Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone

By Lenore Skenazy

April 9, 2008 5 min read

I left my 9-year-old at Bloomingdale's a couple of weeks ago. Last seen, he was in first-floor handbags as I sashayed out the door.

Bye-bye! Have fun!

And he did. He came home on the subway and bus himself.

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn't strike me as that daring, either. New York is as safe now as it was in 1963. It's not as if 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 transit pass, 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 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.

And yet …

"How would you have felt if he didn't come home?" a mom of four, Vicki Garfinkle, asked.

Guess what, Ms. Garfinkle: I'd have been devastated. But would that prove that no mom should ever let her child ride the subway alone?

No. It just would be one more awful but extremely rare example of random violence, the kind that hyper parents cite as proof that every day in every way, our children are more and more vulnerable.

"Carlie Brucia — I don't know if you're familiar with that case or not, but she was in Florida and she did a cut-through about a mile from her house … and midday, at 11 in the morning, she was abducted by a guy who violated her several times, killed her and left her behind a church."

That's the story that the head of SafetyNet4kids, Katharine Francis, immediately told me when I asked her what she thought of my son getting around on his own. She runs a company that makes wallet-sized copies of a child's photo and fingerprints, just in case.

Well, of course I know the story of Carlie Brucia. That's the problem. We all know that story — and the one about the Mormon girl in Utah and the one about the little girl in Portugal — and because we do, we all run those tapes in our heads when we think of leaving our kids on their own. We even run a tape of how we'd look on "Larry King Live."

"I do not want to be the one on TV explaining my daughter's disappearance," a father, Garth Chouteau, said when we were talking about the subway issue.

These days, when a kid dies, the world — i.e., cable TV — blames the parents. It's simple as that. And yet, said Trevor Butterworth, a spokesman for the research center STATS, "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."

Justice Department data actually show the number of children abducted by strangers has been going down over the years. So why not let your kids get home from school by themselves?

"Parents are in the grip of anxiety, and when you're anxious, you're totally warped," the author of "A Nation of Wimps," Hara Estroff Marano, said. We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting our children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats.

The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that overprotectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't.

Meantime, my son wants his next trip to be from Queens. In my day, I doubt that would have struck anyone as particularly brave. Now it seems like hitchhiking through Yemen.

Here's your fare, kid. Go.

Lenore Skenazy is a contributing editor at The New York Sun and founder of Free Range Kids (freerangekids.com). To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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