Lenore Skenazy is author of Free Range Kids, first published in 2010 and republished a few years ago. She's a frequent public speaker and co-founder with Jonathan Haidt of Let Grow movement. She's been on The View, 20/20, The Daily Show, and The Today Show.
We first met Lenore when she was a columnist for the New York Sun, shortly after she wrote "Why I let my nine year old ride the subway alone," which earned her the coveted award of the “world's worst mom.”
It is my pleasure to introduce her to an entire new generation of my show's listeners, as my final show.
Free-Range Kids book
The Fragile Generation Reason Magazine by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt
Bob Zadek: Lenore, please share the anecdote of the world's worst mom for us again?
Lenore Skenazy (11:16): Sure. Well the headline says it all. Years ago when our younger son was nine, he started asking me and my husband (who you never hear of as the world's worst dad) if we would take him someplace he'd never been before here in New York City and let him find his own way home on the subway. Bob, did you grow up here?
Bob Zadek (11:42): Yes, I was a subway rider as far back as I can remember. I grew up riding the buses, the Q44 A and all the buses and the A E and the F train.
Lenore Skenazy (12:01): A Q tells us you were a Queens boy!
So my son asked if he could take the subway alone. We said yes, so one sunny Sunday I took him to Bloomingdale's. I left him in the handbag department because that's where the subway entrance is. I took a bus home and he went down to the subway. He talked to a stranger and asked if this was the right direction. The stranger said no, he was on the wrong side. But instead of hurting him, the stranger helped him.
So he took the subway down to 34th Street, the Miracle Street, got out, and had to take a bus across town to get home. He came into the apartment levitating with pride. He'd done something grown up, his parents had trusted him, and it had gone well.
I didn't write about it immediately because I didn't realize my entire career depended on it at the time. I was a newspaper reporter, and about a month and a half later, when I had nothing to write about, I said, “How about I write a column about letting my son take the subway by himself?”
My editor says, “Sure, it's a nice local story.”
And so I wrote Why I let my nine year-old ride the subway alone.
Two days later I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR being interviewed and often chided for doing something that could have been dangerous. It took years for me to unpack why we always ended up talking about “What would've happened if he had been murdered??”, even though he obviously hadn't been.
So I started Free Range Kids as a blog. I should say that I love safety helmets and car seats and seat belts and mouth guards, extra layers. I just don't think kids need us with them every single second of the day. I think they can figure things out on their own. I think they can have some adventures. I think they're as smart as we were and we got to spend a lot of time on our own. So that's what I've been preaching for 15 years. Kids are smarter and safer than our culture gives them credit for.
Bob Zadek (14:34): My parents were model parents by your standards. They would've gotten the award at your annual ceremony for the world's best parents because they took risks with my life probably every day of my upbringing. I walked to school in Queens where I grew up.
What Drives Overparenting?
Bob Zadek: What are the merits of this fanaticism that drives the helicopter parenting?
Lenore Skenazy (15:41): Parenting has changed. Suddenly, instead of discussing something happy and triumphant, we were talking about a hypothetical where my son died. First of all, it's an extremely depressing and distressing thing to discuss. But then I gradually realized that to go to that dark place had become the hallmark of good parenting.
That's what everybody does now.
When we're trying to pass the laws so that you're allowed to let your kids play outside or walk to school, the counter-argument is always, “Well, what if something goes wrong?”
Thinking that catastrophically and pessimistically about everyday things like walking to the bus stop or playing at the park is new. Your mom and my mom would let us walk to school starting at age five, and everybody did. And so what the culture had back then was a shared belief that kids are pretty competent and the world is pretty safe and nothing is perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't let them go. And that has evaporated.
Bob Zadek (17:46): You gave us the hypothetical, What would you have felt if your son died? It's kind of the question I think begs the answer a bit, but who dwells there? Was he holding his breath waiting for your answer?
Part of that approach to parenting assumes that something going wrong is more likely than not fatal. But things are supposed to go wrong. How else does one learn? If you're 26 when you first find out things could go wrong, you're not going to live to 27. You're just not going to make It.
Lenore Skenazy (19:01): If I ever give a Ted talk (hint, hint Ted talk people out there), I would call it “What if something goes wrong? Good.”
