Free-Range Kids’ Lenore Skenazy: “Kids are over-parented and here’s the answer”

Free-Range Kids' Lenore Skenazy

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For the past 10 years Free-Range Kids' Lenore Skenazy,  New York City journalist and mom of two, has been taking one for the team. The Free-Range Kids author and blog founder has been on a one-woman mission to give kids back the freedom and autonomy they need to grow into self-actualized adults.

I can't get enough of every single thing she has to say, including stats like:

  • Crime is back to the level it was when gas cost 29 cents a gallon, says the Christian Science Monitor.
  • 2013 gun crime rate back to level of early 1960s, says Pew Study.
  • 2014 violent crime rate down another4.4%, says USA Today.
  • Pedestrian, bicyclist and car deaths ALSO at lowest rate in decades, says The Council on Foreign Relations.
  • And here’s an overall report on crime over the last 25 years, which includes the graph below: Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School
  • All violent crime in the U.S.: Down  48% 1993 – 2012
  • All homicides: Down 50.5% 1993-2012
  • Forcible rape: Down 34.5% 1993 – 2012
  •  Violence Against Children 2-17 is going down too (and not just because we are helicoptering. Crime is down grown men and women  too, and we don’t helicopter them):
  • Physical Assault: down 33% 2003 – 2011
  • Rape, attempted or completed: down 43% 2003 – 2011

In fact, the most dangerous thing your kids can do? RIDE IN A CAR!!

I love Lenore's informed candor about what is happening in the world, and what you and I can do about it. Examples:

  • Let your kids walk to the bus stop alone.
  • Let your kids play at the playground alone.
  • Let your kids stay home unsupervised while friends are over — unsupervised.
  • Let your kid do their own homework. 

My only problem with the Free-Range Kids movement is that it isn't adopted widely or quickly enough — despite my eff-you nature I still feel pressure from other parents to hover, coddle and bake way more cupcakes than are good for my time management or public health. I resent that when I am forced to spend time with my kids at the playground, those are hours I cannot work — or do something less mind-numbing.

For moms like me, Skenazy created Free-Range Friend Finder, a no-cost site where you can connect with like-minded (i.e. sane, with a life of your own) parents in your neighborhood. Check it out! 

I also wrote about the financial fallout of helicopter parenting in this post:

Lots of ink has been paid to the high cost of child care pre-kindergarten, a phenomenon so dire that it can be solely blamed for the ever-stubborn gender pay gap, as it discourages mothers from remaining in the work force, investing in their careers and building wealth. What has not been reported, is how our current dysfunctional parenting culture promotes and enforces child care mandates well beyond any historical precedence — and parents are required to pay a financial price for it.

Full transcript of Like a Mother podcast episode featuring Lenore Skenazy

Emma Johnson: Welcome. Of course, I'm Emma Johnson, who else would be hosting this show? You might know me from my column at Forbes or my other places where I write as a journalist, but I'm best known for my blog Wealthy Single Mommy where I help professional single moms through the perils of career and money, parenting, and dating and sex. But you know this show isn't just for single moms, even though I like to say there's a single mom inside of every married mom, it's for moms, smart moms, edgy moms, moms that are talking about what's really going in the world today, moms who want to talk a little bit more about those things they probably should not be talking about, but I'm giving you permission to let it all hang out. Now today I'm talking about my biggest beef as a mom.

Modern day parenting trends I hate

Emma Johnson: I was recently on somebody else's podcast and she said, “What are some parenting trends that you like today?”

Emma Johnson: And I was like, “You know what, zero. I hate being a mom today. I mean I like my kids, I love being a mom, but there is nothing in the culture of parenting today that I enjoy.” And the biggest trend is this whole idea of freedom, not happening at all. Free range parenting. I love that it has a name, everything's gotta have a name and a title, but this is basically just about raising kids like you're supposed to be letting kids be raised, which is go outside and play. Walk to the playground, walk to the bus stop, do their own homework.

Emma Johnson: So, today I'm going to tell you a little bit about how I am struggling with this. Now I'd like to tell you that I just let my kids go outside and play all the time, and walk here and there in my New York City neighborhood, and I do, I let them exert their freedom a lot, lot more than really any other parent that I know, but I still struggle with it.

