PEP Talks urge parents to relax
New York journalist Lenore Skenazy’s life took a dramatic turn five years ago when she let her nine-year-old son ride the subway alone. Her son made it home just fine, but after writing about his solo trip back from a store on a sunny Sunday afternoon, she found herself on national television the next day being labelled “America’s worst mom”.
Since then, she’s gone on to write Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry), speak internationally, host a reality-TV show (called World’s Worst Mom) in which she helped overprotective parents back off a bit, and spearhead the anti helicopter-parenting movement.
Despite the media storm she found herself in a few years ago, Skenazy—whose upcoming appearance here kicks off the Vancouver International Children’s Festival’s new PEP Talks series of four monthly lectures—maintains that parents need to relax when it comes to their kids’ safety.
“I’m on the trail of fear,” Skenazy says on the line from her home, which she shares with her husband and two sons (one is 16; the “subway rider” is now 14). “Where did all this fear come from? It’s not because you’re a neurotic nut but because society is always telling you, ‘This mother let her child go to the bus stop by himself and never saw him again,’ even though there are 40 million other moms who did let their child go to the bus stop and they were just fine. We’re always told the worst-case scenarios and that our children are in constant danger.”
When her youngest originally asked if he could make his way home from one of his favourite stores, Skenazy discussed it with her husband, and together they decided he was ready. They armed him with a map, a transit pass, $20, and some quarters for if he needed to make a phone call. He was home within an hour.
“It’s really hard to know when your child is ready for something like that in this day and age because we’ve been programmed by what I call ‘worst first’ thinking,” she explains. “Our knee-jerk reaction, our modus operandi as parents and as administrators, politicians, and lawmakers, is to think of the worst-case scenario first, then proceed as if it’s likely to happen—and if it does happen, we’ll be blamed.
“Even if you think, ‘My gosh, we live four blocks from the school and there are sidewalks and there’s a crossing guard when he [my child] gets there,’ the voice inside of us that’s been programmed by watching America’s Most Wanted or Law & Order says, ‘Well, what about Jaycee Lee Dugard? She was kidnapped walking home from the bus stop,’ ” Skenazy says, referring to an 11-year-old California girl who was abducted in 1991 and was missing for 18 years. “How can you say this won’t happen to your child? You can’t, and that’s the problem. But you never were able to say that.…In our parents’ era, when they were letting us walk to school, it wasn’t a big deal. It was something you did; it was normal. They were not plagued by the same roster of pictures in their brain that we have of Jaycee and the Canadian equivalents.
“If I don’t think my mom was crazy to let me walk to school—or negligent or ignorant—then I don’t think I’m being any of those things,” she adds. “It’s a safe world out there. Not perfectly safe, but safe.”
In her book, on her blog (www.freerangekids.com/), and in her talks, Skenazy advises parents to think rationally. To start, she says, look at crime rates, which have declined over the years in the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s amazing to me how controversial the idea of thinking rationally about safety can be,” she says. “Nothing is guaranteed, and as a society we reject that and think things must be perfectly safe, and if they’re not we sue and we write articles and we go to court.…But it’s so distorted. Today you’ll hear about a child dying in his crib and tomorrow about an abduction and the next day about a child choking and, seemingly, children dying right and left when, in fact, children are safer and healthier than they’ve ever been in human history.”
Giving a child some freedom and independence boosts their self-confidence, Skenazy says.
“You need to be smart but not insane,” she says. “I totally believe in safety. I’m afraid of cars, and I’ve taught my kids how to cross the street. It’s not like I want kids to be in danger. I want us to recognize when they aren’t in danger and to appreciate that and let them enjoy that a little.
“Sometimes parents feel as if they’d lose their job or their importance if they weren’t hovering,” she adds. “If you want your kid to be the successful, confident leader you dream of, they have to have some time on their own without you there. It doesn’t mean you love them any less or they need you any less; it shows you’ve done a good job raising them. And you can feel very proud of your children.”