Roam on the range
New York-based columnist Lenore Skenazy sparked a furore across the United States four years ago after writing about her decision to let her then nine-year-old son take the city subway on his own.
It brought back childhood memories for some readers, but many berated her for child neglect. The incident led her to coin the phrase 'free-range kids' and inspired her blog of the same name and eventually a book, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) about her old-school approach to parenting.
Skenazy hosts the World's Worst Mom, a new television series on overprotective parents and their children. Before its Hong Kong debut this week, she shares some of her parenting experiences.
When you wrote about letting your son ride the subway on his own, did you expect so much public criticism?
No, I didn't. He had been asking me and my husband if we would let him try to find his way home from some place by himself. We talked about it and decided that he seemed ready, and we do trust our city.
It was only a month and a half after the actual subway ride [when I wrote the column]. It wasn't until it ran the next day, when I started getting calls from the press, that I realised how controversial this topic was. I was on a lot of big television shows and talk shows in America, defending myself. I [realised] two things.
[People] said: 'Oh, I used to take the subway' or 'I used to ride my bike to school' or 'I used to play outside until the street lights came on, but I would never do it now.' That's what I didn't realise: nobody lets their kids do anything now.
The other thing is how widespread that is. Because I live in New York City, I didn't realise that, around the country, parents are driving their children to school, waiting at the bus stop when they come home, and won't let them play outside. There are parents who send their kids out with leashes now, and there are parents who put a GPS [global positioning system] in their children's backpacks. There are parents who tattoo their phone numbers, temporarily, onto their children when they go outside.
Then it became apparent to me why my son taking the subway was such a big deal. I didn't know quite how terrified all of America had become, and now, I fear, that it's that way all over the world.
What do you mean by 'free-range kids', and how do you strike a balance between giving them the chance to learn and ensuring they do the right thing?
People sometimes think that 'free-range' means free-wheeling, like, 'Oh, just let them go.' It's really not that at all. It's basically making sure that we teach them the skills they need, and then, when they have learned them, giving them the freedom and the responsibility that goes with getting a little older.
So, for instance, I wouldn't let my kid take the subway before I was sure he knew how to cross the street.
You have to teach your children that they can talk to strangers if they need information or if they need help. They could ask a stranger, but they can never go off with a stranger [or] get into somebody's car.
These are all the things that I think a free-range parent has to do. You just have to believe the evidence in front of you. And that's what World's Worst Mom does. I just want to show parents what their kids are capable of. I'm there to show them that they've been way better parents than they even believe themselves and that now their kids are ready to put those lessons into practice.
Parents don't believe this because they've made it into such a terror in their heads until I push them aside and say: 'Well, your kids are going to do it, anyway, because you've taught them to deal with the frustration of falling when they're going to learn how to ride a bike.' You just have to believe in your kids.
What would you suggest parents start off doing if they want to give their children a freer rein?
One thing I suggest is to leave your cellphone at home sometimes. I say that because I know that I can't get my children to deliberately leave their phones at home. So, it's up to us, because one of the things I think that has kept parents from letting go is the fact that now there's this umbilical cord called the cellphone.
It makes sense to be watching your kids all the time when they're age three and you have to say, 'Oh, don't touch that. That's hot.'
But as your children get older, you want them to start making their own decisions, because you don't want to send your kid off to college having decided everything for him. But when you have a cellphone, it's very tempting to do that.
I know that from my own life. When my older son was 10 - he's 15 now - and I had left [while] he was eating breakfast [at home]. I had just gotten out of the building when my cellphone rang and I thought: 'Oh, my God, what's the matter?'
I answered, and my son said: 'Mum, can I have another slice of banana bread?'
I felt bad because he thought he had to ask me if he could eat something if he was hungry.
That was what made me realise that we've become too dependent on being in touch and me making decisions for him. When you have the cellphone, you're so attached that you get used to doing everything for your children, and your children get used to it, too.
What about in the long run?
The macro way is to allow yourself to just think back on your own childhood and remember some of the great moments you had. You'll find most of them did not involve your parent helping you do something.
It was probably one of the building blocks of who you are - that first time that you got lost but you found your way home, when you climbed that tree or when you built something. Whatever it is that you did by yourself that you loved and that you treasure. This is something wonderful; why wouldn't you give that to your child?
You're giving them all the help and all the protection. Why wouldn't you give them the confidence and the self-reliance that you get when you do something on your own?
World's Worst Mom premieres Tuesday on Discovery Home & Health at 7.30pm (Cable TV Channel 57, Now TV Channel 214 and bbTV Channel 318)