Is this neglect, or just good parenting?

What would you think if your friend/neighbor/sibling told you that they had left their 9 year old son at a department store in mid-town Manhattan, by himself, because “he had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own”? Would you call Child Protective Services, or would you say “good for you”? Would you ever do something like that?

After you’ve had a chance to think about it for a second, check out the essay Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone by Lenore Skenazy (also available on her new blog, Free Range Kids).

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.

It’s that last sentence in the excerpt above that really caught my eye. It is no less true for our autistic kids than it is for our non-autistic kids. There are obviously some differences that need to be allowed for, but only by being given independence – true independence – can kids learn how to be independent, and parents learn how to accept that independence.

Sure there are risks, and there will be mistakes and issues along the way. But isn’t that what life is all about?

As you can imagine, there was a huge negative reaction. But she also received some support from her readers. Check out her follow up, America’s Worst Mom, for the details. Security expert Bruce Schneier also weighs-in on his blog, that is worth a read as well.

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10 thoughts on “Is this neglect, or just good parenting?

  1. I’m not sure what I will do to foster independence in my children. But I have been thinking about it for a very long time (longer than I’ve had children). When I was nine, I was babysitting for my three younger sisters – one of whom was an infant. My parents thought nothing of this because I was extremely responsible, level-headed, and reliable. We were all in bed on time, safe, and I would be reading a book in bed waiting for them when they returned. If there was one thing I knew how to do, it was look after children. And I knew how to get help from a trusted neighbor immediately if needed.

    I think that the key to this story is that this is something that this child WANTED to do. He felt prepared for it, and he really wanted to do it. Personally, I simply couldn’t have done it without trailing him or assigning someone he didn’t know to do so. While the risk of harm is small, the potential harm is catastrophic: to me, you insure that risk. I would have put a tail on the kid.

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  2. You have to appreciate that this is a city kid. He’s no doubt taken this exact same route before dozens of times. In another year or two, he’ll be expected to make his way to school on public transportation, alone, every day.

    Most everybody I know was going alone on public transportation by ten or eleven. I do think doing so before hitting the double digits is jumping the gun, but only by a little.

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  3. Bad mommy (which I doubt): It is definitely a risk that each person has to assess for themselves, and I don’t know that I would have been able to do it without some sort of safety net either (I think I could). To her credit Skenazy talks about this in her article and, in her case, she was willing to accept the consequences if they turned out bad. She would have been devastated, but understood exactly what she was doing.

    I also think that this has much broader potential reach than just letting your kid be independent. So much of parenting involves this kind of risk assessment and trade-off analysis. The fear to let our children explore the world on their own is just one manifestation of that.

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  4. Kristina: I was thinking of you, Jim, and Charlie as I wrote this as I had just finished reading your post about a day in the city when I started putting this post together. The example Skenazy gives is a bit of an extreme, but the principle applies I think in all situations.

    From our conversations and reading your blogs over the past several years I can see how Charlie’s independence has grown and how you’ve accepted it. It may not be a day in the city by himself, but you have given Charlie the independence he can handle, and that is the key.

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  5. I have a 9 year old who is asserting his desire for independence of late. We are in a town too small for public transportation (whew). Letting him go into a public men’s room (wc) alone is tough enough on me. He has Downs. I can certainly understand the Skenazy story. When they convince you they are ready, it is time to let them try. Like Brett said to Kristina here — give him the independence he can handle.

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  6. Our autistic guy did it when he was four and could not talk at all. He didn’t take the subway (although he could have). He walked about ten blocks and crossed two avenues in Brooklyn. It would have been a perfect self-initiated, self-executed walk home from the park where the daycare had taken him, except that he was too short to reach the doorbell. A cop did that part for him.

    That was not planned, but we did start him walking home from school and going to the store by himself from age nine.

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  7. I don’t know that I would report this woman for child abuse, but I would question her methods of teaching independence. If she had said she shadowed that child, I’d say “Right on”. But I wonder how she would explain herself if herself to the police if the child had been abducted or raped, or abused in some manner. “Well officer, I was trying to teach my child independence and….”…don’t think that would fly do you?

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  8. Um, no. This is not the best way to teach independence. To me, its a sign of a parent wanting too much to be they’re child’s friend rather than parent. To assume a child of 9 has the wisdom to recognize all the myriad dangers in life is delusional. I wouldn’t care if my child was the brightest kid on the planet, some things are only learned through many years of living. To me, this is not even a legitimate question at this child’s age. Children should have the independence to make small mistakes appropriate for their age and maturity. At the age of 9, the child does not have the physical capacity to defend himself from an adult, which is to me a prerequisite for allowing this type of activity.

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  9. CS: although you hint at in your last sentence, my question back to you is, “At what age would this be OK?”

    You give as a prerequisite the “capacity to defend himself from an adult”, but I know many adults who are unable to meet that criteria.

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