Via Newsweek, I've just been alerted to a dust-up in the world of upper middle class parenting: Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for the New York Sun, penned a column in early April describing why she allowed her 9-year old son to travel by himself from Bloomingdale's department store on Manhattan's Upper East Side to their home in Midtown West. (It's not a very long trip.) She wrote, "[F]or weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call. ... Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence."
Predictably, this anecdote garnered joyous cries of support, as well as rabid calls for Skenazy's head. The writer appeared on television and radio to defend herself against cries of "bad mother!" and even coined a catchphrase for the kind of parenting she supports: "Free Range Kids" -- complete with a new blog, of course. At first, I figured the backlash was in part suburban and exurban parents' horror at the idea of allowing a child to roam New York City alone. People don't realize that New York's crime rate is similar to that of Boise, Idaho and that New York ranks number 136 in crime among the nation's 182 cities with populations over 100,000.
But in a follow-up column and podcast, Skenazy recounted her correspondence with parents nationwide, which proved that hovercraft parenting knows no geographical boundaries. A dad in Park Slope, Brooklyn won't let his 9-year old cross the street to go to the playground. An Atlanta mother doesn't allow her daughter to walk alone from the front door to the mailbox. A suburban lawyer makes his 11-year old call home immediately after walking one block from her own home to a friend's house. All this despite the fact that we now know "stranger danger" pales in comparison to the violence and sexual and emotional abuse too many children suffer at the hands of adult family members or acquaintances. And that the number of child abductions has been falling steadily for years.
I'm only 23 and my own childhood was quite different. My friends and I wandered our safe (but unfortunately sidewalk-less) neighborhood after school until dusk. We walked to the local Carvel ice cream shop. We rode our bikes to the library, where I once went wearing mismatched sneakers. We played in the woods. A good time was had by all.
There is simply no way for us to protect our loved ones from every tragedy that might befall them. Many of us learn this lesson in the most difficult way. But it's sad to think that American childhood has become a time of anxiety, instead of a period of exploration. To the parents out there -- do you think Lenore Skenazy is a heroine, or is she misguided?
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