Funny Times Interviews Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom”

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(Originally published in the September 2009 issue of The Funny Times)

Longtime Funny Times contributor Lenore Skenazy became the center of a media storm last year when she allowed her nine-year-old son to ride home on the New York subway by himself. After being lambasted by the media and called upon to defend her parenting skills on programs ranging from The Today Show to Dr. Phil, she wrote her new book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Enjoyed without Going Nuts with Worry. Her website, freerangekids.com, has become a clearinghouse for useful parenting information and discussion. Lenore’s columns run in more than 100 papers, and she has appeared as a commentator on CNBC, The Food Network, and NPR. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two pre-teen sons.

Funny Times: You have been dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” by the media. How did you earn this title?

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 we 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 Bloomingdale’s – 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 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 that the opportunity presents itself, I think I’ll abduct this adorable moppet 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 ShowMSNBC 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” knowing he would probably end up dead by nightfall.

I launched my blog that weekend (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 till the street lights come on.

FT: What exactly is a Free-Range Kid? Were you a Free-Range Kid?

A Free-Range Kid is a kid who gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help.

For instance, in the suburbs, many school PTAs have figured out a new way to raise money (God bless ’em): They auction off the prime drop-off spot right in front of the school – the shortest distance between car and door.

But at the mall or movie theater or dentist’s office, that would be considered the handicapped parking spot – the one you need if you are really disabled. So, somehow, in our understandable desire to do the very best for our kids, we have started treating them as if they’re handicapped! As if they couldn’t possibly walk a couple of blocks or make their own lunch or climb a tree without hurting themselves or struggling too much.

A Free-Range Kid is sort of an old-fashioned kid: expected to want to grow up and do things on their own.

I was a Free-Range Kid because we all were back then, 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 their 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 not true, as the presence of all us former Free-Range Kids proves.

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

I think it was the cameramen and makeup 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 let him ride the subway.”

“I did that at his age!” said a couple of the cameramen. “It was fun!” The makeup 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.”

Why not?

“Times have changed.”

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 CSILaw & Order was something you believed in, not something on the air eight nights a week, made to look depressingly real. Two weeks ago, 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 neighborhood. 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.

I founded the Free-Range Kids movement, in part, to be one small voice saying, “Hey! I know we are all scared for our kids! But maybe we don’t have to be quite so terrified!” It’s an attempt to figure out how we got so much more worried for our kids in just one generation, and to separate any real dangers from the ones foisted upon us by the media and by other folks with things to sell (like baby safety product manufacturers who have to scare us about a remote danger like “traumatic head injury from toddling” so we’ll buy their products, like the “ThudGuard” – a helmet for kids to wear all day when they’re learning to walk).

FT: What is a helicopter parent?

It’s a sort of disparaging term for parents who believe their child is so vulnerable – to injury, to teasing, to disappointment – that they have to hover over the child, ready to swoop in (like a helicopter) 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 him write.

FT: Why were our parents different from today’s parents?

Our parents were watching Dallas and Dynasty, where the biggest crime was big hair. Today’s parents are drowning in bad news that comes to us instantaneously from around the world. We hear about abductions in Portugal and Aruba. I can instantly name you five girls who met ghastly ends – Caylee, Natalee, Carli, Jon BenA(c)t, Maddie – but our parents could never do that.

When your brain is saturated with horrifying stories like those, it is hard to focus on the millions of children NOT murdered. We don’t know THEIR names. We know the ones who are GONE. So when we try to decide, “Gee, is it safe for my child to walk to school?” we flash on the stories we have heard. Also, one interesting brain fact: The most memorable stories come to mind first. And whatever comes to mind first we usRe: an entirely new spreadsheetually think of as the most common. That’s just human nature, but it’s also wrong.

Anyway, in addition to all these gruesome images, we also live in crazy lawsuit time. That means that we have gotten used to schools and park districts banning things with even the tiniest chance of causing an accident that might cause a parent to sue. So our playgrounds are stripped of merry-go-rounds and slides that are higher than a worm. And we get so used to all these “safety” precautions (which are actually lawsuit precautions) that we start thinking of everyday childhood as inherently unsafe.

If you buy the DVD Sesame Street: Old School you’ll see kids having the world’s best time. It’s a collection of Sesame Streethighlights from its first years, 1969 – 1974, and it shows kids playing follow the leader through a vacant lot, climbing through a giant pipe, balancing on a piece of wood, laughing as they wind their way through some sheets on the line to dry. Of course they’re happy: This was public television trying to model ideal childhood for pre-schoolers. It was put on the air after countless psychologists and child specialists signed off on it. But at the very beginning of the DVD, before you see any of this, there’s a warning:

“For adult viewing only.”

In just one generation, what was considered a normal, happy, HEALTHY childhood has become considered WILDLY dangerous. Litigiously dangerous.

We’re swimming in fear soup – fear of lawsuits, fear of injury, fear of abductions, fear of blame. (People love to blame parents for not being “responsible” enough.) And Free-Range Kids is trying to paddle out.

FT: 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?

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 six 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.

FT: 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?

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.

