NEW YORK - Writer Lenore Skenazy could have slinked off to mommyland, stripped of her self-esteem and parenting confidence after her public stoning for letting her nine-year-old son ride home alone on a New York City subway.
Coulda, but didn't.
Instead, Skenazy was buoyed by a healthy legion of supporters. She quickly followed up her revelation in the New York Sun newspaper (make that the now-defunct New York Sun) with numerous TV appearances, her offspring by her side as if to reassure the world that he survived in one piece, and to make it clear that his was a voluntary journey underground.
During all the TV hopping, she put up a website, Freerangekids.com, dedicating it to safe but sane parenting. Skenazy invited parents to share how they let their kids "free range" by doing things like riding bikes alone to the library or walking solo to school.
The goal? "Giving our kids the freedom we had without going nuts with worry," she told them, suggesting she might "one day collect their tips in a book."
A year to the month after waving goodbye to her child in Bloomingdale's, arming him with a subway map, MetroCard, $20 in cash and several quarters (in case he had to make a call), Skenazy has made good on the book thing with her "Free-Range Kids."
The book serves up statistics aimed at easing the fears of today's helicopter parents over everything from sexual predators to salmonella from ingesting raw cookie dough (it's the eggs). Skenazy offers "14 Commandments" for parents on how they can accomplish free rangehood, along with an A-Z guide on why all things scary aren't any more so than when most were kids themselves.
An interview with Lenore Skenazy:
AP: You've been excoriated as "America's Worst Mom" and revered as a parental freedom fighter. Had you anticipated the depth of emotion when you wrote the column about putting your son on the subway?
Skenazy: Nothing prepared me for the response. Not only was the media attention a total shock - so was being judged by strangers. (I'm sorry for anything I ever wrote about you, Madonna!) I don't think I'm a hero, but I sure don't think I'm America's Worst Mom. I'm just trying to raise my kids the way I was raised. People reacted so intensely probably because I was not just pontificating. I actually sent my dear son alone into the bowels of the earth - and if you're not from New York the subway seems a lot scarier than it is.
AP: Why did you decide to turn this controversy into a book?
Skenazy: The weekend after the column exploded I started freerangekids.com to explain that Free-Range parents are not negligent. My God - my kids think I'm a safety nut. We use safety belts, bike helmets, weird little wire toothpicks to help us super-floss. But my husband and I also allow them to get themselves to school and the store, because once you prepare your kids, these things are not unsafe. I wrote the book to say: The fear that has made these activities seem radical is new. It has been foisted upon us by terrifying TV shows, and "experts" with babyproofing services to peddle, and the Kiddie Safety-Industrial Complex that's always coming up with unlikely but awful scenarios so it can sell us stuff to guard against them - like, so help me, "baby knee pads" so your kid doesn't injure her knees learning to crawl.
AP: Your son's historic trip is about a year old. Does he ride regularly by himself now that he's 10, or was it a one-off journey for him? Has he enjoyed his time in the media spotlight as a key figure in your free-range movement? Did it make a difference in his life?
Skenazy: For a couple weeks after the column ran, my son didn't even have a chance to ride the subway alone and I was like, "'Come on! You are the boy who rides the subway! Get on that train!'" Then he started going to an afterschool program that's a bus and subway ride from school, so - yay - he became an avid commuter. As for fame: He loved being on TV and manages to point out every ad featuring his pal, Dr. Phil. But I don't think the whole thing has totally gone to his head. It's not like he got to make a touchdown for the New York Giants.
AP: Your book mixes advice with a lot of cold hard facts focused on tempering much of the hysteria that has contributed to helicopter parenting. Do you think you'll change any minds, or are you preaching to the choir?
Skenazy: It is hard to change anyone's mind about anything! But one of the reasons so many of us are so scared these days is that the other side - the, "Something is going to hurt your child any moment!" side - has a huge voice. It's the one on the milk cartons. It's the one saying, "Is your baby bottle toxic? Stay tuned!" I'm just trying to be the other little voice that says, "You're allowed to ask yourself: 'Did I grow up walking to school by myself? Did my mom need a bath thermometer to figure out if the water was going to scald me? Did I survive drinking from a baby bottle?'"
AP: Your parenting philosophy relies heavily on the past, promoting the idea that WE the parents were raised far freer range than the norm today. But doesn't this romanticize history just a bit? We were free range, to be sure, but was it partly due to our parents being a touch more clueless, less tuned in and able to connect with us kids?
Skenazy: I'm sure I romanticize the past. I'm middle aged! The only thing I can't romanticize is crime. And the fact is that crime today is on par with the level in the early '70s, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which bases its analyses on FBI statistics. From the early '70s till about 1993, crime was on the rise. But since 1993, it has plunged (thanks to better policing, more unstable folks on meds, and maybe even cellphones), to the point where sex crimes against juveniles - the crimes we're most afraid of - are down 79 per cent!
That means if you grew up anytime in the '70s or '80s, it's actually safer today than when you were a kid. So when parents say they'd really LIKE to let their kids play outside more - even on the front lawn - but they're afraid, I just want them to know that their children are no more likely to be kidnapped or molested than we were when we were kids. This is hard to believe when cable TV blares the scariest stories from around the world, 24 hours a day. But if abductions were really so common, we wouldn't need to import those stories from Aruba and Portugal.