Two Years Ago Today…

On April 1, 2008, The New York Sun ran this column of mine. Alas, the paper has since folded (so to speak). But I think we can agree this column is still doing its work. Two days after it was published I found myself on the Today Show, MSNBC, FoxNews and NPR defending myself as NOT a terrible mom. That weekend I started this blog. My Free-Range Kids book came out last year and the paperback version is coming out later this month. Quite a journey! — L.

WHY I LET MY 9-YEAR-OLD RIDE THE SUBWAY ALONE

by Lenore Skenazy

I left my 9-year-old at Bloomingdale’s (the original one) a couple weeks ago. Last seen, he was in first floor handbags as I sashayed out the door.

Bye-bye! Have fun!

And he did. He came home on the subway and bus by himself.

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. 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.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.

And yet —

“How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?” a New Jersey mom of four, Vicki Garfinkle, asked.

Guess what, Ms. Garfinkle: I’d have been devastated. But would that just prove that no mom should ever let her child ride the subway alone?

No. It would just be one more awful but extremely rare example of random violence, the kind that hyper parents cite as proof that every day in every way our children are more and more vulnerable.

“Carlie Brucia — I don’t know if you’re familiar with that case or not, but she was in Florida and she did a cut-through about a mile from her house … and midday, at 11 in the morning, she was abducted by a guy who violated her several times, killed her, and left her behind a church.”

That’s the story that the head of safetynet4kids.com, Katharine Francis, immediately told me when I asked her what she thought of my son getting around on his own. She runs a company that makes wallet-sized copies of a child’s photo and fingerprints, just in case.

Well of course I know the story of Carlie Brucia. That’s the problem. We all know that story — and the one about the Mormon girl in Utah and the one about the little girl in Portugal — and because we do, we all run those tapes in our heads when we think of leaving our kids on their own. We even run a tape of how we’d look on Larry King.

“I do not want to be the one on TV explaining my daughter’s disappearance,” a father, Garth Chouteau, said when we were talking about the subway issue.

These days, when a kid dies, the world — i.e., cable TV — blames the parents. It’s simple as that. And yet, Trevor Butterworth, a spokesman for the research center STATS.org, said, “The statistics show that this is an incredibly rare event, and you can’t protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.”

Justice Department data actually show the number of children abducted by strangers has been going down over the years. So why not let your kids get home from school by themselves?

“Parents are in the grip of anxiety and when you’re anxious, you’re totally warped,” the author of “A Nation of Wimps,” Hara Estroff Marano, said. We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark, non-reflective coats.

The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.

Meantime, my son wants his next trip to be from Queens. In my day, I doubt that would have struck anyone as particularly brave. Now it seems like hitchhiking through Yemen.

Here’s your MetroCard, kid. Go.

44 Responses

  1. I hadn’t realzdd it as an April Fools’ day post

  2. Err…That was supposed to say: I hadn’t realized that was an April Fools’ day article, have you been playing us all for the last two years?🙂

  3. Love it, and I applaud you.

    I personally wouldn’t let my 9 year old child ride the subway home; but that is because I’ve always grown up in the sticks, and I wouldn’t trust myself to take the subway in NY without getting lost! Not to mention my girls have only been on a subway once in their lives😉

  4. Thank you for not hiding when the pressure hit with the media – and for giving us a place to gather on the internet! To be inspired! To feel Validated! I used to sell Girl Scout cookies door to door. My worst experience was a nudist answering the door standing parts down behind a well placed screen door . . . He said no thank you, and we turned away. 6 years of door to door sales, alone, without mom in the mini van.🙂
    Yesterday I went to the beach with a helicopter mom, it was the most exhausting 40 minutes at the beach we’ve ever gone through. I sure do hope the reports of child molester/slave trading/murders who dig holes in the beach and hide under drift wood until a child on the beach walks by more than 20 feet from mom hits the air waves. Apparently its prevalent in these parts. . . . . . .

  5. 1. Helen, now the truth comes out! Lenore is really a 86 year old unmarried man whose 50 year old children are STILL not allowed to cross the street without holding his hands. Sad, but true!

    2. Oh, Shelly, there are maps and signs. It’s not that hard. Unless you have to transfer at Canal Street, which is just messed up.

  6. I remember reading your article a few years ago Lenore. That’s when I first heard the term “Free-range kids”. And I totally agree with you 100%. Parents don’t realize that their fears are projected on to their kids. By shielding them, they never learn how to deal with certain situations. They aren’t “street proof” per say. Instead, all they learn is fear, and to run to their parents to make themselves feel safe. Now what if one day, the parent finally decides he should be going to school by himself (say by the age of 13), that child runs into a situation wherein all he knows is that his parents just pulled him away. That child would not have a clue of what to do. That’s how some kids get abducted. They get too scared and don’t know what to do. So they just follow an “adult”.

