Neglect, or good parenting?

The following ties in well with my recent post Parents should be leaders (not managers) and my overall theme for Autism Awareness Month, so I’m reposting it in its entirety.  I first posted this in April of 2008.
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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.

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.

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

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On the subject of leadership, there is a lesson to be learned here for managers/leaders of all kinds.

3 thoughts on “Neglect, or good parenting?

  1. I am definitely for safety. I think that, with today’s higher life expectancy, there is no harm in some delaying of independent life.
    When I was a child, it was standard to let even first-graders go to school and return from there on their own. In 2nd grade (i.e. age 8 or 9) a classmate of mine crossed a street in front of a bus, was run over and died.
    A month ago, a 9-yr-old boy from my city who was sent to school alone disappeared on his way. Because times have changed, his parents were blamed for not accompanying him.
    I often call tragedies “things that just happen” – because it is enough for them to happen only once.


  2. There’s a pretty fine line between ‘safety’ and paranoia. Stranger Danger isn’t really an issue- all research has shown that kids who are abused are usually abused by people in their family or by close family friends. You might as well worry about your kid being struck by lightning as by being abducted by a stranger.

    We need to give our children the tools that we can in order to help keep them safe. Encourage them to advocate for themselves- have a circle of people who they trust who they can give information to, know their own rights, and be sexually aware even if they’re not active. Teach them how to speak up for themselves.

    Our main job as parents is to enable our children to live as adults, and we need to give them the tools to do that, even when it makes us uncomfortable.


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