When one New York mother let her son ride the subway by himself, she was labeled the “worst mom in America.” But giving her son the independence he craved would help her become a leader of the “free range” parenting movement.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: I wanna ask you a question. When you were young, were you allowed to walk to school or the park alone when you were a kid?
Brittany: Absolutely not. Not even a little bit. So, yeah, my mom was super, super overprotected or protective, and she was, I don’t know if it was growing up in the nineties or, you know, late eighties, nineties, but every time we went anywhere it was like, you’re gonna get kidnapped if you don’t do this. Like, oh, I never knew anyone who got kidnapped either, but according to my mother, every time you left the house like that was gonna happen to you. So the rule was I was allowed to walk to school once I got to junior high. And the school was pretty close, but the cool thing was, I remember like those 15 to 20 minutes a day were like my favorite part of the day. Cause I got to feel really independent and I got to feel like I had this freedom. But I used to actually go to my friend’s houses just so I could like go to the park alone cuz their parents would let them. Interesting. Or do something like that. Yeah. So, I was not allowed to do pretty much anything.
Connor: I think a lot of kids in our generation had parents, who, you know, thought the same way. it’s led I think to a point where we have this whole generation of adults that were coddled, which just means like their parents were overly protective of that.
Brittany: Babies, maybe is a good way to say it.
Connor: Babied. Yeah. And, you know, they don’t really know maybe how to exist in the real world. Like, what’s really interesting about that is there’s a lot of parents, like, your mom, Brittany, who feel like, oh, there’s all these threats and kidnapping and all these dangers when like, it’s never been safer than today. Yeah. Like, we have this idea that there’s all these like child abductors and, human trafficking and all these like problems, but, and so we’re like, don’t let the kids out and don’t let them roam the streets. But it’s actually safer than it’s ever been. I think in part because of like social media. And it’s easy for some of these like, scary stories to spread really far. And people have these perceptions that it’s a bigger problem than it is.
Brittany: On the news, if you think about it, they didn’t have news, like we had our parents, you know? Yeah. It’s all day every day.
Connor: Yeah. And so, there’s a lot of parents who have kind of seen these problems and there’s this new approach to what’s being called free-range parenting. And it’s where mom or dad are giving their kids, additional freedom to be independent. And what’s interesting about this is when I talk to people about free-range parenting, they’ll often say to me, well, when I was growing up, that was just called parenting. Like letting a kid walk to the park or go to the mall. Like, when I grew up, we just had to be home when the sunset, you know, we would just like go ride our bikes all over the place and, you know, and there were no like tracking devices to monitor your child’s presence and all these things. And you know, that’s how people grew up. They just knew it as parenting. Now it’s called free-range parenting, but, parents who operate this way can run into trouble. there was a woman, a friend of ours, Brittany and I, who several years ago, she let her, so her name is Lenore Skenazy.
Brittany: I can never say her last name, so I’m glad you said it.
Connor: Skenazy, she let her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. And her son had been like begging her to have, you know, this independent adventure. And Lenore, even though she was a little nervous about it, like all moms would be, she decided to give her child that freedom. You know, and this had kind of been worked on for a while. It wasn’t a sudden thing her son had worked up to it and demonstrated, you know, being trustworthy and competent and so forth. And so Lenore gave her son a subway map and a metro card, a $20 bill, a bunch of quarters, just in case, you know, he had to make a call.
Brittany: I guess we should explain, that’s how he used to make calls before cell phones.
Connor: Yeah. You put a coin in this machine and you pick up the phone and you know, he made it home safely. Everything ended up being fine. So Lenore wrote about her experience. She’s a writer, and so she wrote an article talking about her experience. She was quickly labeled The world’s worst mom, or excuse me, the worst mom in America. And, newspapers and all these outlets just jumped on her, especially in New York. You know, I mean, it’s crazy. How dare she let her son do something without her? How dare she, you know, afford her child? A little bit of independence all across the country. There are examples of this happening. It’s been alarming to me how often this happens. I’ll share a couple of quick examples. There was a woman named Deborah. This was in 2014, and she worked at McDonald’s. She’s a single mom and she had a nine-year-old daughter. And her daughter would usually accompany her to work and she’d play on the laptop or whatever because she couldn’t afford childcare for her daughter. But their home was broken into, the thieves stole the computer. And so she didn’t want her daughter just sitting at a boring table all day. And so the girl, the nine-year-old girl asked if she could play at the nearby park, this big park, really popular. There’s a splash pad and so forth. And so she gave her daughter a cell phone and some money. And for, you know, the first three days she was playing there until this lady observed this same girl, who was there. And this is a big park, lots of parents and caregivers, the city even provided free meals for kids who needed it. Like it was a, it was a big deal. And so this woman came over and said, well, hey, like, where’s, where’s your mom? And when this lady learned that the mom was at work, she, the woman dialed 911 to report this abandoned child, Deborah, the mom. She was arrested. She was thrown in jail overnight. She lost of her daughter for 17 days, which means losing custody means you lose kind of the, the legal rights to be their caregiver. So her daughter was taken from her for two and a half weeks. There was a lot of, you know, public outrage about this stuff and, a lot of media attention. But it took her two years before those charges were dropped. She’s this single mom working at McDonald’s like she can’t afford attorneys and all these things. And she faced up to a decade in prison because it was a felony charge, which means just a really serious crime. And Deborah’s story is not unique. I mean, all across for lack of time, cuz we like to keep these episodes on the shorter side. I won’t get into ’em, but Lenore has written, a book about this. You can find all kinds of articles.
