“Can you please take me someplace I’ve never been and let me find my own way home on the subway?”
That was our nine-year-old son Izzy’s odd request. In the end it changed him, it changed me, and it just may change America.
That’s because after talking it over with my husband, we decided to let the boy do it. After all, we’re New Yorkers. We’re on the subway all the time and see how safe it is. (Not clean. Safe.) So one sunny Sunday I took Izzy to Bloomingdale’s, a fancy store right above a subway stop, and said, “Today’s the day.” I left him in the handbag department.
When he came home an hour or so later, he was levitating.
“Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone” was the column I wrote for the New York Sun (RIP), and two days later I found myself on The Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News, and—for contrast—NPR defending myself. I’ve been defending myself ever since.
You see, the question I got asked on those first few shows, and have been asked continually in the nine years since, is this: “But Lenore, how would you have felt if he never came home?”
“Um, well, I do have a spare son at home …”
I was always flummoxed, until it finally dawned on me: I didn’t have a good answer for the hosts, because it wasn’t a question.
It’s an accusation.
Basically, to be a good parent in America today you are expected to imagine the anguish and regret you’d feel if your child died and it was all your fault because you let him do something unsupervised.
My crime was that I hadn’t indulged in what I call “worst-first thinking”—imagining the worst-case scenario first and proceeding as if it were likely to happen. My old-fashioned belief in my son and my city earned me the title “America’s Worst Mom.” (Google it!)
So, how scared has America become? To see for yourself in a non-parenting realm, try taking an unopened can of Coke through airport security. Of course you can’t. After all, it could be a bomb. It doesn’t matter how infinitesimally small the odds are. All that matters is that something could happen, we can imagine how awful it could be, and someone could be blamed. So let’s not take any chances, period.
That goes double, triple, infinituple for kids.
Now, if you’re like most adults today, you grew up before America became infected with this all-consuming fear. So if I asked you (as I do in my lectures) to think back on something you loved doing as a kid that you don’t see kids doing today, you would probably talk about getting on your bike and riding around till the streetlights came on while “our parents never knew where we were!”
That’s the childhood many of us would like to give our kids, but we can’t, because our country freaks out at even the tiniest hint of risk. In part, it’s because a litigious society tutors us in risk aversion, and in part it’s because the media keep warning us our kids are in constant danger. (Details at 11!)
It’s bad enough that this is making parents paranoid. But what’s worse is that this excessive fear has seeped into law. Almost every week I get a letter from a parent who was charged with child endangerment for letting her child walk to school or wait in the car while she ran a quick errand. These children were not truly endangered. We’re not talking about kids walking through a Taliban training camp or waiting in the car in the Mojave. We’re talking about normal childhood activities taking place in what Harvard’s Steven Pinker has deemed the safest time in human history. (Our crime rate is back to what it was in 1963.)
So how can we give our kids back the freedom that gave us not only incredible childhood memories but a country bursting with innovation and entrepreneurship? After all, we can’t expect to raise the next generation of risk-takers if they are not allowed to take any risks!
Well, that’s where “Free-Range Kids” comes in: a movement dedicated to reminding America that our kids are smarter and safer than our culture gives them credit for.
Free-Range Kids says we must strive, as individuals, to loosen the reins on our kids. But we must also insist our cities and states pass the Free-Range Kids Bill of Rights: Our children have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.
An old-fashioned childhood is not a crazy, dangerous idea. It is the bedrock of our success as an innovative, prosperous nation.
Plus, there’s just nothing like hopping on your bike and riding around the neighborhood when you’re nine.
Or taking the subway.