“Free-Range Kids” Parenting Tips From “The World’s Worst Mom”

Remember the mom who wrote to the New York Sun in 2008 about letting her nine year old ride the subway without supervision?

Self-avowed "World's Worse Mom," Lenore Skenazy.

Self-avowed “World’s Worst Mom,” Lenore Skenazy.

Proving that parenting tips (good or bad) can be monetized, Lenore Skenazy left her son to “figure out” his way home from a NYC mall, securing the outrage of parents everywhere and the eventual endorsement of the Discovery Channel.

With only a metro card, a map, and some cash, her child was left all alone. On the subway. Without a cell phone. He arrived home safe, but this type of parenting is almost unheard of during mommy play-date chatter, let alone splashed on the editorial page of a highly-circulated New York periodical.

“Free-range Kids” sounds a bit like the grass-fed chickens and cows that graze unfettered on the open plains. Certifiably organic, they are leaner and healthier (emotionally and physically) according to Skenazy. After all, she says, “it’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.”

For one, I’m surprised the NYPD didn’t knock down her door along with NY Child Services. Two, I can’t imagine sending my kid into the urban jungle with just some cash, a map and a metro card on a whimsical experiment. But the truth is, there are plenty of kids in the inner city who use public transportation to get to school. I guess that’s not her target market.

Skenazy isn’t really doing anything special except for shocking us with the cultural differences of suburbanites, rural kids and upper-crust urban children. She’s taking a 1960’s approach, when children were expected to walk/bike/ride to school and fend for themselves.

Good idea in theory. You might run into problems in practice:

1.) Her method sounds extreme because it is.

I think any extreme is a bad idea when it comes to parenting. With all things, balance is the best medicine. Sending your pre-pre teen on a solo subway trip to fend for himself? Kind of a bad idea. Maybe waiting until he’s 12 and you’ve chartered a path with him beforehand, a slightly better alternative. I think a good way for parents to strike this balance is by riding with their children to places early and often. Then, when mental maturity and trust has settled in, taking that next step. Jumping “all in” was the shocking part, not the fact that a child was riding the subway alone in New York- something that kids in that city are seen doing daily. It’s part of the culture.

2.) Not all places for “free-range kids” are created equal.

Skenazy down-plays the violent crime rate by using the statistics of U.S. as a whole. She doesn’t really dive into the most violent areas of Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, etc. This is misleading. Sending your kid on a subway tour from 34th St. in Manhattan, New York is polar opposite from dropping him off in the gang lands of Oakland, California. Not everyone can adopt this sunny take on parenting.

3.) Accountability is the solution, not hover-craft counseling. 

Her whole model is really for the hover-craft parents, not the kids. She provides small-step tools for parents to relax the reigns a bit and let kids be kids. Thankfully the parents and the children are pretty well adjusted. Accountability is already woven into their familial fabric. She believes that if you give your children the opportunity, they will rise to the occasion. Hmmmm…nice thought for an emotionally and mentally mature pre-teen. I think that’s putting the cart-before-the-horse. Providing opportunity doesn’t mean by-proxy accountability. Your kid might surprise you OR he/she might have a mental breakdown in front of the metro map. Holding children accountable for the actions first then letting them rise to the occasion seems to be a more measured approach to extreme “sink-or-swim” parenting advice.

I’m totally bought into “free-range kids” when it comes to creativity and freedom of speech/expression.

Am I going to drop Andrew off at a bus stop in Anacostia, D.C. on his ninth birthday?



3 thoughts on ““Free-Range Kids” Parenting Tips From “The World’s Worst Mom”

  1. Dawn says:

    You know, I have a mixed reaction to this post.

    I started riding the Philadelphia subways to get across town (and Philly is a geographically large town to get across) to my dance lessons when I was eight years old but I was given VERY precise directions in addition to my carfare, I was not allowed to make that trip after dark, and this was way back in the ’60s when life was very different. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anybody do that with their 8 year old today.

    On the other hand, I do think it is important to encourage our children towards independence — something that seems to get neglected all too often these days. I just think there are ways to allow and encourage your children to grow towards self sufficiency without putting them in danger. But, however you do it, it does need to be done. Our job as parents is to help our kids get to the point where they don’t need us anymore. From what I’ve seen, a lot of people seem to forget that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dawn says:

    I don’t even know that I would call it balance. It’s like “There’s this thing you have to do and it’s better to do it like this instead of doing it like that.”

    Sort of along the lines of, “It’s better (more efficient/effective) to remove a splinter with a sewing needle than with a knitting needle.”

    Liked by 1 person

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