Because that is how you learn almost everything. You certainly remember things better if they went disastrously. also babies come into the world uncooked in a way. It’s not like a gazelle that's born and by the next day It's just like any other gazelle that's running around. But humans come in and they're pretty helpless because their brain is just busy learning. It has so much learning to do, and it does this by being curious and paying attention to everything. And Mother Nature has assumed that throughout your childhood you'll be doing all sorts of things. You'll be screwing up. You'll be with a lot of different kids of different ages because that's how kids grew up in just a big bundle of the Peanuts gang. And you will learn from it all.
You will learn from the times that you don't fall off the swing. You will learn from the times when you do. You will learn from the time that you haven't had your turn yet because you didn't assert yourself. Or you'll learn from the time that you gave your little brother a chance on the swing because you're older and you're a decent person and your heart will swell and your brother will love you forever.
So nature expects you to have good and bad things happening all the time. And the big lie that has been told to parents is that you better prevent any of those things from happening because it will hurt your child.
And you don't want your child to be distressed or frustrated or hurt in any way. So it's like taking half of the vitamins out of your food. It's like, okay, now you still have the white flour but you don't have any of the chaff.
We're expecting kids to be just as hardy as ever, but we're not giving them half the nutrients – the bad things. You don't want a life of only bad things, but you want to have to do a little bit of struggling and figuring things out.
I will give you one quick example if I may. So there's an article in the Wall Street Journal on how to raise a free range kid in the 2020s, which I thought was odd because they didn't call me and whatever, doesn't matter. The woman they interviewed had come up with the perfect solution. When she grew up she would always go down to the creek near her house and she would play for hours and found things interesting, whether it was with friends or without friends and make things out of rocks, whatever. She just loved being in the woods.
And she said now that her daughter was the age that she had been, she wanted her to have the same experience. And so she gave her a phone and said, “Now you can go.”
And she said, “The great thing was that my daughter was riding her bike to the creek, and the chain fell off her bike and she could call her dad immediately,” the woman's husband.
He hurried over and promptly put the chain back on the bike. It is distressing that she failed to recognize the completely opposite experience she had compared to before, when she was trusted to be on her own and figure things out if something went wrong. Whether she fell off her bike, the chain broke, or she accidentally hit a squirrel, she would have managed. It is unimaginable to think of anything terrible happening on a bike, but had it occurred, she would have figured it out.
I think she's giving her daughter a far less exciting, less empowered experience.
Why Risk-Taking is Essential for Kids
Bob Zadek (23:03): The parents have been indoctrinated into being afraid ear of danger lurking everywhere. My parents would occasionally remind me to be careful and do things, but they weren't obsessed by it. I was pushed out the house after breakfast and I think the door may have been locked. I didn't come home until my mother yelled “Robert!” at the top of her lungs on my front stoop at the end of the day and I was summoned back and everybody's mother did the same thing for dinner and that was it.
There was no contact with the parents whatsoever. It was only kids.
You explain how important it is for kids to develop their own games, and resolve differences, without being protected from that, and you explain how children are protected from negotiating with other kids just to resolve differences. Speak to that how that is a crucial part of becoming a contributing adult.
Lenore Skenazy (24:37): Jonathan Haidt and I wrote about this in The Fragile Generation from a couple years ago. We've been trained by all the experts and fear mongers and parenting magazines and books. There was Parents magazine article called the “Play Date Playbook”. First of all, you never called them play dates. And secondly, play dates are pretty easy. You don't need a playbook. It's not football, it's just kids getting together. The article had a bunch of questions ostensibly from parents on how to conduct a correct play date.
One question was, “My child is old enough to stay home alone and often does now, but she's about to have a play date over. Am I still allowed to run to the dry cleaner?” And Parents' magazine responded, “Absolutely not.”
And they gave two reasons. And the first reason was physical danger. Something bad could happen, they could trip, they could fall, they could catch on fire. They gave an example of a girl who had been on a play date, who had microwaved some macaroni and cheese and it spilled on her and she got a burn. Okay, so tell 'em not to use the microwave. But so first of all, there's the physical danger of you not being right there.
And by the way, when they talked about that girl who had been burned by her macaroni, the mother had actually been in the backyard, so the mother had been there. You just have to be even closer. You have to be Velcro to them to be a good enough parent according to Parents magazine.
But the second thing they said is, and what if there's a spat? You want to be able to jump in before anyone's feelings get hurt. And that's the Rosetta Stone part for me because what Parents Magazine is telling you is if you're a good parent, you must make sure that your child never even suffers an argument with a friend. Because if her feelings get hurt or if I guess if the other kids' feelings get hurt, that is too much for them to bear.
