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From Newsweek: "Helicopter Moms vs. Free-Range Kids"


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Helicopter Moms vs. Free-Range Kids
A New York columnist lets her grade-schooler ride the subway alone, provoking a wave of criticism. But do kids really need more supervision than in generations past?
By Louise Crawford | Special to Newsweek
Apr 21, 2008 | Updated: 1:38 p.m. ET Apr 21, 2008


Would you let your fourth-grader ride public transportation without an adult? Probably not. Still, when Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for the New York Sun, wrote about letting her son take the subway alone to get back to her Manhattan home from a department store on the Upper East Side, she didn't expect to get hit with a tsunami of criticism from readers.

"Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence," Skenazy wrote on April 4 in the New York Sun. "Long story longer: 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."

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From the "she's an irresponsible mother" camp came: "Shame on you for being so cavalier with his safety," in comments on the Huffington Post. And there was this from a mother of four: "How would you have felt if he didn't come home?" But Skenazy got a lot of support, too, with women and men writing in with stories about how they were allowed to run errands all by themselves at seven or eight. She also got heaps of praise for bucking the "helicopter parent" trend: "Kudos to this Mom," one commenter wrote on the Huffington Post. "This is a much-needed reality check."

Last week, buoyed by all the attention, Skenazy started her own blog—Free Range Kids—promoting the idea that modern children need some of the same independence that her generation had. In the good old days nine-year-old baby boomers rode their bikes to school, walked to the store, took buses—and even subways—all by themselves. Her blog, she says, is dedicated to sane parenting. "At Free Range Kids, we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school-age children go outside, they need a security detail."

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(more at link)

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This story really hit a nerve with me. Three years ago, I had to drive my kids several miles across town( San Francisco) to school. It was most definitely an imposition, but San Francisco has a system where you can pick your kids' school, so we picked the one with the Japanese bilingual program and one of the highest academic reputations. It was highly soought-after, but we were lucky and our kids go in. But the school bus system in SF is rudimentary at best and would not have worked for us.

Although our neighborhood was a relatively "good" one, it's still SF, and we could not let the kids out in the front yard alone because sometimes homeless would defecate in the greenbelt within sight of our place. There was one sleeping in front of our garage door once. They may not be dangerous people per se, but it doesn't create an atmosphere where you want to let small kids play alone outside. At the same time, we felt that living in a gated community (if we could even afford one, which we couldn't) would have deprived them of living in a real community populated with all kinds of people who are not necessarily white and rich/wannabe-rich.

Then we moved back to Japan a couple of years ago. We got a nice townhouse in a quiet neighborhood with a lot of kids. There is hardly any crime in Japan in comparison to the US. Our kids constantly play soccer, etc. in the street and a nearby park with all the neighbor kids, and we don't feel the need to supervise. My older son started riding the subway (about 6 stations over) to his elementary school when he was in third grade. Some of our family in the states were amazed by this, but it's practically a matter of course here, and lots of other kids at his school ( a very good one) do so too.

I'm really glad my kids can grow up with some autonomy and independence. They are happier and more well-rounded as people.

But would this be practical in most communities in the US? Where there is often no good mass transit? Or the transit is full of weirdos? Or there are no sidewalks in the sprawling suburb?

I rode my bike to school every day in elementary school, but that wasn't even ALLOWED at my kids' school in SF!

And people say crime, crime, crime, but if you look at the stats, crime rates, including kidnapping of children is LOWER than it was 40 years ago. So why are people so paranoid about crime and their kids?

I really remember when we first came back to the states from Japan in 2000, there were a bunch of SUV-driving moms at the park, and I overheard them all blathering about how scared they were of their kids being kidnapped. Nof for any real reason - there hadn't been any rash of kidnappings in the news. Weird.

I know this is not a simple black-and-white topic, but what is the answer to this in the US in coming years? Can we re-make our communities so that they work for kids to be able to move about more independently but reasonably safely? Without them growing up in sterile gated stepford communities?


Anyway, I threw a bunch of stuff out there - feel free to talk about the aspect of this that interests you. I just thought it seemed like a rich topic for discussion.

88 Replies (last)
I'm in favour of the kids getting out and having a go, not necessarily alone, but with their friends. Part of growing up is experiencing what it's like to be do things without parents hovering nearby. My boy has some trouble finding friends that are "allowed" to go off their streets.

