Lenore Skenazy: World’s Worst Mom?

Feb 20, 2013 by

My son is pretty independent for a four and a half year old. I think education about what to do in social situations is 100 times more effective as a safety measure than keeping your child in a proverbial bubble. We’ve gone over his full name, address, parents’ names, and we’re practicing the phone number now. We’ve discussed how if you’re lost, you should certainly find a person in a uniform or a mother or father with children and ask for help. Above all else, I told him to never, ever, under any circumstances go anywhere with a stranger in a car (unless it’s a police officer). Scream! Yell! Run toward a crowd of people! Make a lot of noise!

I guess it’s for this reason that I’m comfortable with him swinging on his swing set while I watch him closely out the window for a few minutes at a time. I have friends who were shocked to discover this. I love being outside with my kids, and 95% of the time I’m right there, but I also sometimes need to dart in the house to preheat the oven, grab a ringing phone, or stir the soup. He knows the rules and boundaries, and I trust him to follow them. I remember playing outside alone for much longer periods of time at the same age.

But, wait for it– times have changed! You can’t do that anymore! It’s a dangerous world now!

Have things really changed? In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways you might think. In fact, violent crimes against youth have decreased by 77% since 1994. That’s a HUGE reduction! This report, from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, details the categories and incidences recorded, and they’re all…down. Significantly. There are a million different sociological theories about why this has happened, but the bottom line is that statistically, our kids are safer than we were. In an age of instant news spreading like wildfire, and with more graphic fictional crime shows on television, perhaps we simply hear about crimes, real or on sitcoms, more now.

However, trusting her child to be self-reliant earned Lenore Skenazy , leader of the “Free Range Kids” movement (and author of the book by the same name) the moniker of “World’s Worst Mom.” How did this happen?  Watch and learn:

So what do you think? Is Lenore Skenazy the “World’s Worst Mom?” Personally, I don’t think so. I see self-reliance as the single greatest gift we can give our children as parents. I don’t think it’s our job to protect them from everything in the world, because frankly, that’s not realistic, but instead to teach them what to do and give them chances to practice being independent. What are your thoughts? Would you let your 9 year old, with lots of prior experience and instruction, take the subway home alone in NYC?

Using the jack-o-lantern saw all by himself to carve a pumpkin. And yes, he still has all 10 fingers :)

Using the jack-o-lantern saw all by himself to carve a pumpkin. And yes, he still has all 10 fingers :)

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Sarah Bernhardson

Sarah lives in eastern Connecticut with her husband, Dave, and their two sons, Nate and Joshua. She recently completed her Master's in Elementary Education at Eastern Connecticut State University and now works part-time as a museum educator at a local children's museum. While pregnant with her firstborn, Sarah was puzzled when more seasoned mothers she knew broke into raucous laughter when she complained that she might be bored while her newborn napped all day. Perhaps she’d brush up on her French, remodel a few rooms, or maybe learn to quilt? Now a mom of two active boys, she is wiser, and has learned the fine art of typing a research paper at 1:30 am while nursing a baby, and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to laugh at her pre-baby image of life as a mother

25 Comments

  1. I notice that I give my boys a lot more independence than some of my friends. I think some other moms gasp when I let them do some of the things I do. But I also know their limits and I know what the safety concerns may be and play to them. I want my boys to be safe and responsible but I want them to be self-sufficient and independent. I also want them to have the ability to cope. Which means they have to fall and fail sometimes. I do think the criticism of free range parenting is overly harsh. I also think that helicopter parenting is a little overkill. I am trying to find something that works for our family and our boys. Over-protectiveness would never work with my 2 boys.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      I think the BEST ADVICE ever is “know your kids”. Know what they can do, know where they struggle, and know what they need to practice more. I’m with you, and I really think failing is so important!

  2. Pamela

    First of all, I think it’s ridiculous to call this woman the “world’s worst mom.” As the mother of a child whose biological parents had their parental rights terminated by the state, I can say for sure that there are worse parents out there than Lenore Skenazy.

