January 29th, 2010

A Chat With America’s Worst Mom

Vilified by the media, NYC mom has inspired a parenting movement

Two years ago in New York City, Lenore Skenazy handed her 9-year old son a subway pass, twenty bucks, and said good-bye, leaving him to take the subway back home. Is this the heartbreaking story of a child’s abduction? Nope. Her son was fine—in fact he loved it. But when Skenazy wrote about the experience, angry parents wanted to see her locked up for child abuse, and she was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” by the media.

Cut to 2010, and Skenazy has become the “Generalissimo” of the Free-Range Kids movement, which she calls “a common sense approach to parenting in these overprotective times.” We recently spoke with the always funny and outspoken Skenazy.

Free-Range Kids book cover

The Dad List: You talk a lot about parents needing to give kids time and space to explore.

Lenore Skenazy: In our desire to help our kids, we’re outsourcing their childhood to ourselves. “Let me help you with this, let me fix that.” And who’s the one that’s just sitting there like a blob? It’s your kid. One mom wrote me a fantastic note that summed it up: “self-confidence is not parent-assisted confidence.”

TDL: So, when did this transition happen where parents started to find the danger in everything?

LS: I would say it’s been in the past 15 to 20 years. A big factor is that there’s more media, and when the media is competing, they have to get you to pay attention. The story that keeps people glued is an abduction. “Entertainment” shows have picked up on that too, so the same stories that you see on CNN, you’ll see with a ghastly twist on “CSI” or “Law & Order” or all the other ones. They find the most compelling story they can—kidnapping—and they bring it to us day after day.

TDL: What are some first steps for raising a free-range kid?

LS: You want to always look for ways to increase kids’ independence. When they show you that they’re capable of crossing the street safely, and know to never go off with a stranger, then I certainly think a 6 or 7-year old can walk down the block and knock on a friend’s door without it being an international incident.

For older kids, try unplugging for a day so they can’t call you and tell you exactly where they are. Once, I got a call from my son asking if he could have another piece of banana bread, and I thought, “you’re 10!” In another era, he’d be a silversmith apprentice, and here he is asking if he could have another slice of homemade, healthy banana bread because he’s hungry.

I thought (laughing), this is a terrible moment for both of us, because somehow I’ve trained him that he needs to ask, and somehow, he’s listened to me! So, one way to help your kids grow up is to just not take your cell phone with you, since they’ll never leave theirs at home!

Lenore Skenazy is the author of Free-Range Kids, and speaks regularly around the country.