New York Sun column: "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone"

Lenore Skenazy wrote a piece for the April 4 edition of the New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old son find his way home from downtown NYC using the subway system. Many people were upset with her.

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.

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.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating – for us and for them.



  1. “As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids.”

    She’s right. I see far too many kids who live this life, and you can seem them squinting in the sunshine sometimes, figuratively speaking, once they’re out in the real world. I was already riding bicycles and buses wherever I wanted to be at that age (of course, I turned out lousy), but we were allowed to do whatever we pleased unsupervised (we’re talking late 60s, early 70s). I look at kids/parents today and it feels like I grew up on another planet.

  2. reminds me of a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Far Rockaway of the Heart”.

    Possibly the best book of poetry in the last 60 years.

  3. Especially because statistically speaking the vast majority of predators (sexual and otherwise) come from WITHIN the Magic Circle.

  4. I’m a mom, and I’ve got your back. I’m amazed at the difference between the freedom I experienced as a kid in the 70s and the short leash my son’s generation enjoys. Granted, I was freaked out the first time he took the bus alone and the first time he flew to California by himself I close to polished off a bottle of Makers’ but that’s my problem, not his.
    My one question is regarding the cell phone. If my kid wasn’t responsible enough to hold on to a cell phone, I would question his ability to negotiate the rest of the trip. Was losing the phone really an issue, or did you want him to manage the trip without the security blanket of a quick call home?

  5. “Carlie Brucia — I don’t know if you’re familiar with that case or not, but she was in Florida and she did a cut-through about a mile from her house … and midday, at 11 in the morning, she was abducted by a guy who violated her several times, killed her, and left her behind a church.”

    Thing about New York City is, there are always people around. If someone is really intent on doing something, the kid is probably safer being in the city.

    Good for her, good for the kid. Security breeds fear. Treat things like no big deal, and that’s exactly how it’ll be handled.

  6. This is the feedback in left for Lenore on the story:

    Dear Lenore,

    I just wanted to take a brief moment to thank you for taking on the unwashed masses and telling an important story.

    You are a casbah of sanity in a desert of crazed lunatics.

    That you are brave enough to stand up to the ignorance and rampant paranoia and nonsense spewed by the majority of people today is a testament to your will.

    Your son will grow up to be strong, independent and confident, ready to face life; instead of sheltered, paranoid, and afraid of his own shadow.

    Were that more people raised their children like you.

    It’s encouraging to read your tale. You’ve given me hope that not everyone is insane.

  7. I fully agree with this post. I’m a college student in the Midwest and I look at my peers and I swear, this is the first time away from supervision for them. Needless to say, they don’t handle the heady freedom all that well. Children need to experience the fear and exhilaration of wandering.

  8. George Carlin would be proud. (I mean that in a good way).
    I fully agree with this Mom, and wish to raise my kids (when I’ll have them) in such a way. I want my kids to know their way around the world, and realize as soon as possible that the world is a wonderful place, and there aren’t monsters at every corner.

  9. Brava! (except of course you followed him the whole way from a distance and sure as hell aren’t going to tell him,me, or anyone else)

  10. I let my 5 year old son use the restroom in restaurants by himself, and people I know think I shouldn’t be doing that. (I wouldn’t do it anywhere of course, but I don’t keep him on a leash.)

  11. Thank you for that article.
    This reminds me of a story that Virgin-founder and adventurer Richard Branson told. He had bet with his mother as a child that he could find his way home, so she dropped him on the streets. And sure he found home walking for several kilometers.
    And from that on he knew, that when he relies on himself, he can achieve anything. And look what he has done since…

  12. Good for this mom.

    I remember when I was a kid we (cousins, friends and I) weren’t allowed inside during the day in the summer unless it was to eat or the weather was really crappy. If we came inside the house, there had better be a good reason. All our toys were outside, and there were pleanty of activities we could busy ourselves with.

    Now I am at an age where many of my friends have kids, and many of them won’t let their offspring out of their site for more than a handfull of minutes at a time.

    It is easy to talk about how I would raise kids, but I trully hope that I will be a more trusting/adventurous parent.

  13. I, for one, blame Law & Order, SVU, for fostering in our society the widely-held idea that horror is waiting around every corner.

  14. gee,you mean all those times they left me in the mountains, they were just trying to build my character?

  15. It’s great to see someone thinking through the chances of tragedy befalling their child and ignoring the unfortunate We Must Protect Our Children hype.

    On a personal note, back when I was an eight year-old boy living in Minsk, Belarus in 1990, I took the city bus to school every day, forty minutes each way.

    The “Concerned Parents” of America really need to chill.

  16. I, too, immediately thought of Law & Order: SVU when reading this story.

    This should become a new game for adults: Have your friends drop you off somewhere, and see if you can find your way home. I’d play that.

  17. Yes, nice to see a sane person unafraid in the world of paranoia. I guess NYC is one of the best places to do this though, since this is one city where people might not react to a 9 year old riding subway or bus or just walking the streets by himself. I would guess in some of the other cities the kid would end up in police due to help of some “good Samaritan” with obvious consequences to the parent.

  18. WT*

    Never had trouble posting before, and lost my comments.

    But no need. The responses include everything I would have said.

  19. Oh oh, someone is trying to break away from the carefully constructed cage we put them in. Time to amp up the fear level stat!

  20. Are any of you aware of what is going on in the Philadelphia subways these past few weeks? I am all for raising independent children, but grown adults are getting attacked in the subway by gangs of kids. What is to stop them attacking a robbing a nine year-old?

