Do you let your child walk solo to school?

When New Yorker Lenore Skenazy let her nine-year-old ride solo on the subway, she wrote about it in the paper she worked for, The New York Sun. Overnight, the reaction to her 'daring' caused her to be invited on talk shows across the country, later the world, and become branded ‘America’s worst mom’. Her experience spawned a website, a book  and an entire parenting movement, Free-Range Kids. As a Londoner with young children, her actions have particular resonance and I was thrilled to get the chance to interview her for angels & urchins.

Free-Range Kids is a wry and witty look at the restrictions that we, as a society, place upon our children. Skenazy makes you look at your actions as a parent in a new light – so much so that you expect to see a cartoon bulb pop up, while you scratch your head and think, ‘Oh yes, it is a two-minute walk to his friend’s house, I suppose he could actually make it there by himself, possibly even in one piece’. Lenore’s thoughts transcend geographical borders, and are particularly relevant to children based in a large city where many parents (the angels & urchins team included) are terrified to let children run free, let alone walk round the corner.

We all worry about something happening to our children. But if you’ve too terrified to let your child ride a bike to the library, take a bus on their own, or walk alone to school, have a read and a think at Free-Range Kids. As Lenore puts it, she believes in helmets, car seats and safety belts as much as the next mum. She also feels equally passionately that every time school age children go outside, they do not need a security detail. As she puts it, ‘most of us grew up Free-Range and lived to tell the tale. Our kids deserve no less’.

Lenore, what first made you think that Western parents were prone to bubble-wrapping their children?
A couple of years ago my neighbor Melissa was telling a bunch of us moms about her trip to the giant grocery, Costco. She was there with her two daughters, aged two and five, when the lady behind her in the line tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Would you mind watching my son for a second? I forgot to get paper towels.” The lady’s son was about a year old, he was sitting in the grocery cart – you know, with his legs sticking out – and Melissa said, “Fine!” so off the mom went.

But as Melissa told this tale she paused to say, “Can you BELIEVE she did that?”

“Did what?” asked I.

 “Lenore! I could have taken her baby and she would NEVER HAVE SEEN HIM AGAIN!”

Really? Let’s think for a sec what would have had to have happened for that tragedy to transpire. First off, Melissa would have had to have abandoned her grocery cart AND hustled her own two kids AND the other lady’s baby past a line of stunned shoppers, AND the check-out lady AND the person guarding the door who makes sure you paid for all your items.

THEN she’d have to drag them all through the parking lot AND remember where she was parked, AND unlock the doors, all while holding a squirming baby under one arm and her two-year-old by the hand, with her five-year-old hanging onto her arm, ALL of them crying and at least one of them probably wailing, “Mommy! Why are you stealing that lady’s baby?” (And, “Why aren’t we buying our Pop Tarts? You promised!!!”)

She’d have to get all three kids into the car and buckle them into car seats – and she’d have to have brought along an extra one for the baby she hoped to one day kidnap – and then she’d have to hop in and gun her SUV across state lines and NO ONE would have called the police on their mobile or said something like, “Uh, lady, stop!”?

The scenario was so ludicrous I told Melissa she was nuts, because not only was she imagining the world full of paedophiles, in this particular scenario SHE would have had to have been one – a crazed kidnapper with two kids of her own whose lucky moment just happened to arrive out of the blue in the check-out line!
What gobsmacked me is that when Melissa told her story to most of our mutual mommy friends, they all agreed that the other lady was an absolutely terrible, irresponsible mother who was just lucky her son wasn’t abducted.

THAT’S when I realized that most Western parents have gone crazy (since you asked). Most parents today think that ANY situation involving ANYONE but themselves (or a hired professional) interacting with their kids is a recipe for doom. Everyone is suspect, and every child is unsafe if left unsupervised for even a minute or two.

Anyway, that whole Melissa thing was about five years ago. Then, last year, when I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone and wrote a newspaper column about it - he was fine, he loved it! - I ended up on almost every radio and TV show in America (and a few in Britain) having to explain myself. I told host after host that I let him go NOT because I had a point to prove or didn’t care if he lived or died. No, I did it because I trusted him, and my city, and my parenting. For all that I got dubbed, “America’s Worst Mom.” (Go ahead and Google it.)

Why did you decide to launch your Free-Range Kids website?
I decided to launch Free-Range Kids the weekend after I wrote the subway column. I was so shaken by so many people accusing me of not caring about my son that I wanted to set the record straight, via a blog. As it says right on there on the home page, I BELIEVE in safety. I just believe that kids also need a chance to get out there and do some things on their own. Free-Range Kids is a commonsense approach to parenting in uncommonly overprotective times.

