IT’S hard to believe Lenore Skenazy is a timid and nervous mother.
In fact, she is a self-confessed “safety geek” who was taught to play by the rules.
So when Skenazy wrote a column six weeks after allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway on his own, she thought nothing of it.
Overnight, Skenazy was given the title of America’s worst mum but quickly turned the opportunity into a chance to hit parents with a reality check: world-proof your children, don’t childproof their worlds.
Skenazy has brought her story to Bendigo this week as the keynote speaker at the City of Greater Bendigo’s national child friendly cities conference.
“What I think is interesting about my story is that normally when you had a mother on the morning news show in America talking about a time that her child did something on their own, it would be to say I’m so sorry I ever did that because I never saw him again – that was the template.
“So what was interesting about my story was that why is it news?
“It’s news to see somebody on the news who is there, whose child is fine.
“Talk about man bites dog.
“That’s where we’re at in our media culture – you expect to see a missing child and a non-missing child is international news. Isn’t that weird?”
Skenazy believes the world was shocked by two things: that her child had been left alone in New York City and that he was allowed to ride the subway.
“It wasn’t just letting him walk home by himself, but the fact he was taking the subway that resonated for people, particularly for those beyond New York because they don’t see New York, which is very safe.”
And that is how Skenazy’s blog www.www.freerangekids.com came about.
After her fourth interview on the subject, Skenazy felt she needed to have her say.
“I was saying, ‘I can’t believe people ask how would you have felt if he had died’ – because how could anybody ask that? And I was asked it over and over.
“And later I realised that my real crime was not asking that of myself before I let him go, but at the time I was thinking so do people think I’m so much of a daredevil that I would rather my children have an Evel Knievel dangerous, adventure-filled life than have them live – that’s amazing to me.
“I also thought it was funny, because I’m actually a very, very timid person in terms of safety, which is hard to believe but is true – I’m a nervous mum.
“So I wanted to get my side out there, and I’m a writer, so why not write?
“I started the blog to have a place to say what I believe – which is that I’m really surprised we’ve become so afraid for our children.
“I felt like I had stumbled upon a really amazing sociological phenomena that I hadn’t been completely aware of – which is this fear that our children are unsafe every single second of the day.”
Skenazy believes parents are afraid of two things: physical danger for their children, and that “they can’t do anything by themselves, that we have to do everything for them or they won’t develop right”.
“There’s a crippling culture out there that assumes their brains aren’t going to work unless you work with them.
“This new way of feeling like you are God, and your children are yours to create or destroy, is what makes parents go crazy because then if anything bad happens, it’s your fault.
“That’s why people were mad at me, for saying when I was going to let my son go, was no you’re supposed to think about how bad you would feel; if something terrible happened and how it would all be your fault – and I say you shouldn’t think that way.
“I think I should have done what I did – which was prepare him. I gave him a map, I gave him quarters for the phone, my husband got down on the floor with him and made sure he understood how the map worked.
“It’s always been the job of parents to prepare their kids – but we are forgetting why we are preparing them and just doing it for them.
“But let’s just assume that we’re not in control – there are genes, there are other influences, there are teachers, siblings, neighbourhoods, this idea that the parent creates the child is post Freud, it wasn’t around forever.”
Skenazy doesn’t believe in parenting advice, but said it was time for parents to connect with their children at their level.
“The basics are pretty obvious: teach them how to cross the street, teach them they can talk to anybody but can’t go off with anybody, teach them to get back on the bike.
“They’re only seven years old once, they’re only 10 years old once – they don’t get to go back and play hopscotch with their friends when they’re 28.
“I really feel like my movement is a reality check, it’s not a parenting movement.
“I think it is pretty broad – it’s let’s not be taken in by a marketplace that wants to make us afraid so they can sell us something, let’s not be taken in by a media that goes to the worst case scenario because that’s what draws in viewers, let’s not be taken by a culture that makes you feel terrible.
“Let’s connect with each other, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, let’s trust men.”