Boy Rides Subway Alone, Makes News — And He’s Not Mine!

Gotta admit, this boy has mine beat. A 5-year-old hopped on the New York City subway yesterday and rode it 34 stops, emerging, according to the cops who found him, happy – even ecstatic. (His mom, whom he’d slipped away from, was, of course, hysterical. THEN happy, even ecstatic. ) 

I started this whole blog last year after I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone, wrote a column about it and was immediately pounced upon by the media who saw me as a parenting lightning rod.

To my shock, they were right. Millions were the people who believed that any mom who deliberately let her single-digit child out of her clutches must be insane/negligent/unloving/criminal/shot at dawn. Take your pick.  

Since then, of course, we folks who believe that children are more competent than society gives them credit for have found each other here. It’s not that we want our kids to go dashing out of arms as the subway pulls into the station. But we do believe in preparing them for the outside world and then letting them explore it. We have confidence in our kids, our community and our own parenting skills. Simple as that.

I can’t toast this kindergarten commuter because even I, “America’s Worst Mom” (thus dubbed after my subway story), think tots should stick near their mommies until their mommies let them go. But I am pleased to see how safe the subway was, even for a 5-year-old – same age that many kids around the world start going to school on their own.

Once the pendulum starts to swing back toward less terrified parenting, more and more kids will be getting themselves to places on their own, and more and more parents will think this is fine and dandy (and not just because it  frees up several hours each day).  Until then, underage subway riders will continue to make the news, even when – to everyone’s shock – they are just fine, thank you very much.  – Lenore

25 Responses

  1. Lenore: Have you heard of “slow parenting?” I just read this interview with the author of The Power of Slow. Here’s a good quote: “You know, the funny thing is that I don’t use the term “slow parenting” anywhere in Under Pressure. I felt it didn’t communicate all of the complexities and nuances of modern childrearing. It seems to me that today we are speeding up children too much in some ways (academic hot-housing, for example) while slowing them down too much in other ways (not letting them walk to school alone until they’re, um, 23).”

    I feel a movement brewing!

  2. @Shannon: Can we get Alice Waters on board?

    I think incidents like this are terrifically illustrative of how safe the world actually is. Too bad we live in a culture of fear, where the horrible things that could happen are treated as more real than the banal things that actually happen.

  3. I started riding public transportation to school from 5 years on in Queens NY back in the late sixties. I took the bus and train to NYC by myself by age 9 or 10.
    My stepson, who I promise I never hovered over,at 16 was afraid to ride the public bus in our safe little haven of Santa Cruz, Ca. I never discouraged his independence at anything, even trying to push him to try new things, but somehow he became afraid of the world. I came into his life at 8 years old. I really think that media and news and things they teach at school affects how the kids react in the world too, not just the parents. My own kids, love the bus. Would love to be left home alone and are very adventurous. They also attend a small public school, out in the an rural setting away from city worries. We also don’t watch the news on TV in our house. I will talk to them about current events though and let them feel safe about certain things that are going on. They definitely seem to be learning more independence than my stepson by non-exposure.

  4. Reading stories like this, I always think of that book “Walk About” – granted, that kid wasn’t on a subway and he wasn’t 5 but its the same principle. We need to give kids some space so that they CAN grow up and become the kind of adults that will succeed in our society.

    If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. Quick read – 7th grade reading list (at least when I was in 7th grade)

  5. I do believe in self-determination. I was the mom who told my kid-if you want 100 CD’s and off campus lunches, get a job, cuz I don’t have the money you think I do.

    She did-she was 14 and found a local “clip” joint (read hair salon) to hire her as a receptionist.

    But 5? I think that might be a bit too little for my liking.

  6. I had a very depressing conversation with somebody the other day who seems to think that at 12 her son will still be too young to ride the bus on Staten Island alone.

    What the hell does she think will happen on the bus? Up until last year, I constantly found myself on the bus at the same time as all the high schoolers and 7th graders. Let’s see… what happened…

    Oh, it was horrible, I remember. It was crowded and cramped, with no free seats, and as soon as those terrible, scary teenagers saw me with my two little nieces they immediately… got up and gave me a seat. Didn’t even have to *ask*. And they often poked their friends so that *both* girls could sit instead of just the one on my lap.

    Sometimes they cursed… and then the ones near the kids would either apologize or call out that there were KIDS on the bus and they needed to knock it off.