Then you add on top of this, the idea that anything bad that happens scars you for life, it becomes an adverse childhood experience.
So what the magazine was suggesting is a general awareness of essentially everything coming out of your daughter's mouth and her play date's mouth—that you should keep tabs on with split second timing to step in there and ensure that no one's feelings get hurt because that's something that a parent should do, guaranteeing that your child is never upset. Now that's a culture that has driven parents crazy.
Bob Zadek (27:37): One can analyze a cultural norm. There was a time in human history when that cultural norm did not exist, and then there's a time that it exists in abundance today. But tell us about the in-between. How did it develop?
Lenore Skenazy (28:06): So that's what the Free Range Kids book is about. I'll whip us through the four reasons that I write about in the book. But in this new edition, I tiptoe towards a fifth reason. It’s still a little amorphous to me, but we'll talk about it. So the first four are pretty obvious. One is, what do we always blame? We blame the media because the media is out there trying to keep you engaged. Keeping the eyeballs watching the television. So the worse the story, the more chance that the people will keep watching.
This started in 1979 when there was a boy who was taken from a bus stop here in New York City and never seen again. Paula Fass is a historian of American childhood and she wrote a whole book about the history of American kidnappings (kind of a weird thing to do). People assumed that somebody had taken this boy from the bus stop to take home and raise as their own child. He was this angelic blonde-haired kid and they assumed some woman didn't have kids, really wanted one, saw this one took him and was going to raise him. That was the public's assumption for the first several weeks of the investigation until finally it started dribbling out. The police are saying, “Well, maybe it's actually not a woman really. Well, maybe it's a guy.”
Really, what would a guy want? You're kidding. We used to think predators at that time were wolves and eagles. Nobody was calling humans predators yet because that hadn't colonized our brain that there were predators all around that predators are seeking children every single second, that they're not next to their parents.
When we started thinking that way, she said it was like a match to a gas tank because it filled us with rage and fury and sympathy. It felt like you were being a good person to think about it and get madder and madder. It was every flavor at once in the brain and it was very powerful. A few years later, Adam Walsh was taken from a Sears in Florida—horrible story—and his story was made into a two-day mini-series that broke all ratings records in 1984.
Adam Walsh's dad is John Walsh. He started not only America's Most wanted, he also the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They were the ones who started putting the pictures of missing children on milk cartons. What they did, I'd say very disingenuously, is they never mentioned that the vast majority of those kids were not stolen by some predator off their bike or from the bus stop. They were kids taken in divorced custody battles or they were runaways. But if you see a different child every week and above it on your milk cart and it says, “have you seen me?” you start feeling that no child is safe. And then there was a lot of misinformation spread. John Walsh testified in Congress that there were 50,000 children murdered by strangers each year, which is false.
Thank goodness. It's far less. I don't even like to discuss it at all. But the point is that stranger danger then becomes this phrase we all use. And if you ask me, it actually keeps kids less safe because the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know. Often family members or close friends, but stranger danger just takes hold and then everybody wants to do something good.
And so there are after school specials on stranger dangers and police come to the school and discuss stranger dangers, you go to a fair and you get your kids foot fingerprints made because of stranger danger. And it becomes accepted that any child outside without a mind is fair game for the boogeyman as if everybody, the Fordham Baldis have taken over America and are swarming through the streets of the suburbs, the malls, and the alleyways. Just looking for the next victim.
Bob Zadek (32:55): You trace the beginnings of the fear to media behavior in the seventies…
Lenore Skenazy (33:08): Eighties more. In the eighties you get cable, and cable has so much more time to fill. 24 hours of news, so that's a lot of extra real estate there.
Bob Zadek (33:27): I'm going to embarrass you because you have this pedigree of MAD Magazine, a comic book. Now what am I leading up to in the fifties? Comic books make kids into mass murderers. I occasionally peruse statutes as a lawyer looking for interesting provisions. I still have, it remains on the books, a California statute regulating, it states it is a felony to have a comic book with five consecutive panels depicting violence. It's a felony. Wow. So you must have four and then have a family scene to avoid prison.
Lenore Skenazy (34:39): ”We interrupt this comic…”
Bob Zadek (34:40): Now we are smiling, but some adult with a functioning brain decided that statute was needed. Somebody who was elected by people.
Lenore Skenazy (35:32): There are always panics. There were panics in the 1920s—white slavery, right? Everybody's going to take the fair damsels off the street and sell them into white slavery.
Bob Zadek (35:48): In the nineties it was Satanic Panic in the preschools.