Terrible things can happen anywhere, at any time, but I like to keep an open mind. I noticed lots of school kids on the trains when I lived in Perth. Where we live now, my girl wishes we had a transit system so she could be more mobile.

i have a free range kid-- but i live in midwest suburbia and send her out with the cell phone.

i was sort of a free range kid-- but i lived in the midwest countryside/boondocks.  worst thing that could/did happen: ticks and leeches.  poison ivy.  road rash.

i dont think i could convince myself that a 9 yr old is ok riding a new york subway.  but i might be ok with a 9 year old taking a cab.  i think i would be ok with an 11 year old on a subway.  my particular child is pretty precocious-- in both intellectually and physically-- so i know i give her more freedom because she has shown that she can do it and handle it.  she has her own key, rides the bus home, and is sometimes alone for up to 20 minutes.  she was locked out one day and did exactly right-- went to a friendly neighbor's and started calling family members.

so while I agree with the premise that we seriously need to get our kids off leashes-- we also need to do it in a "safe" or perhaps "safer" way.  there is just more trouble than stranger danger to get into.

When I was 6 my mom taught my sister and I how to walk to school.  She started by walking a few blocks behind us to school.  Then she'd leave with us, walk a few blocks, and turn to go back home.  Then she'd walk us out the door.  Finally we were expected to get up, get ourselves ready, and be off to school.

Our home was in the centre of a busy street triangle.  We could go on the side streets but not cross the busy streets.  We had to be home by the time the street lights came on, or at least be on our own street.

That was fine for us because that was a different time.  My aunt saw how well it worked for us and tried it with her own kid.  Well, almost three years ago she was grabbed by someone (on the other side of the block from her house) and raped.  Did my aunt learn her lesson?  No.  But my cousin did and when it happened again a year later, she found a hammer in the back of the car she was thrown into and beat the crap out of the guy, took a bus to the police station, and filed a report.

When I was in kindergarten my mom used to pay for a babysitter I was suppose to go to until my older siblings got home from school (my mom worked which was very rare back in the 60's) but my mom said she quit paying for the sitter because I would never go just come home and watch tv and have a snack or whatever.  This was also when kindergarten was morning or afternoon - and she let me stay home alone in the mornings and I'd get myself to school. 

When my kids were young we lived in a very bad part of town and I would never consider leaving them home alone- but when we moved out of Tucson and into a small town they stayed home alone for a couple hours until I would get home from work.  They were in 4th and 2nd grades.  I think some kids are capable of the task while others are not.  It would be scary for me to ride the NY subway by myself and I'm probably 40 years older than that kid!!

It's worth mentioning that the NY subway is a lot less scary now than it was 20 years ago. If I had a precocious 9-year-old with a cell phone, I'd probably let him or her ride it.

Kids need to learn how to interact with the world and not be scared of it. There are cautionary principles that you can teach, but crime if anything is less prevalent than it used to be. There's also a lot of misplaced fear in this world - the rich are scared of the poor, whites are scared of blacks, for no real reason beyond stereotypes. I learned this first as a 22-year-old white Canadian girl living in a black area of DC, and then as a counselor at a homeless shelter. People are people, and they aren't that hard to understand or relate to.
i agree with the mom that we debilitate kids by being too safety conscious.  i think kids need to start learning at a young age how to assess risk, otherwise when they do get out on their own, they're completely lacking in this skill and they either think they're invicible or feel totally incompetent and vulnerable. 

i don't want to speak to the specifics of a nine or ten year old riding the NY subway; it's not my city and it's not my kid.  but hypervigilance, helmets and kneepads for every activity, constant supervision, and offering no freedom to make mistakes definitely does a disservice to kids.  everyone needs to fall down once in a while, you know?
Original Post by pgeorgian:

i agree with the mom that we debilitate kids by being too safety conscious. i think kids need to start learning at a young age how to assess risk, otherwise when they do get out on their own, they're completely lacking in this skill and they either think they're invicible or feel totally incompetent and vulnerable.

i don't want to speak to the specifics of a nine or ten year old riding the NY subway; it's not my city and it's not my kid. but hypervigilance, helmets and kneepads for every activity, constant supervision, and offering no freedom to make mistakes definitely does a disservice to kids. everyone needs to fall down once in a while, you know?

