Subway trip for 'free-range kid' launches debate on independence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2008, 12:00am

New York

New York's subway is truly a city beneath the streets - a place where people not only travel from place to place but chat, nap, beg, give birth and get killed. It has its own set of rules and risks and even its own police force. So it's no surprise what Lenore Skenazy did to her son became such a sensation.

One recent weekend, the columnist at the New York Sun newspaper and mother of two left her son Izzy, 9, at a department store with a subway map, a pre-paid card for the subway and the bus, a US$20 note and some change that could be used for a pay phone. His task: to find his way home on his own.

It wasn't a long way - five stops on the subway plus a bus for a couple of blocks. Izzy arrived home safe and happy, having begged his mum to let him do this for a long time.

Skenazy wrote about this in her newspaper column. But that soon put her at the centre of a major controversy, catapulted her on to TV and radio talk shows and had her talked about in weblog postings.

A hostile response from some, including bloggers who accused her of child abuse, befuddled Skenazy. 'What my son did was such normal behaviour a generation ago. Now people are fearful of letting their kids go a block, they have to call home after a block,' she said.

Of course, some notorious cases of disappearing children in the 1970s and 1980s have made this a sensitive issue for many parents.

Before former mayor Rudy Giuliani's crackdown on crime, there was a time when riding the subway alone, even in daylight as an adult, was considered high-risk. Especially disturbing to parents was the Ethan Patz case in which a six-year-old boy disappeared on the way from his SoHo home to the school bus two blocks away one morning in 1979.

'Patz was the first missing child to be featured on a milk carton. And that milk carton was the beginning of the end of a carefree childhood for New York kids,' said Brooklyn mother Louise Crawford in her column in The Brooklyn Paper.

But the statistics appear to support Skenazy's view that those nightmare days are over. New York has been ranked as the safest metropolitan area in the US by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for years, and the number of murders last year was fewer than 500, the lowest since 1963. In 2006, 50 children were known to have been abducted and killed by strangers in the US - none in New York.

'Your kids are 40 times more likely to be killed in a car accident when you drive them to the shopping mall,' said Skenazy.

If the Patz tragedy made parents fearful, the Izzy adventure seems to have set many free. Some said they would reconsider how they raised their children and questioned whether they should have more freedom and independence. The blog site Gothamist surveyed its users and found 70 per cent backed Skenazy.

This worries some child-care professionals. 'Independence is the greatest gift we can give to our children, but as we give them independence we need to do it in such a way that it doesn't increase the risk of danger,' said Elizabeth Pflaum, a parent coach at AAA Parent Coaching Services.

Ms Pflaum believes the age at which children can take the subway alone depends on the maturity of the child. 'This is a very hard test. Developmentally I don't think a lot of nine-year-olds really have the ability to scan this kind of anxiety,' she said.

But Skenazy believes that many children would surprise their parents by how much they can do. She has launched a website for what she calls a 'free-range kids' movement, calling on more parents to follow her example.

The next adventure for Izzy, who has just celebrated his 10th birthday, has already been scheduled. He will be dropped in the borough of Queens this time for a longer and more complicated journey back to his Manhattan home.

Tomorrow: London