  21. I’d try it with my three-year-old, but she can’t read the stops. Or even see out the window.

    Seriously, we used to do stuff as little kids that kids aren’t allowed to do today. We didn’t even have bike helmets when I was growing up. (Though we did have a kid crack his skull in 4th grade attempting a wheelie on his “Chopper.”)

    Are abductions really “up”? And does hiding kids from the real world provide a collective solution or a worsening of the environment?

  22. I have 2 girls 11 and 8.

    The 11 year old has the run of the neighborhood (in a far north suburb of Dallas).

    The 8 year old the run of the street.

    When they come home with the inevitable cuts and bruises it’s a ‘Did you have fun?’ and a bandaid (or kiss for the bruises).

  23. I’m with the Mom here! If the kid never gets the chance to do things on their own, they’ll be SOL the first time they get accidentally separated from their parents.

  24. Even if child abductions are up they most often by someone the child knows as are murders and rape. Kids are better off with strangers than they are with people they know!

  25. Snackcake @ 23-

    A while back I propose a game to some friends of mine that involved being dropped off in the north bay and having to find ones way to San Jose. The trick here is that everyone would start out in orange jump suits with “Mental Patient” stenciled across the back, handcuffed and without any ID, money, or anything- just themselves. They would have an envelope with their ID, an emergency phone number, some money and letter explaining the game in one pocket, to get them out of trouble if they were picked up. The idea was to see who could get to San Jose the fastest by relying on the kindness of strangers.

    We never ended up playing it, but I think it would be a lot of fun.

  26. When I was a lad, before air and gravity, I used to get dragged to the grocery store and the hardware store and the dump and wherever else the adult I was with had to go. As a result, I had some idea how the world functioned. One of the reasons that it’s frightening to send children into the world now is that they don’t get as much real world experience as we did. Watching Spongebob and finger painting in child care don’t give you quite the same perspective as having your ass hauled all over god’s creation trying to get a chainsaw repaired. It’s a good idea to teach the cubs to hunt before you release them into the wild.

  27. this lady is wrong wrong wrong!

    we shouldnt let our children out of our sites until we send them off to the front lines to fight wars.

    at 10 years old, i would come home from school everyday, do homework, go outside and play, then make myself dinner…..all before my mom got home from work. these poor kids today are way too sheltered.

    i do support giving kids on their own a cell phone. mostly because its almost impossible to find a working pay phone these days.

  28. Good job, and great outcome!

    About time people everywhere start making the most of declining crime dividends (and confronting those problems directly if they trends aren’t going down). Who knows, we might all get a civic society of empowered individuals at journey’s end.

  29. I would have given him the cellphone, but certainly if my son asked me if he could see if he was capable of riding the subway alone, I would let him. Don’t we want our children to grow up to be responsible and independent adults?

  30. Wow, I’m amazed at all the positive feedback on here. Yay. I second the comment in #4.

    I’ve worked with “helicopter parents” frequently. The worst is when the parents of a college-aged employee call or e-mail – usually before that person’s first day – to talk to us supervisors to investigate the job so they know it’s going to be emotionally and physically acceptable for their kid. Talk about embarrassing. Cut the cord already!

  31. The truth of the matter is, there is danger everywhere. The truth of the matter also is, it’s not very likely to “get us.” If someone really wanted to, he could snatch Little Elrod on his train ride from the museum or the hotdog stand. But some maniac could also snatch one of us “grown-ups,” too, with enough planning and duct tape. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be careful and use your common sense, but people need to get a grip and live their lives.

  32. in Denmark, many parents drive their kids to school, because they are concerned about the heavy traffic around the school because of people driving their kids to school because of…….

  33. The scary thing is so many parents hover over their kids – but they are still unable to talk with them about sex and drugs in a open and sensible way. As a result we have HIV seroconversation rates skyrocketing in the current crop of early 20-somethings.

  34. I can totally respect the lesson this lady was trying to impart, and it is ridiculous to suggest that she’s guilty of child abuse.

    It is not, however, something I’d do with a child that young.

  35. Judging from the comments here and on Huffpost it seems that maybe this sort of thing is not really all that crazy and out of the mainstream. It seems the media is trying to make a monster out of her but they are also the ones trying to scare us into war, gated communities, duct tape purchases, etc. I doubt this parenting behavior is really all that unusual in the real world.

    Or maybe BB and Huff readers are all self selected security progressives so the sample is skewed. What do I know, I’m not a parent.

  36. I’m thinking that the difference between 1968 and 2008 isn’t the kids, it’s the adults. Random serial killers aside, the fear that this brings out is “what if something were to go wrong.” 40 years ago it seems we knew a kid could count on a stranger for help, and a stranger would generally go as far as getting a lost kid to a trusted authority.

    I wonder if the same is true today? As adults and parents we don’t seem to trust strangers. But I know I’m at least as trustworthy as my parents were, and totally willing to help ensure the safety of kids I see out in the world. I bet BoingBoing selects for that kind of person, which explains all the positive responses here.

    How is it that America has lost track of how to deal with strangers and people in trouble?

  37. my sister and I travelled to school on our own on public buses from the age of 7. We never had a problem. Modern day paranoia is extremely bad for children, and I very much doubt that there are more dangers in the street than there were 35 years ago. (Though there is certainly more traffic…)

  38. “The secret of life is to have no fear.” –Doctor Kwame Nkrumah

    I was never put in a situation like than when I was nine, I don;t know how well I would have coped, but the kid WANTED to do it, so clearly he was ready.

  39. I was a bit angry at this article. NOT because the lady let her kid navigate the streets alone – that was pretty cool I think.

    The reason I was perturbed was because she didn’t want to give her cell phone to the kid. Why? She was afraid of losing it.

    Not afraid of losing the kid – afraid of losing her phone.