Brittany: We might have to do an episode just on these crazy stories.
Connor: There’s a lot. It’s just, crazy to see like, you know, so here’s Lenore. Like she’s now the face of the free-range parenting movement, helping parents understand, no, it is important to give your children independence, pushing back on this cultural desire to like, call the cops or call child services. And it’s all in contrast about, something maybe that you experienced a little bit, Brittany, which is helicopter parenting. This desire to like hover over. So maybe you can talk about, there’s the contrast, right? There’s the kids who kind of have independence and free reign and whatever, and have more kind of freedom. Maybe talk about if you’re willing, what has it been like for you as an adult where you were kind of raised that way? What, challenge has that created for you where you were parented in this more like helicopter style?
Brittany: Yeah. I had to learn the hard way. And it’s funny, I don’t even wanna admit that it’s probably only five years ago that I feel like I was as independent as probably, Lenore’s, son. But so yeah, I was raised in an environment where, and I lived in southern California, which I lived in a really safe town, so I don’t wanna say Southern California wasn’t safe. It wasn’t like LA or anything. I grew up in Orange County. Yeah. It was not the hood. but, you know, everything was taught to me to be a threat. So every time I, you know, saw a stranger, oh, that stranger wants to kidnap you. I don’t know what my mom’s deal was with the kidnapping. There was like one famous kidnapping when you and I were kids and it was the America’s Most Wanted guy and it was tragic. It was a horrible story, but that was one of the first times that we had 24-hour news channels. And so like all the parents were seeing the updates all the time. And that was something that I think I had to live with the consequences of because my mom didn’t let me do anything. But that meant that when I became an adult when I was 18, all of a sudden I was confronted with the world that I couldn’t do. I didn’t know how to do things by myself. Oh my goodness. Connor, having to go to the grocery store. I remember when I first moved into my own apartment, I did not know what I was doing. I was terrified. Oh, wow. I was terrified to go to the grocery store because I just didn’t know. And it was a weird thing like, oh, is that person looking at me like, oh, am I safe? And again, this was when I lived in, Oram, Utah, which is very exciting.
Connor: No, it’s vigilantes and horrible cartel crime.
Brittany: At the Walmart, near UVU. So yeah, so it was crazy to me how much I didn’t know. And, you get kind of angry about that when you become an adult because I wasn’t ready to be an adult. I knew nothing about adulthood. I didn’t know how to budget. I didn’t know how to save money. And I know that seems weird that maybe letting your kid go on a subway could teach you that. But there’s a level of independence that you learn when kids go off and they learn to do things by themselves. You know, they learn to go to a park, they learn to come home from the subway that I couldn’t do. And I remember when I first came to DC and I had to take a metro alone, I had to have a friend write like the, like really specific instructions. Like Lenore’s son was more capable of taking a subway at nine than I was at 30. So it’s just, it’s funny to me because again, like these seem like little things, but when I hear about kids being coddled and how they have a really hard time adjusting to adulthood, that really resonates with me because I think like, oh yeah, that happened to me. And you know, if and when I have kids, I don’t want that to happen. I want them to be very independent. I want them to be able to do these things where they don’t have to spend a lot of their adulthood learning how to be independent when they could have been doing that much sooner.