    Yup, those are the future criminals of America, right there. *eyeroll*

    Wasn’t even enough *room* on the bus to cause trouble, and it’s not like I open the paper every day and find “Another Kid Killed on the Public Bus” on the front page. Sheesh.

  7. One summer I was a nanny for a 9 year old and a 12 year old who had parents that were VERY much paranoid about lots of things. The 12 y.o. wasn’t allowed to walk across a moderately busy street by herself, and once when she had an appointment in a small building with a receptionist actually expected me to walk her to her appointment the entire way. I kicked her out in the parking lot in an attempt to teach her some independence.

    And, for the record, I live in a very safe college town.

  8. I would have been FRANTIC. And then I would have been very proud of my little one, who managed on his own.

    I love Shannon’s comment. Everyone whines about the pace of life these days. But we delay our children’s responsibility acceptance until it’s too late for them to reclaim it.

  9. At least at 5 he could talk intelligibly. My daring 3 yo does just that (no more subway for him, he´s grounded for the next five years). Fortunately, in my town people tend to scold the child, not the mother. Apparently, the feeling is that children are responsible for themselves, and mummy´s job is to try to keep them alive until they are of age, frustrating all their suicide attempts.

  10. Amazing! I’ll bet if we collected stories about losing our children and finding them safe and sound, we would be amazed at how safe it really is for them. I, for one, have several stories I could share. Some were more scary than others, but in each and every one my children were safe and taken care of by other adults (if that was necessary – and it was a few times).

  11. Lola, I’m so with you! Children are responsible for their own actions (passed a certain age) and mummy’s job IS to keep them alive until they’re of age, frustrating all suicide attempts.

    People want to think kids are little brainless angels and that mom and dad are 100% responsbile for everything their kids do from the time they’re born until they move out, and even then some afterwards. I’m glad that little guy got back to him mom ok and she has my sympathy for how scared she must have been. I wonder how he got away from her…

  12. Lori, I have one!

    When I was 4, my parents and I went to visit/meet my grandmother in Honolulu (yes, my dad grew up in Honolulu, but moved to Illinois. What the hell was he thinking?!?!). At one point during this trip we were heading back to the hotel, saw it ahead of us, and bolted straight for it. I got through a crowd, onto an elevator, and pressed the button to get to my floor before I looked around and saw that my parents weren’t with me. Cue freak out. A couple of people helped me get back down to the lobby and everything was fine. It seemed the biggest problem was that I totally freaked out once I realized I was alone, not that I was in any danger whatsoever.

  13. Love the ‘slow parenting’ ideology…. similar to the slow food movement – way better results in the end run. Notice the trend to avert the faster = better track?

  14. Hi lenore – you might find this in a similar vein — obviously an older child – and it seems a strange story – but it might pique your interest.

    http://news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-national/missing-qld-boy-rides-bike-to-sydney-20090415-a6rr.html

    “A 15-year-old Brisbane boy with Asperger’s syndrome who went missing for two weeks has been found in Sydney, after riding his bike more than 950km down the Pacific Highway.”

  15. In the 1980’s – when I was raising my sons in Hawaii — the equivalent of DHS tried to take my boys. They took me to court – where under oath, I was required to defend why I had taught the 9 year old to make scrambled eggs.

    I explained that I thought it was our duty as a parent – to teach our children how to function in the world. And that making scrambled eggs was a good beginner lesson. Later in the hallway – I overheard the workers – one saying to the other “well -she sure is articulate!”

    About 3 court sessions later – I pointed out that the DHS crew were all being PAID to be there – and that I was generally writing a term paper or studying for finals when they invited me to court – and that NEXT time – I would not show up. The judge dismissed the entire farce and that was that….

    till the grandchildren … more on that later….

  16. Claire’s comment is hilarious! I cannot imagine having to go to court for teaching a nine year old a basic cooking lesson! How ridiculous! I’m so glad that I found this blog!

  17. @ Claire

    My older daughter decided to learn to scramble her own eggs when she was about two-and-a-half. She tied her hair back in a ponytail, put on an apron, and told me she knew how to do it safely. Then she pushed a stoll up to the stove and stood at the frying pan holding a spatula by one end with her arm far from the stove.

    I figured her dad must have taught her this, so I held her with one arm and let her push the eggs around in the pan a little bit. Later he told me she’d done the same thing to him and he figured I’d taught her.