Emma Johnson: So, let me give you some examples. Last year my oldest, my daughter was in first grade. She just needs more independence, she's got this huge personality and I identify with that because I was the same way. Her teacher even sees it she says that Helena's a very independent kid, I am very proud of that I think that is such critical life skill, and I could tell she was ready to make that step and I let her start walking to the bus stop two blocks away by herself. Now, paired with that I am consistently very, very frustrated. I feel this enormous pressure to spend all of my waking hours with my children, this is coming one from fear of danger, fear that my child will be hit by a car, my child will be abducted, but also this pressure to be this omnipotent parent, and the notion that anything that takes away from that is robbing my child of a great upbringing and childhood. So, on one hand the walk to school was awesome. When she walked to that bus stop she loved it and I loved it, it was so positive.

Emma Johnson: So, she comes home from school and I'm not going to lie I was feeling a little anxious about it, did she make it there okay, was she scared? Did she look both ways when she crossed the street? What was going on? She came home from school that afternoon and I am telling you what, I felt like I had a new kid on my hand. Before there had been some back talking, not listening, she's a great kid but just six year old attitude whatever stuff in the house, and she had this new confidence, and this new maturity. She was listening, she was doing her chores without being asked, she was staying on task in the morning, at one point some weeks into this whole thing she was like getting behind or she misbehaved a little bit and she broke down crying she was like, “I am so afraid that you're going to take away my privilege of walking to the bus.” So here she was, six years old and I was like, oh my gosh she had all this pent up need for this independence that I had not been giving to her. And so, if I had not been giving it to her in the bus stop walk, what else was I holding her back on?

Why are we nurturing neediness in our children?

Emma Johnson: And so, that brings up a lot of questions. Why are we nurturing neediness in our children? Is it because we feel like we want to be needed and so we raise neurotic children to fill that need within ourselves? Before this we had started a new ritual in my home, so I'm an unmarried mom, a divorced mom and I have two kids, and now they are five and seven, and at the time we started doing this I think they were four and six. And I live in New York City in my building is some retail, and so on Saturday morning I give the kids a handful of cash and my house keys, and so they would go out the front door and around the corner to this little bakery where, look we do know everybody in the building and we know half the people on the street, and they would go down and they'd buy the family croissants and they would come back up 10 minutes later, and it was awesome. And in fact, a year later my son now he was five he decided that he was going to go all by himself. I was like, “Okay, ready to go?”

Emma Johnson: He goes, “Hold on one second I'll be right back.” He goes into his bedroom and he comes out and he'd gotten his little clip on tie and he'd put it on his tshirt, he was ready to roll dressed up for the occasion, he's going to do his big boy thing. And sure enough he did it. I was like, “How did it go? Did you feel scared? You feel cool about it?”

Emma Johnson: And he's like, “Yep. Yep. Yep. I felt cool.”

Emma Johnson: And I said, “Were people looking at you funny 'cause you're so little and you were doing it by yourself?”

Emma Johnson: And he goes, “Yeah.” And he like turned his head to the side and he looked way out of the corner of his eye he goes, “Yeah, they were looking at me like this.” It was so cute but he didn't care. But here's the thing with the whole Free Range Parenting thing, I'm not getting a lot of support.

Helicopter coparenting issues

Emma Johnson: So, back to the bus stop thing, this year I'm not letting my daughter walk to the bus stop by herself, and why? Well, because she has another parent and her dad found out about this and he did not like it. I acquiesce with that one because it could have turned into a really big ugly thing, and he felt very strongly that it was no way that we were going to take the risk in letting this little kid walk to the bus stop by herself. And I just knowing him, I know there was just no changing his mind. And so, it was one of those divorce family negotiation things that I let go, but I know he bolstered his argument because he was talking to the other parents at the bus stop who were horrified that I would let my six year old first grader walk to the bus two blocks by herself.

