9-year-old Rides Subway Alone: Is Mom a Hero or an Abuser?

10 years ago

Lenore Skenazy is a terrible mother. At least -- that's what her opponents would tell you. Skenazy is a columnist for the New York Sun, a New Yorker, a mother, and someone who let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone. She wrote a column about the experience, and then subsequently appeared with her son on the Today Show to discuss the experience:

As she wrote in her column about Izzy’s big adventure: "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."

Despite the facts and figures quoted by Skenazy -- most notably, that most "abductions" are committed by someone known to the child, and that today New York City is statistically as safe an area as Provo, Utah -- Today had a parenting expert on hand to express concern:

Dr. Ruth Peters, a parenting expert and TODAY Show contributor, agreed that children should be allowed independent experiences, but felt there are better – and safer – ways to have them than the one Skenazy chose.

"I’m not so much concerned that he’s going to be abducted, but there’s a lot of people who would rough him up," she said. "There’s some bullies and things like that. He could have gotten the same experience in a safer manner."

I'm willing to admit that I don't know a whole lot about life in New York City; heck, I was just there last week and subsequently bemoaning how I find it crowded and intimidating (though I was right in the heart of the busiest part of Manhattan, which locals assure me is a different beast altogether). However, I find it really difficult to believe that if someone was bullying an unaccompanied child that there wouldn't be enough people around for someone to step in and help. In fact, I'll even go one better -- I find it hard to believe that anyone would target a child under those circumstances at all. There are simply too many witnesses.

But what's really the issue here? Skenazy says the crux of the controversy is the tendency of today's parents to shield their children from, well, everything. That in attempting to keep them safe, we're neglecting to teach them how to make their own way. In theory, I agree whole-heartedly. In practice -- in sending a 9-year-old across town on the subway on his own -- I just can't say. Skenazy's son Izzy certainly seemed unbothered by all the hoopla. He's not my kid so I wouldn't even attempt to decree if this was the right choice for him. He sure did seem happy at his newfound freedom, though.

Stacey at MotherTalkers isn't sure what to think:

I do agree that kids need to take some risks, make some mistakes, and have their own life apart from their parents. I can imagine how incredibly psyched and proud Izzy felt when he knew he'd made it home by himself. I want my kids to feel that way too.

At the same time, I can understand why people are freaked by the idea that she left her son alone in the middle of New York City. He's a native, but still.

I really have no idea what a nine-year old is capable of. Is this crazy?

Stacey's post includes a poll titled "Is this mother out of her mind?" Last I checked, with well over a hundred responses, 61% of the respondents said that No, kids need more opportunities to learn independence.

Queenie at Homeschool Diaries caught the segment on television and it really struck a chord with her:

Now, I can't say that I would allow my children to ride the subway alone. Hell, I wouldn't even ride the subway alone. However, this family lives in New York. This boy grew up in that environment. He is a mature kid. I think that the mom looked at this in a very diplomatic way.

Her argument was that New York is one of the safest cities for kids. It is. Studies have shown that. She brought up a valid point in that we are living in fear of the things that are in the media. We only hear about the bad stuff. We don't hear about the millions of people that ride the subways each day without incident. We hear about the one bad thing that happens. She stated that people are living in fear and that she is being chastized because she chooses to not live that way. Bravo to you lady. I wholeheartedly agree with her on this fact. We are a scared nation. It sucks. On so many levels.

I think that Tee at Empty Boxes speaks for many when she says:

While I think allowing a 9 year old to ride the subway alone is in poor judgment, part of me is jealous of this mother’s bravery, for I know her kid will grow up to be a confident, independent person.

Being a parent is a constant struggle to balance keeping our kids safe and teaching them how to take care of themselves. I suppose this story is so sensational because the subway represents, for many, the seedy underbelly of a busy city (whether it really is or not), and our first inclination as a generation of overprotective parents is to say "Why?" Why would you let your child take that risk, if you didn't need to?

Maybe the answer is that we do need to, because otherwise -- as Skenazy points out -- we end up with a country full of college students who are still calling home to ask Mommy what they should wear. I don't know about you, but that strikes a deeper fear into my heart than the idea of a stranger speaking to my child.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs at Woulda Coulda Shoulda and Want Not.

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