Oh- and that reminds me of another thing - the way they have RUINED all the playgrounds!  All the swingsets are super-short now.  They never have jungle gyms anymore, just those stupid plastic hunks of crap with a boring slide.  The real see-saws have been taken out and replaces with NON-FUN springy ones.  I feel sad for today's kids that they have never experienced a real playground.

yeah, man, remember when you could crush your hand in the pivot point of a teeter-totter?  that was fun!  and when my best friend busted her arm falling off the monkey bars - that was supercool.  yeah, i miss getting road rash coming off the swings!  (yes, i attended a school with a concrete playground.)

the old teeter-totters were finally removed from the elementary school where i worked after a little guy in grade three broke his collarbone.  i remember sitting in the sick room with him waiting for the ambulance while he went in and out of consciousness.

i dunno.  i think there's a balance somewhere between independence with minimal risk and throwing kids out there to fend for themselves in a mindfield.  i think i'm in favour of safer playgrounds.
Original Post by pgeorgian:

yeah, man, remember when you could crush your hand in the pivot point of a teeter-totter? that was fun! and when my best friend busted her arm falling off the monkey bars - that was supercool. yeah, i miss getting road rash coming off the swings! (yes, i attended a school with a concrete playground.)

the old teeter-totters were finally removed from the elementary school where i worked after a little guy in grade three broke his collarbone. i remember sitting in the sick room with him waiting for the ambulance while he went in and out of consciousness.

i dunno. i think there's a balance somewhere between independence with minimal risk and throwing kids out there to fend for themselves in a mindfield. i think i'm in favour of safer playgrounds.

I never knew any kid to get hurt on those things - I always kinda thought that those rare injuries were nature's way of weeding out the morons from the gene pool - you know like people who somehow manage to get hit by trains while walking drunk along the tracks?. Even a 3 year old would know not to stick his hand in there. The old playgrounds were hardly "minefields" - the fact that so many of the newer ones are only occupied by toddlers shows how little fun they are for any child over 5. I think it's fine to have a section of the playground for tots with all the plastic rounded equipment, but there should also be an area for kids from 5-10 with more dynamic equipment.

At my son's elementary school, they had some monkey bars that were about 6 feet above the ground - one of the kindergarteners fell off and broke his arm (GASP-a broken arm! Let's close down the school!!!!) despite the soft surface underneath, so they LOWERED the bars to FOUR FEET above the ground. Once they did that, only the kindergarteners could even play on the damn thing. RIDICULOUS. Parents should have to sign waivers agreeing not to sue if their child hurts himself there by doing something dumb.

i'm not sure i would let a 9-year old kid ride the train alone.  i suppose it would depend on where she was going, when, and just on the kid in general.  hopefully, when i have kids, i'll be able to know them well enough to know what works for them.

i grew up in DC and my neighborhood was awesome.  each year we gained a little bit more independence - first we could play out in the street on our own, then go up to the local playground, then to the basketball courts and baseball field, then to the shops a few blocks away, and then finally on the train. 

i was far more street savvy than my brother, so he didn't venture out as much...which probably relieved my parents somewhat...however, they didn't know that he and a friend would climb out the 3rd floor window and sit on the roof, which for a 9 year old, was probably more dangerous for than riding the train (at least in our neighborhood).

there are some great playground options available for older kids as well as little ones.  but given the litigious nature of american society, i'm not at all surprised that schools there won't install them.  if i were a school principal or district superintendent in the US--or even worse, a lunchtime supervisor--i'd be very worried about a broken arm.

here in canada (at least in BC) it's budget constraints that limit playground options for schools.  and schools want to offer as much as they can, because it cuts way down on fights, mischief, and peeing in the schoolyard ;-)  blue imp is a good supplier.

it's an entirely different matter, though, for a parent to look at their own individual kid and allow them to take a risk.  aasil is right - you have to know the kid and the context and make a decision based on what you know.
I am the mother of a 3 year old and a 6 year old and I am the type that will watch these mothers on tv crying as to why their kid was taken or raped or killed and I will say to myslef---MAYBE YOU SHOULDN'T LET YOUR 9-YEAR-OLD DRIVE THE SUBWAY ALONE IN NEW YORK CITY!  And not feel sorry for you! 