Emma Johnson: I don't fault those parents because they represent the vast, vast, vast majority of people in this country who believe that children should be supervised at all times, and probably including in your own home. And this is not just a convenience thing for the parents or a self esteem thing for the kids but it becomes an economic issue. Now, I'm a working mom just like you, just like most women in this country, if I am constantly supervising my kids that means less time that I'm working. Now that's fine, I have tons of flexibility in my career, I'm self employed, I work mostly at home, when I'm not in the podcasting studio in Times Square, but that is something I've designed into my life.

Emma Johnson: But here's another scenario for you, after school barring horrible weather I believe children need to play outside. They need the exercise, the need the fresh air, they need some freedom just to go and run and play and be outside of a classroom, be outside of their home. Well, living in New York City I don't have a yard, so that means I have to go down the street to a playground. I'm very lucky I have a nice playground down the street from my house.

Emma Johnson: So, if my kids are going to play there that means one of two things. One, I hire somebody to go and be there with them, which I don't have any problem with people who do that, that's great, but then you are spending money and you also have to coordinate that. Or I go there myself. Now sometimes I enjoy hanging out with my kids, I've been known to get on the tire swing and go down the slide and that's cool, but a lot of the times I don't like going to the playground, I think it's super boring and I also think that my kids need to go and play by themselves. They need to go play with their friends, they need to make new friends, they need to get into a scuffle that they need to resolve by themselves, they don't need their mom doing the train on the slide anymore because they're five and seven years old and that just is something they should do on their own, and plus I just don't enjoy it. Sometimes I hate being at the playground.

Helicopter parenting is a hallmark of privilege

Emma Johnson: So, not only is that annoying but it's an economic issue because those are hours when I could be working on my business, which is something not only that I enjoy, but guess what, it is something I need to do because I'm the only wage earner in my family, and it is also something that the whole family benefits from. So, if I am being productive and making money, and also feeling really good about it because I do work that I enjoy, then that benefits all of us. But meanwhile if I am not making money, and not building my business, and resenting being the playground, which I hate, then that trickles into my family life, because I'm a human and I'm going to resent that. So, the whole free range thing is extremely multi faceted, but again if you are one of the tiny minority like me who fully supports it, it is very hard to execute it.

Emma Johnson: So, I'll tell you what I do sometimes. Sometimes I leave my kids at the playground. They know my phone number, we would practice it, they both know my phone number. They know to look out for each other. We often look to see if we know anybody else at the playground, which sometimes we don't, and they know, they know the drill. If you feel scared you can have an adult call me. Or if something happens you can go and approach an adult and this is what you will say. And I will leave them for 20 minutes and I say like, “I'm going to that grocery store there and I'm crossing the street and going to that dry cleaner over there, and you guys are going to play by themselves.” And they love it, they are totally cool with it, I don't think one time they've ever gotten upset about that. And sure enough, I feel like I'm productive, I'm not hanging out at the boring annoying playground, they get their fresh air and freedom, and then we go on our way. But nobody else I know is doing that.

Emma Johnson: In fact, I get plenty of stink eyes from parents that they catch me doing that, and I might be kind of balls to the wall and out there, acting like I don't care, and a lot of times I really don't, but I am a human being too and I feel those little judgy mommy eyes on me thinking that I'm a rotten mom because I'm abandoning my children. Not only am I making unsafe circumstances because I'm not watching them all the time, but I'm also just not spending all those precious moments with them when I could be playing tag. Well guess what, those moms play tag and they hate it. So, it's a very big pickle that moms are in today. This pressure to be with their kids all the time nurturing them 24/7 and then just this whole mania that somehow the world is so, so, so unsafe and we most protect them all the time. If you don't intellectually believe that, if you read free range kids, if you know the statistics that say that is actually safer today compared to when we were growing up in the 60s and 70s and 80s, intellectually even if you know that it is very hard to constantly be executing, which you as a mother internally intuitively know is good for you and is good for your kids.

