‘I’ve been labelled the world’s worst mom’

New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy tells spiked about the barrage of abuse she got for letting her nine-year-old ride the subway alone.

Nancy McDermott

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When Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for the New York Sun, wrote about how she had let her then nine-year-old son take the subway home by himself, she had no idea what an extraordinary reaction she would provoke.

‘I’ve been writing since I was in my twenties’, the 48-year-old Skenazy told me over chicken soup, ‘and I don’t know of anything I’ve written that’s had this kind of response. People have written to me from all over the world. I got an email from Malta this morning… and they just ran a story in the South China Morning Post!’

Here in the US, Skenazy and her son Izzy (pictured on the right) also appeared on The Today Show, MSNBC and Fox News, under the banner ‘America’s Worst Mom?’ All because she let Izzy travel home on his own with $20, a subway map and change for a pay phone. ‘I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home’, she wrote in her column. ‘If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead”. Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.’

She tells me: ‘About half the people who hear about it want to turn me in for child abuse. They were talking about me on The View [an American daytime talk show hosted by four women] the other day. They were saying: “Oh my God, what is she doing to her kid?” But I don’t see it that way. It’s not like he was doing something dangerous. This is normal. It’s normal for people to take the bus or the subway and it’s normal for kids to learn to do it on their own. He’d been asking me to do it for a while and it seemed like the right time.’

‘Oh, and it wasn’t an experiment’, she adds. ‘Some people actually think the newspaper put me up to it to see what the reaction would be! It was more like… the beginning of something for my son, part of growing up. It’s not like I don’t worry. Of course I worry. I’m the stereotypical Jewish mother. This is home-made chicken soup. I make my sons eat it. But I just can’t conceive of taking the subway as some sort of outrageous risk.’

Free-range kids

Many people have reacted positively to Skenazy’s column. ‘It’s like it’s opened the floodgates. Lots of people are saying: “Thank God there’s a name for this and I’m not the only one. She’s doing what I do with my own kids.”’

The name Skenazy has coined is ‘Free Range’ and the blog she has set up in response to the article – Free Range Kids – is filled with stories from parents who have let their children have the freedom to do things on their own and many more who would like to, but don’t. Skenazy talks cautiously about a new movement. ‘Some people are already doing these things on the website and some are just waking up to the idea that a little freedom is not the same thing as parental neglect.’

I asked her why she thinks parents are hesitant to give their kids more leeway. ‘I think there are a lot of people who don’t really see these things (like riding the subway or walking to school) as risks but they aren’t letting their kids have more freedom because they get flak from their neighbours.

‘It can be the simplest, stupidest thing. One lady wrote to me about how she had to go to work early so she let her 11-year-old daughter walk across the street alone to wait at the bus stop. The other mothers waiting with their kids were outraged and this mom ended up feeling horribly guilty. But when she came across the website she thought: “This is crazy. I’ve been torturing myself because I let my daughter walk across the street on her own!” Another woman told me how a stranger walked by and admonished her because she wasn’t paying enough attention to her children playing in the yard in front of her. She was just reading her book.’

Why are strangers so quick to give parents a hard time? Skenazy thinks part of the reason is the proliferation of stories about the terrible things that happen to children. There are ‘no other stories in the public [realm]’, she says. ‘If there’s a story about how a child was left alone it’s about him or her ending up dead. You never get a news story like “Kid Rides Subway Alone, Has Fun, Is Fine”. It’s always the other kind.’

Parents for their part, she says, ‘are afraid of the media exposure if something did go wrong’. She describes how another woman wrote about the time one of her brothers cracked his head open on an amusement park ride when they were kids. ‘Everyone was kind and sympathetic, but imagine if that happened to your child today? There’d be no sympathy. You’d be on TV in bad make-up stammering about how you were close by.’

Those were the days

And yet it wasn’t always this way. Only a generation ago, American children enjoyed far more freedom and independence than they do now. Perhaps the most the striking thing about the response to Skenazy’s story is the profound sense of joy that comes through when people recall the freedom of their own youth. Michele, a Brooklyn mom, recalls:

‘We played in the alley, climbed down telephone poles that landed us behind people’s homes way around the block. We darted over a stone wall to play in the churchyard next door to our building. And we were forever in a dark, dank basement that delightfully spooked us… and had the best hiding spots. We accepted candy from the elderly woman downstairs. My Bronx neighbourhood was filled with folks who watched over us; maybe there was an occasional fight, but, pretty much, children were not targets. Yet, there is no way that I, even with the memories of these great childhood freedoms, would these days let my child walk to school on his own. I suppose it’s the times. But, boy, when I was young, those were the days!’

For most New Yorkers the turning point came in 1979 with the disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz on his way to his school in Lower Manhattan. Though it was recognised that child sexual abuse happened from time to time, prior to Patz’s disappearance, the possibility that he might have been abducted for sexual motives would not have occurred to most people. The ‘sexual predator’ did not exist in the public imagination.

The randomness of his abduction and the consensus that it was sexually motivated seemed to call all relationships between adults and children into question. Within only a few years of his disappearance, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, every missing child was assumed to have been abducted for sexual purposes, an assumption completely out of proportion with reality.

Child abduction and molestation was then, as it is now, very rare. According to figures from the US Department of Justice, most children are taken by family members, usually in the context of a custody dispute. Furthermore, sexual abuse takes place in less than one per cent of all 200-300 child abductions that take place each year.

Still, the Patz case crystallised the sense of unease people felt in the wake of the sweeping changes in American society after the 1960s. With the blurring of the lines between adolescence and adulthood, and the breakdown of traditional morality and any sense of communal solidarity, parents no longer felt confident that other adults did not harbour some darker motivation. This breakdown of trust between adults marked the beginning of the end of children’s independence.

But it may be that the time has come for a change. New York is now one of the safest cities in the world with crime rates below what they were in 1963. More importantly, perhaps the outpouring of support for Free Range Kids from all over the world shows that many people instinctively understand that all this fear comes at a cost.

In 2008, Lenore Skenazy’s son, Izzy took the subway home by himself… and he was just fine. Will free-ranging kids catch on? Skenazy doesn’t know for sure, but she sends me the article from the South China Morning Post highlighting a line she likes: ‘If the Patz tragedy made parents fearful, the Izzy adventure seems to have set many free.’

‘Wouldn’t that be great?’ she muses.

Yes, it would.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Nancy McDermott found that TV show Kid Nation was hardly Lord of the Flies. Jenny Cunningham said children should play on. Helene Guldberg said child safety has its own dangers and asked if childhood should come with a health warning. Stuart Waiton felt that children were drowning in risk aversion. Elsewhere he said the UK government was tying teenagers down. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

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