Is Lenore Skenazy “America’s Worst Mom”?

Last night, I was blissfully stumbling through the blogosphere when I landed on “Free-Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy, an author and columnist who is sometimes called, “America’s Worst Mom”.

She “earned” that title by one day allowing her 9-year-old to find his way home — all on his own — via the subway and buses of New York City:

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for 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.

After her son made it safely home, brimming with a new-found sense of independence, she wrote about his experience in a column for the New York Sun. That got her invited onto several talk shows — at least one of which billed her as “America’s Worst Mom”.  People quickly accused her of neglect and child abuse.

Are those charges justified?

The thought of a 9-year-old boy negotiating his way alone through the streets of New York City alarms us.  We can easily imagine all sorts of horrors happening to such a kid.  Many of us fear to allow our children out of our sight, let alone allow them to ride the subway by themselves.   But Lenore Skenazy — and perhaps a growing number of other parents — believe those fears are largely misplaced.

Skenazy argues that parents fear for their children’s safety way more than is warranted today.  According to her, we have become a hyper-vigilant nation of overly protective parents.  And the facts simply don’t justify our common perception that children are at exceedingly great risk of harm.

For instance, according to some crime statistics that Skenazy cites, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger or slight acquaintance are about one chance in 1,500,000.  To translate that into more concrete terms, you would on average need to leave your child unprotected for about 750,000 years before you could be sure she would be abducted.  In 1999, there were only 115 such kidnappings in the United States.

In a recent interview, Skenazy elaborated on why these days we might feel the world is not a safe place for our children despite the facts that suggest it is:

The world is actually safer, statistically, than it was when I was growing up. In the 1970s and 1980s, crime was going up in the States, peaking around 1993. Then it came down, back to the level of the 1970s. It just doesn’t feel that way.

Now there’s the 24-hour news cycle. There is not one episode today of Law & Order that could have been aired before, say, 1971. It’s so graphic and disturbing and violent. It’s on every night of the week. Parents watch it, kids watch it.

Those images don’t just go away, even though our rational minds know they’re fiction. Those images are the first to come to mind when you ask yourself, “How safe is it for my kids go outside?” You don’t think of yourself walking to school – it’s so mundane that it doesn’t come to mind. But I can picture a missing child’s photo…. That’s how we think these days. If one child in the entire country is kidnapped and held for 18 years, that’s what we should be basing all our decisions on – the very outside, worst-case-scenario that something bad could happen.

The notion that television might be warping our sense of reality and needlessly increasing our fears has been around for some time.  I recall reading about 35 years ago a study published in Psychology Today that suggested people who watch a lot of TV tend to overestimate life’s dangers.  Since then, there have been numerous studies collaborating that one.  So, Skenazy could very well be correct to suppose TV is a cause of exaggerated fears.

She proposes that parents put aside their fears to give their children more independence:

We are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence.

Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.

I think in that, she makes a great deal of sense.  There are parents today who will not let a 7-year-old walk a block to their friend’s house, nor even allow her to go unescorted to the mailbox.   There are kids who are not allowed to play unsupervised.  Surely,  most neighborhoods are not so dangerous as to justify that sort of hovering attention.

I do have a major concern with Skenazy’s statistics.  The figure she often cites — one chance in 1,500,000 of a kid being kidnapped — is very likely misleading.

The figure seems to be based on the NISMART October 2002 Non-Family Abducted Children Report (.pdf), which found that only 115 children had been victims of stereotypical kidnappings in 1999.  But a stereotypical kidnapping is a rather special case:

During the study year, there were an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings, defined as abductions perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and
involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.

Of more concern to us might be kidnappings that did not involve transporting the victims 50 or more miles and detaining them overnight.  There were — not 115 — but 58,200 of those in 1999.   Children are at significantly greater risk of abduction than Skenazy’s favored statistic might lead us to believe.

I don’t think it can be doubted that Skenazy documents numerous examples of excessive and irrational fears for the safety of children on her blog.  I do believe, however, that children are at a much greater risk of abduction than she seems to think.  Yet, it seems to me her main point — that children need more independence than our fears are allowing them — is probably a very good one.  The question is finding the right balance.

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11 thoughts on “Is Lenore Skenazy “America’s Worst Mom”?

  1. You are right Paul, balance is the key word here..and sound parental judgement. My children grew up in a part of the city that was very safe…then. Nowadays, I would not raise a child there. It’s all a matter of knowing your surroundings. Now I guess on Sunday afternoons the New York metro is no more dangerous than many place else, at midnight it could be another story.
    Then you have to consider the child. is he or she level headed or prone to do silly things? Here again balance is the key word.
    But That metro ride must have been a great experience for that child and certainly sellf esteem and confidence building. Skenazy may not be the worst mother but certainly a very courageous one and must have very high confidence in that boy…who, apparently, proved himself worthy of it.