Guest Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids

Emma Johnson: Today I am so excited for a guest that I'm going to have. Lenore Skenazy, Free Range Kids, she coined that term. I've known her for years and years and I'm so excited that her book and her platform Free Range Kids has taken off. It really has become a household term. I know I mentioned it like talking with other moms, all over the country I have friends and followers of my blog, everybody knows it. So Lenore is going to come on in a minute here and I'm going to ask her what she thinks about my pickle, which is that I'm all about giving my kids way more freedom than they even have but in a way I am still paralyzed by fully executing my parental mothering greatness because of all these very real social pressures that are upon me. Speak to you in just one second and Lenore's going to be with us.

Emma Johnson: So, I am here with my friend Lenore Skenazy who you may know from Free Range Kid. I mention you all the time. I stopped saying, have you heard because everybody knows you, this is amazing your success with this book and your brand. And you've been on The Daily Show, I mean you've been on every single media talking about letting people run in the streets.

Lenore Skenazy: Sort of, actually walk on the sidewalks, but yes same idea.

Emma Johnson: So, you've had this book out for what? More than 10 years now.

Lenore Skenazy: Almost 10 years, yeah.

Emma Johnson: 10 years and tell me what is going on out there. What has happened in these 10 years in terms of our culture, our parenting culture, our child rearing culture? Are people letting their children out there more or are we still keeping a watchful eye on our kids 24/7?

Lenore Skenazy: I think there's two different things going on at the same time and I frankly have no idea which one is going to win. One thing that's going on that is very encouraging to me is that a lot of people identify with the whole Free Range Kids Movement, they want their kids to have some independence, some free time, they want them to grow up the way they did, going outside and finding a friend to play with, walking to school, maybe even making a meal or two for the family, not that I did that I actually didn't do that until I was grown up, but they want their kids to have the free time that they remember fondly. So, that's great and people are starting to say that kids are too over programmed and kids are too over scheduled, even if the parents are just watching kids, the desire to jump in and solve problems for them is so great that unless you actually banish the parents from the playground, from the play date the parents will become part of the deal.

Some laws encourage helicopter parenting styles

Lenore Skenazy: But at the same time the are two worrisome trends going the other direction. One is the laws are sometimes not in our favor. There's 19 states now that make it illegal for you to let your kid wait in the car even while you're picking up the stamps, or while you're getting the pizza. The mistaken belief that any time a kid is unsupervised they are automatically in grave danger, the weird truth is that your kids are actually in more danger if you're dragging them across a parking lot then if you let them wait in the car while you pick up the dry cleaning. But state after state has made these laws and there's flashing signs along the highway, never leave your child in a car. And there's public service announcements, so people are sort of deputizing themselves to call the cops anytime they see a kid walking to school, waiting in a car, alone at the park, and I hear from the parents … I just put a piece on my site today who get arrested wondering, what did I do that was wrong? My parents let me do this all the time So, we have to change those laws to reflect real danger, not to reflect what the norms say, which is that oh I wouldn't leave my child alone so why did they? Let's drag them to court.

Lenore Skenazy: And the other sort of force against Free Range Kids is technology. There's so many ways to track your child every single second, whether you're watching their route home and you get an alert if they walk a block out of their way, or you're extorted to watch their texts to make sure they're not bullying or getting sexted or whatever. At some point in the future we'll be able to actually monitor what our children eat by having little ingestible in their stomach that tell us, another cookie came down the pipe.

Emma Johnson: Oh my God.

Lenore Skenazy: But already … yeah it's really weird. There's schools that will tell you what your kid had for lunch, if they're on the lunch program. Oh they took an apple and they took a slice of pizza. This kind of hyper awareness of everything they're doing, seeing, reading, goes obviously diametrically opposed to believing in our kids and thinking, they're going to be okay even without me moderating everything they do.

Emma Johnson: You're saying that there is so much reception to this idea of having freedom, giving the kids freedom to play outside, but you're not seeing that parents are actually acting on their warm and fuzzy feelings about that notion.

Lenore Skenazy: Some are, I mean that's what I hear. I get nice letters like, thanks to reading this blog for a year, now I'm letting my kid walk to school. Or my favorite ones are the ones from people that say, now I'm letting my kids walk to school and my neighbor asked if her daughter could join them, and of course they do.

Emma Johnson: A little bit of a movement.

Lenore Skenazy: Yeah.