Children are taught to avoid strangers from an early age. This is known as "stranger danger." The result is that children are told to find any adult for help, even if they don't know them.
Lenore Skenazy (36:24): You know what? Don't talk to a wolf wearing a wig. That'd be my advice. If you need help, run. If they're an adult, run from them. Do you know about the Utah Boy Scout story?
There was a Utah Boy Scout who went on a trip. He got lost and everyone searched for him. And they couldn't find him for three days, even though they searched exactly where he'd been, because whenever they heard someone calling his name, who he didn't know, we thought it's a stranger, luring him, he'd been told never talk to strangers. And he would hide.
Finally, I guess he was hungry of thirsty enough that he came out and they found him. But you can Google it—it's not an urban myth. Look up “Boy Scout, Utah, Stranger danger.”
We scared people into thinking most people around them are not decent. But that's wrong. People want to help each other. We made people afraid of the good people in their lives. And the truth is, people want to help. They definitely want to help a child. So just teaching them not to go to strangers is not only counterintuitive but also counterproductive because if a kid needs help, they should be able to ask someone, "Am I going the wrong way or can I stand next to you?"
This van has been following me for three blocks. I'm just going to stand here while it goes by. And then you've made yourself safer.
Bob Zadek (37:59): As a libertarian, I of course always see danger lurking, but it is in my government. So I am taught never to talk to anybody in government.
Lenore Skenazy (38:13): ”Am I being detained?”
Bob Zadek (38:14): That's the grownup equivalent of don't talk to strangers.
Legislative Solutions & Child Protective Services
I want to spend some time—because it's less visible on the legislative response to now we have parents who feel overwhelmed by the threat lurking at every turn. And when anybody seems, feels overwhelmed, they look to elsewhere for help. And it's sort of unfortunately natural for some people to look to government. The government should do something about it or a phrase that is no longer popular. “There ought to be a law.” In fact, I remember reader's Digest had a little column.
Bob Zadek (39:04): Tell us about what's happening. It spreads insidiously because one state does it. Another state says what a great idea, why didn't we think of it? And it spreads like COVID-19.
Speak about what's happening legislatively.
Lenore Skenazy (39:47): Let me bring people up to speed just about what Let Grow does. Let Grow is the nonprofit that grew out of Free Range kids, and it started when Jonathan Haidt from the Coddling of the American Mind was talking to Daniel Shukman, who was the chairman for 10 Years of FIRE, which fights for individual rights.
They were worried that kids on campus were fragile and often mistaking feeling uncomfortable for actually being in danger. That's why they would demand somebody step in and keep a speaker from addressing issues that might trigger distress. And they wondered who is addressing this at an earlier age of these kids' lives, where that would keep them from becoming overly sensitive, that would give them more opportunity for solving problems themselves, having adventures, and therefore becoming a little more resilient and resourceful.
And so they came to me and together we started Let Grow and Let Grow's slogan is “we're making it easy, normal and legal to give kids back some independence.”
Now why do we have to make it legal? Isn't it legal for kids to walk outside, play at the park or whatever? Yes and no is unfortunately my answer.
The reason it could be considered illegal sometimes, or at least worthy of a neglect investigation is because the neglect laws in most states are very open ended. They say parents must provide children with proper supervision. But as we've just been talking about, your parents' idea of proper supervision—and in fact my idea of proper supervision—is often at odds with other people's ideas.
Who gets to decide what is proper supervision? Once I started Free Range Kids and then with Let Grow, people started writing to me to say, “look, I was doing something I knew my kid was ready for. I allowed my kid to play at the park. I allowed my kid to walk home from school.”
I just did a story recently about parents who let their children ages seven and nine in Killingly, Connecticut ( which sounds like a horrible name) walk to Dunkin Donuts on Super Bowl Sunday. That had gotten not more than two blocks from the house when somebody saw them, and called the cops because there were children outside unsupervised.
So once you get to a culture that starts thinking that no kids should ever be alone and that kids are always in danger because there's always going to be a stranger out there, then you have people reporting thinking that they're doing the right thing. They're not being obnoxious. They think, oh my God, these kids are outside. Should I call the police? The authorities will know how to handle it. So they call the police and the police swoop in and ask, “Where do you live, kids?”
And they tell them, and the police come to the house and they say, “your kids are out walking by themselves.” And the parents say, “yeah, they're seven and nine years old. It's the nice day they're going for donuts.”
“Well, anything bad could happen to them.”
