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Does your child walk alone to school?
Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Lenore Skenazy: free-range and free thinking

Lenore Skenazy: our favourite free-range friend

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 (£12.63 at Amazon, incl. p&p) and an entire parenting movement, Free-Range Kids. As a Londoner with young children, it had particular resonance.

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, €œWould 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, €œFine!€ so off the mom went.

But as Melissa told this tale she paused to say, €œCan you BELIEVE she did that?€

€œDid what?€ asked I.

 €œLenore! 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, €œMommy! Why are you stealing that lady€™s baby?€ (And, €œWhy 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, €œUh, 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, €œAmerica€™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 €œgood 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, €œCome out and play!€ And yet most parents today are terrified to let their kids do any of that.

The disagreement comes when I say, €œYour parents were responsible and they let you play outside.€ And they say, €œYes, but times have changed.€ Or, €œIf 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, €œHe 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 €œFree-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 €œEveryone 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

P.S. I’d LOVE to come lecture in your country, so invite me! Australia already has and they’re further away!

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19 Responses to “Does your child walk alone to school?”
  1. Free-range? Sorry, but that makes me chuckle. Let them run, the little chickens!!

    I have mixed feelings about letting my little one off the leash in central London. At the same time, I would like little L to grow up freely and be able to claim independence from an early age. That’s why we think of moving.

  2. Natalie says:

    Please come! The world needs people like you! I cannot get over how uptight and judgemental people can be. It’s like we want to grow up our children terrified! The supermarket story is hilarious – It shows the lack of logic and distrust out there. I was allowed to play outside, roll in dirt, and find out things the hard way. There’s safety and then there’s swaddling your child in cotton wool and releasing them into the wild as adults expecting them to be ‘brave’. We need some perspective and to stop being so anal! I think the subway thing is a bit scary but that’s only because I’ve been lost on it and to be fair, in Dublin where I was brought up, kids use the overground train to go to school. Anyway! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Handpicked says:

    I agree with the ethos behind Free Range, but I wouldn’t let a 9-year-old go on the underground by themselves. I would let them go to a friend in the next street because I think they would be able to fight and scream in the unlikely event that someone dragged them away. But it’s mainly a traffic thing for me rather than a stranger danger thing. London is so busy with so many motorbikes weaving in and out. I liked the article, it made me think. But I also think we’re less risk averse in the UK than the US, though don’t have any evidence to back that up!!

  4. Bump2Basics says:

    What an interesting article. As a soon to be parent I am coming to terms with the responsibility of raising and protecting my child while also preparing her to be able to function and cope as an individual in the big, wild world. I hadn’t heard of Free Range but like the ethos behind it, which I see as responsible but not over-protective parenting. Yes, it’s up to each individual to assess their own situation/child and decide how much free rein is appropriate but Lenore’s movement highlights a parent’s responsibility to teach our children how to survive in the world rather than just shield them from it.

  5. Metropolitan Mum – little chickens indeed! Wish I had an outdoor pen for mine sometimes. It’s such a shame that urban cities are seen as being so dangerous. I’m trying to put the risks into perspective, and taking on board Lenore’s point about not looking for danger while protecting against it.

    Natalie – I agree! I’d love to see the Free-Range Kids message explored in risk-averse Britain. The supermarket story is a classic case in point. Something similar happened to a friend who visited. Her older child was asleep in the car, so she left her there while she brought the younger one in. We chatted on the doorstep for a few minutes, and a complete stranger raced over and berated us for being so ‘irresponsible’. My friend’s daughter was yards away, and we felt as though we’d been taken to see the parenting headmaster!

    Handpicked – Traffic is a nightmare, but if we don’t let children make their own way, when will they learn to deal with it? How old does a child need to be before they can be considered independent?

  6. angels&urchinsblog says:

    Bump2Basics – wish I’d written the ‘teach them to survive in the world rather than shield them from it’ line. That’s it exactly. Thank you, and best of luck with the impending (free-range?) arrival!

  7. grit says:

    the term free-range is one that is quite familiar in home ed contexts; the philosophy in the home ed community is, in part, deeply traditional, in that there is a belief that children should not be constantly controlled and monitored or watched, but that they have the freedom to grow up on their terms.

    if you were home educating, the kids wouldn’t travel alone on the underground to school, but they may well roam within a trusted community area. and i have to say that the parents in my home ed world are 100% supportive of each other’s children. no-one would bat an eyelid at the ‘whole community raises the child’ approach.

    it’s not been the same in the school groups i’ve met where there is more suspicion and competitiveness. sorry about that. but from my pov it would be lovely if more parents, especially of primary age, relaxed a little and eased up on the goals, hierarchies, fears, assessment and surveillance.