  40. I, for one, blame Law & Order, SVU, for fostering in our society the widely-held idea that horror is waiting around every corner.

    Amen to that. I unwisely surfed to L&O earlier this week and was shocked by the plot line: a serial killer who tortured and killed 23 women in a torture room. What amazed me (shame on me for watching about the last 15-20 minutes) was it was more or less just another day for the cops; IOW, a 23-time murdering torturer kind of went with the territory, it was not all that surprising. Oh, and the ending where the female cop who had already killed the serial killer and then shot herself in the head when she was found out – yeah, that was special.

    Seriously, this kind of crap and “FOX Noise” is like crystal meth for paranoids.

    And bravo to Lenore Skenazy for bitch-slapping said paranoids who also have no life, hence they went to the trouble of searching for her email and spewing venom at her.

  41. Whoops. Posted this anonymously first.

    When did this happen? When did it become a fad to insulate and infantilize one’s offspring for as long as possible? The outrage, and to further extension later in life, the so-called helicopter parents who interfere with their children’s college education and employers… where did it all come from? I think it started in great numbers with my generation.

    I grew up in Phoenix during the 70s and 80s, only child and single parent home during the day. After second grade, during summer vacation, I was supremely bored off my ass so I put my big jar of change in my backpack and started riding city buses during the day. I ended up going all over the valley, or at least where Phoenix Transit went, which admittedly wasn’t all that expansive at the time.

    When I told my mother about it, in sort of an oh-by-the-way sort of reference a few weeks later, she was horrified for about five minutes. And then she realized she could have me run errands, do a bit of grocery shopping or whatever throughout the day, doing things that made life easier for her.

    Further adventures in teenhood met with friends and others who were equally horrified or mystified that I would just go off and do things on my own. It seemed as if most of my peers were incredibly confused that I could be so independent and now they’re the ones with kids in high school or heading off to college, many of them unable to cut the apron strings.

    Good for this woman, for recognizing and affirming her child’s need for independence. It’s the best possible gift a parent could give.

  42. You never stop worrying… its the hardest thing in the world to let go and let your kids fall down, make their own mistakes, get into and out of danger on their own. The first time you see your child get hurt, your heart stops cold dead, and you want to wrap them in bubble wrap and protect them forever. Hell, when my daughter got her first immunization shot I wanted to kill the nurse for making her cry! Good for this mom. And you know for damn sure that she was holding her breath until her son got home safely.

  43. huzzah!

    My parents used to be scared shitless that every guy on the street was just waiting to rape me. The truth is, most people on the street could care less who I am or what I have to do with them. They’re a lot less paranoid now and I’m allowed to walk by myself within a three mile radius of the house. I don’t have a cell phone.

    It’s great.

  44. This is tricky.

    On one hand I totally support this type of thing and know it’s the right way to approach raising children. I want my kids to be strong and smart.

    On the other hand, I freak out every time either my 4 or 7 year old come within 20 feet of the quiet street on which we live. Also, there is a big difference between the age of 7 and 9, so I have two more years to work out my issues before cutting the cord.

    It seems like only yesterday these kids totally depended on mom and dad to take care of everything… they couldn’t even hold up their heads without help. Indeed, it’s hard to turn off the ‘ol over-protect-o machine when it comes to the little ones. Thankfully, my wife seems to be cut from the same cloth as Ms. Skenazy, so our kids should be OK in the long run.

    So give the helicopter parents (I’m not that bad, BTW) a little slack. They are just scared and don’t know better, as many have stated. It’s all about insecurity, perhaps.

  45. 9 years old does not sound that young to me to be using the subway. The way people are reacting, it’s as if she let a 4-year-old wander home. The kid is 9. That’s 4th grade. I taught 4th-graders. Most of them are quite capable of taking public transportation. As for abduction, what are the odds someone would be crazy enough to try abducting a 9-year-old boy on a crowded subway or bus? Is this really news? In my opinion, this is like writing an article about how you allowed your 5-year-old to walk down the street to play with a neighbor child. Should I be scared that people find this astounding and praise-worthy?

  46. a word for parents: go ahead and try your best to teach your children and protect them and keep them from making the same painful, expensive and dangerous mistakes you made. Sacrifice, suffer, lecture,worry, preach and beg.

    They’ll all gratefully and solemnly receive your teachings and advice and with a filial tear in their eye,turn around, march out that door into the big world, and do exactly what the hell they please anyway.

  47. Trueblue2: I’ve worked with “helicopter parents” frequently. The worst is when the parents of a college-aged employee call or e-mail – usually before that person’s first day – to talk to us supervisors to investigate the job so they know it’s going to be emotionally and physically acceptable for their kid. Talk about embarrassing. Cut the cord already!

    Unbelievable! My immediate reaction as the recipient of such a call would be to run, not walk, to HR and figure out how to immediately “un-hire” the kid of said helicopter parents.

    They’ve profiled such parents on 20/20, Dateline and such…the parents move to live near their kid’s campus, give their kid wake-up calls every morning, edit their kid’s homework, hound their profs, do their meals, laundry, I’d say they “everything except wipe their arse” but… Anyway it’s a sickness for the parents and the kid alike, who has probably never done anything for themselves, much less ride a bus or train on their own!

  48. New York City is probably the safest place in the USA for kids wandering around on their own, and the subway is probably the safest place in the city. The city gives out free subway fares for 11 year olds, you are expected to take the train to school after all.

    I grew up on a farm in California , and people I went to high school with ask me if I worry about my kids’ safety on the subway etc. , and I remind them that in a highschool of about 2000 kids about as many kids got killed in car accidents as people get killed on the subway in a city of 8 million.