    She’s four now, and still can’t use the stove unsupervised, but she has learned to make salads, sandwiches and cereal without an adult. A few days ago I told her she could make her own dinner if she didn’t want to eat what I’d served, and she got up from the table and put a bowl of leftovers in the microwave!

  18. Sierra, my older niece is inordinately proud of the fact that she can make pancakes. She can make the batter with me (I’ll teach her soon how to do it without referring to the book – pancakes is one of the simplest recipes there, just one one one of everything) and then I put her on a chair and let her pour it out and flip them and move them to the plate. She’s better at it than I am!

    For *months* after she learned she kept writing sentences for school that talked about how she “flips pankaeks” or “makes pancakes” or “flipd the pancaek on the stov”. I eventually sent a note in to her teacher saying that no, we do not make Ana do ALL the cooking, LOL. Just in case she was confused on the point🙂

  19. People are always amazed that my children not only can cook but are expected to. They are 8 and 11! When I was 7, I had one night every week when I had to cook dinner for a family of 9. It drives me crazy when my childrens’ friends come over and can not do one thing for themselves.

  20. when I was 8 I used to make french toast for the whole family. Even without supervision. I was taught how to control the flames on the stove and that was it. I even had my own special spatula for flipping.

    Before my family moved when I was 7 we lived in NYC. I have firm memories of being 5-6 years old and my parents giving me money to walk to the corner to get a pizza (best NY pizza ever if it is still there was on 85th and York). I was always proud that my parents would let me go up to the corner on my own to get the pizza (and Italian ice). Just last year I was talking to my mother and she told me that for the entire time I was walking there and back they were watching from the window to make sure that nothing happened. I felt a little deflated (even after all these years) but then I thought about how many parents these days wouldn’t even give them that much freedom. I wanted to be independent and they gave me that illusion.
    If you are unshakably paranoid about something happening to your kids I would say feel free to watch them, but don’t let them see you do it. The independence and lessons I have learned over the years are so ingrained now that even with illusions stripped away it does not change me one bit.

  21. I agree that encouraging children to slip away from their moms without consent is not something to be thrilled about. Yet am equally encouraged to see that the NY subway system that – out here on the west coast has gained a kind of infamy for being fraught with danger – served up a perfectly unharmed 5-year-old child after 34 stops.

    Yet another reason we parents should stop giving in to irrational paranoia. It’s time we raised our children with the goal of independent adulthood in mind instead of viewing them as teeny fragile flowers that would undoubtedly wilt outside of our care.

  22. A friend of mine lost her 8yo son at a museum in Tokyo and he managed to get home to their apartment on his own (which involved a change of trains along the way).

  23. How I wish a bit of you was in my mom. I’m 19, and I remember a time when I was in elementary and whenever we went on field trips, my mom would follow the bus on her car.

    I love my mom a LOT, but sometimes I wish she wasn’t so overprotective.

  24. Me here again tonight. Recently took my seven year old on two day trip to NYC, who is fantastically more adept at reading maps than I am. He did all the planning and navigated us from Columbus Circle to Little Italy (wish I realized it was only one street, and the other direction from Grand Street station than the one we set out in) to satisfy his canoli craving. He is definitely not ready to fly solo just yet, but I have no doubt he’ll be a better public transit traveller than I was (thank you to the strangers who pulled me out of the gap I fell into in the early 90’s…)

  25. When I was 13 I had the best Summer holidays of my life. My half-sister lived in Bremen, Germany and my parents decided to let me live with her for a month in August during school holidays. We travelled from Portugal (where I lived) to Bremen in my brother-in-law’s car. That’s about 1000 miles across 4 countries. We took 3 days to get there at a leasurely pace.

    One day, when I was there, my crazy sister thought it was a good idea to send me across the border to Groningen, Holland, to visit the Saturday market over there. So I went all by myself by train (had to change once) to a foreign country, and I managed to get back to Bremen in the evening in one piece. I was a 13-year old Portuguese kid travelling alone between Germany and the Netherlands!

    A couple of weeks later I was sent back to Portugal on a bus across Europe, again by myself. On the bus were all kinds of people from all over Europe (construction workers, students…) although most were Portuguese like me. Never for once I felt threatened. I arrived home in one piece.

    I’m now 31, and I’ve been all over the world. But I’ll never forget the sheer sense of adventure and discovery I felt in those Summer travels.

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