  8. Excellent interview and very interesting. I wholly approve of this woman. People ARE far too over protective of their children. My children aren’t that old yet, but I don’t see why a sensible nine year old could not take the tube to school.( Mind you, my husband went across London to school by himself as a child in the 70s and even then, he was apparently the only one who did it!)

  9. angels&urchinsblog says:

    Grit – thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hadn’t thought about Free-Range parenting in relation to home ed (home schooling). I live in a very friendly neighbourhood with lots of young children, and I relate to what you say about ‘whole community raising a child’. And yes please to easing up on goals, hierachies, fears and all the rest of it – as Lenore says, ‘born free, let them run!’

    JDaniel – thanks so much for including the post in your Carnival. I came over and had a great read of all the other posts.

    nappyvalleygirl – It’s easy to look back on your own childhood and think how different it all was, and how much better, but I do think we enjoyed more freedom. I had a Saturday job aged 12, and walked two miles to the local bustop to get a bus to our nearest town, and didn’t think twice about it (cue violins, struggling tot in the snow etc). In five years my oldest will be nine, and I must remind myself to look back on this post, take a deep breath, and remember the ‘security detail’ line.

  10. gail says:

    I LOVE the idea of free range kids. Noone wants to take chances with their kids, but I think letting them do things by themselves is fundamentally part of being a good parent. Surely we are really just their guardians and guiders until they can do it themselves, and they have to slowly build their confidence as well as their judgement by doing the odd thing by themselves. I recently allowed my 8 year old to walk 25 m up our lane, turn a corner, and walk a further 125 metres up to a friend who was waiting at the end of the road. i told the friend’s mother that my daughter wanted to do this, and we have chatted and was that OK, that my friend could text me when daughter arrived. “Well, OK,” she said, then anxiously added, ” But, just to let you know, I will NEVER let Niamh walk to your house without me,”. Her outburst was so weird that I just looked at her and said “OK”, thinking, “yeah, whatever man!”. I doubt she will even let her kid come to our house now, she probably thinks I let the children make their own bombs, play with live electrics and watch adult porn! ha ha By the way, having let my daughter set off on the clear understanding that the friend’s mother would text me the instant she saw my daughter come into view, the woman then did not send a text. About 15 mins later (my daughter should have arrived within about 90 seconds) I called her to say, “Umm, by the way, has B arrived?”. “Oh yes, she got here a while ago,” she told me, totally straight! I was quite incensed by this. Do you think she was trying to teach me a lesson??

  11. angels&urchinsblog says:

    Gail, thank you. And very refreshing to hear someone think that letting children do something by themselves is part of being a good parent, rather than a negligent/awful/uncaring one. And yes, I think your friend was making a point. How very dare she! If she thought you were being unguarded letting your child walk between two manned (mummed?) points, 90 seconds apart, on a street, the least she could have done was reassured your fluttering heart that daughter had made it. As Lenore says, we shouldn’t need a security detail every time we step out the front door.

  12. Natasha says:

    I am a huge fan of Lenore, but it’s one thing to talk the walk and quite another thing to actually do it. I am such a talker! My daughters are just six and three and there is no way I’d let them walk the 1km to school alone just yet, but a couple of years from now, there’s no reason I shouldn’t. No reason but my own fear. I absolutely must get over this irrational fear because letting your children go is, like Gail says above, “fundamentally part of being a good parent”. How else will they grow up to be well-balanced, independent adults?

    Anyway, great interview.

  13. angels&urchinsblog says:

    Natasha, I’m just like you – lots of talk, and then lose my nerve even allowing my four-year-old to walk to a house on the same street five houses away! Hopefully we’ll learn to let them go at some point. Really glad you liked the interview; I find Lenore and her movement very inspirational.

  14. I am one of those mums that agrees with allowing your children to experience situations on there own ie: walking home from school, however if truth be told I would be about six meters behind them wearing a disguise just to make sure that all is ok. However, I also have to honestly say that when I saw my daughter walking up a slide from the bottom to the top in her bare feet, I knew without a doubt that she would fall backwards and everything in me was screaming to yell “stop and get down immediately.” but I didn’t and the inevitable happened, she feel backwards all the way down the slide and landed up crying in my arms. Needless to say she has never done this again!

  15. Thank you childrens hats. I was two metres behind my son when he walked five houses away, which was a bit paranoid on my part, and made it even more strange when someone was ‘surprised I’d let him out of my sight’. Thank goodness you were there to catch your daughter on the slide; what parent can’t remember a similarly heart-stopping moment?

  16. Very interesting article I love your website carry on the great articles

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