Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

~ Groucho Marx ~

I’ll Have a Lenore Skenazy Minus The Spice

May 23rd, 2012 ~ Est. reading time: 3 mins, 5 secs

I love doing new things.

Who is Lenore Skenazy? Well she’s a journalist, and mother from New York City who, back in 2008, was tagged America’s Worst Mother. How did she achieve that kind of notoriety? Well most Americans know the story. But for the rest of us, Lenore decided to acquiesce to her nine-year-old’s request to be left somewhere alone in New York City and find his own way home on the subway.

Ms Skenazy went on to write a book called “Free Range Kids” which, amongst other things, challenges modern expectations about what it means to be a good parent. These days, she continues to promote the message that we don’t need to mollycoddle our kids for them to turn out right. And for that, I believe Lenore Skenazy’s message matters.

With wide screen TVs in most homes and the Internet infiltrating nearly every private place, we see an awful lot of worldly stuff. So much so that it’s easy to feel there’s more threat than there really is. Perceived danger levels have escalated so high some insist kids can’t cope without us keeping a sharp eye on their every move. Sensibly, Lenore Skenazy picks the disconnect between real risk and feel risk.

But (and it’s rather a large but), I believe her specific decision to let her nine-year old sort out how to get home alone was mistaken. Not because Ms Skenazy was indifferent, cruel, or a bad mother. But for practical reasons. Children up until ten lack the neurological capacity to reasonably read traffic risks. That’s why it’s good to walk together with kids below ten to reduce the risk of pedestrian accidents in busy areas.

That’s quite apart from Lenore Skenazy’s decision to allow her nine-year-old to go it alone and face the high and low life of a big city. It certainly wouldn’t be my choice. Though, we did allow our fifteen-year-old to train into Manhattan from Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve. And, we let our twelve-year-old fly from Australia to Germany unaccompanied. Somewhere in the parenting process you have to decide what is reasonable for your child, given their age and particular level of ability.

Lenore Skenazy’s point about letting our children stand on their own two feet is right for the times, provided we don’t try to turn our kids into mini adults.

When our then twelve-year-old asked to go on ahead of the crowd and meet us at the airport gate in Rome Airport, we said “yes.” But I have met hundreds of twelve year olds who couldn’t handle that. Which is to say, Lenore Skenazy’s free range approach needs prudence. Still, kids in third world countries are often expected to cope with freedoms that few kids elsewhere would ever face. Perhaps, with a different paradigm, this kind of parenting works fine. Kids will grow up. Sometimes, in spite of us.

Once, a mother I met at a school meeting proudly declared she had never left her eleven-year-old son with anyone for even a single evening since he was born. I didn’t want to offend her, but it explained a lot about her son’s behavior (notwithstanding, her cossetting and martyrdom was not about his needs, but hers). She would have been amazed how much tougher kids are. That her son would have benefitted from more social stimulus never entered her head. Predictably, her over-controlling approach created a pressure cooker situation. When her son reached his teens, things exploded (and there’s no prize for guessing what Lenore Skenazy would think).

Providing they know they are loved, and approved of, children are incredibly resilient. They are also capable of doing extraordinarily sensible things and, clearly, that’s part of Lenore Skenazy’s point.  Yet, there is another element to care that shouldn’t be ignored. Children do best when they’re allowed to be children. Not forced to be clone grownups who can fly planes, sail solo round the world, study into the wee small hours, or be hot-housed geniuses. Kids benefit from being able to play and not be too responsible until their maturity allows.

So bring back the teddy bears, dolls, and toys, and take away anything that belittles play. Somewhere in our own parental approach is the harmony of knowing our own kids and letting them be their best. Test it, trust it, and be assured that regardless of what people say, given love and affection, kids grow up happily anyway.



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