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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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In Kids & Family

Lenore Skenazy and her son, Izzy.

Skenazy challenges overprotective parenting with "Free Range Kids"


In April 2008, writer Lenore Skenazy wrote in her column for The New York Sun that she let her then 9-year-old son take the subway home alone. Newpapers around the world covered the story as well as "The Today Show," MSNBC and more.

Skenazy let her son ride the subway alone because she thought he could handle it, but also because it was in tune with her philosophy that parents today are overprotective and in the process, kids are not getting to grow and learn as much as they could.

The subway incident led Skenazy to coin the phrase "Free Range Kids" and she later wrote a blog and a book, "Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom We had Without Going Nuts."

Today, Skenazy lives in Queens with her husband and sons. She recently shared her thoughts about parenting with OnMilwaukee.com.

OnMilwaukee.com: What is "Free Range Kids"?

Leonore Skenazy: Free Range Kids is a common sense approach to parenting in these overprotective times.

OMC: You have been dubbed "America's Worst Mom" by the media. How did you earn this title?

LS: About a year ago, I let my 9-year-old ride the subway by himself. He'd been asking us -- my husband and me -- to please take him someplace and let him find his way home by himself. So my husband and I discussed this. Our boy knows how to read a map, he speaks the language and we're New Yorkers. We're on the subway all the time.

That's how it came to be that one sunny Sunday, after lunch at McDonald's, I took him to Bloomingdales ... and left him in the handbag department.

I didn't leave him unprepared, of course! I gave him a map, a MetroCard, quarters for the phone and $20 for emergencies. Bloomingdale's sits on top of a subway station on our local line, and it's always crowded with shoppers. I believed he'd be safe. I believed he could figure out his way. And if he needed to ask someone for directions -- which it turns out he did -- I even believed the person would not think, "Gee, I was about to go home with my nice, new Bloomingdale's shirt. But now I think I'll abduct this adorable child instead."

Long story short: He got home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence. I wrote a little column about his adventure and two days later I was on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News defending myself as NOT "America's Worst Mom."

The notion was that I had deliberately put my son in harm's way -- possibly to "prove" something -- and I was just incredibly lucky that he made it home. One NPR caller asked why I had given my son "one day of fun" even though he would probably end up dead by nightfall.

I launched my blog that weekend (www.freerangekids.com) to explain my parenting philosophy: I believe in safety. I LOVE safety -- helmets, car seats, safety belts. I believe in teaching children how to cross the street and even wave their arms to be noticed. I'm a safety geek! But I also believe our kids do not need a security detail every time they leave the house. Our kids are safer than we think, and more competent, too. They deserve a chance to stretch and grow and do what we did -- stay out 'til the street lights come on.

OMC: Were you a Free Range Kid?

LS: I was a Free Range Kid because we all were back when I was growing up, before cable TV started showing abductions 24 / 7 and finding the weirdest, saddest stories from around the world to make parents think that no child is safe doing anything on his own anymore. And it's not just cable TV to blame: It's most of the media we parents encounter. I read a four-page article in a parenting magazine the other day on "How to Have a Fun and Totally Safe Day in the Sun" -- as if it is so hard to have a safe day outside with your kid that you need four pages of instructions! We are bombarded by warnings that make us feel our kids need constant supervision and help or they will die.

That's true if your child is gravely ill, but otherwise it is not true -- as the presence of all us former Free Range Kids proves.

OMC: What prompted you to found the Free Range Kids movement?

LS: I think it was the cameramen and make-up ladies at the "Today" show. While everyone was bustling around preparing me and my son Izzy for our interview, they asked what we were there to talk about. I said, "I let him ride the subway."

"I did that at his age!" said a couple of the cameramen. "It was fun!" The make-up ladies remembered walking to school. Everyone started reminiscing about their childhoods -- the freedom, the joy, the simple fun of walking down the block to knock on a friend's door to come out and play. And then they'd shake their heads and say, "But I would never let my kids do that today."

They're right of course -- nothing stays the same. Throughout the '70s and '80s, crime was on the rise. It went up and up until it peaked around 1990. The strange thing, though, is that since then, it's been going back down. Dramatically. Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to Dept. of Justice statistics. So -- unbelievable as it seems -- if you were playing outside as a kid in the '70s or '80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!

It doesn't feel that way at all, because when our parents were raising us, there was no "CSI." "Law & Order" was something you believed in, not something on the air eight nights a week, made to look depressingly real. The other day I got a letter from a guy in an old Brooklyn neighborhood where they shoot a lot of "Law & Order" scenes. On TV, it's always the backdrop for a rape or murder. In real life, he said, it's a safe, quiet safe neighborhood -- and therein lies the tale: There's a big disconnect between the horrors on TV and the reality we live in -- the safest time for children (in America, that is) in the history of this disease-plagued, famine-prone, war-wracked world.

OMC: What is a helicopter parent?

LS: It's a sort of disparaging term for parents who believe their child is so vulnerable -- to injury, to teasing, to disease and disappointment -- that they have to sort of hover, like a helicopter, over the child, ready to swoop in if anything remotely "bad" happens.

I've heard of helicopter parents who call their children's college professors to complain about a grade their kid got on a paper. A paper they might have even helped the kid write.

OMC: Your new book has a section titled "The A-Z review of everything you might be worried about" in which you debunk many parental fears. Did you come across any particularly outrageous parental concerns?

LS: One very huge concern is baby formula. So many of my friends couldn't breastfeed and were consumed with guilt for "making" their kids drink formula. But 80 percent of moms are using some formula by the time their children are 6 months old. That's a lot of guilt about something very common and not harmful. A lot of parents today -- including me -- were raised on formula. It's not rat poison.

OMC: You've offered readers a number of "Free Range Commandments," one of which is "Fail!" But we don't want our kids to fail ... do we?

LS: We sure do! It's true, one of my Free-Range Commandments is, "Fail! It's the New 'Succeed!'" We don't want our kids to ONLY fail, of course. But if they don't fail sometimes, they won't learn that they can get back up and go on with their lives.

For instance, we don't want our kids to fall off a bike. Who does? But we do want them to learn how to ride. So we have two choices: We can hold onto their handlebars ... forever. That way they'll never, ever fall. Or we can wish them luck and then -- let go.

Most things in life take some tumbles before we get it right. As Thomas Edison said, when asked how it felt to fail 10,000 times before he figured out the light bulb, "I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

OMC: Anything else?

LS: Don't forget: Saturday, May 22 is "Take Our Children To The Park ... And Leave Them There Day."

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