Want Some Parenting Tips? Start Watching 'Mad Men'

Show's Cavalier Attitude Toward Child Rearing Might Be What We Need to Liberate Our Kids

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"Mom, look at this," said my 12-year-old, handing me a package of Gushers, the gummy candy that squirts out "juice" as if it's fresh fruit, even though one of its ingredients is "dried corn syrup." (And another is undried corn syrup.)

Anyway, here's what it said on the label: "Keep kids safe! To avoid choking, give Fruit Flavored Snacks only to children who can easily swallow chewy foods. Children should be seated and supervised while eating."

Yep. Seated and supervised -- because, of course, eating candy is such a dangerous activity.

It's not that I blame the Gushers folks for covering their assets, should they be sued by a parent whose child chokes. But it is getting to the point where parents -- and kids -- are ready for a whole new take on childhood, a take you can watch in Kodachrome clarity on "Mad Men."

"Mad Men" takes place in the early '60s -- an era that has become almost exotic in its cavalier attitude toward children's rights, developmental milestones, budding psyches and perpetual danger. In one scene a little girl twirls into the kitchen where her mom and a neighbor are gossiping over cigarettes and coffee. (The era also took a more cavalier attitude toward smoking, drinking and anything resembling cholesterol.)

"Look, mommy! I'm an alien!" cries the 6- or 7-year-old from the inside of her costume -- a dry-cleaning bag.

The mother is beside herself. "If I find any of Daddy's clothes on the ground, you are going to be in big trouble," she says (or something to that effect), visions of crumpled cleaning, not instantaneous suffocation, dancing in her mind. The giggling girl twirls back out, still bagged, as the moms resume their conversation.

Now, I wouldn't give dry-cleaning bags a Parents Choice Award. But I looked up how many kids are killed by them each year, and it turns out to be about 25. Terrible. According to the Consumer Product Safety website, however, almost 90% of those children are under the age of 1. When they crawl into a plastic bag, or a plastic bag stuffed with clothing falls on top of them, they are incapable of crawling away or even turning their heads. They are suffocated by the fact that they are babies.

And yet, the warnings say, "Keep this and all plastic bags away from children." It never says what age. It never dares. But I submit: We are ready for a daring moment.

We have been protecting our children from so many remote dangers for so long that we are now witnessing the consequences: Kids who are afraid to go outside. Kids who are bored unless they're in front of a computer. Fat kids. Kids who couldn't organize a kickball game without a paid professional from the Kickball Association of America. I know because, often enough, those kids are mine.

But look what's selling. "The Dangerous Book for Boys." "The Daring Book for Girls." Harry Potter, who goes to a school teeming with dead classmates, murderous villains and, I believe, non-skim milk.

Kids are desperate for adventure. Parents are desperate for adventurous kids -- that's why they're buying them these books. "Go make a fort!" Sure, they're still a little nervous about stranger danger and the like, but I can see from the thousands of letters to my website, Free Range Kids, that the pendulum is swinging.

When eating candy is officially dangerous, our definition of danger has to change. It's time to give kids a little credit. And freedom. And adventure. At least show them having real fun. You will get their parents' attention and theirs, too.

Until -- God willing -- they go out and play.
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