    I also really appreciate the fact that crime statistics have been reduced. l try really hard to worry only about things that are actual safety issues, rather than irrational fears based on over exposure to the media. I know that I can’t protect my children from everything, and I try to give them both an age appropriate level of independence, but I try to do so in a way that minimizes risk. I definitely think it’s appropriate for a 4.5 year old to play outside by himself for a few minutes at a time. With my kids, I feel very safe with them in the backyard on their own. Now that we have two kids, I feel even more comfortable because they are eager to tattle on one another for stepping out of line.

    That said, I don’t think that I could live with myself if something happened that I could have easily prevented. I think that you are absolutely right about the news cycle making us think that crime is worse, but then there are incidents that happen that, even if they are one in a billion, make you never want to allow your child out of your sight. I am specifically thinking of the boy in NYC who took public transportation home for the first time and was brutally murdered on his way just a couple of years ago. The fact that this is even possible, that there are people out there who can be so evil and cruel, makes me feel over protective even when it is not rational. So, no, I would not let my nine year old take the subway or any other public transit, except maybe an airplane where I bring him to the gate and someone else picks him up at the other end. Because I don’t worry about plane crashes because, again, statistically, it is SO unlikely.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      I am with you! I think Ms. Skenazy is a pretty wise woman. I’m undecided on the subway at age 9 issue. I was kind of on the fence, but my husband was a big no way. I lost a classmate at age 9 riding his bicycle down a country road in our town going to the library. It was TERRIBLE. The thing is, although these horrible, unthinkable things do happen, they can really happen anywhere, anytime…which is all at once both terrifying and comforting to me (if that makes any sense at all). I really do try to fight the urge to wrap them in bubble wrap and never let them out of my sight, but it’s really hard to ride that line! Thanks for the comment :)

      • Pamela

        I think I do know what you mean about it being both terrifying and comforting, even though I am more terrified than comforted by the randomness of life and death. On the one hand, it’s completely irrational to fear everything, and yet on the other hand, it’s completely irrational to believe that “it can’t happen to me.”

        This article in the NY Times quote Skenazy. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/weekinreview/19belkin.html?_r=0

        It makes some great points about risk assessment.

        • bernhardsonbunch

          Wow- that was a great article! Thank you for sharing it! I agree- risk assessment with kids is REALLY tough. I constantly keep telling myself, when I hear a statistic like “1 in 100,000 kids gets x disease” that SOMEONE has to be that 1, and what if it’s my kid!!”. I am really, really trying not to do this…but it’s your kid! What could you possibly care more about than your child! Very hard to do!

  3. Kate Andrew

    I struggle with this – I think she makes really great points (and she seems like a loving and caring mom – not a bad mom just for having her own opinion!). The only thing I really disagree with is the food issue – I think food safety is truly becoming a huge concern, especially with the increase of factory farming and e coli outbreaks. My son spent 12 days in the hospital in October with kidney failure due to e.coli, so I’m a bit sensitive about that issue. But I do think it’s important to let kids be kids, play outside, have some space, and not be worried all the time. I try to let my son explore our house and let him play with things (like toiletries in our bathroom) so he doesn’t feel that so much is off limits to him. As he gets older, I’m sure I’ll also struggle with giving him more freedom out of my line of vision – but I hope I can find a good balance.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      Oh my gosh!! How terrible!! That really is terrifying, and I think you are right to worry about it. I have caught myself saying “Don’t eat the cookie dough!! It has raw eggs in it!” to my boys, then I eat it as SOON as the kids are out of the kitchen. And I’m fine. But I can certainly see that point, and I think it’s excellent fodder for demanding that we DO act as a country to improve our food safety so we, as parents, can stop worrying about it when we have agencies who are supposed to be closely monitoring this on our behalf (since we don’t, unfortunately, know the history of our food these days!) because it’s clearly a big issue!

      • Pamela

        I eat raw egg every time that I bake, but I would never let my kids do it because if I get salmonella, it far less likely to be dangerous/life-threatening than it would be for my kids.

    • Pamela

      I am so sorry that you went through that!

