Author Lenore Skenazy discusses her parenting approach, including letting her 9-year-old take the subway by himself
-Julie Ryan Evans
How long do you think it would take your child to get abducted by a stranger if you just left him standing on a street corner unattended?
24 hours? 100 hours? A couple of weeks?
Not even close.
It would take 750,000 YEARS to happen, according to statistic probability. This is just one statistic that Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, points to when discussing the overprotective, overparenting that many of us (myself included) are practicing today.
Skenazy drew international attention after granting a request to her 9-year-old son, Izzy – to let him get home from someplace by himself, by subway. In New York City. She left Izzy in the handbag department of Bloomingdale’s with a subway card, a map, $20 for emergencies and a bunch of quarters in case he had to call home. (Quarters because, ironically, they didn’t trust him not to lose a cell phone!)
“The subway station is right under the store, so Izzy got on, no problem, and came home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence,” she says. “I’m a newspaper columnist so a few weeks later, on a slow news day, I finally wrote about his little adventure. Well, I thought it was little.”
Two days later, a media frenzy erupted, and suddenly she was defending her decision to media around the world. Some called her “America’s Worst Mom”.
But beyond the sensational headlines and initial outrage of a few, there were many parents that related to and agreed with Skenazy’s approach to parenting. She started a blog on the topic www.freerangekids.com, which morphed into her book.
“The basic premise of Free-Range Kids is that, despite what you hear and read and see and get totally clobbered over the head with in the media, we CAN give our children the kind of freedom we had as kids,” Skenazy explains. “The real world is a lot safer than the one on TV, and many of the ‘childhood dangers’ we worry about turn out to be infinitesimally small – like the risk of getting cancer from baby bottles, or being seriously injured by a merry-go-round, or, of course, being abducted by a stranger.”
As she throws out “cancer from baby bottles”, I gasp, then laugh at how much angst I’ve had over baby bottles since my daughter’s birth five months ago. And I think how I don’t even let my nearly 6-year-old son go to the mailbox by himself, yet when I wasn’t much older than him I left the house in the morning on my bike with a pack of kids. We rode to the cemetery, ran through the neighborhood, played in an old abandoned shooting range, walked along the railroad tracks and didn’t come home until the street lights came on. Does anyone let their children do these kinds of things anymore? I don’t know anyone who does, and I have a hard time imaging EVER letting mine.
But Skenazy says we should, and that holding them back in our efforts to protect them is actually harming them.
“Constant hovering actually gives kids the message: You are never safe without me around – a message that makes kids feel scared and vulnerable,” she says. “We need to remember how competent and capable our children can be, and how much confidence they gain when we allow them to do things by themselves. Most of us remember the first taste of being a grownup, when we did something all by ourselves, but in the interest of keeping our kids safe, we’re talking that self actualization away from them.”
But what about all the dangers lurking out there, the abductions and accidents and missing children? It’s a different world out there, right?
Yes, Skenazy says, but different in a good way. She says the world is safer today than it was when many of us were growing up, and she has the stats to back it up. She says crime has been plummeting – by as much as 50 percent – since the early 1990s. So if you grew up in the 70s or 80s your children are statistically safer than you were.
And some of the “truths” we think about the dangers are just flat out unfounded. Did you know that there has NEVER been a case in which a stranger poisons a child’s Halloween candy? Not even once! Yet think of all the time you’ve spent pouring over your children’s loot, perhaps even making them go to a mall because it’s safer? (totally guilty here!)
In her research she called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (you know, the organization who put the pictures on the back of milk cartons), expecting them to push back on her theories. Instead, they supported them vehemently. She says the center interviewed children who had been abducted and got away, and found that it was their confidence and a feistiness that allowed them do things like kick and scream and, ultimately, get away. “That comes from being out in ‘the wild’ a bit,” she says.
She blames the media for much of the parental paranoia today and the fact that in the interest of ratings they saturate us with the sensational stories that pull at our biggest emotions – over and over again. Those images get imprinted on our brains and soon she says, we can’t cross a parking lot without thinking about Carlie Brucia being abducted. But there are trillions of kids out there that are just fine about whom we’re not thinking.
She says the kiddie safety industry is also part of the problem in their promotion of things like helmets for babies learning to walk to special baby Kleenex. “We’re so anxious to keep the child alive, that if someone says they need it, we jump to say OK.” As well, she says “books and magazines put out all these things you can do wrong, under the guise of advice, but really they’re just instilling fear.”
So is she just tougher than the rest? Didn’t she get the same worrying gene most of us possess? “Please, tell me you worry about something?” I pleaded with her.
“I always have and always will worry about cars: when we’re in them, when we’re near them and I just hate thinking about when they’ll be driving ‘em,” Skenazy says. “I’m not at all immune to worry. In fact, I think of myself AS a worrier. Just a little less so, since researching the book.”
But shouldn’t we do everything we can to keep them safe? Accidents do happen.
“I do believe in trying to keep kids safe – I love safety! I’m a helmet/seat belt fanatic! But when once in a while weird accidents happen, I find it sad that we blame the parents and tell them the should have been more vigilant – as if there is no such thing as fate or bad luck or, well, accidents. And as if it is a reasonable thing to ask parents to watch their children – literally, sit there and watch them – every second of every day until they are 16 or so.”
Sounds so simple, right? Skenazy doesn’t assume that you can just stop worrying; after all, that’s just part of the parenting gig. In her book she offers practical, graduated steps for parents to try (Free-Range Baby Steps, Free-Range Brave Steps and One Giant Leap for Free-Range Kind Steps), acknowledging that all children are different and that there are no hard-and-fast timetables.
I find myself repeatedly referring to and thinking about this book, this approach, as I go about my daily parenting. It has made me laugh at myself a little bit more when I find myself telling my son I don’t think he should go in the pool because it hasn’t been cleaned in a few days and perhaps some of the leaves that have fallen in it may harbor some kind of bacteria (“Hello, what about lakes?!” my husband offers); and it makes me loosen my grip a little on the imaginary safety reins that permeate my every decision. My children just may not have to hold my hand forever, after all.