Journalist Lenore Skenazy accidentally became notorious, dubbed the “World’s Worst Mom,” after she wrote a column in 2008 about allowing her then-9-year-old son, Isaac, to ride the New York subway alone.
“Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse,” she cheerfully wrote. She wasn’t arrested, but she was pretty battered in the press for a while and the experience led Skenazy — Yale-educated wife and mother of two boys — on an unexpected journey that included founding the “free-range kids” movement.
She jokes that her other son, who is now 18, never gets mentioned because she didn't let him ride the subway when he was 9. But she and her husband raised him to be independent and confident, too. He routinely went to the bookstore by himself after school before heading home each day.
Skenazy, 55, grew up in Chicago and lives in Queens, New York City. She has written a book about giving children more freedom, called "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)." She explores taking not-very-risky chances with other parents on Discovery Life’s reality show, "World's Worst Mom," and she's often asked to discuss letting kids be kids. She's also the co-author of "The Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook" and a quiz/joke book that is coming out this summer.
The Deseret News interviewed her recently on what it means to be “free range” and why she thinks allowing children some freedom is important. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: Why are we so protective of our children?
Skenazy: There are a bunch of reasons we’re way more fearful than we need to be, and the first is the media. You can turn on TV anywhere, anytime and see a kidnapped or dead child. That’s the best story in terms of ratings that anybody ever discovered. … And once we started putting pictures on milk cartons and saying “Have you seen me?”, it felt like there was just a field full of children all crying out and nobody cares.
Of course, everybody cares. The No. 1 concern of all humanity is keeping young children alive. But to put it in perspective, yes, there are predators and there always have been and probably always will be. But, thank God, the crime rate today is actually lower than when I was growing up.
DN: Why should we push back from fearful parenting?
Skenazy: Fear ruins things. It ruins communities. People say things like, “In the older days, we could let children outside.” Well, you could let your children outside. Then everyone would be nice because everyone would be outside looking after each other. People think that a bad world has caused us to distrust each other, but it’s not a bad world; it’s the distrust that has caused us to pull back.
I feel most kids turn out fine no matter what, raised by the fearful parent, raised by the brave parent. Or you can be fearful and brave together, which is me. Raised by the religious fanatic or the hippie, most kids turn out OK. What I am just trying to give people back is the chance to raise their kids without society saying, “No, that’s too dangerous” if we want them to walk to school.
I’m not saying that helicopter parents have created a nation of dysfunctional kids. It’s just that you’ve got one chance to be 7. I don’t want my kids spending it in the back of the SUV.”
DN: Did your parenting change after you wrote the column?
Skenazy: When I was researching my book — and I talked to a bunch of psychologists and psychiatrists because I’m a reporter — one of the things I learned and took to heart was how little free time kids have now and … how important it is to have time on their own and figure out something to do, a game to play or a book to read or nothing until they’re so bored they finally come up with something.
I let my kids stop their music lessons, for which they had no talent or interest. Everyone was happier.
DN: What is it like to have others question how you raise your kids and second-guess what your son is responsible and old enough to do?
It should always be up to us. My mission has almost morphed a little; I began by trying to convince people that there are not predators waiting every time you send a kid to walk to school or play outside. But as people started contacting me, I started hearing from a lot of people who wanted to let their kids do things and there was always someone with a cell phone calling 911 and saying, “That mom let her kid walk to school and I don’t think that’s safe.”
Just recently, a woman wrote to me. She had been visited by the police and put on probation for six months for letting her children go barefoot in July. I am trying to get her to write back to me. But the point is, it’s up to us as parents to decide the way we raise our kids. I don’t know any parent who thinks another parent is doing it absolutely right.
DN: What do you hope parents take from the “free range” movement?
I want to give power back to the parent. It’s not my goal to have everybody do it exactly the way I did it, either. I just want parents to know their children are pretty safe if they decide to give them some freedom. And I want the government to get out of the decision when it comes to what I allow my kids to do so long as I’m not putting them in literal harm’s way, like giving them drugs or abusing them.
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