Given my experiences in Germany, I tend to give my kids a lot of freedom and responsibility, but sometimes I fail to recognize when they still need a little help.

My son has been super bored, like in my home office every 20 minutes bored. I told him to make a list of things he could do. He came back with a sheet of paper and the word “nothing” written on it.

“From a development perspective, younger kids are likely to need more structure than older kids,” Weybright told me. “When you try to impose too much structure on teenagers, you may experience some resistance.”

In other words, my 10 year old needed some guidance. My 13 year old not so much.  Weybright recommended sitting down with younger kids to help them think up ideas on that list, and to show them where the things they might need would be: markers, sketch pad, board games, and other toys.

I always thought that boredom can was good for kids as it can spur them to creativity. While that can be true, Weybright also pointed out that boredom isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s a signal that the situation they are in isn’t very satisfying.

So yes, letting kids be bored can give them the space they need to figure out what it is they really want to do, but it takes time to develop skills to find healthy solutions to boredom. If they don’t develop that capacity, boredom can lead to bad behaviors, especially in adolescence, including substance abuse and other risky behaviors.

Boredom is particularly challenging now because we can’t do too much to take ourselves out of the current situation. We’re stuck the very familiar: same four walls, same stuff, same people.

I’m looking to strike a balance with my son, giving him some structure while still giving him some time to figure some things out on his own. We’re also giving him and ourselves some slack. These are difficult times.

Read more about Weybright’s work and advice here.

How are you handling the boredom of COVID-19 isolation?

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“What is the scariest thing your kids have ever done?”


This was one of the best questions I was asked when I visited St. Paul recently to give a talk on raising self-reliant kids. And it was from a kid in the audience. Earlier in the day I visited the Twin Cities German Immersion School, a great public charter school where kids learn auf Deutsch.

I answered a range of questions from how long it took me to write Achtung Baby (9 months for the first draft) to how old was my dog (2 years). Parents also asked a lot of thoughtful questions but this was one of the best:

So what was the scariest thing my kids have ever done? At the time I answered the thing that scared me the most:

When my son Ozzie got a concussion. He was running and either not looking where he was going or maybe somebody bumped into him and he hit a pole, hard.

I talk a lot about risk—about letting kids evaluate risk for themselves before doing something that scares them.

Running into a pole was not a risk evaluation. It was an accident, not something that can be prevented beforehand, other than bubble-wrapping the pole or him. It was a good reminder that nothing is 100% safe – and for him a reminder to be sure to look where he was going.

Here are more ways I could have answered the scary question because as my husband sometimes reminds me “kids are meant to do things that scare their parents”:

  • At age 6, Ozzie walked home by himself from school in suburban California where this was not done. He ran the whole way the first time because he was scared. But he’s gotten much more comfortable with it since then. Maybe too comfortable…
  • In third grade, Ozzie once took two hours to come home from school. He was fine, just throwing snowballs with his friends. The lesson here was about communicating with your parents about where you are.
  • At age 10, Sophia managed to climb to the top of a 25-foot tall pine tree. My kids are always climbing things in ways I find frightening. See photo evidence. At the top, that’s my daughter on the outside of a tall climbing structure because I guess it wasn’t risky enough on the inside.
  • Both kids go sledding on a very steep slope, so steep I can’t watch. They say they fall off on purpose if they go too fast.
  • My daughter played middle school football this year. She was the only girl on the team. It was a very nervous autumn for me.

I’m sure there will be many more instances where my kids do something I find scary. It’s part of growing up.

What were some of the things that your kids have done that scared you? What did they learn from the experience? What did you learn as parents?


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What I learned in Minnesota

When I was invited to visit the Twin Cities, I expected to share what I know about raising self-reliant children, but I also walked away inspired by the people and places I encountered there.

Here are some of the things I learned, many of them hopeful:

1. There are still public schools in the U.S. that are innovative



My host, the Twin Cities German Immersion School, is a public charter school in Minnesota. There are actually a handful of immersion schools in the Twin Cities. This type of school easily in Berlin, but they have been hard to come by in the U.S. especially ones that are public.

2. Fun playgrounds are making a comeback


This two-story climbing structure was outside the Immersion School, and a park in St. Paul also recently installed a 24-foot-tall tower-and-slide structure that kids have to climb to through a bunch of ropes. It’s a little controversial, but it’s also very popular with kids. I’ve also seen a very German-style playground pop up in Seattle.