  2. I’m curious about the 58,200 number. How many of those kidnappings were part of a child custody dispute? A good percentage of child abductions involve a parent who doesn’t have custody (and/or a parent trying to get their child away from an abusive relationship with the other parent, taking matters into their own hands rather than leaving it to the court system).

    I just returned from a trip back to where I grew up and was showing my oldest son the route I walked to school (just under 2 miles — as they didn’t bus kids who lived under 2 miles from the school) from 8 years old on. He seemed surprised that my parents would allow me to walk all that way by myself at that age. I told him that during the summer whole days would go by without checking in with the parents while we stayed outside playing, only checking in at dinner time. I can’t imagine most parents would allow that sort of freedom today.

    I recently read “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. While not the main gist of the book, he writes about how as parents we’ve become too fearful for (mentioning television and the media as well) and overprotective of our children these days. As I recently commented to someone else, when I think back on my childhood days and the freedom and independence I was allowed, I glory in it. It was a wonderful gift to have been given. I’m sorry that so many of today’s children can’t or won’t be able to experience it.

    I allowed my children to go out and wander and play, but felt safe in where we lived to do so.

  3. @ Paul: I agree: There are numerous factors to consider and balance, and perhaps only a child’s parents are in a position to adequately weigh them all. Like many things in life, this does not seem to be a matter of hard and fast rules.

    @ Robin: The figure of 58,200 represents abductions by strangers and slight acquaintances, but not by family members. That seems like a lot of children, and in a sense, it certainly is. But in another sense, it is a small fraction of all the children in the country. So while I don’t think the chances of any particular child being abducted are overwhelming, I do believe it is reasonable to be cautious. Not fearful, but cautious.

    It seems like you and I grew up in similar circumstances, Robin. I recall being free as a child to spend whole summer days roaming just about anywhere I wanted to roam — provided I was back in time for supper. I would wish that freedom and independence for every child.

  4. The fact is, children are smaller than adults. It only takes moments to traumatize a child for life. Crimes perpetrated against children during our childhoods simply weren’t talked about at those times, they were kept secret. We just know more about them now, whether or not they are more prevalent. It’s very sad, but protectiveness is warranted up to a certain point and every parent has to decide what that point is for themselves and their child. Adults get mugged every day, too. Not just in New York City. But it is more scarring when it happens to a child.

  5. … during the summer whole days would go by without checking in with the parents while we stayed outside playing, only checking in at dinner time.

    I remember those days. Before moving to a metropolitan area, I was able to treat my kids that way. Once I moved to my current location, however, I had to modify the supervision. I always tried to strive for, as Paul said, balance. My biggest thing was knowing where my kids were. If I knew where they were going, who they were going with, how they were getting there, roughly what time they’d be back, etc., I was okay. I’d also have them call me to say they’d arrived, or were about to leave, etc. Being in the loop without being in constant contact worked for me and I think it allowed them freedom, yet held them responsible.

  6. No.

    America’s worst mom is Jenny McCarthy — spreading deadly misinformation about vaccinations to advance her personal notoriety. Letting a nine-year-old navigate the subway alone is arguably irresponsible (depending on the skills the kid has demonstrated), but convincing thousands of parents not to vaccinate their kids is a few orders of magnitude worse.

  7. @ The Chaplain: Rural areas and small towns are boring, but they do have the advantage for kids that they tend to be safer.

    @ Man of Roma: You bring up the fascinating point that fear is easily exploited by people in power to their own ends. I think that is shown true in so many ways. And I wonder if we are not doing the next generation a disservice in raising them so fearfully. Are we making them susceptible to fear mongering?

    @ Chanson: Yikes! Is she the one behind the vaccination scare? A friend of mine brought that up the other day, and I was silently thankful that her kids were no longer of an age to need vaccinations.

  8. I think she has the right idea, although I don’t think I could have done it myself, it reminds me of the quests that some ancient cultures used to undergo to prove manhood. It is sad that a simple train journey in your own environment can have such an epic battle status.

    I imagine the child feels more self reliant now, which is a good thing, but I hope he doesn’t become over confident, while I agree the media will cynically engender fear in us to sell their mundane tv shows (all those Law and Orders spring to mind) children, unfortunately do need to be wary to keep themselves safe.

    It also depends on the child some 9 year olds are more sensible than some 13 year olds, I know when I used to walk the 3 miles to and from my school on my own when I was 5 and I was often very scared, I don’t think that was helpful to me in anyway.

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