    Of course every couple years there is a big ho-ha when Scandinavian tourists leave their baby in a stroller on the sidewalk while they go into a restaurant. Apparently, according to the papers, it is considered healthier than going indoors where the baby might get exposed to exotic germs.

    Anyway , my kids have had the run of Brooklyn and Manhattan since age 11 or so. It’s not like those scary suburbs.

  49. I don’t know what city all her critics are living in, but as a New York commuter, I see 9-year-olds on the subway all the time.

  50. As a child growing up in the 80’s in San Juan, Puerto Rico I thought of kids walking/biking/riding buses about on their own as a fiction. Something you saw in movies, read in books, but no one ever did that for real. Like unicorn hunts. It wasn’t until I grew up I realized that not all kids were raised the way my neighbors and I were raised. We weren’t even allowed to take the elevators/stairs within our building until we were nearly 12. As an adult, it has been nearly impossible to go against this tradition: 1)Because the fear of the outside has been branded into my brain, but the real reason is 2)Because I fear the lynch mob (trust me, the other parents would call social services.)

  51. Oh my, in that case, I guess we shouldn’t give the helicopter parents any slack.

    I’m sure the parents that Trueblue2 and Mikey Likes Boingboing mention would, by comparison, think I abuse my kids with neglect.

    I feel much better about my parenting skills after learning about the 20/20, etc. profile.

    Yeah for me and my kids!

  52. Has she considered running. We just need to scale up her lesson to the whole nation. I would vote for her.

    Skenazy 2008 !

  53. So sad that this is even news… we are raising coward sheep in this country… subservient little bitches… welp, they’ll make great followers, whether it be fighting wars for the elite rich heading up corporate ventures of genocide or just general slaves. Good going, slavemaster, weak-minded parents.

    We would ride our bikes all over town when I was a kid and sometimes even into other nearby towns. We were never murdered or anything (even at times when we were up to no good and probably deserved it, LOL). My childhood was an adventure way too exciting for bullshit TV or video games (most of the time anyway).

    Hell, I even got a surfboard rack for my bicycle and rode across town to the beach to surf.

    I can’t imagine what all this pussy coddling does to some of these kids minds nowadays… sad, just sad….

    Fear is the mindkiller.

  54. It doesn’t surprise me she got so many negative responses to this article, both parents and children are taught that the world is such an unsafe place that we need to isolate ourselves from it. No wonder kids resort to Grand Theft Auto to experience freedom. My first excursion, all by my lonesome, out of town took place when I was around fifteen; I had to lie to my parents and tell them I was going with a group of friends. I’m eighteen now and I still get the “world is a dangerous place now, lots of crazy people” talk whenever I go off to Vancouver. One good thing has come out of this, though: I developed a fascination for novels and films relating to the youthful freedom exhibited back in the day.
    On another note, have people always been so suspicious of teenagers motives? Some friends and I built a simple rope swing by a stream the other week and it seems like every time we go out there to swing on it we get hassled by some concerned parent threatening to call the police on us “arsons.”

  55. People in this country are afraid of everything. They seem to be scared that the boogie man will jump out at any second and commit some unspeakable horror upon them.

    Statistics about how unlikely it is to be blown up by a terrorist or abducted or shot don’t seem to help. That there is any possibility at all of their world not being safe scares them into doing the most unreasonable things.

    I feel sorry for the next generation. Coddled since birth and inundated with fear by the media, I have a feeling these kids won’t exactly take many risks in their lives.

    I start walking a mile and a half to school when I was about 7. The first time I did I got lost and had to ask a very kind old lady for help. That’s how it goes. I was allowed (nay encouraged) to walk to school the next day after a quick refresher on how to get there and back.

    After that day I never got a ride to school again. I never got a ride anywhere. I rode my bike upwards for hours to get somewhere and if it was too far, I took public transit all across the bay area and across LA.

    How do we fix this problem? Well, kids have a tendency to go against their parents. I imagine when this coddled generation grows up, their kids will be clamoring for freedom.

  56. Several years ago I spent a year in South Korea. In the summer time we would often seen kids as young as 5 or 6 walking home unattended from the corner market with ice cream, little brother or sister in tow.
    Our culture is really way out of whack on the ‘stranger danger’ issue. The odds of your child being abducted by a stranger are vanishingly small compared to, say, the odds they will suffer a serious brain injury while riding bikes, be ‘inappropriately touched’ by a friend or family member, die of a bee sting, or probably even be killed by lightening. Not to say it doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t happen very often.

  57. I was raised in Toronto in the late 70s/early 80s. At age 9 I was expected to walk my little brother home. After school or on the weekend, if it wasn’t -43 degrees or raining ash from the skies, we’d be sent out to play. Usually we’d be told to come back when the streetlights came on. In the summer this would be close to 9:00. I can’t imagine any kids I might have not having this level of independence.

  58. I often mention how my and my pal’s parents gave us our dads’ monthly LIRR tickets and put us on the train to Manhattan early one Sunday morning for our first comic book convention at 13. Sure, our parents were aware we looked at city maps beforehand and planned how we were going to get from Penn Station to the hotel near Grand Central, but really, neither of us spent all that much time in Manhattan up till then. Just great fun. And we got to see Jack Kirby draw. :)

    No cell phones. Manhattan in the early ’70s. And parents are worried now?? Sheesh.

  59. ” (Though we did have a kid crack his skull in 4th grade attempting a wheelie on his “Chopper.”)”

    My best Chopper Wheelie moment – a friend was showing off in front of some girls (well, duh) and got a really terrific wheelie going… and the front wheel fell off :-)
    So now he’s speeding along on a very unsuitable unicycle with an audience of good looking girls. Worse yet, he’s on grass so when the front comes down it sticks. Ouch.

    Ah, happy days.