Free Range Kids Movement

Emma Johnson: But what do you say? So, coach me. My case I think is a great example. I started letting Helena who you know, walk to the bus stop by herself last year to the bus stop. She was in first grade and it's two blocks to the bus. She loved it, I loved it. Her behavior improved, it was like I wish I had done it sooner, it was so awesome. Well, her dad found out about that, we're divorced and he did not like that. And he felt vindicated because he has all these friends on the police force and they said, no, no, no, that's a horrible idea. And then all the moms at my bus stop secretly told him, oh God we were so worried about her. So, then I have al this social pressure plus I mean he is another parent I have to negotiate with, and then he's like, I don't care about all those statistics that Lenore Skenazy says make it safe, it's just that one time, that one time that the off chance somebody snatches her off the street corner.

Lenore Skenazy: Do you ever ask him, what about that one time, that off chance that you're driving her to school and you get rear ended by a drunk driver, or you get cut off by a jack knife tractor trailer? I realize that statistics are cold and don't get convince many people but rationally your child is in more danger in a car than doing anything else in their life. More children die as car passengers than any other peril from childhood up through young adulthood. And so, what he's able to envision is something that is rarer than rare, and you're allowed to parent with loving rationality.

Emma Johnson: Right. Convince those listeners out there who might be with you 100% but they are members of society, they are sensitive human beings who do buckle under this peer pressure from other parents, maybe teachers at the school, people that make little snide comments or are fully confrontational and they're like, it's just not worth it even though this goes against my beliefs.

Lenore Skenazy: Well there's a couple things. First of all, I think of Free Range Kids Movement as give parents the benefit of the doubt, give people the benefit of the doubt, assume that if you're sending your child by foot to school it's not because you're negligent, it's not because you're lazy, it's because you think it's better. And similarly assume that your husband who wants to walk the child to school is doing it because he loves her, and just give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we're all trying to do our parenting as best we can, and there's no such thing as a perfect parent. Assume that, that other person is not a moron, and not an evil person. So just start with the benefit of the doubt towards everyone.

Lenore Skenazy: I recognize that it's hard to send your kids out when nobody else is doing it. If you want your kid to play outside and there's no other kids to play outside with it's boring. If you want your kid to walk to school, nobody else is doing it, it's hard to buck the system. So, one thing I started is it's a site called, go there it's free. You put in your zip code and you don't put in any identifying anything like name or school, it's like a dating site except that you're finding other Free Range Parents. And once you've contacted them and decided that you trust them, then you can talk to them about, well listen, I live on 34th Street and you live on 32nd Street maybe we can drop our kids off together at 33rd Street and they can walk the rest of the way together. So, right now there's about a little over 2,000 families on this site, but I'm hoping that it will grow. And you put yourself out there, and it's always easier to free range your kids if there's somebody else, especially near by who will support you and maybe even send their kids out so that you have a couple of kids out there instead of just one.

It's hard to have free range parenting when other parents don't

Emma Johnson: Right. So, you feel good about your kids but then you're also commiserating with like minded parents, which as my experience is so critical in this.

Lenore Skenazy: It is, but not to plug my site but Free Range Kids is a place where parents go and they do feel heartened, and not everybody joins the conversation. Like this woman who wrote to me yesterday who's letter I put up today, let her kids wait in the car while she and her husband ran a quick Walmart errand, which turned into a longer one when their credit card wasn't working, and then the line got longer, it ended up being 27 minutes, not a decision they made deliberately. But when she got out there, there were two Walmart employees and they'd called the cops, and the cops called CPS, and CPS came and investigated her and actually found her home and family to be just fine, but nonetheless the cops kept this open and now she's facing possible six months in jail and $2,000 in fines, which is insane.

Emma Johnson: Oh my gosh, totally insane. Well I read there was a great New Yorker article about you, you had a great quote in there and it said when you first started this that parents they were worried that somebody was going to jump out of the bushes and take their kids, but now parents are worried that the cops are going to jump out of the bushes and arrest them.

