Great Note from a Paranoid Mom

Hey Folks! Grab some confetti, stand up and throw it in the air. We are getting somewhere! Read on!

Dear Lenore — I watched Penn & Teller’s “Bullsh*t” episode featuring you and your son, Izzy, which led me to your web site and, subsequently, the recent purchase of your book, “Free-Range Kids.” I’m loving the book. I am the over-protective mother at whom you are aiming.

I keep a blog about what I’m reading — flabbybrain.com — and I wanted to share with you my post about the Free-Range baby step I took on Friday. Here it is:

I’ve been one of those hyper-paranoid mothers who cringes when letting her seven-year-old son use a public restroom unattended by a parent because there is sure to be a serial molester lurking within, just waiting for a kid to pounce on. But The Boy is nearly eight, and mommy can’t drag him into the Ladies’ Room anymore, so I let him go off on his own with warnings not to talk to anyone and, for the love of Pete, wash your hands!

Then I use hand sanitizer on him anyway when he gets back because he probably touched the door handle.

I am ridiculously paranoid. In other words, I’m an American suburban mother in 2009. Everyone in my social set is exactly the same way.

But there’s been a part of me that hates this. I don’t enjoy tailing The Boy in every activity he pursues as though he might light himself on fire or get snatched up in a windowless van if my back were turned for 15 seconds. He’s a pretty responsible kid, especially for his age. My mom friends and I lament to each other about how we wish we could let our kids run around outside in little gangs, unsupervised, the way we used to run around when we were kids.

And then I stumbled across Lenore Skenazy. You may remember Lenore’s being in the news recently when she let her nine-year-old son, Izzy, ride the New York subway by himself. He took the train from Bloomingdale’s to their apartment and came home not only unscathed but with a newfound sense of self-reliance. Lenore wrote a column about the experience in the New York Post, and that was the beginning of an international firestorm that ended with her being proclaimed “World’s Worst Mother.”

I started reading the Free-Range Kids blog and felt a growing sense that it was onto something. It’s not that I’m suddenly convinced to let my kids ride solo on my city’s sketchy public transportation, but rather that I’m beginning to see my paranoia for the nuttiness it is.

I picked up a copy of Free-Range Kids (the book) and was immediately assured that it would be worth reading when I saw the title of the first chapter: “Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Ms. Skenazy is flip. She’s hysterically hilarious, but she backs up her assertions with cold, hard facts, and that appeals to the logical part of me.

So I decided after reading a bit to try an experiment. I would let The Boy get the mail by himself.

I know I just heard you snort.

Our mailbox is neither on our front porch nor in our front yard. Instead, it’s about a 1/3-mile round-trip around a curvy street. I cannot see the mailbox without walking roughly 200 yards away from our house. The Boy would have to cross one cul-de-sac and walk about 10 minutes by himself (at least half of it out of my sight) to get the mail.

Allow me to set the scene: it’s a warm, sunny afternoon in suburbia, about 3 o’clock. The lawns have greened up with recent rains, and a mild breeze blows the scent of lantana and fresh-cut St. Augustine. Nary a car rolls by on our quiet street. The Boy sets off with an extra spring in his springy seven-year-old step, and I watch calmly out of the kitchen window until he is out of sight around the bend. Then I calmly pick up a book and calmly step out onto the front porch, where I sit down to await his return. Calmly.

And then the murder car drives by.

It’s not a windowless van, but it is something almost equally alarming. It’s a blue SUV with a girl who’s roughly 10 years old standing up with the top half of her body sticking out of the sunroof. And it’s heading straight for the mailbox.

I am not joking. This actually happened.

In 35 years of life, I have seen only the occasional drunken idiot somewhere between the ages of 18 and 28 sticking out of a moving vehicle’s sunroof, usually at night, downtown, and while making the “woo!” noise. So when I saw this preteen practicing for her very own Girls Gone Wild video on my street at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I was distressed.

My mind leaped to the only logical conclusion: any driver who would let a child hang out of the sunroof of a moving vehicle would also swoop up my seven-year-old boy and sell him into child slavery somewhere in Asia. No doubt letting him hang out of the sunroof all the way to the docks.

I prepared myself to sprint to the mailbox. (The Boy had my car keys, conveniently attached to the same key ring as my mailbox key.)

But then I didn’t.

Instead I took a deep breath and sat back down. And I waited, straining my ears for the sounds of screaming and squealing tires. Three minutes later, The Boy reappeared around the bend, holding a piece of mail and grinning.

He came home unscathed and with a newfound sense of self-reliance. And I took a baby step toward moving him toward adulthood.