  60. I’m really glad to read the amount of sanity from the users regarding this issue.

    My first time in Japan at 17 years, I was genuinely shocked to learn that first graders taking the trains by themselves to and from school in Tokyo was the norm and continues to be despite some rather horrific stories of people being pushed off platforms, stabbed randomly in the train stations, or otherwise harassed. It’s often led me to try to understand why exactly American fears lead to such an utterly paranoid repressive state yet Japan, honestly, has some very scary stuff going on within it and yet life goes on as normal.

    I’m sure however were I to ask a normal Japanese person if they’d let their 9yo son or daughter wander around New York alone it would be met with a horrified expression and an exclamation that it was unthinkable as America is such a dangerous country. I don’t really see there’s much of a difference between Tokyo and New York in terms of child safety, however.

  61. Gosh, I was taking public transit on my own in Chicago from about age 7 or 8. Wasn’t a big deal.

    There’s a book about to come out (full disclosure: I work for the publisher) called Flirting with Disaster, which is about how disasters and their consequences come to occur and can be avoided. In one of the opening chapters, the author talks about perception of risk versus actual risk, and how pervasive media–much more access to much more information–is one of the factors that skews our perception of risk. This is certainly a case in point. Of course we’ve all heard about every abducted, molested, or murdered child, because we have a zillion channels, 24-hour news networks, the internet, etc. But we don’t hear about every car accident that happens, because they’re a common, everyday occurrence. Statistically, your kid is probably safer taking the subway than being driven around everywhere. But many people’s perception of the relative risk is just the opposite, because it’s the unusual that gets the attention, not the commonplace.

    And so as a society we protect against the unlikely, in this case by oversheltering kids, rather than focusing on the more probable sources of harm.

  62. I saw at least one other comment like this in my quick scan through the previous 71 or so comments before me… but it deserves re-stating.

    I was riding the bus and the subway by myself at age 9 in NYC in the early ’80s. My parents weren’t crazy, and they weren’t neglectful. They taught me how to ride the train, what to do if there were problems, who to talk to and not talk to, all that sort of thing. They made sure I always had a quarter to call home, and they made me practice doing that. There were programs, I think the one where I lived was called “Safe Haven” or something… where the stickers were on storefronts if shopkeepers had promised to help a kid in trouble.

    Seriously – I was fine. Kids have been doing things like this for thousands of years.

    Also, my ability to easily adapt to and navigate any subway system in the world is totally because of this early training.

  63. Good on her, the whole world needs more people like this. Things are no more dangerous for children than they have ever really been, and yet most of them are driven to school, not allowed to travel by themselves and are totally denied the normal happy freedom of childhood. I hope more people are able to do this, the more that do, the better our cities will be.
    I think it would then be the responsibility of of any decent person to help kids that try this and do get into trouble.

  64. I’ll always be grateful to my parents for their assumption that I could take care of myself. My brother (6) and I (12) were at Heathrow airport in London with my dad back in the mid 70s, waiting in line hours ahead of our flight to get seats on the upper deck of a 747 (a charter flight, so no first class). He was indulging us, that’s for sure (totally worth it, and very cool).

    We got bored with waiting, and so my dad said we could go back to the hotel. So I took my brother and went and found the appropriate shuttle bus, went back to the hotel, hung around there for a while, collected my mother and went back to the airport in time for the flight.

    I should point out that I’m from Canada, and this was my first time in London.

    My dad still likes to tell the story about how the older woman in line in front of him gave him hell for sending us off on our own…

    Since then, I’ve never thought twice about finding my way around anywhere that I go.

  65. I think the negative responses she received are a fascinating indication of how relative safety/security breeds fear.

    There are many people in this country–and unfortunately I count myself among them–who have not experienced significant hardships in their lives, who have become too comfortable, and who consequently lack confidence in their ability to deal with adversity. It is not surprising that this feeling would be extended to one’s children.

    I think it would be an interesting empirical question to see if these overprotective parents have as much fear with respect to their own lives. Are they the people who worry about terrorists when they fly or who don’t live in cities because they’re terrified of crimes happening to them? Similarly, were they also raised by overly cautious parents? (Are these the people who end up voting Republican when reminded of their own mortality, as some psychological studies have shown?)

    I’ve worked several summers at an academic camp for gifted students, which each year became more and more onerous to work for because less and less freedom was allowed to the children. The parents of “gifted” children are probably the worst. I mean, it really got ridiculous. We were supposed to even follow students to the restroom, but I refused to do that.

    I remember when I tried to object to certain authoritarian policies, almost invariably my coworkers–most of whom were in their 20s or early 30s–would defend them and say stuff like, so many other workplaces have more restrictions, you should feel lucky, it’s not a big deal: just do what you’re told. These were people who were happy to dress in “countercultural” ways, who took on the airs of being rebellious, and some of who even espoused radical revolutionary politics–yet they were some of the biggest tools I’d ever met.

    Now, that said, I know how powerful fear can be and I’m somewhat sympathetic to those who are gripped by it. (However, I want to resist making them into victims made that way by a fearful society, because this is the kind of thinking that only perpetuates a negative mentality denying responsibility to individuals.) My feeling, though, is that these people themselves need to do a certain kind of growing up. Overgrown children probably don’t make the best parents.

  66. What a great article.

    When I was growing up — in the ’70s, in the Bronx — I was allowed (encouraged!) to walk to the library, half a mile away. Which doesn’t sound like much, but there wasn’t much else worth getting to in walking distance.

    When we went upstate for the summer, I used to walk to town all the time to see movies, or buy comics, or visit that library. A mile or so, I think.