Connor: It makes me think of this funny meme I saw a few months back where this guy, posted I believe on Twitter, and he said, you know, I’m so glad, that schools taught me all about quadratic equations and the mitochondria rather than, how to file my taxes. It’s really coming in handy during this mitochondria season. And he is referring to tax season. Like he was never taught how to like, you know, be an adult and like do taxes or whatever. Not that’s a great model of adulting. That’s a horrible thing to have to know how to do, paying taxes. But the point is, like, in so many ways, kids are not being prepared to be adults and, what are the challenges that come in, when you helicopter over your children and you don’t allow them to experience a bit of independence when they’re younger. I think of it this way, like when my kids were young, I, I would sit them on my lap on, the driver’s seat in our car and let them hold the steering wheel and kind of, you know, in a big open parking lot, nothing’s around and they get to like turn the steering and just sheer joy, right? Yep. Like on their faces. And I think about that when I think of children and parenting where so often kids are in the back seat of their own life. It’s like, okay, welcome to this vehicle. This is your life. Get in the back seat, I’m driving. And you know, the parents or teachers or the government, they’re in charge and they’re directly deciding which direction you’re gonna go and where you’re headed and how fast. And the kids are just along for the ride in their own life. But imagine if kids could have more of a say if they could, you know, safely and with appropriate boundaries be in control of the steering wheel and say, no, I wanna go over here. No, I wanna do that. Just like Lenore’s son at nine was like, Mom, I can do this. Like, let me show you that I can do this and it’ll be okay. And of course, this is incremental, right? It’s little bit by little bit. But, imagine what a confidence boost that is for a kid. To say like, I did that. Oh my gosh. Like, I overcame that fear. And I think Brittany, you, and I in past episodes have talked a lot about all this COVID craziness and the government’s response and everything. And what really stood out to me during these past couple of years is how the people in charge were trying to eliminate all risk. In other words, you know, stay locked down, stay at home, stay wearing masks until COVID just goes away and no one’s gonna get sick and no one’s gonna die. That’s a fantasy, right? That’s like never gonna happen. Life is full of risk. Could you imagine never getting in a car, unless you were guaranteed 100% to never getting in a car accident?
Brittany: You have never leave your house, you just have to live in a pillow fort all the time.
Connor: Hey, that sounds kinda crazy.
Brittany: I know. I was gonna say, actually that sounds kinda cool.
Connor: For like two hours and then you get over it. But like, life is full of risk. Risk is how we determine what decisions we wanna make, where we wanna spend our money, how we wanna work, and who we wanna associate with, right? Like, you’re more dangerous to my reputation than like, Hey, this safe person over here, or this is an easy way to make money and get a steady paycheck versus, you know, this is more risky. But maybe then I would own my own company. Life is full of risk and we have to evaluate that risk and determine what we’re comfortable with. But it’s because life is full of trade-offs. It’s never this like pure approach to, Hey, you know, I can do things without any risk. Everything carries risk. You might get hurt, you might get, you know, something’s stolen. You might get your feelings hurt, you might have a relationship that ends poorly. You might lose, you know, your hair, your money. I don’t know. Life is full of risks. And so that to me was the biggest danger in how the elite were managing COVID, is they were trying to persuade people that they wanted to lock everything down until the risk went away. And that was the goal, right? Let’s just wait until like COVID two weeks to flatten the curve and you know things can be fine.
Brittany: Oh, that’s funny now, isn’t it?
Connor: Two weeks. Two years and then change. So, to me, when I think of Lenore and when I think of her nine-year-old son and so many kids across the country, I think of these kids who are learning to navigate life with little bits of risk at a time. You know, it’s like when you’re overcoming your height, your fear of heights, maybe you only go up a ladder and you kinda adjust. Your mind can kind of get used to what it’s like to be on top of a ladder three feet off the ground. And now you are acclimatized to that. You’re used to it. And so suddenly when you’re, you know, up on your roof of your house to help your dad hang the Christmas lights is not as scary. And then suddenly when you’re in a hot air balloon, right? It’s not as big of a deal and it’s all incremental because bit by bit you’re adjusting to the risk that nine-year-old Lenore’s son did not one day say, I wanna ride a subway. It was incremental and he slowly gained more independence. We as parents, for those of us, listening as parents, we need to do our part to make sure our kids are experiencing, what we now today call free-range parenting. And for you kids out there, right? Maybe you feel scary or whatever, but you gotta start small and then you go bit by bit and you get a little bit more independent again, like, think of how fun it is to be behind the wheel of a car, you know, sitting on mom or dad’s lap or, or if you’re big enough, you know, doing it on your own with their supervision. that’s how our lives can be, especially as we’re teenagers and getting older. We just need to be willing to do something a little scary, do something a little outside our comfort zone, just like Lenore’s son did. But on the other side, think of how confident you’ll be, how happy you’ll be, how exciting it is. That’s the promise of free-range parenting. And I think Brittany, it’s, this is so important because I wanna live in a society of people who are raised to be confident and independent-minded, and not people who are sheltered and made to be afraid and follow the rules and listen to the experts. Because I think what happens is we see what happened with COVID. Everyone just gets scared and say, okay, I’ll surrender my freedoms and, you know, just lock everything down if you say so. And I would rather live in a society where we’re more confident, we’re freer, we’re more independent. And I think, what it takes to get there is a little bit of free-range parenting. So check out the show notes page. You guys we’ll link to, Lenore’s, book and her organization called Let Grow, where she’s promoting a lot of these ideas. It’s a good organization worth supporting. You can check out her background and a whole lot of stories that she has to share about free-range parenting so that you can learn more. Until next time, make sure you’re subscribed to the Way the World Works podcast. We’re grateful that you’re listening, Brittany, as always, thank you. And until next time, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.