Lenore Skenazy: Right. So that's when I say there's yin and yang going on. First of all, the yin is that you find support at Free Range Kids and also what I think are helpful articles and statistics that could help in court. At some point this kicked into law, in a good way, in that Senator Mike Lee who's the Senator from Utah is a Free Range Kids supporter. And so when Congress was voting on the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, it's called the Every Child Succeeds Act, which was just passed, he included an amendment which said that parents will be allowed to let their kids get to school however they deem appropriate, and that could be by foot, by bus, or car, he forgot to add subway but he is in Utah.

Lenore Skenazy: The point is that became law, that parents are allowed to choose how their children get to school. Now it can be superseded by a local law, but he put it into this national piece of legislation because people do want that choice. Even if I don't want my kid to walk to school until she's 12 or 13, there's no reason that your kid if you think your kid is ready at six, seven, or eight, couldn't walk to school. And there's literally no reason sort of crime reason that we should be keeping kids closer. And unless you think that kids have taken a u turn in terms of evolution and our suddenly way stupider or spacier there's no reason that this generation can't do exactly what we did.

Emma Johnson: Well I'll tell you, when I was filling out my kids heaps and heaps of paperwork, talk about antiquated, but school started this year. I think it was different than last year where I was saying how my child would go home at the end of the day, and one of the options is that they would walk, and in elementary school. And I was so happy about that.

Lenore Skenazy: That's great.

Emma Johnson: Yeah.

Fostering independence in our kids

Lenore Skenazy: So if you read this book from 1979, I think it was updated in about '83, it was a series of books and you read your six year old and it says, “At six years old your child should be able to …” and I can't remember like, tie her shoes, maybe count to 10 or whatever, and of course they can walk around the neighborhood in the circumference of about eight blocks, and of course they can get themselves to school, blah, blah, blah. And this is just a given, this is a throw away line in 1979 when the crime rate was higher than it is now.

Emma Johnson: Yes.

Lenore Skenazy: So, even if you can imagine a bad thing happening, that's sort of because our minds have been polluted by so much news, so many stories on Facebook, so much local news and your mind works like Google. If you ask your brain, can my child be safe at the bus stop? Up comes the stories that have gotten the most hits. Up comes the story of Etan Patz, up comes the story of Jaycee Dugard taken from her bus stop and kept captive for 18 years. And because they show up at the top of your Google feed you think they're the most relevant, and frankly if you were looking for cheap glasses or where to find a nearby ski resort the top results would be the most relevant. But in the case of news they're the most irrelevant because it is just the most shocking, surprising, out of the ordinary stories that make it to the top of our brains, the top of our Google search, because your Google brain cannot bring you up, “Oh and then there was Emma's daughter and she got to school safely today. And then there was Lenore's son and he got to school safely today.” You can't have the millions upon millions of kids who are safe.

Emma Johnson: That's so true. Your brain distorts it but there is power in what you are doing. And I know for myself and I know that other people are listening too, I shared this story a couple of years ago now my kids were like four and six. You know where I live, I live in an apartment building in New York City on a very busy street, and I would give them on Saturday mornings my keys and $5 and they'd go down to the café downstairs.

Lenore Skenazy: Oh I know that café even, delicious.

Emma Johnson: Yes, they go out the front door, around the corner to the café and buy the family croissants, I guess it's more like $10. And they would come home, and they loved it. They just love it, but they said people are always giving them a suspicious eye, but whatever they love it, I love it because guess what, I don't have to put on my sneakers and go down there. But I'm giving them that. But here's a question, you said, oh well we know statistically that there's less crime than there was when we were growing up and unless you think that kids are spacier or less competent, I do think that kids have changed as a result of this parenting trends. I don't think kids are as competent because they don't have as many of these sorts of responsibilities.

Lenore Skenazy: Well that's a chicken and egg thing too, right? I mean nobody has the responsibility or the where with all until we give it to them.