    I don’t think my young niece and nephew are going to have that same freedom. My mother freaks out when I remind her of the things she allowed me and my sister to do. She’s somehow become convinced that things are more dangerous, despite all the statistic to the contrary. I think it’s television news that does it. Anything bad happens to a (white) kid anywhere in the country, and it’s all over the news immediately. Child abductions peaked in the ’80s, but I guess the news didn’t focus on it as much then.

  67. Back in junior high in the late 70s, my friend wasn’t allowed to go home for lunch – his working mother was worried that he’d fall down the stairs. Another friend, an only child, wasn’t allowed to leave the subdivision for fear of his getting clipped by a car on the main street. Paranoid parents aren’t new. Any pointers to quantitative studies showing we are, as a society, getting increasingly paranoid about our kids’ welfare?

    BTW, here’s my 4 year-old playing with power tools (yes, granted, she isn’t doing it alone just yet):

  68. My kids are 15, 14, and 13. They’ve been riding the bus in pairs or a group for about three years, and the oldest (the girl) goes just about everywhere on the bus. They’re learning a bunch about responsibility and independence, and I’m saving gas and time and aggravation.

    My job as a parent is to teach them how to not depend on me, either physically or emotionally.

  69. #59 Beautifulmonster: Do I know you? I grew up in San Juan in the 1970s and my sisters were in the 80s. Your home environment sounds like you were in a North American expat family, since the locals were a lot less paranoid than you describe. If you went to CCS/CPS you probably know my mother. She was the school librarian at the elementary school.

    Main article:
    Well 9 years old is an interesting age. An 11 year old should definitely be able to get around by their self, a 10 year most likely, but a 9 year old is kind of like a 13 year old in that they find smart and interesting ways to make dumb mistakes. So I certainly wouldn’t send my 9 year old kid out on her own to do something that she hadn’t done previously under adult supervision. It sounds like our lead columnist is fine, since I’m sure she’s carted her boy around the subway system with her on previous occasions.

    For kids 8/9 to 12, my compromise with the paranoiacs and their government backers is the buddy system. Send your kids out in a group, or find a like-minded parent and let your kids go out together on these ventures. Even if the worst does happen, a) two targets are much harder to subdue than just one, b) assuming at least one child is saved you have a witness who can still phone home.

  70. Re. Cell phones #5 #37.

    Recently we were driving home and our 12-year-old wanted to stop to buy some candy at the corner store, about a half mile from our house. We’re sort of anti-candy at our house, but we said Fine, but we’re not waiting for you, spend your own money and walk home.

    We gave him one of our cell phones–just for good measure. Fifteen minutes later, sure enough, he called us and wanted a ride home. He said there were some dogs on the sidewalk that looked kind of vicious, and he didn’t want to walk past them. Right.

    Next time: No cell phone.

  71. My parents used to do all kinds of strange stuff to encourage independence in us. In the summer, when my mother would drive my dad to work–ten miles from home–she would drop us off as well, with water bottles, sunblock, and a small snack, and we would walk home. It generally took about three hours, give or take. We weren’t allowed to split up–we had to stay together, all five of us.

    Then there was the summer they took us to California. We had to figure out the directions to our uncle’s house and dictate them to our dad, who would follow our directions literally. This was pre-Mapquest days, so we had to look up road atlases and call my grandparents to research things. We also had to be accurate, because Dad made a rule saying if our directions took us more than 50 miles out of the way, he would turn around and head back home, and we’d get no vacation. I suspect he did this to thwart our intention of making him drive to Disneyland.

    One of my favourite books as a kid was the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, wherein a 12 year old girl and a 9 year old boy take the train, and then the subway, to downtown NYC. They proceed to secretly live in the Met Museum for the next few weeks or so, until they decide to solve an art mystery surrounding Michelangelo. Granted, their family flips out over them being away for so long, but nobody bats an eye over the kids riding the subway.

  72. #82: Yes, The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–loved that book! I wanted to run away and go live in a museum after I read that. Contributed to my lifelong love of museums, which my rural nieces and nephews are now learning. Whenever they come to NYC, we go to museums, and as each gets older, they’re starting to be able to go there themselves. I write out directions and send ’em off with cell phone and Metrocard, because they won’t spend their entire lives in a little farm town. So far, the only time the cell phone has been used was when my niece called to report that she was running a little late for our scheduled rendezvous at the end of the day, so I wouldn’t worry.

    I knew kids in college who had come from small towns and had no idea how to navigate a city–they were helpless and in some cases terrified. I don’t want my nieces and nephews to grow up to be so handicapped, and their parents agree.

  73. Back around the turn of the century, there was something like 100,000 homeless kids running around New York.

    Good thing? No. Did some suffer? No doubt. But I’m guessing that 99.9% survived without ever being tied up in a basement.

    Kids are SMART. If given a chance. Will you be there to protect them when they’re 19? 25? 32? Please, let them get started. My father jumped a train (1920s) and ran away from home when he was 15. Kids used to do that. After a couple months he got back safely. And reminisced about it his whole life. Real life is *memorable*.

  74. Okay, I got obsessed with the relative risk of a kid on the subway alone being abducted and murdered by Mr. Stranger Danger (anybody remember that?) versus a kid being driven everywhere dying in a car accident. So I did a little research and some back-of-the-virtual-envelope calculation in a blog post. The short version: a kid age 5-12 is 20 times more likely to die in as a passenger in a car than to be murdered (by anyone, under any circumstances).

  75. @ Remaines #86: Right, but those numbers are based on the standard coddled kids of today. That’s the problem with comparing standard statistics to an uncommon situation. The real question being asked is whether “free-range kids” are more likely to be murdered (by anyone, under any circumstances) than the boxed-in variety.

    My money’s on no, but let us know if you find anything that proves otherwise.