Thanks for what you’re doing, Free-Rangers! — Lynn

Thanks for what you’re doing too, Lynn! And for letting us know. (Confetti swirling through the air.) — Lenore  

38 Responses

  1. I loved reading this! And I actually did snort at the mailbox thing.😉

  2. This helps me remember one time my son and I were walking to the park that’s just 5 or 6 blocks from our apartment. He knows exactly where it is and how to get there and something just came over me, I felt like letting up on some of our craziness and told him he could walk ahead to the park. He got there 3 or 4 minutes before I did and was already deep in play on the monkey bars. He didn’t get hit by a car or stolen by a pedophile… It was a very happy moment.

    I haven’t let him go to the park completely by himself yet (he can be very easily distracted and could wander off or get lost), but now that he’s in charge of getting the mail and taking the recycling out to the bins behind our place, he’s got new found confidence and self-reliance in spades!

    These baby steps can be hard to take when you’re an overprotective parents, but when you finally take them it feels SO liberating.

  3. YAY a positive story! This is awesome. Great job, Lynn!

  4. Congratulations! You did great! It’s wonderful to see that Lenore is influencing people into questioning and reevaluating.

  5. Love the murder car description. Gold.

  6. I’ve been doing things like this, too. Like leaving my almost-5 year-old in the Kids section of Borders while I go to the bathroom or go downstairs to pay for my books. I tell him not to go with anyone except Mommy or Daddy, and to stay in the Kids section, and then I walk away. He’s always there when I return — with his nose in a book, just as I left him. Next up: letting him go to the playground down the street by himself. Maybe after he turns 5.🙂

  7. hooray!!!

  8. Congratulations. It’s difficult but we can’t keep a choke hold on them or they’ll grow up not being able to depend on themselves.

  9. I think Lenore isn’t the only hysterically hilarious one. And how did you know I was going to snort? Seriously, Lynne, great job. I haven’t laughed this much in a long time. I love the way you describe things. I am very free-range with my kids and I have these thoughts too. Letting them go does not mean we stop worrying all together. I am so excited for you and for your son. Happy Free-Ranging!

  10. I don’t see anywhere to submit other things, so I’m commenting.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32880360/ns/health-kids_and_parenting/ns/health-kids_and_parenting/
    As usual, we get the stat that all the broken femurs are from parents going down the slide with their kids. No stats on how many parents go down the slide with their kids and don’t get hurt…

  11. Golden. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Thanks for the positive comments! I like the idea of letting the kids stay in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble while I shop around; I’ll have to try that next. Baby steps.

    Thanks, Lenore, for printing my note! I’ll be posting more about the book later this week on http://www.flabbybrain.com.

    -Lynn

  13. I don’t have an SUV or a sunroof, but right now I’m making the “woo!!!” noise. Way to go, Lynn!

  14. Kai –
    I don’t think anyone is saying that sliding down with your kids is so life threatening that it should be banned and the parents who do it be banished to Outer Mongolia.

    I confess, I’ve slid down the slide with my kids a few times. It’s not a capital crime. But mostly, my idea of enjoying the park was to let the kids play, and to chill out with a book. I always thought parents who didn’t let their kids play independently at the park, but instead hovered incessantly, looked, well, neurotic.

  15. I’ve slid down the slide with kids before but it had nothing to do with their safety, and everything to do with having fun. Why should they be the only ones to get to slide? hehehe:-)

    Also, I’m glad that the “movement” is catching on! What a ridiculous thing hey? A movement for something that used to be so natural. I was talking about it last night with some friends and of course there was one woman who was the worrier and kept bringing up terrible things that had happend to all these kids. She said “oh, they taught her what to do if a stranger came…she KNEW not to go with strangers…but then she went with the stranger”. Well obviously she wasn’t taught what we’re saying we want to teach hey? Anyways, it was a blessing to see that the majority of the group was in agreement with free-range.

    Keep on talking about this issue…I don’t want to live with all the people who grow up with no independence! What a world it would be!

  16. That was great. 😀 Applause for Lynn, definitely.

    Angie

  17. Lynn, you rule!

  18. That’s a great note! Well written, too.

    My 5yo went to the men’s room by himself when we were at the museum on Saturday. My husband sent him. I would have dragged him to the ladies’ if I’d been the one consulted. I know that he didn’t wash his hands (that’s why I carry the gel!) but I think it’s cool that he did this on his own.

    You know, I think that an even bigger enemy than the paranoia is worrying what others will think. I’ve read a few posts/comments here about a neighborhood with no children playing outside, and then one family lets theirs do it and then more kids join them. I think a lot of people are so worried about their own parenting abilities and so worried that they’ll be exposed for being as incompetent as they feel that they go by what everybody else says they’re doing. Nobody wants to lag behind the mommy herd.

  19. I agree with kradcliffe that one of the things we are most afraid of is what other people will think, and keeping up with the Joneses has never been more prevalent. (“If I don’t sign Johnny up for soccer at age 3 like all the other moms do, then everyone else will be so much better than he is at gym class when they start school! I can’t do that to him!”)

