Once upon a time in New York City, it wasn’t a big deal if pre-teen kids rode the subways and buses alone. Today, as Lenore Skenazy has discovered, a kid who goes out without a nanny, a helmet and a security detail is a national news story, and his mother is a candidate for child-abuse charges.
A columnist for The New York Sun, Skenazy recently left her 9-year-old son, Izzy, at Bloomingdale’s in midtown Manhattan with a Metrocard for the subway, a subway map, $20, and told him she’d see him when he got back home. She wrote a column about it and has been amazed at the chord she struck among New Yorkers who remember being kids in those more innocent times.
“So many people – the ones who aren’t castigating me as crazy – are all regaling me about the first time they took the subway,” she told TODAY’s Ann Curry on Thursday in New York. “And for most people, it’s a great, happy memory. People love that independence.”
Izzy, who is now 10, nodded in agreement and insisted it was no big deal. He had been nagging his mother for a long time to let him ride home alone, and finally she agreed to let him take the downtown Lexington Avenue subway and then transfer to a crosstown bus to get home from Bloomingdale’s.
“I was like, ‘Finally!’ ” Izzy said of his reaction when his mom finally caved in to his nagging. “I think that it’s a really easy, simple thing to get home.”
And that was Skenazy’s point in her column: The era is long past when Times Square was a fetid sump and taking a walk in Central Park after dark was tantamount to committing suicide. Recent federal statistics show New York to be one of the safest cities in the nation – right up there with Provo, Utah, in fact.
“Times are back to 1963,” Skenzay said. “It’s safe. It’s a great time to be a kid in the city.”
The problem is that people read about children who are abducted and murdered and fear takes over, she said. And she doesn’t think fear should rule our lives.
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.”
When she said goodbye to Izzy in the handbags department, Skenazy didn’t even leave him with a cell phone. Instead, she gave him a couple of quarters so he could call home on a pay phone if he got lost.
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.”
“It’s safe to go on the subway,” Skenazy replied. “It’s safe to be a kid. It’s safe to ride your bike on the streets. We’re like brainwashed because of all the stories we hear that it isn’t safe. But those are the exceptions. That’s why they make it to the news. This is like, ‘Boy boils egg.’ He did something that any 9-year-old could do.”
Addressing the same subject in her column, she had written: “These days, when a kid dies, the world - i.e., cable TV - blames the parents. It's simple as that. And yet, Trevor Butterworth, a spokesman for the research center STATS.org, said, ‘The statistics show that this is an incredibly rare event, and you can't protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.’ ”
She said that people ask her how she would feel if one of those terrible and rare events happened to her son.
“It would be horrible,” she said. “But you can’t live your life that way; you could slip in the shower.”
“I don’t think this is just about the subway,” Peters countered. “I think it’s a difference of opinion of when is the child able to have independent activities. My thought on it is, it’s not just the child, it’s the other environment. If you can do something more safely, it’s just more appropriate.”
Said Skenazy, “I just think about all the college kids who are still sending their essays home to be edited by their parents. I talked to one lady whose daughter sends her pictures when she’s trying on clothes: ‘Mom, what do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ At some point you have to let go and let them live their life.”
Or ride the subway alone.