  76. I’m surprised that no-one has mentioned the main danger for children of this age, which is the traffic on the streets. My father, who was born in the 1930s maintains that the reason parents of his generation were able to allow their children more freedom, was the relative rarity of cars in small towns and villages. He points out that there are more cars in our London borough now than there were in the whole country in the 1950s.

    The ability of a child to judge traffic and be sensible increases with age, and depends on the individual child. One chil *might* be ready to take life or death decisions on crossing the road at 7/8 but many won’t. Nearly all can by 12.

    There is a general superstition in our culture about stranger abductors, I can agree. That worries about sexual predators are unfounded I do not agree. When I joined a women’s group to discuss an organisation’s policy on safeguarding children from harm, every woman in the group had experienced some form of sexual assault as a child. The increasing experience of non-fatal but life-altering experiences of sexual predation on children, which is something we should be examining very closely, is something that keeps parents from trusting their children to the street. These experiences go deep, and sometimes affect people for the rest of their lives… if you have been assaulted by a trusted adult in your own childhood, it is unlikely that you are going to be able to trust your children to strangers.

  77. I’d heard, somewhere, that it was all those missing kids on the milk cartons that got people freaky about letting their kids go out in the world. And that those missing kids were, for the most part, not random abductions, but rather custody battles in which one parent had done a scamper with the kid and gone into hiding. (Citation needed, to be sure…)

    Abusive parents also keep children from the world. It is a matter of control. It is not unusual for an abuser to want to keep the victim feeling there is nowhere else to go, no one who could help.

    But being over protectived also clips the emotional wings the children. One’s emotional growth is retarded. I think a certain amount of xenophobia comes with the territory. And, of course, contained and controlled as they are, kids aren’t outside as much.

    And the kids don’t get exercise because they aren’t running around (except in the context of organized sports teams, pretty yucky IMO) and they are disconnected from the natural world because there isn’t much of it left near where they live, or because heaven forfend they climb a tree and somebody gets sued.

    And let’s not forget to start bitching then, that the kids spend too much time in front of the computer.

    I don’t know what the hell we expect from our kids nowadays,

    I am a mom. I’m of the school that you need to let your kids experience the world on their own terms. I think boredom is important, that not every moment needs to be planned and monitored. And one finds, as a parent, that you end up having your child play more with children of like-minded parents. Because it is just annoying and joyless to have a forty-minute playdate with a child who is scheduled up the wazoo and cries and wails every time he has to leave your kid for his violin lesson or whatever.

    And so my son ended up with a nice little cohort of fellow young travelers, boys who wandered and explored with him. And now, as adults, they are still friends.

    And the world seems much more their apple that it is for the kids who were kept “safe”.
    Because if they do not experience the world, how are they ever going to care for it, care about it? They’ll just be obedient little consumers/cubical rats.

    And I can’t help but think that the overparenting and the overprotectiveness is some kind of selfishness on the part of the parent. You need to let your kids DO stuff. You need to let them drop into that halfpipe. You need to let them breathe. You need to let them live in RL. If you don’t, then don’t bitch when they spend more time in WoW than whatever micromanaged suburban existence you’ve got laid out for them…

  78. #87 Nanners: Stats I found don’t distinguish the circumstances of the murdered child’s death; but the total murder victims age 5-12 was only 178. So I wondered, did more kids die when there were more free-range kids? Again, just quickie internet research, but the Department of Justice has a chart of death rates by murder for 1975-2005, sorted by victim age, in which they lump together all kids age 14 and under; in that age group, the death rate was flat throughout that period. Doesn’t constitute proof, but again, tends to suggest that the perception of risk vastly outweighs the actual risk.

    I put all the links to data in my blog post doing the math. Cory blogged the vehicle accident data (which is total info-porn heaven), and the link to my blog post is there too.

    #88 Fee: The car accident data lists pedestrian deaths separately, so you can easily find out how those have trended for this age group.

    On your second point re sexual predation, that’s a whole ‘nother data set that I didn’t try to track down, but your point that molestation is much more prevalent and therefore a greater risk than murder is well taken. Note, though, there is significant data that sexual crimes are perpetrated much more often by people the victim knows . . . which leads to a similar question: is a kid really less safe on a subway full of people than alone with a “trusted” adult? I haven’t sought data, as I said, to support my view on that (might try another day, but I have actual work to get back to, alas). I do think experience in the world is how we learn whom to trust and not trust–and thereby assess risk and prevent harm of many types throughout all ages of our lives.

  79. When we moved to Evanston IL from Rochester NY back in 1969 my Mom’s comment was that it was a “town big enough to have a bus system, and small enough to let an 8 year-old ride it alone.”
    The amount of adult supervison kids are saddled with these days is scary. I had a 21 year old classmate at culinary school who had never done her own laundry. The idea that getting a bump or bruise can be useful or educational has dissapeared. The best quote of all on this topic comes from a British kids book-Swallows and Amazons by A. Ramsome. The kids find a sailboat at the hous where they’re staying in the Lakes district. A telegram to their father in the RN gets this response “If not duffers, won’t drown. If differs, better drownded.”

  80. But wait, if we don’t coddle and protect our children, how will they possibly grow up to be manipulated by Fox News and the Republicans to vote for the most fascist possible candidates? By giving children the tools to figure out what is and what is dangerous, we abandon our glorious future as a surveillance state!

  81. hell yes. I jaunted all around Chicago when I was a thirteen-year-old fresh from small-town Wisconsin; here I am, thirty years later, umolested and cranky as fuck about all these paranoid parents.

  82. Perhaps these so called “helicopter parents” are people who have not been fortunate enough to have lived free range and been unscathed by it.

