“We are in the midst of a massive mommy moral panic,” Lenore Skenazy recently observed in a post on the Reason.com blog, adding as evidence that “across the country, mothers are writing breathless accounts on Facebook of how sex traffickers nearly snatched their children at Target/Ikea/the grocery store.”
Skenazy recounted that one alarmed mother suspected a child trafficking ring was scoping out her little girl after a after a man with a shaved head approached her in a Sam’s Club, ostensibly to ask if she was using an empty shopping cart. Shockingly, the same fellow was in Walmart a little later, “feverishly texting” on his phone and seeming to eye the woman’s daughter. Well, the conclusion was obvious, wasn’t it? “I have absolutely NO doubt that that man is a trafficker looking for young girls to steal and sell,” the frantic mother wrote.
“People do not realize how safe we are and at the same time are unable to accept that there is no such thing as perfect safety.”
To which Lenore replied, “And I have absolutely no doubt that she’s wrong. This is what security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed a ‘movie plot threat’—a narrative that looks suspiciously like what you’d see at the Cineplex. The more ‘movie plot’ a situation seems, the less likely it is to be real.” For Lenore, the trafficking scare was another example of overly terrified childrearing she sees as prevalent nowadays.
A Yale graduate and former columnist for the New York Daily News, Skenazy is author of the seminal book Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). Out of the best-selling book grew the Free-Range Kids movement, which promotes what Lenore has called “a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times.” Lenore was launched on this path of advocacy by the outraged reaction to a column she wrote in 2008 about letting her nine-year-old son find his way home, using the subway, and without adult supervision, from the Bloomingdale’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the family’s downtown apartment. From the reaction, you’d think the journey was comparable to Scott’s in the Antarctic. The media furor led to Skenazy’s being asked on the Today Show if she was a bad mother (more on the subway journey that sparked a movement in a moment).
Cosseted kids, it seems, are growing into fragile college students who are unable to be comfortable with, and, indeed, even fear, those espousing ideas with which they disagree or find unfamiliar.
As a result of the controversy, Lenore became the foremost authority on rearing kids who would become more resilient if given more freedom. She appears frequently on national television and writes and lectures prolifically on the subject. Recently she received powerful re-enforcement in the form of a call from Jonathan Haidt, the prominent social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of the New York Times best-seller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and founder of Heterodox Academy, an organization of scholars that promotes “viewpoint diversity” in academia. Haidt (pronounced “height”) was a fan of the Free Range Kids movement, and he and his wife were even incorporating elements of the program into raising their kids. For Haidt, over-protective child rearing appeared to be a likely factor in the campus movement to demand “safe spaces.” Cosseted kids, it seems, are growing into fragile college students who are unable to be comfortable with, and, indeed, even fear, those espousing ideas with which they disagree or find unfamiliar. The upshot of Haidt’s interest in the Free-Range Kids movement is the Let Grow organization, which is dedicated to instilling independence and resilience by giving kids more freedom. Haidt serves on the board.
Skenazy is the organization’s president. The website sets forth the Let Grow program:
We promote a return to childhood without constant adult oversight.
We advocate for restoring trust in our children’s resilience and rejecting the assumption of fragility.
We challenge the current norm of seeing childhood solely through the lens of risk.
We believe in kids and do not assume they will be bigots or bullies without intensive intervention.
We fight for the right of parents to give their children some freedom without fear of government intrusion.
All this can be traced to Lenore’s then-nine-year-old son’s desire to do something that shocked overly protective parents and pundits alike: find his way home on the New York subway. He asked his parents to take him somewhere he hadn’t been before and let him find his way home. It probably didn’t seem that radical to Lenore–after all, she had grown up in the Chicago suburbs and could remember walking to school, a no-no for fearful parents today–and crossing the street, not with an ever-present parent hovering over her, but with the aid of an older child who served as school crossing guard. (That worked out well long-term–Lenore is married to Joe Kolman, a writer whose work has appeared in the Economist, who was Lenore’s school crossing guard back in Chicago–they now live in Queens and have two sons). The nine-year-old thought finding his way home alone would be “an exciting and grown-up thing to do.” “We talked about it, my husband and I,” Lenore recalls, “and we decided it would be an okay thing to do. So one sunny Sunday I took my son to Bloomingdale’s and to the handbag department, which is right above the subway — which he didn’t know then, but he figured it out — and I told him that this was the day and went in the other direction. He went to the subway and asked a stranger which was the right side for going downtown. He was on the wrong side, but he crossed over and came down to 34th Street, where he took a bus, because we lived across town. When he came into the apartment, he was so proud of what he had accomplished.”