    The truth of it all is, if someone wanted to do harm to your child, to abduct them, they WILL find a way. There is far less randomness in these things than most people think. Now if a child isn’t fearful, knows exactly what to do in those situations, and the PARENT has trust in their ability to have taught their child how to protect themselves, and trust in their child that they will remember, the child will be ok. At the same time, the parent will be far less stressed. Fear is powerful thing. It can make one more aware, and diligent. But used in the wrong context it can do more harm than good. I’m finding a lot of parents these days, are letting fear do more harm to them and their family.

    Like I’ve said before, anything can happen at any given time. Parents can’t always watch out for their kids. But you can educate them to ALWAYS watch out for themselves. Trust me, you’ll have a smarter, more confident, and happy child because of it. And you will also have a more loving, trusting and respectful relationship.

  7. I remember the shitstorm when this was published. And I remember thinking “Oh, look! Another Mom who GETS IT!”

    My kids have always had their independence, in spite of me CONSTANTLY being told I’m a Terrible Mother for letting them have it. You stood up for all of us who believe our kids are actual people, with intelligence and sense and the ability to be independent. Now, as then, I applaud you.

    You rock the hizzouse, Lenore. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

  8. I read the original a few days after it came out.

    So glad it started the revolution it did! May the world be a saner place because of it!

  9. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done over the last two years, Lenore! I still remember the first time I visited this site, after my sister had sent me the link because it reminded her of me, how instantly I felt part of a more rational community of parents. I had had a concerned citizen knock on my front door to tell me my two boys were playing outside! On a beautiful day in my very well-manicured, suburban neighborhood with deep front lawns and sidewalks to boot… sheesh. To continued success, for you and the cause!

  10. Now… I feel pretty unproductive. Thanks a lot.

    Oh, and really thanks a lot too.

  11. Happy anniversary! When the pendulum starts its swing back to rational child-rearing practices (it has to, right?), a heaping portion of the credit will belong to you. Your talk at my kids’ school started a fantastic dialogue and got everyone (teachers, parents and kids) thinking about more ways for kids to be free-range – and it was already a pretty free-range place to begin with. (Starting in first grade, for example, kids go away to camp for a week and have no parental contact.) Thanks for opening this cause to a wide audience.

  12. I just had a look at that website safety net 4 kids and honestly laughed my head off! Have a look at some of their products especially the ‘child recovery CD’ Its got to be the most over the top gadget ever! I’m sure they make millions from
    all the helicopter parents of our world.

  13. I missed it when your article first came out, but my kids were free range from the time they were quite young. We had helicopter moms on the street who were appalled that my kids were allowed to cross the street alone, or walk 1 1/2 blocks to a friend’s house. We lived a mile from the school and I would have gladly let them walk home but unfortunately, they would have had to cross a very busy street (no crossing guard or walk light…and the sidewalk ended there!) So they were driven.

    My worst free-range story…Pre cell phones. We had just moved to a new town (very small), kids’ second day at school. They wanted to walk home, we said ok. They didn’t show, so we started walking up and still didn’t find them. The crossing guard hadn’t seen them. Panic started to set in (35 minutes after school let out). My husband went back to get the car and I walked up the street again looking for them. A car stops next to me WITH MY KIDS IN THE BACK SEAT! The driver rolled down her window and said, “are these your kids? They were walking the wrong way down X street and seemed to be crying. I didn’t recognize them so I figured they were new to town and lost so I was giving them a ride home.” The kids got out of the car and we walked home. They had turned the wrong way at a landmark rock. Never happened again and they continued to walk home. Free range means parents get gray hair and fear, and let their kids continue to grow up.

    Child #1 is a college senior and gets around quite well without a GPS. Child #2 is a college sophomore and gets lost WITH a GPS, but fortunately a GPS can still get you where you are going if you get lost. But they are both grown, healthy, independent adults.

  14. Oops…should have clarified that the unable to walk home walk was a different town than the small town story.

  15. Oh, btw, Lenore, I forgot (and I know it’s a few days late): Happy Passover🙂

    Which all reminds me, I have to dye eggs this… weekend? Sheesh, do I even have the TIME to do this?