And that gets back to that question that was always asked of me, what if something bad happens to them? And you're allowed to hypothesize. You're allowed to fantasize. You're allowed to go into a dystopian fugue state and imagine rapists and sex traffickers and predators and giant eagles. Anything you want, you can imagine something bad might happen to them.
So why would a parent let them out of their sight? And so in this case, in Killingly, the parents were arrested for endangering the welfare of a minor.
I keep hearing from people, and I wouldn't say this happens every day, it doesn't. But I've heard from enough people and enough states, my daughter was walking home from the library, this was a Virginia story, and she was nine years old and the cops followed her home and she hadn't even gotten her coat off. ”Where are your parents?”
“They're upstairs. What's the matter?”
And then the parents come down, it's like, “what's going on?”
It's like, “Your daughter was walking outside.”
Yes, she was.
Why should this be considered anything other than a parent knowing their child best, knowing their neighborhood, knowing what their kid is capable of, and wanting their kid to have a little bit of the childhood of walking around and meeting the local dogs and maybe skipping over to get a candy bar that is undeclared before dinner?
I mean, why is it considered bad parenting to trust your kid, to have vaguely any kind of the freedom that you had as a kid that you're grateful for? I think that that should be legal. And luckily with the help of Let Grow with the help of people like you and listeners like you, we have passed what we now call Reasonable Childhood Independence Laws in Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, always with bipartisan support, often unanimously as it was in Utah and Colorado. They say that neglect is when you put your kid in obvious and serious and likely danger, not anytime you take your eyes off your kid. We are very hopeful that that's going to be signed by the governor and become our fifth state.
Opponents of the Independent Childhood Laws
Bob Zadek (45:13): Who opposes you? I want to meet those people who voted no.
Lenore Skenazy: There are two sets of laws: criminal law and Child Protective Services law. Criminal law tries to change criminal statutes. This means law enforcement and child services have one less tool to stop bad people. They worry bad guys will get away because they haven't investigated enough parental neglect cases. We usually focus on changing Child Protective Services. The fear is if this is almost the same problem, if they miss a neglected child who gets seriously ill or dies, headlines will say Child Protective Services didn't do its job.
And so they err on the side of over investigating rather than shrugging and saying, it sounds like they were just walking for a donut. Let's call that. No problem. I went for a donut at their age too. So often sometimes it's the actual people at an agency and sometimes it's just people who consider themselves more caring than anybody else who say, “but a child could get hurt.”
And our answer to that is that children are getting hurt. There's this incredible tsunami of child anxiety and depression. One reason is that children get so little independence that they're told everything is so dangerous for them.
The idea that Child Protective Services must constantly monitor parents and ensure kids are always supervised overlooks something important about childhood: curiosity, playfulness, and resourcefulness. You can't just say we need to check every home to make sure kids are always watched. There's value in kids not always being supervised.
But the fear of a child getting hurt and someone being blamed leads to constant checking. So they check everyone just to be safe.
Bob Zadek (48:54): Parents seem to be closely monitored for any signs of child abuse. As a result, there are many false alarms about abuse. In just a minute, tell us how parents are constantly watched and how this leads to a lot of mistaken reports of abuse.
Lenore Skenazy (49:19): Right, right. Well, what you were discussing before is that in every state, anybody who interacts with a kid, a teacher, a pediatrician, a counselor, whatever, is supposed to be a mandated reporter. And once again, this aims to prevent harm rather than cause it. And so if you see an unexplained bruise and the kid says, I don't know how I got it, you might be suspicious. Who are they covering for? You might report it to Child Protective Services. And the idea is no harm done. And also you are mandated to report. So failing to report could get you in trouble. And God forbid if the kid is actually being abused. So there's incentive to over-report, but no recognition that over-reporting is not only hugely expensive and time-consuming, it is completely traumatizing for the investigated parents who fear having their kids taken away.
It was created with good intentions, but the numbers are astounding—about 37% of all American children at some point will be reported to Child Protective Services hotline. And if you're black, it's 53%.
Bob Zadek (50:43): Nothing is scarier for parents than authorities taking their child away, believing they are bad parents. Friends, the Let Grow Movement is doing important work for parents. We spoke with Lenore Skenazy, @FreeRangeKids on Twitter, whose book "Free Range Kids" is on Amazon. Lenore’s blog is FreeRange Kids.com. Lenore, we know your time is valuable.
Lenore, thank you. I'll call you to talk about Queens for a few more hours.