Did the book happen swiftly afterwards? 
The book happened so swiftly that it’s lucky I’m a newspaper reporter, and write fast. It was exactly a year from the subway column to the hardcover book hitting the stands. (The paperback comes out this spring.) By the way, it could use a British publisher!

Are there any other Western countries that seem less rigid? 
I’d say all of the non-English speaking ones! Almost everywhere in the world except my country and yours and Canada and perhaps Australia, kids walk to school on their own starting in first grade. It’s not considered radical or dangerous – it’s just normal! But here, kids are driven right up to the door. In fact, some Parent Teacher Associations have started auctioning off the drop-off space right in front of the school. A space that, if it were in front of a dentist’s office, or a mall, would be reserved for handicapped parking. But nowadays, parents are vying for the opportunity to treat their kids like invalids. That’s the sign of a “good parent.” A helicopter, don’t-do-anything-that-could-strain-yourself-honey parent. Other countries, meanwhile, still value self-reliance and encourage this in their kids. In Denmark, babies sleep outside. In Finland, they ski to school. In Germany, they play in the park without their parents right there. In Spain too. And let’s not even talk about kids in the developing world, who help their parents plant seeds and run shops as soon as they can do the least little bit.

On what Free-Range issue do other parents most often disagree with you?
Whether or not to let kids go outside on their own, ever. The fact is, here in America, the crime rate today is lower than it was in the 70s or 80s and early 90s when most of us parents were kids. So there is no reason not to let kids do the things outside that we did. Ride bikes in the neighborhood, knock on a friend’s door to say, “Come out and play!” And yet most parents today are terrified to let their kids do any of that.

The disagreement comes when I say, “Your parents were responsible and they let you play outside.” And they say, “Yes, but times have changed.” Or, “If anything happened, I couldn’t live with myself.” They immediately see in their mind’s eye the Worst Case Scenario and it’s really hard to speak rationally when they’re envisioning the headlines and feeling their tears well up. But anyway: the truth is our parents couldn’t have lived with themselves, either. And yet they didn’t focus on the 1 in a million chance of something horrible and headline-worthy happening. They focused on the things their kids needed besides excessive safety. Kids need fresh air! They need time to be creative! They need to learn how to wrestle their way out of boredom and make up games and get to know the neighborhood and poke through acorns and leaves and crabapples and become one with the world. They can’t do all of that with us dragging them off to Mandarin lessons and homework and supervised play time one foot away from us. They need to grow up, not be pruned like lovely, stunted Bonsai trees.

What’s the craziest restriction on children you’ve heard of?
A grandma who was sitting in her allergist’s waiting room reading the newspaper with a magnifying glass. A little boy of about three came over to her and she was delightedly showing him how the magnifying glass makes the letters BIGGER when the boy’s mother swooped in and grabbed him away, saying, “He has to learn FAST not to talk to strangers!” She’s teaching him that even when his mother is around, even when he’s in an enclosed space, even when he’s talking to a woman so old she needs to use a magnifying glass to read the paper, HE IS NOT SAFE. In other words: He is NEVER safe, anywhere.

And then there are the parents who drive their kids from the garage down to the bottom of the driveway to wait for the school bus because they think it’s too dangerous for their kids to wait in front of the house by themselves.

And I hear a lot more. Read the blog (www.freerangekids.com). There are millions of ‘em!

Are things likely to change?
They already are. The fact that “Free-Range Kids” is already a recognized movement is great. So is the fact that a lot of studies are coming out that prove that the most beneficial thing kids can do is… play! Free-play develops their minds, bodies, coordination, imagination, communication – you name it. That’s why all primates come into the world primed to play. We thwart that instinct at our peril!

I’m sorry to say that while I don’t live in Britain I hear from you folks on a daily basis and get some of my craziest stories from your shores. I am shocked and dismayed, for instance, at the new law requiring children’s authors to get a background check to prove they are not convicted child rapists before they are allowed to give a talk at a school. So even if J.K. Rowling was game to speak to your kids’ class, she’d have to show up with that official piece of paper before she’d be allowed in. I was thrilled to see some of the authors protesting this “Everyone is a paedophile until proven otherwise” provision, and I hope that other Brits will follow suit. It’s a disgusting – and inaccurate – way of looking at the world. Let’s not raise our kids as if they’re living in a nightmare.  Infant mortality is down. Most childhood diseases have been conquered. Most people are decent.

Rejoice.

And go Free-Range

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