  16. Happy Free-Range anniversary!

    As someone who grew up in Manhattan I was surprised that everyone made such a huge deal out what you did. I love the detractors that compare letting your confident, mature 9 year old ride the subway 20 blocks to leaving him alone in a dark alley at midnight in a strange country.

  17. No Uly, you don’t have the time to do all this. What does that have to do with actually getting it done?

    Amazing to think that it was only two years ago. I try to give my kids a fair bit of freedom, but it’s sometimes hard to convince my husband that it will be all right. He’s improving bit by bit, though.

  18. I found your blog through a recommendation from your high school English teacher. And love it! I’m free range and pregnant at the moment and aspiring to have free range kids!

  19. I love this post. Kids are craving for independence. As a parent coach I see so many parents smothering their kids with protectiveness. I liked growing up as a free range kid and I wanted that for my kids as well. Bravo for another great post!

  20. Well happy 2 years. 🙂

    I don’t exactly remember when or how I stumbled across this site – but I recall that when I did I had been feeling absolutely miserable with being a parent. Sad but true. I was inundated with everyone telling me that to be a good parent I had to play with my kids all the time, follow them everywhere, watch them always and I noticed how I didn’t even exist anymore and to top it off, everyone was telling me that THAT was parenthood! I hated it and was growing fast resentful of my situation – a horrible prospect for anyone supposed to cherish their children’s childhood.

    I remember the first day reading this site, though. I looked at my kids, gave them a watch, told them be back in 30 minutes. When they came back – I won’t ever forget the absolute glow on their faces… and I sent them out for 30 more.

    Now, they walk to and from school every day (rain, and sleet, and snow, and..), they go outside for 2-3 hours at a time and play around the neighborhood, they take the cart back to the cart corrals on occasion at the store, they are capable of being left to their own devices in a department store… and I was finally able to find myself again and share that person with my children. Needless to say, we were all much happier as a family… finally, rather than the boa constrictor approach to parenthood, we could breathe, relax, love, and learn.

    Thanks to you, Lenore, and all the other parents on here who helped me to see the real world, seek rationality, and provide independence and THOUGHT for my children. I hope we’re all here to help all those people who come along that were in my shoes.

  21. No Uly, you don’t have the time to do all this. What does that have to do with actually getting it done?

    Oh, no, Stephanie, you don’t understand. I like dying eggs. No way I’m going to let the nieces do it and not do it myself! I once even dyed eggs in June!

    But now, with Easter three days away, I just… I don’t know, I’m booked. I could do it tomorrow, but their dad is off of work and is staying home with them, and I don’t actually want to interrupt his time with his own kids for my own agenda.

  22. Congrats on starting us on this journey 2 years ago.
    Don’t laugh about the mention of protection against lightning. A computer expert on the radio that has been a big promoter of the idea that we need to worry over the predator thing is selling on her website Personal Lightning Detectors as well as emergency survival backpacks for when you go komando.

  23. I remember seeing you on one of the morning shows and then ending up here, becoming a regular reader and then buying your book. 🙂 Thank you for speaking up and out, you’ve help me become a calmer, more trusting mom. My kids thank you too!😉

  24. Has it only been two years? Amazing. You’ve inspired me to become America’s Worst Dad: There are mornings I let our 27-month old out the back door let to walk to the garage by herself while I gather my computer bag and assorted daycare paraphernalia.

    At the playground, I sit at the picnic table while she plays. And sometimes I don’t insist on hand-holding while we shop.

    She’s turning out great!

  25. @Uly: Maybe you can get Dad in on the dying action… unless you guys aren’t on great terms. Make it into a family affair.

  26. My sister, and my mother, and my brother-in-law aren’t nearly as into holidays as I am. So I did tell my brother-in-law about it and set a time (and on my only guaranteed day off of the week, too….), but I’ll probably be doing it with them without him.

  27. I have the kind of kid you just can’t helicopter over. I tried, for awhile, but it just made us both mean. I backed off and we’re all much better off for it. Stumbling upon this blog’s validated my instinct that she’s better off with some freedom, and has given me some information to help other people understand what I’m up to.

    Thanks, to all of you, for being here.

  28. Bravo! Thanks for holding your ground! Someday sanity in parenting will prevail again. I can’t wait.

  29. Happy Anniversary!
    I DVR Dr. Phil and just watch the “good ones” and (wow, 2 yrs already) you were on. I only had it DVR’d in my bedroom and I literally set up a “playdate” (Ugh, worst term ever) for me, my sister and my mom to watch the show! In my bedroom! That’s how much I wanted them to see it!
    We always talk about this stuff, about ridiculous parents (to us), and I said to them, you have to come over and “be the judge!”
    After that,, you became part of our regular conversation! “Oh, Lenore said!” And “Did you see on the site”…..etc. Thank you for being a central voice for us all!