3. A lot of people are interested in giving kids more freedom.


More than 150 people came out for the evening event on a weekday, and many of them asked thoughtful questions about ways to raise self-reliant kids with both more physical and intellectual freedom.

4. Kids ask some of the best questions.

2020-01-30 (2)

I visited several classrooms where I fielded many great questions from how long it took me to write Achtung Baby (9 months for the first draft) to how old was my dog (2 years). At the evening event, one boy also asked me “What was the scariest thing your kids have ever done?” That question has stuck with me, and I’ll answer it more fully in another post….

Thank you Katharina Schirg, the Twin Cities German Immersion School, the University of St. Thomas German Program, and all who helped make my visit so special and educational!


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Achtung Baby in the Twin Cities 1/29


I’m headed out soon to lovely St. Paul, MN. Come join me to talk
about raising self-reliant kids!

Wednesday, January 29, 7-9 p.m.
O’Shaughnessy Educational Center
Cleveland Avenue North
Saint Paul, MN 55105

More info – visit the St. Paul Achtung Baby event site 

The event is co-sponsored by the Twin Cities German Immersion School and the University of St. Thomas German Department.

There will be books for sale there, but you can also bring your own, and I’ll sign it!

Don’t have your copy of Achtung Baby yet? Get it now at your local bookstore or order at one of these sites:,  Apple / Itunes,  Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, Indie Bound,  Powell’s Books


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I Hate Football. I Let my Daughter Play It Anyway.


00TIESFOOTBALL-jumbo My latest essay in the New York Times is a little controversial. I don’t expect everyone to agree with the decision to let our 13-year-old daughter play football. But at its heart, this is a story about letting a teenager start to make some decisions for herself.

Give it a read and see what you think. When do you decide to hold the line, and when to let go?

Read the full essay in the NY Times: I Hate Football. I let my Daughter Play it Anyway.

Illustration: Lucy Jones



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What parents can learn from the Westboro Baptist Church

Some thoughts on the value of obedience:

Westboro church member holding offensive protest signs saying "You're going to hell" and "Fags doom nations"

Photo by David Shankbone

I expected Unfollow, Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir about leaving the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, to be a book of hope, an argument for the power of free speech, and in some ways it is.

Afterall, in leaving the Westboro, Phelps-Roper did what few people seem to be able to do: she listened to well-reasoned arguments – on Twitter of all places – and changed her mind.

Yet at its core, Phelps-Roper’s memoir is a tragedy—and a uniquely American one. Few cultures outside of our own so vociferously defend freedom in public life while tolerating tyranny in the private confines of the family. Children growing up in strict or extremist families like Phelps-Roper pay a high price for this contradiction.

Our defense of the hallowed right to freedom of speech allowed the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funerals of dead soldiers with signs “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” Yet, these same rights were suspended at the threshold of Westboro’s family homes. The parents had complete dominance over their children. As Phelps-Roper writes: “Our duty was singular: to obey them.” 

Unfollow book coverThere is no free speech or freedom of religion in Westboro. Those rights aren’t even conferred at age 18. The only way to gain them is to leave. Ultimately, that’s what Phelps-Roper does when she realizes the hate and hurt her family inflicts on others, and it tears her apart: “Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.” 

Westboro may be extreme, but it is not alone. Many people in America have similar experiences growing up in strict households.

It should give parents pause: How important is your children’s obedience? Do your children have to believe exactly what you do? What price will they pay if they don’t?

If you have a belief system that is “the one true way” —be it religious or political, right or left it doesn’t matter — if you require strict adherence, your family may have a lot in common with Westboro even if you don’t take to picketing funerals.

We all have lines of course. I would like my children to have the same values I do. And there are certain things I might expressly forbid them: like joining a hate group or participating in a violent protest of any kind. Yet, I accept that they will likely have different ideas or beliefs than I do.  

What do you think about obedience? How much freedom exists in your own family?

Comment here, or in the spirit of Megan Phelps-Roper, tell me your thoughts on Twitter.  

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Outdoor preschools catch on in U.S.

girl in a tree

Some good news in American education! Washington recently became the first state to license outdoor preschools. These are preschools where kids play and learn in nature all day. The very fact that kids aren’t sitting a tables being drilled on reading and math skills is a good step forward. But giving kids the chance to explore and muck around in nature all day is huge.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. Germany has had Waldkindergarten and Waldkitas (forest kindergartens and forest day cares) since the 1960s, and they could be found in Sweden and Denmark even earlier. So yeah, the U.S. is a little behind, but hey, better late than never. It’s funny that one of the people interviewed by the Today show even quotes a version of the German saying “There is no bad weather only bad clothing”  — “Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, es gibt nur falsche Kleidung” which I understand is also a saying in Scandinavian cultures.  