  4. susan woodson

    This article creates a ping pong game in my brain! I was a very over protective parent. It took six years to conceive my first child, and when my second child was born, he had a seizure (his one and only) the day after he was born. These situations added up to me being an over the top protective parent. Since thankfully my children have grown into wonderful, productive well balanced adults, I have come to realize that most of the time, most of our kids turn out fine, as long as we guide them with love and are always accessible to them. I remember suffering horrible anxiety as a parent of young children, it is just in the past few years, now that I a a grandmother, that I’ve realized that a LOT of what I worried about was unnecessary. Every child is different, and I feel you should parent accordingly. Also, as an aside, I was a stay at home mom. When my kids started school, I took care of two children whose parents had dynamic careers and who’s children had been in day care of some sort since they were 6 weeks old. My kids, and the working parent’s kids all turned out fine, excellent in fact. So my take is, relax, go with your gut, give them independence when your gut tells you to, work, don’t work, feed them stuff from Whole Foods or give them ravioli in can, nurse or bottle feed, I’m pretty sure, if you love them with all your heart they will turn out just fine!

    • bernhardsonbunch

      Yes, I think “go with your gut” is important to remember! I think if you just always do what you know is right for your kids they will indeed be fine. Thanks!!

  5. I agree with this philosophy 100%, but like the previous poster, I have trouble implementing it sometimes. No, I would not be able to let my 9 yo ride the subway alone – and that’s because of my own fears and insecurities, not because a 9 yo could not be capable of riding and navigating solo.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      Yes, I think that’s true for me, too. I know that it’s LOGICALLY not horrendously dangerous, but for whatever reason- society’s pressure to be overprotective of my kids, worrying that someone’s kid has to be that 1 in 100,000 who experiences violence when alone, media violence- I, too, have a hard time just saying “you’ll be fine! go for it!” when I know I need to do that.

  6. I think that she makes some great points (says a mom who would never buy baby knee pads); however as a native New Yorker, there is NO WAY I would let a 9 year old ride the subway solo. I think the best thing we can do for our children is not to shield them from challenges, but to teach them how to deal with them.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      I can definitely see that point (and I’d never buy those knee pads, either! haha!). However, I do think that it’s smart to maybe let a 10 or 11 year old ride semi-independently, maybe with a parent on the train but not interacting with him at unless there’s an emergency, to know that if he did somehow end up alone somewhere in the city he could safely navigate home.

  7. Jen Seiderer

    Lenore Skenazy is one of my heroes just for making us think about this kind of stuff. Yes, I think she sometimes goes overboard but just like everything else, it’s up to us as parents to decide what’s best for our families. It’s natural to have a knee-jerk reaction of panic whenever you hear about something awful or scary happening to a child; I have those same reactions. What’s important is what we DO with our own fear. For example, Newtown was absolutely horrific, the worst thing I can imagine. It made me want to never let my kids out of my sight. But the likelihood of something like that happening to my child is zero, whereas they are much more likely to suffer from my never letting them out of my sight. If I really wanted to keep my kids safe, I would never drive with them in the car because that is statistically the most likely thing to cause them harm. No one is telling people not to drive in the car with their kids, but they ARE telling people to go to great lengths to protect their kids from something that statistically won’t happen. It’s illogical. When the story was going around FB about a child being killed by a falling dresser, I immediately wanted to bolt everything to the wall. Then I stopped and asked myself if I was overreacting. First of all, the likelihood of that happening is not so miniscule, unlike some of the stranger danger stories. More importantly, though, even if I was overreacting, what’s the damage to my kids if I do, in fact, bolt everything to the wall? Zero. So I indulged that particular fear. We need to keep our kids as safe as we reasonably can but also let them actually LIVE.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      Yes- it’s all about how it affects the kiddos. Bolting the furniture? No biggie (and I read that SAME story and yes, I bolted away!). But not letting them ride their bike with friends? That affects them. I agree. I think it’s interesting to see the link between being overprotective and kids growing up as anxious adults, too! That’s a big affect to have on them, and not in a good way. Totally agree!!