    While spreading the word about Free Range Kids (the book, the website, and the movement) is great, the very best way to create a sane, Free Range neighborhood is to live it. Once people see more of our kids doing normal kid stuff outside without helicopters hovering overhead, they might let go of some of the fear and consider doing the same.

  20. Hey, Lenore, it´s not just Lynn this movement is influencing… I´m teaching my 6yo how to cross the street safely. As she is small for her age and drivers around here are sooo reckless, I told her to cross only when an adult crosses too. This way she will be seen. Friends of mine who have children their age stare at me as if I were crazy. But their children talk about her as if she were Supergirl, so they have to (grudgingly) start to teach them too. Ha!

  21. Great story! What’s hilarious to me is that now we have both a 10-year old daughter and a sunroof on our new-to-us CRV, and DD10 is constantly asking us if we can open the sunroof so she can stand up and stick her head out of it. The “murder car” driver probably just allowed it for a few seconds on a quiet road just to get his/her daughter off his/her back! I understand…but we still won’t do it!

    Where do 10 year old girls GET this stuff?! I’m pretty sure my daughter hasn’t been exposed to Girls Gone Wild…geez, I hope not.

  22. Awesome! I really do hope we see more and more of this! I am tired of being the only family in the neighbourhood who lets their kids go to the park and store alone.

  23. I agree with many of the comments that one factor in hindering our “free-range-ness” is worrying about what other people think. But for me (who never really cares about anyone else’s opinions) a bigger problem is all the interference from the law: I couldn’t care less if all the other moms shun me, but I don’t want to find myself arrested for letting my kid walk to a piano lesson or leaving a kid in the car for 1 minute….Seems to me this is really symptomatic of suburbia where the cops/CPS have nothing better to do….How do we get stupid laws changed, or at least clarified?

  24. I love this story! It is definitely about baby steps for me, too. I am a recovering paranoid mom, and I know I would not have the confidence to even take baby steps if it weren’t for FRK.

    We are celebrating a Free Range Kids Week over at Simple Kids this week. I would love to invite those of you who are fans of this book and the movement to join us!

  25. @sonya – I agree. I don’t care what other moms do or if they shun me. I am just tired of my kids having no one to play with when they’re out. And I too have a fear that the Children’s Aide Society will show up at my door at some point.

    This post inspired me to blog about my two oldest kids first trip to the dollar store without me. I have it on my blog at http://saralivingmylife.blogspot.com/ if anyone’s interested.

  26. sonya and Swa101: it’s happened to me, actually. Someone has called CPS on me twice in the past few months because I allow my 5yo to play outside, even though he’s nowhere near the street and I have made it very clear where he can and cannot go.

    CPS tells me that they’re obligated to follow up on every anonymous tip, but both times they’ve left perfectly satisfied that my kids are fine and they tell me I’m doing nothing wrong.

    I have two smaller children, including an infant. If my oldest had to wait for me to be outside with him, he wouldn’t get out much at all.

    It annoys me that someone is judging me (anonymously) but I feel that it’s for his own good to get out and play whenever he can and so I put up with it.

  27. @kradcliffe, maybe what CPS folks need is very abridged paper copy of the FRK book to give to the folks who are doing the reporting on something that’s perfectly fine. Give them something to think about!😀

  28. We need a Free-Range_Kids 12 step problem.
    1) First admit that you have a problem….

  29. I too snorted at the post box and then quickly thought, ‘this Boy needs to be friends with our kids, Lenore’. I’m so proud of this mom taking her baby step ~ she is representative of so many.

    Lenore, you are making a difference. Well done, friend. Keep going!

  30. Lenore – you totally rock my socks!!!! *huge lawn and leaf bags of Confetti fall*

  31. Well done! Now make the next step and get some kids to play together in that cul-de-sac of yours, because let’s face it, it’s safe. No cars to speak of and as long as they are together, they’re not at risk of abduction either.

  32. Even if they’re not together, Ben, there’s not much of a risk of abduction.

  33. I have to tell someone – yesterday I let my daughter (age nearly 10) go to the park without me. She was with her friend of the same age (and friend’s dad had ok’d it), the park is on our block, but they have to cross our 35mph road twice to get there, because of sidewalks on only one side. I armed them with cellphones and permission letter from me (in case they encountered busybodies who thought they shouldn’t be there alone), and they were gone an hour. Small thing to be excited about, but I have to start with babysteps!

  34. Yea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  35. Lenore, how did I miss you and son in Penn and Teller’s “Bull@hit”—-I saw that several months back. I will have to rewatch:)

  36. WooHoo! Go Lynne! Go The Boy! (which admittedly sounds weird, but you get the idea)

  37. cheese

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