Mom Crush: Lenore Skenazy
We’ve been admiring Lenore Skenazy from afar ever since she was dubbed the World’s Worst Mom after letting her son (who was 9 years old at the time) ride the NYC subway home by himself. Lenore’s blog Free Range Kids is chock-full of advice for parents and nannies alike on encouraging and educating children on self-reliance.
Last week, we were lucky enough to chat with Lenore on the phone and pick her brain about the modern ideas around safety, what kids gain from playing unsupervised, the concept of “worst first-thinking” and how her sons feel about their mother being the World’s Worst Mom. We got so much from this interview that we decided to break it up into two pieces.
Here is part one!
AN: Many of our nannies and families grew up in a much more free-range setting than the kids they care for. In your opinion, what are some of the major consequences of kids being supervised at all times?
LS: What kids get when they’re unsupervised are a lot of life lessons that we want them to learn. For instance, if you’re organizing a game and you and your three friends meet at a park. The following occurs:
- You have to come up with something to do because there isn’t a coach telling you what to do.
- That means that you’ll have to come up with teams, and you’re not going to have the two 12-year-olds vs the two 9-year-olds, right? Because that’s not fun.
- And you’re going to have to decide what the rules are, you’re going to have to communicate and agree to them as a group.
- You’re going to have to compromise if not everyone wants to do the same thing at the same time and there’s no adult deciding it for you.
And when they play, first of all they’ve found that when kids play with each other alone as opposed to in a supervised group they get more exercise.
- They use empathy.
- They get creative. If there’s nobody keeping score then they can be goofy, they can try a new way of playing the game.
- They develop judgement. For example, you can throw the ball easier to the little kid.
So there are all these skills, there’s focus, nobody is telling you what to do and you have to figure it out. Focus, creativity, compromise, empathy. All those things kick-in when kids are playing on their own, as well as some tough things like dealing with hurt feelings, when somebody said a ball was out when you were sure it was in. Those are great things to get inoculated by dealing with early.
When you’re supervised all the time that means there’s somebody else who can swoop in and literally take all those skill-building opportunities away from you under the guise of helping. “here honey, why don’t I do that for you, or why don’t I throw the ball so you each get a turn.” And then mom decides how hard to throw it. Or it’s a little league game and you don’t need to focus because somebody is telling you when its your turn.
You’re taking a lot of lessons out of life when you are there to “make every moment teachable” – how ironic.
AN: People tend to react pretty strongly to having their parenting style criticized. What are some of the most intense responses you’ve received?
LS: Well, nobody wants to be told they are a bad parent and most people aren’t. Like I said, If you are more protective than I am, and I am more obsessed with organic food than you are… nobody thinks that anybody else is doing it “right.” Everybody has a sister-in-law that says “I can’t believe she…” or a mother-in-law, or father-in-law, or neighbor… everyone has an opinion on parenting.
Nobody thinks that anybody is doing it right so you just have to get used to the fact that parenting has become this spectator sport.
Every morning there are people sending me links to articles about people’s parenting styles, and when you read the comments, everybody weighs in on it.
This is strange to me because nobody has the answer, including me.
AN: What do you think caused this phenomena of parenting becoming a spectator sport?
LS: Well, I think there is a lot of money that parents have to spend on kids, especially if they’re middle class and have a small family. Therefore, there’s a lot of marketing to fears that say “if you only buy this, or send your kids to this class, do it this way, you will be rewarded with the perfect child.”
And there’s money to be made by the media, I mean they love to say “up next, are you ruining your child?” or “are you putting your child in danger?” or “this child was in danger, look at what her parents did” and that gets us to watch.
We live in litigious society, so we start looking at things through the lens of danger. You start thinking of things like “in what one, weird way, could this be outrageously dangerous?”
You’ve got experts telling you what’s dangerous, you have media focusing on danger, and it just reverberates. It’s a crescendo of what could go wrong. I call it “worst first thinking” – coming up with the worst case scenario first.
When you think that anything you feed, show, expose to a child could end up with them traumatized or literally hurt, then everybody starts looking at everybody else. We’ve got a government that encourages that too.
For example; if you see a child in a car, in a several states now you are encouraged to smash open the windshield to save the kid. Its as if every child waiting in a car (and we all waited in the car at some point as children) as if every child in every car is about to die because their parents were THAT negligent and cruel.
And that’s just not the case.
There is something like a trillion car rides taken by children every year, and 10 children die from being forgotten in cars. So, if you see a kid in the IBM parking lot, that’s a kid you should smash the window open for.
But if you see a kid in the parking lot of a pizza place, and you see a mom inside paying, don’t smash open that window!
But we’re never told to make any distinction, were told to see everything as the worst case scenario.
So we have a laws that enforce this outlook that anytime a child is unsupervised a child is in grave danger, and that just isn’t true.
AN: I read one article where you mentioned that it’s a form of back-door anti-feminism to have mothers expected to hover and monitor their children at all times.
LS: Yes, it is so obviously something that doesn’t have to do with real safety. 19 states have these laws against letting your kid wait in the car for any amount of time. In California its 0 amount of time, in Rhode Island they just tried to pass a law that nobody under 7 can be in a car at all, ever, without an adult.
More kids die in parking lots than die in parked cars. So, its literally more dangerous to take your kid out of the car. It’s not VERY dangerous, but similarly it’s not very dangerous to let your kid wait IN the car.
But somehow, one of them allows you to get a ticket, be forced to pay a parenting fine, and that is letting your kid wait IN the car. And it has to do with the fact that one way, you’re inconvenienced which proves that even if something bad happened at least you were trying. And the OTHER way, a mother is allowed to use her judgement and let a sleeping kid stay in the car, or let a 5-year-old who’s looking at an iPhone can stay in the car, and somehow that is not allowed.
You’re not allowed to use your own judgement, you’re not allowed to take your eyes off your kid. If you have your eyes on your kid you’re automatically a good parent. If you take your eyes off your kid you are automatically a bad parent. Even though we all know that’s not true, because our parents were good, and they took their eyes off of us.
AN: How do your boys feel about your line of work?
LS: Oh, I think they’re a little tired of it (laughs).
They’re not boys anymore, they’re practically men! They’re 17 and 19 and I think they’re grateful for having had some freedom. My older son spent his afternoons reading at the bookstore (reading manga, it’s not like he was reading Moby Dick) but he has grown up to be a reader.
The younger one is into sports and he’s happy he got a chance to do that, and he grew up talking to strangers on the subway. I mean they grew up with a nice middle class childhood, I think they’d be grateful no matter what.
You know, even if they grew up to be derelict drug addicts, it’s a sample size of two.
For more information about Lenore and the Free Range Parenting movement, including stats on the dropping crime rates, check out her book, television show, or any of these interviews.