WASHINGTON — If you Google “America’s worst mom,” Lenore Skenazy’s name dominates the search results — for several pages.
The New York City mom and journalist was slapped with the title in 2008 after letting her then-9-year-old son, Izzy, ride the subway alone.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Izzy Skenazy, now 18.
He had been begging his parents to let him get on the train by himself for weeks and finally, they agreed. Lenore took Izzy to Bloomingdale’s and left him in the handbag department with a fare card, a $20 bill and a subway map. Shortly after, he arrived at home.
“When he came through the door, he was like, levitating. He was so proud and so happy,” Lenore said about Izzy’s first taste of independence.
And so was she.
“We forget that the greatest joy that parents have is watching their kids do something — especially without them,” said Lenore, who wrote about her parenting decision a few months later in The New York Sun.
A tidal wave of criticism followed, and Lenore ended up on numerous news and talk shows defending her choice.
Her response to the judgment? Parents need to give their kids some space. After all, children are far more capable than we give them credit.
“I am a mom who loves safety; I’m not a crazy mom. I love helmets and car seats and seatbelts … so I don’t think that I’m an Evil Knievel-type of mom, but I just don’t think that our kids need a security detail every time they leave the house,” she said.
After the subway incident, Lenore went on to blog, write a book and eventually make a TV show about raising “free-range kids,” or children who are given multiple opportunities to function independently. Since then, she’s argued that because of isolated incidents played out in the media, parents are too afraid to let their kids be kids.
The free-range parenting style is one of controversy. In 2015, Silver Spring, Maryland, parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv were cleared of two neglect charges after their children, ages 6 and 10, were allowed to walk home from a playground by themselves.
“We’re overestimating the danger out there and underestimating [our kids’] abilities and we’re not doing anyone any favors,” Lenore said. “It’s not that each individual parent is a neurotic, overprotective nutjob. It is a culture that is telling us.”
And it starts before birth.
Lenore mentions the “What to Expect” books that have a list of guidelines for parents-to-be to follow before they’ve even conceived. Then, once a child is born, there’s nothing but an endless stream of information warning parents what they need to do.
“That’s the culture that parents are born into. They’re told that every single thing they do has to be super important developmentally and super safe and cautious and baby proof everything and get your kid into the right class at the right time,” Lenore said.
“Somehow we’ve forgotten that anything kicks in automatically — any curiosity, any brain cells, any caution. … If you’re not ‘what-iffing’ to the very worst degree, then you’re not a caring parent.”
Her one tip for parents who want to turn off the helicopter and start giving their kids a little room to spread their own wings? Think back to one thing that you did and loved to do as a kid, that you won’t let your own child do. Whether that activity is playing outside unsupervised in the neighborhood until dinner or walking to the store by yourself to buy a treat with your hard-earned allowance — let your child try something similar, if they feel ready.
“Just letting your kid do one thing that you’ve grown afraid of that you remember doing as a kid is outrageously transformative,” Lenore said.
Nine years later, Izzy still hasn’t forgotten the feeling of accomplishing something on his own.
“You feel like a grown-up, and it felt great to be an adult for 45 minutes,” he said.
This summer, he backpacked from Portugal to Israel by himself with an unlimited train ticket and he likened the experience to his first ride on the subway.
“The subway ride instilled such confidence in me and I think that really gives momentum to a kid,” he said.
“[A train ticket] is your ticket to the rest of the world. And I’m proud to have the world’s worst mom.”
Lenore Skenazy will be hosting a seminar at this year’s WOW Summit at National Harbor. For more information, visit the Moms Meet website.