Helicopter parenting makes kids incompetent and irresponsible

Emma Johnson: If you like this podcast, what can I say, you're going to like my book. It's out now, you can find it every retailer. The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children. With Penguin this book is already giving it tons of media, the book has not even launched as I'm writing this promo. We have more than 105 media hits including The Doctors,, US News, on and on all the big ones and lots of your favorite small media are giving it great praise. This is the book to help you not just get on your feet but really kick some serious ass in your career, in business, discover a romantic and sexy life that's going to blow your mind, and rest assured that your parenting is probably a heck of a lot better than you already think, and your kids are going to turn out amazing. There is a lot about my own personal journey, which I have never shared anywhere but in this book. It is dozens and dozens of testaments and stories from other amazing women that have thrived in their careers, have discovered new and positive relationships with their children's dads they didn't think was possible, and found that they have thrived and enjoyed this period of their life as single moms in ways they probably had never thought of before.

Emma Johnson: So, check it out now. The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local independent bookstore, online, in stores, Powell's, Books a Million, every single one of them has it. Buy it, share it with your friends, and thank you so much.

Emma Johnson: I don't think kids are as competent because they don't have as many of these sorts of responsibilities.

Lenore Skenazy: Well that's a chicken and egg thing too, right? I mean nobody has the responsibility or the where with all until we give it to them, and once you do then they rise to the occasion. I give a lot of lectures and when I go to schools I try to get the school to agree to do the Free Range Kids Project, which is very, very simple. The teachers tell the kids to go home and this could be kids from first grade up through eighth grade really. Go home and ask your parents if you can do one thing that you feel you're ready to do that for one reason or another you haven't done yet, and that could be walk the dog, get yourself up for school, make your own lunch, get the milk. And because it's endorsed by the school and because it's a one shot deal, just because I'm letting you walk to school today doesn't mean I'm going to let you walk every day. The parents generally say yes. And what I've started doing is handing out the survey to the kids and to the parents. And the kids are just delighted. And I say, “What are your parents afraid of?”

Lenore Skenazy: “They're afraid I'll be snatched, they're afraid I'll get lost, they're afraid I'll be hurt.”

Lenore Skenazy: And then I ask them after, “What happened afterwards?”

Lenore Skenazy: “Now my parents are proud. Now my parents are happy.”

Lenore Skenazy: But the parents are the most interesting of this experiment, which is that the parents beforehand are very anxious. “I didn't want to do it but my husband said we should try it. I worry about what's going to happen when he goes around the corner. There's a lot of traffic in front of school, I don't know if he can handle it.” And it's all the fears are there, and there's no reality it's just the fear because they haven't let their kid do it ever.

Fear for child's safety and free range parenting

Lenore Skenazy: My two favorite kids. One kid asked if he could go get his own haircut, this is a fifth grader. Then he did and he came home with a Mohawk, and his mother was between furious and amused, and yet she recognized that, okay he did get himself there, he got the haircut he wanted, she actually made him shave it off. And he got back home and he handled the money. She said, “Now let's have you do some stuff for me.” And she started having him run some very basic errands, go get the candy bars, or go get the milk or whatever. And as she did this she gained confidence and he gained confidence because suddenly it became a normal thing, it wasn't this kid who couldn't possibly handle himself it was a kid who obviously could.

Lenore Skenazy: And this had gone on for a couple weeks, she decided she would do a Free Range Kids Project for herself. And so she sat her son down … she has a full time job, and she had their son, and she said, “You know what, from now you're going to do your own homework because I see that you're responsible, and I see that you can do things on your own, and this has been like a second job for me coming home and having to sit there with your homework, so prove to me that you're a responsible kid not just when you're running the errands but when you're doing your work.” And his grades went down a little, his grades slipped from an A to a B and everybody was really proud because that was his B not their B. And she had her free time and he had his confidence, and they both were growing up. They both recognized that he was not still in utero requiring constant supervision, and constant worry.

Lenore Skenazy: The only thing that can convince parents that their kids are ready for the next step is letting them do something on their own, because when the kids come through the door the pride that you feel in seeing your kid grow up and become this lovely blossoming young man or woman, that pride it's like the Grinch, there's no space left in the heart for all that fear, in has rushed pride, joy, and reality instead of conjecture.

Emma Johnson: Beautiful. No, it's so beautiful because what you're doing it's freeing the whole family really to be the best versions of themselves.

