This week’s TDQ Q&A is with Lenore Skenazy, called “the worst mom in America” by the media after she let her then-9-year-old son ride the subway alone. Lenore spoke to us about her website, Free Range Kids, how society is criticizing parents for doing things that were considered normal in the past and how her son survived his harrowing ordeal on the subway. Here is this week’s TDQ Q&A With Lenore Skenazy:
The Daily Quarterly: What made you want to get into journalism?
Lenore Skenazy: Well, I couldn’t just knock on people’s doors and say, “Let me come in,” unless I had an excuse. So this is my way of meeting strangers. I always wanted to meet strangers. I always wanted to talk to strangers.
TDQ: Who was your favorite writer growing up?
LS: Growing up? Well, it depends when. I love Dorothy Parker, so funny. I liked “Little Women,” I thought it was the greatest book ever. I just re-read it, and she has actually a whole chapter on helicopter parents, I couldn’t believe it. I like Louisa May Alcott. I like joke books.
TDQ: What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
LS: “If you’re gonna have a blog, make it about one thing and drill down relentlessly.” And I thought, “Oh my God, I could never be interested enough in one topic to do that.” Now we’re here nine years later talking about one thing: “Our kids are not in constant danger.”
TDQ: What is the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?
LS: That’s interesting. I made the mistake of going to journalism school… and the advice was go live in a small town and cover the city council. I just didn’t do it. Maybe it would have been great advice. Maybe I’d be the editor of the New York Times today, but I just couldn’t.
TDQ: Your son, Izzy, who you let ride the New York City subway alone at the age of nine in 2008, how is he now? Does he suffer from PTSD due to that experience?
LS: Did I suffer from PTSD from putting him on the subway? He’s fine. He’s a college freshman, we had to remind him, could you at least write us and tell us that you’re okay? He’s doing fine. He’s at SUNY Cortland.
TDQ: You’ve mentioned college kids having their parents call a professor over a bad grade. Do you think we’ve reached a point where we need to talk about not just free range kids but free range young adults?
LS: The assumption, not just on my part, but on the part of a lot of social pundits or critics, whatever you want to call it, is that having grown ups constantly supervise, kids are so un-used to fighting their own battles or not having somebody intercede if something feels disappointing or wrong, that they expect intervention or the parents continue to play that same role. The thing I don’t like is the idea that I’m down on helicopter parents. But I’m quite aware that when my grandfather came over on a boat from Russia, his mother couldn’t text him three days later and say, “How ya doin’, Sam?” So I don’t blame helicopter parents because I believe we live in a society that’s told us from the first sonogram that we should be very concerned and always watching them, so there they are in the womb and we’re watching them. We’re told you have to put them under the right mobile in the right crib and you better not put a teddy bear in the crib because that might smother them… And you need to buy a video infrared monitor, with a pivoting video monitor that streams to your phone. And it should also measure your kid’s temperature and blood oxygen level.
So to say parents are paranoid when somebody is trying to peddle them-and obviously successfully, or they’d be out of business already-something that measures their kid’s vital signs, as if they’re in the neonatal intensive care unit, when the kid is home, safe and sound asleep in the crib in their house…parents have been told that their child isn’t even safe when sleeping in their crib at night and there is no intruder, then I can’t blame them for feeling nervous.
TDQ: In your opinion, what or who is the most to blame in how society wants us to raise our children now? Plaintiff’s lawyers, the internet, or the media?
LS: Well, there’s a bunch of factors. One obvious one that everybody agrees on is that the media is pervasive, and…it shows us the worst of the worst. If there’s no child abducted that day, then you’ll see it’s the 10th anniversary of this abduction, or they’re passing another law to make sure there won’t be an abduction. You’re surrounded by so much media attention to these stories, that you end up thinking that they’re happening all the time.
The other thing that’s happening is, as we get more cheaper technology that is surrounding us, the idea that if you can tell your kid’s blood oxygen level, why wouldn’t you? It’s so simple, it’s just $9.99 a month, if your kid dies for either low or high blood oxygen levels, I don’t even know which is bad, if only you had done that, $9.99 a month, you cheap bastard, now your kid is dead of excess oxygen. Between that and being able to GPS your kid at all times, and text your kid at all times and see your kids at all times, there’s so many ways to oversee your child now, that the idea of ever giving them an instant of non-supervision starts seeming crazy and negligent.
TDQ: You really started Free Range Kids in earnest in 2008. Are things better now or worse for parents?
LS: There’s two things happening at once. One is people are coming over to my side. You can’t look at the “New York Times Book Review” every week without seeing somebody else writing, “The Secrets of Danish Parents,” “The Secrets of German Parents” “The Secrets of Japanese Parents,” and the secret always turns out to be “we give them some free time unlike you crazy Americans, we give them some free time.” There’s a lot of, not only just a cultural feel, like maybe we’ve gone a little overboard, but there’s all this evidence that kids are not doing better because we’re with them every single second. They’re nervous, they’re anxious, they feel a failure to thrive. But once again I’m back to blaming society that makes us think that we have to keep them so constantly supervised that it has some repercussions.
But people are recognizing that it’s crazy. People are mad when a mom will get arrested for letting her kid walk home from the park, or play outside, or wait in the car for three minutes while she picks up the dry cleaning. Nobody realized it was a problem before. People are coming over to my side and saying we’ve gone overboard in terms of worrying for our kids and supervising them.
TDQ: You say more people are coming over to your side. Would you say that now when you speak to groups, you aren’t in hostile environments much anymore?
LS: Oh, yes. For a couple of years at the very beginning, there was an influential parenting site called “Babble” and every year they did their top 25 websites, and mine two years in a row was the most controversial. And I thought, “I can’t believe I’m controversial.” I am a normal, middle-class mom who worries, who makes dinner at home, who goes to the parent-teacher conferences. How could I be so controversial? I’m only raising my kids the way my mom raised me. It was surprising to me that it would be considered so radical or controversial that I’d say, “Maybe your kids could walk to school, maybe your kids could be latchkey kids and come home for an hour and survive. And I don’t think I’m considered controversial about that anymore. So then I have to work harder at being controversial.
So now I work on trying to make people understand that the sex offender laws are terrible; that we have to do away with the public registry. You can live down the street from a sex offender, and it’s no more dangerous than living down the street from somebody who isn’t a sex offender. So, I figure as long as I have my bully pulpit and people interested in what I have to say, and considering me sort of the voice of reason or non-hysteria-somebody once called me the “Department of Homeland Sanity”-so I’ll use that as the opportunity to say your kids can be unsupervised, you can live down the street from a sex offender, we’ve gone overboard in a lot of our laws, and you can even play “Pokemon Go” and your kids not die.