“You can’t learn to bounce back from disappointment if there is no disappointment. You can’t learn to deal with fear and risk if a parent is always there, in person or electronically, to ensure that there is no risk.”
That might have been that, except that Lenore was a newspaper columnist. She had been tapped to be a columnist when she was a reporter at the Daily News by Michael Goodwin, whose popular column now appears in the New York Post. At the time of the subway journey, Skenazy was a columnist at the New York Sun. And one day, as columnists often are, she was stumped for an idea. “What about Izzy’s subway journey?”, she asked her editor, the writer Amity Shlaes (the subject of a Modern Feminist Portrait in 2013). Could it be column fodder? “Amity said ‘yes,’ changing my life forever,” says Lenore.
The reaction to the column was immediate and intense. “People were absolutely enraged,” Lenore recalls. The Howard Stern Show called the day it came out, and, while she didn’t appear on that show, she was on the Today Show, where then-host Ann Curry inquired if Lenore was a bad mother. A psychologist was on hand to ask if Skenazy couldn’t have found a way to instill independence without endangering her son’s life. “I didn’t think it was dangerous!” Lenore protests. “If I had, I would not have let him do it.” Skenazy was on Fox, MSNBC, CNN and NPR. Along the way she acquired the nickname “America’s Worst Mom.” “‘Why would you leave your son in the subway to die?’ was the tenor of the questions,” Lenore says.
Looking back over the columns she’d written even before subwaygate, Skenazy spotted some consistent themes, including a dislike of intrusive and excessive oversight and the increasing perception that we live in historically dangerous times, despite massive data confirming the opposite. “What I’ve always been interested in,” Lenore tells IWF, “is the disconnect between reality and our perceptions. The reality is that we live in a really safe time, and the perception is that we live in a really dangerous time. People do not realize how safe we are and at the same time are unable to accept that there is no such thing as perfect safety.”
In the name of safety, swings have been banned from school playgrounds, although it is a known fact that previous generations played on swings and even jungle bars and survived.
“When we believe kids are in danger and must be protected by full-time parenting, it’s usually the mothers who are always behind the wheels of cars picking up kids from school and driving them every place.”
Unlike with previous generations, today’s kids rarely are left to make their own fun and are alone less often–an adult must always be on hand to settle petty squabbles with another child. Skenazy notes that one expert warned parents never to let kids play with a friend without adult supervision–what if there was a disagreement and there was no adult to step in and solve it for them?
“Nobody is in favor of bullying, but there is something to be said for teaching them a little ‘sticks and stones’ rather than saying, ‘always call in an adult when you’re upset.’ You can’t learn to bounce back from disappointment if there is no disappointment. You can’t learn to deal with fear and risk if a parent is always there, in person or electronically, to ensure that there is no risk,” Lenore says.
Children today grow up amid “an unprecedented level of surveillance,” Lenore says. If, for example, kids must go off on their own, there is now a walkie talkie device that permits parents to listen in on their children’s conversations with other children. A device more suited to NICU nurses now allows parents to measure the degree of oxygen in a baby’s blood and get a read-out on their iPhone. “Even sleeping, your child is supposedly not safe enough,” Lenore says. “The advertisement for the device says something like ‘Just because your little one’s chest is moving up and down doesn’t mean she is getting enough oxygen.’ But that is precisely what it means.”
This kind of omniscience can unnerve the listening parent. “You are God,” says Lenore, “except that God comes equipped to handle omniscience, and we do not, so it makes you crazy.” Moreover, the burden of overprotective parenting generally falls on the mother. “Nobody is saying that women can’t work,” Lenore observes. “But we do say, ‘Oh, I would never let my kid go by herself to soccer. I would never let my kid walk to school. She can never go to ballet alone.’ When we believe kids are in danger and must be protected by full-time parenting, it’s usually the mothers who are always behind the wheels of cars picking up kids from school and driving them every place.”