Chances are, if we do that, they will, at some point, fall. When they get up again, they’ll have two huge things going for them:

1. They’ll know they can fall and get back up again. If that’s not a life lesson, what is?

2. They’ll be learning how to actually ride a bike.

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.”

FT: You are raising your kids in New York City. Is it harder to be a free-range parent in the city?

It’s not that hard anywhere. It just takes some time on the parents’ part. For us in the city, free-range means teaching our kids how to take public transportation. But in the ‘burbs, it involves teaching them how to ride their bikes. And in either place, we also teach kids how to be safe in the very unlikely event they encounter someone creepy.

I interviewed Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. You know – the folks who put the kids’ pictures on the milk cartons (and failed to mention the vast majority were runaways or taken by the non-custodial parent in a divorce case. Oh well.)

Anyway, when I said that I think “stranger danger” is way overblown, Allen – to my great surprise – totally agreed! “Our message is exactly the one you’re trying to convey,” he said. “We have been trying to debunk they myth of ‘stranger danger.'”

What do we both suggest? Teach your kids TO talk to strangers. That way, if they’re ever creeped out by someone in the proverbial white van, they can run to the man across the street, raking his leaves, and say, “Help! I’m being followed!” Or they can run into a shop and say, “Call the police!” or, “Please let me borrow your phone!”

Confident kids who feel at home in the world are safer than coddled kids who have been taught they are dainty prey without mom or dad by their side. When Allen interviewed children who had escaped potential abductions, here’s what they had in common: They stood up for themselves. They kicked, screamed, bit, and ran.

So, teach your kids to do that. Same way you teach them to “stop, drop and roll” in the unlikely event they ever find themselves on fire. And then – send them out to build that muscle called confidence.

“Our message to parents is: You don’t have to live in fear. You don’t have to feel you have to lock your children in a room.”

That’s not me talking. That’s the guy who put the pictures on the milk cartons.

FT: You have experienced the media from all angles, as a newspaper columnist, a news consumer and most recently as the sensational subject of a media storm. Has your view of the media changed as a result of this?

Wow! That’s a question I never got before. I guess I hadn’t quite realized how much the media loves parenting controversies. It loves to pit me against a “helicopter parent,” as if we were lion vs. bear or something. But the fact is, helicopter parents and free-rangers are not that different. We BOTH want our kids to be safe and happy and responsible. It’s just a question of what we see as dangerous. Helicopters see disappointment as dangerous. I see it as bracing (even though I do hate watching my kids when they can’t get what they want, or are really mad at themselves). Helicopter parents also see the outside world as unspeakably dangerous. I see it as a place children have always explored and messed around in. I was talking to a representative from Tide last week and he told me kids are not getting as dirty as they used to! That’s sad.

Anyway, back to the media. Someone wrote to my blog with this great analogy: If a Martian came to earth and wanted to understand what life is like down here, you could give him this choice – Does he want to know how 99.9 percent of people live their lives? Or does he want to know about the .1 percent?

Chances are, he’d want to hear about the 99.9 percent. But when we turn on the TV, we see the .1 percent – the horrible stories that make the news, the horrible plots that keep us glued to CSI. And then we turn off the TV and say, “What a crazy world we live in.”

That’s why one of the “How to Start Going Free-Range” tips I give in my book is so simple: Next time you are going to watch one of those crime shows, turn off the TV and take a walk outside instead – maybe with your kids. Talk to some neighbors, look around, get a feel for the place again. THIS is the world you’re living in, not the one on TV.

FT: What should we do to liberate our kids without going crazy with worry?

Besides read my book, you mean?

Well, I do give a lot of tips and I’ll give a few of them here.

1. Warn your family beforehand, then turn off your cell phone for a day. Better still, leave it on the nightstand so you won’t be tempted to press “On.” Why? Mostly because one morning my 10-year-old called to ask me, “Mom? Can I have another piece of banana bread?” And I realized: Our kids are getting used to us making ALL their decisions. Even the banana bread ones. Time to stop treating them like toddlers. (At least, once they actually AREN’T toddlers.)

2. When you’re standing around with a bunch of other parents all waiting for soccer to start, or school to open, or the bus to come pick them up, volunteer to watch all the kids yourself. Give the other parents a little break. This way you are creating community. It’s your way of saying “We’re all in this together and we can help each other out.” It’s also a way of saying “Look, I don’t think anything so horrible is about to happen here at this bus stop that we need five adults to fight for the lives of five or six children.” If the other parents are too nervous to accept your kind offer, flip it around. Ask them to watch your kid! This creates a sense of shared responsibility, too. And gives you time to go to Starbucks.

3. Get a little perspective on this strange, scared parenting era we are living in by visiting a baby superstore with your oldest living relative. (Yes, always best if they’re living.) Go around looking at all the things like baby kneepads and infrared video baby monitors asking, “Which of these things did YOU need when you were raising us?” (Be prepared for a little scorn.)

4. Visit my website! Freerangekids.com. You’ll find lots of stories of people gradually letting their kids go – and them coming back safe and sound.

Good luck to all us parents – and kids!

Lenore Skenazy’s new book Free-Range Kids is available from bookstores everywhere. Also, be sure to check out her website, freerangekids.com, for the latest free-range parenting advice.

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