  30. Happy Anniversary!
    I remember telling my then 7 year old about the column when it first came out and we both thought it was the best idea anyone ever had. Thanks for all of your effort to bring sanity back into parenting.

  31. Thanks Lenore! Your ideas and your ability to communicate them so clearly and warmly are one of the most positive steps forward for our culture in a long while.

  32. Congratulations, Lenore! 🙂 Thank you Lenore and thank you faithful readers for, well, just being there! It’s so nice to know that here on Free-Range Kids common sense prevails when it comes to child rearing…phew!

  33. Uly – we have religion confusion in my house. I boiled up a whole lot of eggs today for a Passover potluck tomorrow night (we don’t bother with the religious part but we like the food) and my kids thought they were for decorating. They also wanted to know when the Easter egg hunt is. Guess I need to buy chocolate and more eggs! LOL

  34. Wow! Two years already (I was wondering how long the Free-Range Kids movement had been going on). I would guess that many of your readers and correspondents have been tempted to ask, “Did you ever imagine that FRK would turn into a world-wide (at least English-speaking world) phenomenon?” There’s a famous quote (not sure who said it): “There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

  35. this story inspires me every time I read it. I am of the mind to teach my children to be strong, independent types that will move away from me as their mom. But as a consultant I am constantly trying to teach parents the balance, safety vs helicopter. You’ve done some great research in you book that I use in my groups to help parents put their fears into prospective and get better at using the instincts we were born with. I hope you write more in this area.

  36. Awesome. I was always pretty laissez faire about “parenting” (what a horrible word to have cropped up, full of unpleasant associations) and I always felt faintly guilty about it.

    But just couldn’t BELIEVE for myself that I had to be involved in every moment of my kids’ lives. (Yes, even after they went to bed, I was supposed to jump to reassure their every squeak and whimper!)

    Your article and a lot of the discussion it generated made me feel free! My five-year-old plays outside in our front yard unsupervised (I’m in the house if he needs me and I peek out from time to time.)

    He goes to the bathroom by himself in public places if need be, and he doesn’t even WANT me to walk him to the school bus, which stops on a residential street right outside our house.

  37. A few days late . . . I remember seeing links to that article posted about in various places, with various levels of outrage, and forwarding it to my husband in confusion. WHAT exactly was so controversial about a 9-year-old riding the subway? By 9, I’d been riding our local equivalent (CTA buses, I was in a neighborhood that wasn’t served by the El) for at least a year on my own. Just short distances, say down to the pool, but still.

  38. Congratulations on an astounding two years. Your article has created such a strong movement, and inspired an enormous number of people. Hope you celebrated the anniversary with plenty of cake, and hey, maybe an overnight camping trip in Central Park? Thanks also for helping me look at my parenting in a different way.

  39. You wouldn’t know Lenore’s book was done in a rush (by publishing standards). The writing is very polished. The content reflects intensive research. Coming from someone who spends a lot of time “Writing, worrying about writing, enjoying writing, looking for more writing gigs, hating writing, and writing some more,” it’s not surprising. It’s always fun and rewarding to read Lenore.

  40. I’m so excited about this. I was raised tobe very independant and I don’t understand parents who can’t let go of their kids. While other parents can’t wait for their kids to go back to school I know a couple of parents who dread their kids leaving so much so that they now homeschool, in a town of under 3500. CRAZY!!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  41. Pam, are you sure that’s the reason they homeschool? There are any number of reasons to homeschool, and I’d suggest that most homeschooled kids aren’t being kept isolated and alone.

  42. When I was 9 years old, my mother let me take the bus downtown (I grew up in Portland, OR) with a friend my age. We did this often. Many of my fondest memories of childhood center around these free-range explorations.

    I have heard that the incidence of violent crime is much lower now than it was in the 1970s, when my 9 year old self roamed free. It’s just that nowadays, every single incident is blown up into a national crisis.

  43. While I am not so brave as to let my child ride the subway alone (not that we have them here in So. Cal) but I did let my 9 year-old ride his bike about a mile down to the 7-11 to spend his freshly earned cash on some goodies. My kids don’t have cell phones. I was a bit nervous but he had been there several times before with his 12 year-old brother. I was surprised when he got there an back in what seemed like a very short time. Convincing my family I’m not nuts is a whole different story!

  44. […] wasn’t aware of the so-called Free Range movement until this past year, but I think I’ve always had leanings towards […]

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