What is this world coming to?  Come on, that's all you hear on the news about kids getting swiped and raped and molested and killed and yet, let's give them a little independence???  They are kids for Christ's sake--we are their parents who are suposed to keep them safe.  They have all the time in the world to "assess risk" (when they are mentally ready for it and no, there is NO child at the age of 9 that can properly "assess risk" enough to ride the subway in NY I don't care how "gifted" your child is)  I really cannot believe all the replys as to "let them do what they want"  I live in a pretty safe city, with tons of kids, and I will not let my 6 year old daughter ride her bike around the block by herslef--nor will any of the mothers here let alone let a 9 year old ride a subway???  That's insane!!  What is the law about letting children home alone?  I believe it is 12 years old!  I think that women should be arested for child abuse!!  A 9-year old riding a subway alone, now I heard of everything--what's next--maybe a 4-year old hailing a taxi cab????
Original Post by udokier:

I never knew any kid to get hurt on those things - I always kinda thought that those rare injuries were nature's way of weeding out the morons from the gene pool - you know like people who somehow manage to get hit by trains while walking drunk along the tracks?.

Heh. This comment was uncalled for - it doesn't even have anything to do with your argument. I had a friend in high school who was walking drunk along the train tracks with her brother. He was hit and died. She killed herself less than a year later. They were both A students, and she was a very talented artist. But yes. You're right. Lets weed out the gene pool.

Original Post by p0nda:

Original Post by udokier:

I never knew any kid to get hurt on those things - I always kinda thought that those rare injuries were nature's way of weeding out the morons from the gene pool - you know like people who somehow manage to get hit by trains while walking drunk along the tracks?.

Heh. This comment was uncalled for - it doesn't even have anything to do with your argument. I had a friend in high school who was walking drunk along the train tracks with her brother. He was hit and died. She killed herself less than a year later. They were both A students, and she was a very talented artist. But yes. You're right. Lets weed out the gene pool.

It may sound very cold and callous, but walking along or on railroad tracks is STUPID, drunk or sober, and any 5 year old would know it.  As far as I'm concerned, BOTH of your friends committed suicide.

Original Post by pgeorgian:

right. and a child who gets hurt on a playground is genetically inferior.

yeah, you're still a dick.

I guess they don't have hyperbole where you're from.

 

I love my kids, but I made special trips to take them to real playgrounds in San Francisco that had not yet been retrofit into plastic boredom zones.  It's sad that all the real playgrounds will soon be gone because of litigation and nanny-state types.

How many kids have smashed their hands in car doors?  Millions?  I know I did.  There must have been many broken bones. Shall we force automakers to put safety features on cars that will prevent all car door injuries, even if it adds an extra $2000 to the price of the car, shall we do this with every potentially dangerous item everywhere, until things like cars and every other damn thing are luxury items out of the reach of all but the rich?

Jeez, when my kids were little I showed them exactly how doors and seesaws can smash their hands and to never put their hands in there.

 

Whatever.  Keep flinging poo and names.  I guess it's easier than actually discussing something.

I just wanted to point out that the coverage of kidnappings is vastly disproportionate to how often they happen.  It's just that it's really easy to build a profitable media frenzy around a 6:00 news picture of an adorable missing tyke.

And half the time in those stories, too, it turns out to be a family member or someone the child knows.

I was a (mostly) free-range kid, and it really helped me when it came time to go to college.  My college is right in the middle of downtown of a fairly good-sized city, and I'm always disheartened to see the freshmen who feel the necessity to travel the streets in groups of 10, emptying their pockets when approached by one of our (mostly harmless) homeless population, or crowding onto the bus to travel half a block instead of walking.  When I got here, I was well trained in going about my business confidently enough for no one to bother me, and I don't set foot on the bus unless I'm going more than a mile or I've got groceries to carry.  (/rant)

Actually, this goes in to a conversation I was listening to earlier.. would you allow your children to spend a couple hours alone someplace like Walt Disney World while mom and dad had a nice quiet lunch together.

I agree actually with the idea that there are too many freaked-out parents. Children who never have a chance to make mistakes never have a chance to learn from them.

Now... I live in DC.. and while I don't have kids yet, so this MAY change when I do, I don't think I have a problem with a 9 or 10 year old hopping the Metro from my station to Smithsonian or.. whatever.. especially if the kid had a cellphone. Oh, I do know that there are child molesters and kidnappers and all that out there, but.. they're out there, regardless. The best thing to do is to teach kids something like common sense (Who here didn't learn "Stranger Danger" or something similar.) Hell, I think they'd be safer in downtown DC than they would in the suburbs since there's so many tourists around.

I KNOW there are too many freaked out parents. That's why Trick or Treat is all but DEAD in some places, why no one just goes outside to play like they did when I was younger (and I'm not THAT old).. why we instead have stupid idea like Play Dates (we can't trust our kids to go out and play so we arranged play sessions instead.)

Live in fear if you want. I'm not interested.