  8. I think part of the problem between “back in the day” and now it more of a cultural shift. I played outside all day in the summers, riding bikes around a friends neighborhood and playing in the woods. I hesitate to allow my almost 8 year old go tot he neighbors house next door without me watching him walk there. I think the difference is less the crime statistics, but the fact that “back in the day” my parents knew all of our neighbors, and my friends parents knew all of theirs. Now, I know a few people in the hood, but not nearly as much as i should or would like to. Though I think this may have something to do with how much parents are working (not just moms now, but dads are working more hours too- and on the weekends!) I think it is much deeper than that. That said, I do let me kids play in the back yard, by themselves, and check on them intermittently while doing other things. I am determined to not be a helicopter parent, but it’s hard to let your heart walk around outside your body :)

    • bernhardsonbunch

      That’s a really good point, and it reminds me of Jennifer’s “Playborhood” post from awhile back!! I really, really, REALLY wish we could somehow get back to being communities, and not completely solitary family units. It would be so nice to know everyone on my own street!

  9. AmyS

    I love Lenore and read her blog regularly (I read her book too). Like others have mentioned, it’s all about knowing your kids, teaching them the necessary skills and then giving them their appropriate independence. My 5.5 yr old could probably manage the subway himself right now if we lived in NYC (he can practically manage it just visiting his aunt there & studying the map!) and I wouldn’t be worried because he’s a by the book, cautious kid. My 2.5 yr old? He might need to be 37 before I even let him near a bike alone b/c he’s so much more the daredevil, throw caution to the wind kid.

    I think the biggest message that people can take away from Lenore is to be level-headed and not be consumed by media hype about highly improbable “dangers.”

    • bernhardsonbunch

      Ha! :) Your kids sound exactly like mine. My 4.5 year old could probably run the whole show at home, including caring for his almost-2 year old brother, with no problem. I wouldn’t worry at all. However, my younger son is like a stuntman in training and still needs me to have stair gates up or he would probably think nothing of sliding down head-first on his tummy. He, too, will be really old before I give him much freedom! Knowing your kid is the most important part of being a parent, in my opinion!!

  10. Randi

    I think the problem for some of us is information overload. We are privy to every horror story anywhere in the world, and it makes us start to think danger is lurking everywhere. I often yell at my local news shows because they are airing some terrible thing that happened to a kid in Nevada. Why must I know this?

    I don’t think we will ever stop worrying about our kids. Wait until your child goes to overnight camp, or gets behind the wheel of a CAR! I still worry about my very adult kids when the weather is bad. There was a lot of anxious texting going on that Friday when Nemo/Charlotte was dumping snow on CT. One of my kids works an hour away from home, another is a half-hour away and my DIL is about 45 minutes from home. I NEEDED TO KNOW the minute they got home safely. Several years ago I decided that I was never again driving in the snow or ice if I could help it, but unfortunately, others in my family have not taken this pledge. Not only that, they laugh at me for being so chicken. But they do indulge my NEED TO KNOW, thank goodness.

    Just like with everything else, you have to find your comfort zone and then factor in how much hovering your kid can tolerate. It’s not easy.

    And no, I would not let my 9 year old take the subway, but I am not a New Yorker for whom the subway is much more routine. I have encouraged my kids to go to NYC on the train on their own, probably when they were around 16 or 17 years old, after taking them there myself a few times to teach them how it works. Recently, I saw a picture on FB of MSS-19 SITTING IN THE MIDDLE OF A MAJOR STREET in NYC. He assured me that there was no way a car could have come careening around the corner and mowed him down, because all the adjoining streets were one way. Right. How stupid does he think I am? I was not at all happy about being reminded that no matter how responsible a kid appears to be 99% of the time, there is always that little part of his brain that makes him think he is invulnerable. I have changed my reflexive “Be careful” to “Be safe” for that reason. I decided “Be careful” was insulting and inane. “Be safe” is more about taking reasonable risks. But in no universe is sitting in the middle of a street for a photo op a reasonable risk!

    • bernhardsonbunch

      Ahhhhh! Sitting in the street?!? So I really, honestly may never have a sound night’s sleep again is what you’re telling me?! :) Boys seem to have the “I am invulnerable” part of their brain switched on more than girls, from what I’ve seen. It’s going to be a loooong 20 years or so I guess…hahahaha :)

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