    I was one of the not so lucky free range kids, and it is easy to think you will be philosophical about the random chance of something happening to your child – until it happens. Because it is not the parent who suffers if you are wrong, it is the child and you are the one responsible for that.

    Our child has freedom but with limitations. We keep him protected while we teach him about danger and how to respond to it and until we are SURE he understands what we mean. If a 9 year old fully understands the dangers of travelling alone and is mature enough to deal with those dangers independently – fab! If not, you just don’t risk it.

    The reason that crimes against children are reduced is that parents are more protective, and children are educated earlier about what to do – not because there are less criminals.

  83. Awesome! Great parenting skills for you. Too many kids are being sheltered too much. I have a 17 year old stepson that couldn’t do what that boy did because he’s never had to figure anything out for himself.

  84. This is much a much needed reality check.

    Scaring people with what might happen to their kids is like shooting fish in a barrel.

    Now if we could have more of this rational thinking when people wanted to pump drugs or vaccines into their children, to “keep them safe/healthy”, without questioning the “professionals”.

    One size fits all doesn’t always fit when it comes to your own children.

  85. I’ve been trying to keep my daughter’s options open ever since I saw the graphic of the child’s vanishing range. I used to walk into town after school sometimes, since I was already most of the way there, and go to the library to read old newspaper comics on microfilm. We’ve chosen our house in the town we’re moving to, and I tried hard to make it close enough to town that we could wander in and out. We’ll see how it goes. Right now she knows (she’s six) that she can go to the end of the block and across the street unattended, and for somebody as clingy as she still is, that’s pretty good. (The clinginess has to do with the year she spent in an orphanage before we became her parents, I think.)

  86. When parents don’t hit kids, those kids grew up to become adults… adults that think self-dependant children are the result of abusive parents.
    I think it’s great to live in a country where a nine year old can travel alone without incident.

  87. Growing up in a relatively small town in North Carolina, I experienced both sides of the coin. For the first 12 years of my life, I was overprotected with a vengence. For a child with a strong independant streak and a stubborn personality, this only suceeded in causing constant conflict between myself and my parents. The more I tried to strike out on my own, the more scared my folks got (being the oldest child didn’t help, they chilled out a lot more with my little sister), and the tighter they tried to tie the apron strings. Finally, we ended up in therapy to figure out why I spent so much time “acting out”. Answer: frustration and resentment to the point of rage, as a result of being so restricted. It took a very kind and determined therapist to convince my parents that they had to lighten up. The first time I was allowed to ride my bike by myself to the library (1.5 miles in a town where everybody knew everyone else and their kids), I’m sure my parents were freaking out. But I got there and home just fine, with nary an axe murder in sight at any point, and they slowly began trying to ease up (I give them a lot of credit for doing something that had to be terrifying for them). Things rapidly improved, to the point where I got a job away from home the summer I was 15, working in the stables at a camp – well supervised compared to a lot of the college kids I was working with, but pretty self suffiecient, none the less. As a teenager, I traveled widely (mostly with scouts, church events, and school), and enjoyed a lot more freedom that I would ever have thought possible, though I still remained somewhat sheltered. As an adult, I have made the most of my life, despite some circumstances that I don’t think I could have overcome without the self reliance I learned in my mid and late teens.

    Lesson: My parents loved me desperately, and wanted the best for me, even when that meant doing something that terrified them (having both grown up in very overprotective families themselves). Thank God I had a family willing to take such an emotional leap into the unknown. I am a stronger, smarter, better adjusted, and more resiliant person as a result. A lot of today’s parents would do well to follow my parent’s example.

  88. Wow, I was so glad to read some sound stuff about parenting in the Irish Times at last!!!! This mad hype of total hysteria where muggers and child snatchers are supposed to be hiding behind every SUV to harm your precious princes/ses….cases like Madeleine dominating international media for months in a world where thousands of children die daily from poverty and its consequences, are killed in wars or by death squads.
    In our western world of safety,comfort and luxury people go mental with imaginated dangers and deprive their kids of an ordinary healthy childhood where you learn with challenges, learn to be independent, learn to deal with other people, traffic, dangers…a different form of child neglect in my view.
    Living in a small town our kids walk to school, walk into town for buying match attax cards, walk to the library…explore the neighbourhood to find other children to play with etc.
    We actively encourage them to do these things on their own, although of course you get the thought “what if..?”, that’s part of parental life. When living in a city in Germany with the oldest boy he roamed around with friends, he used public transport on his own but had to let us know where he went and had to be back on time.
    There is a huge difference in attitude towards kid’s independence between Ireland and Germany. A lot of parents here rather have their kids locked to playstations etc to keep them “safe”, organise all spare time in supervised activities, drive them everywhere, even if it’s 100m down the road, check on every move they make…kids are kept like prisoners until they finally break free in teenage years to go completely berserk on binge dinking, speed driving and other past-times as their first and only experience of freedom. Jeezes, it’s so sad to watch!

  89. Two thoughts: First, at least in the suburbs, there are fewer responsible adults around during the day to help kids if something goes wrong. When I grew up in a suburban NJ town in the 1970s, stay-at-home moms would sign up to be in a “helping hands” program, placing a logo of a hand in their front windows to let local kids know they could stop by if they had some kind of a problem. Today, although people in all socio-economic categories have more “stuff” than back in the 70s or 80s, having a parent home during the day has become a luxury that most families do not choose to afford. Second, it is interesting that some comments believe that today’s “coddled, sheltered” kids will end up being manipulated by Republicans or Fox News (?!) as adults. I always thought that Republicans tended to be the more independent, individualist types, and it was the Democrats that say it takes “a village” (a.k.a. the government) to raise a child.

Comments are closed.