Mothering v. Smothering

May 8th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

A New York City mom gets heat for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Mothering without smothering. 

That’s the responsible balance Lenore Skenazy was seeking when she recently allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone for the first time. 

As a writer for the New York Sun newspaper, Skenazy penned a column about why she fully supported young Izzy’s desire to undertake his solo ride-of-passage. “Over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself,” she wrote. “A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.” 

Armed with a map, a subway fare card, and emergency cash but no cell phone, Izzy navigated the underground, transferred to a city bus, and arrived home, unescorted and unperturbed. 

The kid was exhilarated. 
The mother was excoriated. 

Sending your nine-year-old on the subway alone: child abuse?” begged a typical newspaper headline. A radio show caller wondered how Skenazy could give her son “a day of fun that would probably end in death.” And on the Today Show, an introduction to her was point-blank: “Is she an enlightened mom, or a really bad one?” 

Bad or good, Skenazy had re-ignited an old debate about determining when a child is old enough to take on the world alone. In a follow-up newspaper column she titled “America’s Worst Mom?” Skenazy wrote, “People kept pulling me aside to say that they had been allowed to get around by themselves as kids.” But there was a dramatic generational twist. “In the next breath they admitted: They would never let their kids do the same.” 

All of which prompted America’s worst mom to launch a blog called Free Range Kids, which she hopes will also launch a movement of “sane parenting.” Free Range’s mission statement gives a nod to protection--“We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts”--but also a wink to future solo subway-riding kids: “We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail.” 

Tell us what you think: What’s the responsible way to take off the training wheels and let kids go solo into their everyday world?