Friday, April 04, 2008

Lenore Skenazy is my heroine

This is really turning out to be my New York week. First I read The Ten-Year Nap, then I visited New York, and today I came across Lenore Skenazy's story about allowing her son riding the subway on his own.

Lenore made waves by letting her almost-ten-year-old son ride home by himself on the subway from a planned outing together. Her son, Izzy, had been begging for an independent experience and Lenore thought the time was right to let him have one.

She described the experiment in her New York Sun column, "Here's Your MetroCard, Kid."

I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn't want to lose it. And no, I didn't trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn't do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, "Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I'll abduct this adorable child instead."

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Skenazy's parenting decision was controversial enough to land her on The Today Show yesterday for an interview with a skeptical Ann Curry. I am not sure whether I would make the same choice as Skenazy for my child, but I loved that she was willing to go on national TV and stick up for her decision, without regret or apology.

And, I would not make the same choice for my child because she's not a New York City kid. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. I travel to New York a couple of times a year, and I finally feel that I can navigate the city on my own. This week I rode the subway and the bus which felt unfamiliar, but perfectly safe. I can believe that a kid who was totally familiar with the city would be safe there as well. Even better than that, while New Yorkers can be gruff, I have found them to be consistently helpful when necessary.

The paradox of modern parenting is that we've gotten to the point where we think we need to lock our kids in a tower until they are old enough to be on their own. But how will they get enough experience to navigate the world independently if we don't let them explore? A wise teacher once said, "Good decisions come from experienceā€¦ Experience comes from bad decisions." The key is to give kids enough latitude to explore, even make mistakes, but not seriously harmful ones. Striking this balance is not always easy, but we have to try.

We know that there is a danger in giving our kids too much freedom, but I also believe that there is harm in stunting their independence. No one wants to end up a helicopter parent whose kid can't function on their own in college without calling Mom and Dad on the cell phone ten times a day. For an independent ten-year-old who is confident enough to ask for help if he needs it, a subway ride on his own might be a reasonable option.

I'm going to be writing more on these issues in the near future. In the meantime I encourage you to watch the Today Show video and let me know what you think.

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Anonymous katrin said...

I love your blog! Thanks for sharing.

Hooray for the Skenazy family! I would be terrified to let my kid loose in NYC, even though I grew up in NYC and then in London. When I was 11, I traveled across London by bus and walked through housing projects to get to the bus stop every single day on my way to school. I was flashed by a weirdo when I was 12 but otherwise nothing bad happened to me.

So how did I get to the point where I would be afraid to give my own children the independence that I so thrived on?

Living in the 'burbs, I'm afraid. It turns you into a sissy!

You're right that to have that kind of independence, kids need to be street smart. But we also need to trust that not every child who gets a little taste of freedom will be abducted or get lost or suffer in some way.

What I worry about much more is teenagers drinking and driving. We did our fair share of crazy stuff in London (more than I would ever care to admit) but it never involved getting behind the wheel of a car. My husband, who grew up where we live now, has 7 friends who died because of drunk driving. I know laws are stricter now, but I almost think that's made kids even more extreme and secretive in their experimentation.

At any rate, there are dangers everywhere and as parents we need to figure out what we feel comfortable with, and try not to be too influenced by what everyone else around us is doing. We know our own families the best, and as mothers, we need to trust our instincts more and have confidence in our innate wisdom.

Katrin Schumann
co-author, Mothers Need Time Outs, Too

3:51 PM  
Blogger A. Lin said...

I recently had a discussion with my 5 year old about making choices. He was curious as to why I let his 2 1/2 year old brother choose his pajamas that he would wear for the night. I explained that I give his brother a choice so that he can feel more in control of his own life.

Now you only present 2 choices to a 2 year old. He has a hard enough time to choose between two. But then I was able to explain to my 5 year old that he got to make choices between many more things than his brother did. I even went so far as to tell him that as he gets older, some choices that he makes may be bad ones, but he has to learn to live with the consequences and learn to make the best choice possible for him.

I don't know if he understood any of that although he is very smart for his age. But it certainly helped me to realize that I am setting my sons up for independence. As for letting my child ride a subway at age 10, that depends on the individual child. Truly though the parent's job is to raise the child the best way he/she sees fit and then turn them loose to live. That is a day far down the road for me; I look at it with both wonder and anxiety.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that this is even news is testament to how suburban life is BAD for kids.

The veneer of extra safety does not compensate for the infantilization of children. A child that has to be chaufferred and escorted everywhere is going to inevitably be much less mature and independent, and made more fragile.

Just a few decades ago in America--and in many cities around the world today, especially in Asia and Europe--kids beginning at 7 or 8 years old would take the bus or metro alone, and no one batted an eyelash.

My mom let me take the Paris metro alone to school when I was 6 years old. When we moved back one year later to our home on the South Side of Chicago, I and every other kid walked to and from school. People, it's not a big deal!

It is a sad commentary on AMerica that letting a 9-year old take the subway alone is even remarkable.

5:37 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

...And the fewer kids who travel on their own, the more exceptional and out of the norm it seems.

I have a ton of empathy for parents, trying to strike the right balance between protection and exploration. I AM one of those parents after all. But we need to look at the flip side of the coin and think about the risks associated with being totally naive and inexperienced as well.

We can end up raising incapable, incompetent young adults if we don't give our kids "enough rope to get some rope burns" as one of my favorite Positive Parenting experts has said.

It's our job as parents to make sure that the new experiences are developmentally appropriate, which is the trick of course, but we as should be looking for opportunities at each age that let our kids test their wings.

I'll be writing more about this issue. Thanks for your comments!

5:53 PM  

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