Washington State University is also conducting a study on these preschools which is brilliant. (Full disclosure: I recently started working as a science writer at WSU, but I would love this either way.)  I suspect the value of time spent in nature will be validated by research. It’s also something most of us know from our own experience: we just feel better when we spend some time outdoors.

I hope to see not just more outside preschools in the US but also more value placed on outside time in general for all of us — but especially for kids.

Let’s put more “garden” back into kindergarten!

About the photo: My daughter at a park in Berlin some years ago. While they didn’t attend a Waldkita, my kids’ schools in Germany made sure the children went outside every day.



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Online preschool: another bad education idea that is so American


My daughter on a kita field trip with friends–a preschool experience not found online .

We want our kids to be competitive in America, and to do that we keep turning to technology. It was one of the biggest differences I noticed between American and German education systems. Despite persistent budget problems and the constant pressure to fundraise to make ends meet, American schools have a ton of technology: Chromebooks, interactive boards, and many video games with dubious educational value. (My son’s “technology” class in elementary school seems to be a course entirely in Minecraft.)

Now, there is a state senator in North Carolina who just won’t give up on the idea of creating online preschool to help address his state’s early education problems. His intentions are good. He’s worried about kids developing pre-literacy and math skills.  Yet, this misses the main benefit of the preschool experience: playing with other kids.

Online preschool is another example of the American obsession with early “cognitive skills.” We’re obsessed with what can be tested. Can the kids learn something and spit it back? The problem with this approach is that there’s little evidence it works. As Paul Tough describes in his book How Children Succeed, research shows that kids do better when they develop qualities such persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, and self-confidence. These are hard to put on a test, and you definitely can’t learn them by sitting in front of a computer.

Children can learn these skills through play. The importance of play for young kids is backed by research, and I’ve seen it in action at my kids German “Kita” – as I describe in Achtung Baby. “Kita” is short for a word that translates into day care, but Kita is essentially preschool and kindergarten all rolled together. In Kita, the kids pretty much play all day. At Kita the learning emphasis is on social and emotional skills—these are important for school readiness, according to my kids’ Kita teacher, Annika.

“It’s not really learning ABC’s or numbers or things like that,” she said. “It’s knowing how to communicate, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing how to get help, how to solve problems and conflicts. These are the basics they’ll need for when they start school.”

If you doubt it works, check how the US compares against Germany on the PISA test. Finland kids rank even higher and their preschools are all play too.

So why do we keep pushing screens on kids at very young ages? We know too much time in front of a screen can have negative effects, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends very limited screen time for kids in the under 4 crowd.

I could be cynical and say that we push computers in schools because it feeds our consumer culture: we are prepping future screen addicts and high-tech worker-bees (does your 6-year-old code?)

I suspect the real reason we turn to screens for kids’ education because it sounds good: it’s modern, forward thinking! It’s also easier and cheaper than investing in real preschools with buildings, teachers and playgrounds. In the end though, online preschool is neither cheap nor easy because it doesn’t give children the experiences they need.

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Do Parents Matter? Recommended reading for raising free kids

DoParentsMatterFair warning: this book may shake any strong convictions you have about the right way to parent.

The LeVines have studied parenting practices in cultures all over the world. One of my favorite examples is the Nso people of Cameroon — there mothers don’t believe in face-to-face interaction with babies is valuable, which is incomprehensible to Western parents – but these same mothers were horrified to learn that German parents don’t often sleep in the same room as their children.

The LeVines show that many of the things we assume are universal truths about raising kids are actually cultural. What a relief! Right now, many Americans are still caught in the idea that the most intensive, extreme style of parenting is the best – even as young adult’s problems with anxiety and depressions rise — and even to the point where parents are committing crimes to buy their kids way into elite colleges.

It’s good to know that America’s hyper-parenting style doesn’t travel well—parents do not practice it everywhere, nor do they even aspire to it. The idea that helicopter parenting is best is driven more by our culture than anything else.

While this book doesn’t definitively answer the question of its title, it does give compelling evidence that American parents don’t matter as much as we think we do. Our children will survive if we don’t engage in all the intensive parenting activities our culture seems to demand—in fact, they may even do better without it.

I am recommending some of the many books and authors that influenced my own book Achtung Baby See previous recommendations for Mommy Laid an Egg! by Babette ColeFree Range Kids by Lenore SkenazyFree to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser.

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