‘World’s Worst Mom’ Talks Free Range Kids

Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

Giving kids freedom helps shed anxiety — theirs and yours.

Beyond the shtick of being called the “world’s worst mom,” a 2015 appearance as such on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and a short-lived reality TV show, Lenore Skenazy has a serious message to impart to parents.

Simply stated, it’s this: Stop coddling your kids – enough with the helicopter parenting. You are doing them immeasurable harm, despite the best of intentions.

Skenazy gained fame, or infamy, when, in 2008, she let her nine-year-old son ride the subway home by himself. Here is how she describes what happened on her blog, Free-Range Kids:

“He’d been asking us — my husband and me — to please take him someplace and let him find his way home by himself. So my husband and I discussed this. Our boy knows how to read a map, he speaks the language and we’re New Yorkers. We’re on the subway all the time. That’s how it came to be that one sunny Sunday, after lunch at McDonald’s, I took him to Bloomingdales — and left him in the handbag department. 

I didn’t leave him unprepared, of course! I gave him a map, a MetroCard, quarters for the phone and $20 for emergencies. Bloomingdale’s sits on top of a subway station on our local line, and it’s always crowded with shoppers. 

I believed he’d be safe. I believed he could figure out his way. And if he needed to ask someone for directions — which it turns out he did — I even believed the person would not think, “Gee, I was about to go home with my nice, new Bloomingdale’s shirt. But now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: He got home about 45 minutes later, ecstatic with independence. I wrote a little column about his adventure and two days later I was on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News defending myself as NOT “America’s Worst Mom.”

The notion was that I had deliberately put my son in harm’s way (possibly to “prove” something) and I was just incredibly lucky that he made it home.”

The experience prompted Skenazy to launch the Free-Range Kids blog, and, ultimately a movement and programs to help parents, and school districts, get comfortable with the idea of giving kids unstructured, unsupervised time to, well, be kids.

“(Overprotective parenting) all based on this notion that our kids are somehow fragile that they will be physically, socially, or emotionally hurt by either a criminal or by a cruel word or a disappointing outcome,” Skenazy said in an interview with Compositive.

“Kids today are more anxious or fragile than we were. And we have done this to them. When kids have a chance to get lost, for example. It’s so great. We always say we don’t want our kids to do XYZ because what if something goes wrong. We always think wrong equals they die. But basically, most things that go wrong are not death, and they are learning experiences.”

Through her non-profit, Let Grow, Inc., Skenazy has developed a two-pronged approach to helping parents become more comfortable with loosening the reins. The first, offered through school districts, is a before- or after-school free play program. 

That may sound like something that happens all the time, without need of a program. In reality, though, many kids have almost no unstructured time in their lives, or if they do, it’s spent in front of a screen.

The idea behind the program couldn’t be simpler: Get out some basic play equipment – balls, jump ropes, cardboard boxes, and let kids go at it. The play time can take place on the playground or in the gym. 

Only one adult – a college student would be ideal, Skenazy says – need be present, to play a “lifeguard role.” This means doing nothing to intervene or supervise, but to be on hand “for emergencies, if something dramatically wrong.” 

That does not include arguments. “That is when kids start figuring it out: all their social skills children have learned from beginning of time by playing. How to get along, hold themselves together when they get angry, who gets to be captain. I’m talking about all the skills we are worried about our kids not having, including the joy of doing something not directly related to school.”

Though this program is in its earliest stages, its impact is being felt. Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford Schools on Long Island, launched a before-school play pilot program for an hour once a week for 10 weeks in the fall of 2017. That’s all his budget could withstand, but now that he’s seen the results, Hynes says he will move heaven and earth to extend the hours.

“I considered this a test drive but it was like going into mach overload, my gosh,” Hynes said in early December, when the program had been running for just five weeks. “I have had my wildest dreams fulfilled it has gone beyond all expectations.” 

Even such a limited sample size has convinced Hynes that more unstructured time is what kids need. “Teachers and parents alike tell me the changes are just remarkable. kids come home happy, and teachers believe kids are so centered and ready to learn. They come into class grounded, ready to roll.” Read this Compositive article to learn more about Hynes and his approach to whole-child education.

Skenazy’s second program is the Let Grow Project. It, too, has a simple premise: Schools can play a role in helping parents gain confidence about easing up on constant supervision

“We have to make it easy and normal again for parents to give their kids unsupervised and unstructured time,” she said. “The way we realized it is easiest to do this is through the schools, because parents trust their schools, the teachers, the administrators, and so do we. If you have a whole community saying let’s give our kids more unstructured time, more responsibility, more freedom, it makes it easier. The reason our parents could send us outside to play unsupervised is because everyone was doing it.”

Under Let Grow, teachers tell students to go home and ask their parents if they can do one thing, like walk the dog, that they haven’t done on their own before, but that their parents almost certainly did at that same age.

When parents can let go and free their kids and themselves from these constraints, they invariably have a transformative experience, Skenazy said:

“When I have talked to parents after kids have done this it has perplexed me how insanely, inexplicably overjoyed they are when the kid has gone three blocks and brought home apple juice. It’s like they went to Mars! They are out of their minds with joy and can’t remember why they were so nervous beforehand.”

Recently, she said, she had an ah-ha moment about this seeming over-reaction. “They feel joy to the point of weeping because they realize their child can succeed if they die.  They have finally seen evidence that their kid is competent enough to do something on their own, so if God forbid they aren’t there – and some day they won’t be there – their kid can carry on.  It took me forever to figure this out.”

Read More: Providing Safe Adult Experiences.

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