Original Post by cellulitedelight:

Well, almost three years ago she was grabbed by someone (on the other side of the block from her house) and raped.  Did my aunt learn her lesson?  No.   

Wow, so let me get this straight-- you think that getting raped should teach someone a lesson? In this case, the lesson being that the woman should know better than to walk alone? If that's not what you meant maybe you should be careful how you word things.

I also believe the media plays a huge part in all the paranoia.  The playground crap is ridiculous.  I once broke my arm at school tripping over the curb playing tag!  That kind of stuff happens...I've been to the ER so many times as a kid.

It is dependant on the child in all situations as far as independence.  It is also dependant on the parents.  And sometimes there's absoultely nothing that can be done to protect a child.  Sometimes there are car accidents, shooting sprees, robberies, and a parent can't be there to protect that child.  It happens in schools, it happens in neighborhoods, it happens everywhere. 

My stepkids (7 yo boy, 9 yo girl) live next door to a convicted rapist at their mother's house.  The guy moved in after they bought the house 2 years ago. (he is in his 60's with a walker, but still) Should she keep them inside and lock them up just in case this man decides to harm them?

We say hell no.  The kids know he's there.  They know to avoid him.  We are not going to keep them in a bubble. 

The job of parents is to teach them how to repsond to situations, how to handle themselves, to educate them, to help shape them into independent, intelligent, happy adults. 

They have to have the tools to survive when they get older.  There quickly comes a time in a child's life where you have to let go some.  They aren't going to be 16, wearing a helmet, holding mommy's hand.

We don't hide from the kids what kind of people are out there.  We have gone over numerous times with the kids what to do in case they are approached by someone.  We have actually made them act out what they are going to do.  We tell them to yell Daddy or Fire (never help!!!).  When the 9 year old rides her bike out front, she knows how far she can go,  and if someone is walking towards her, move herself into a yard and step away from them.  We also told her she needs to make judgement calls for herself if someone says hi to her.

They know where to hit someone to hurt them (go for the eyes and crotch). They know that no matter what they do to protect themselves, they never need to worry about "getting in trouble for it". You wont' believe how many kids fear they will be in trouble for physically hurting someone, even if they are in danger.  We tell them if they can find a weapon, use it. 

When the kids are at our house, they play with the boys next door and the kid down the street.  Because 7 is still too young to be roaming the neighborhood in our opinon, we tell them to stay within 4 houses of our place and we do check on them periodically. We let the kids all come to our place, which is important because we need to know them in case anything happens to any of the kids.

We don't get along with our next door neighbor, but everyone else seems fine.  My boyfriend is very aware of everything that goes on on our street.  We're slowly starting to ge to know them all and as a parent with kids in the neighborhood, that is extremely important.  One day a kid went missing on our street and everyone looked for him.  It helped that my boyfriend knew what the child looked like from seeing him running around. (he was found at a park where he just didn't tell his grandparents where he was going)

My boyfriend and I both grew up in the same nieghborhood and it was filled with all of us running around, going to parks, going creeking, having sleep overs, etc.  I was staying home with my little sister by the time I was 10 because both my parents had to work.  They taught me what to do in all situations, so I never felt scared really or at a loss as to what to do.  I had a list of phone numbers and I knew my neighbors.  My boyfriend was actually almost abducted right in front of his house, but he got away (thanks to tips from dad) and a friend was there to help.  That was 20 years ago.

I've seen it many times.  Spastic, paranoid parents=spastic, paranoid children.

My point is, bad things happen.  There's nothing anyone can do about that.  But, rather than raise our children fearful of everything, we should raise them to be strong and wise.  I believe they will be happier and safer.  I wouldn't change my independent childhood for the world.  It's helped make me who I am.  (And I've never been a victim of crime and I live in a not so great area)
disease-- she was refering to her aunt... not her cousin who was raped.

Come on, that's all you hear on the news about kids getting swiped and raped and molested and killed and yet, let's give them a little independence???

And like others have said, it doesn't happen more than it used to, it's just publicized more. And if you raise your kids to be aware of their surroundings they'll fine. I think it's stupid to raise children to be afraid of everything and to be so dependent on their parents. I know 18 year olds who still don't know how to do laundry because they're parents do everything for them. I was doing laundry at 8 or 9 years old.

It's the parents job to raise their kids with common sense. While I do think 9 years old is too young for the NYC subway, I'm sure there are other kids who do it as well.
88 Replies (last)
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