“Stranger kidnappings are the rarest crimes in America, other than assassinations. There is no crime that is less common and no crime that is more overplayed, more seen on TV.”
One of Lenore’s pet peeves is parents who leave a child in the car for a few minutes to run into a store and do an errand and return to find the police have been called. “We were all left in cars as children,” Lenore says, “and we have forgotten that it was the norm. The reality is that kids who die in cars die because they have been forgotten, and they die from the heat. If you see an infant in a car in the IBM parking lot, that’s a kid in danger because clearly that kid has been forgotten. Somebody went to work and forgot the child. If you see a kid in a car in the gas station or at Starbucks, or the dry cleaners, he’s safe–it isn’t as if the parent is suddenly going to decide to become a dry cleaner and spend the entire day learning to operate the presses.”
Stranger abduction is the other concern about leaving kids in the car, even briefly. “Stranger kidnappings are the rarest crimes in America, other than assassinations,” Skenazy says. “There is no crime that is less common and no crime that is more overplayed, more seen on TV. Here is a statistic from my book–if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, do you know how long you would have to leave that child outside, unsupervised, for this to be statistically likely to happen? This is sort of like asking how many lottery tickets would you have to buy to win. You’d have to leave your kid waiting at the bus stop 750,000 hours. It’s not that it can’t happen. Somebody just won $570 million on the lottery. But you can’t spend your life trying to avoid rare and random stuff. There was a lady in New York who was driving under an overpass and somebody threw a frozen turkey at her car and broke the windshield. We’d be crazy if we said we’d never drive under an overpass again.”
But it seems that children are always being abducted and unspeakable things are happening to them. “The brain works like Google. So if you ask your brain, ‘Wmy kid be safe one aisle over from me in Sears?’ Or, ‘Should I let my child wait alone at the bus stop?’ up come the stories about that are the easiest to retrieve, which are Etan Patz, John Walsh’s son Adam, and Elizabeth Smart.” Etan Patz was abducted and murdered in 1979. Adam Walsh, who was last seen in a Sears store in Vero Beach, Florida, was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her house in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002.
Calling these crimes “rare and horrific and, by the way, decades ago,” Skenazy says, “True, it’s not totally safe to have your kid wait at the bus stop, but driving your kid is far less safe. It just doesn’t feel less safe because you can’t immediately call up the names and faces of all the people who died in car crashes while they were under the age of 14. But less safe it is, and yet we do it every day.”
“You can’t spend your life trying to avoid rare and random stuff. There was a lady in New York who was driving under an overpass and somebody threw a frozen turkey at her car and broke the windshield. We’d be crazy if we said we’d never drive under an overpass again”
Among the causes for our belief that kids are now less safe than ever before are our society’s propensity to look at things legalistically (could I get sued for this? Better play it extra safe), a media that plays what sells (local news is addicted to crime), and often-misleading and sensational statistics. It’s been building for several decades. The Denver Post in 1985 won a Pulitzer Prize for debunking the sensational figures for child abductions—mostof those counted as abducted were runaways or taken by non-custodial parents in a divorce dispute.
All of this fear is taking its toll on childhood and children. In a ground-breaking piece in Reason, Haidt and Skenazy wrote about what they dubbed “the Fragile Generation” and explained how bad policy and paranoia are creating kids who are too safe to succeed. They described a generation that is “more fragile, more easily offended, and more reliant on others. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, a condition sociologists call ‘moral dependency.'”
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Let Grow, already in a handful of flagship schools, has a simple project that encourages kids to do the things our generation took for granted–things such as walking to school, running an errand, making dinner, exploring the woods, or building a fort. One of Lenore’s favorite quotes is, “All the fear in the world doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.” A Menlo Park couple noticed the quote on Let Grow material, and it made such an impression that they let their fifth grade son do something he’d always begged to do–ride his bike to school. After they let him do it that one, single time for the Let Grow Project, it became easy and automatic to do it all the time. Their fears of “What if something terrible happens?” had been replaced by reality: Their wonderful, competent son could handle this age-old childhood activity with aplomb. Kids, Lenore says, want to know their parents believe in them and know they are capable of doing things on their own. It’s an insight that began to take shape in the handbags department in Bloomingdale’s and has since become a movement.