Lenore Skenazy: Right, or just almost normal versions. I mean what we're doing lately is unprecedented. There's never been a time in history that I'm aware of when kids had no un-adult supervised time. To this day around the world 40-60% of children are for the most part cared for or looked after by an older sibling, so the idea that you have to have a parent's eyes on the kid all the time, that a parent has to choose what they're going to do, and how they're going to get there, is something that hasn't ever happened before. And I blame this society that just keeps coming up with almost new traps for parents. I can't remember if it was Parenting or Parents Magazine had an article two years ago that I still quote because it irked me so much, called the Playdate Playbook.

Emma Johnson: Aww.

Lenore Skenazy: And it gave you all these situations of like what to do, because a playdate is so incredibly fraught that of course you need a playbook. And one of the questions was, if your kid is old enough to leave at home alone for a short time, like when you go to the dry cleaners, like 20 minutes or something. What if she has her friend over, can you leave them both there? And the answer was.

Emma Johnson: No.

Finding balance in parenting

Lenore Skenazy: Absolutely not. And it went into the two things that I hate most. One is it said, what if there's a squabble? You want to be there to sort things out before it gets heated. And it's like, no suddenly it becomes a three person thing and it's two of you ganging up on the playdate. And your kid has learned only to whine and demand your attention as opposed to sorting things out with her friend. Part of childhood and part of playing is figuring out how to make things work, and if a parent is always making things work that's when you worry about the kids that seem incompetent or the kids seem young and just unable to deal with every day problems, it's because we're always there solving them. So, that was one of the things that upset me about the answer was the idea that somehow this generation of kids can't even handle a squabble between friends without adult intervention.

Lenore Skenazy: And the other thing it said, and then there could be a tragedy, and it talked about one friend's cousin's sister-in-law's mother once had a kid over at her house and the kid heated up some macaroni and cheese in their microwave, which was higher than her microwave and the macaroni and cheese fell in her hand and it required a visit to the doctor. And it's like, wow could you scrape the bottom of the barrel a little more? I mean it's like, one thing happened once to someone somewhere, now we have to outlaw all unsupervised play dates for every more throughout the United States and perhaps the Western world. It's one of the things that drives me crazy about our culture, I call it worst first thinking. You go to very worst case scenario first, your husband does it with the bus stop. What if she gets to the bus stop and she's Etan Patz tragedy that happened 35 years ago? But what if out of the 100 million children who have walked to school since Etan Patz and got home safely she's the one? And then you proceed as if it's likely to happen.

Lenore Skenazy: It's just a knee jerk reaction that our society has and I recognized it when I let Izzy ride the subway by himself and I was on all these TV shows, every television show, and generally asked, “Well how would you have felt Lenore though if he never came home?” And that's the money shot, that's the thing that they're supposed to ask, and that's supposed to prove that I'm terrible because unless you're imagining your child kidnapped and murdered you're not a good enough parent. So there's just these point systems we give parents, we give anybody in society for coming up with a terrible tragedy that could possibly happen. What if you forget your kid in the car when you're picking up the dry cleaning and they die of exhaustion? It's like, okay I guess that could happen.

Emma Johnson: Right.

Lenore Skenazy: I am just picking up my shirts, but I guess. What if they're walking to school and they're kidnapped by a murderer, and what if they're staying home with a playdate for 20 minutes and the house catches on fire? And what if, what if, what if? And we congratulate ourselves for what if'ing.

Emma Johnson: Well it's all this scare. Yeah we congratulate ourselves on being those good parents for like trying to outsmart the tiny, tiny bit of risk, but I really believe there's this whole mommy guilt, there's this huge pressure to be spending so much time with our kids. Nothing wrong with attachment parenting and absolutely nothing wrong with spending lots of quality time with your kids, but there's so much pressure on moms to constantly be connecting with their children all the time. I really feel like at least in my social circles that's a pressure that I feel. It's not just that their kids are going to be hurt, or abducted if we step away, it's more like we're going to be missing out on precious bonding moments if we step away.

Lenore Skenazy: Yeah, so I told you I give a lot of lectures. One of the questions I like to ask the audience is to think back on a moment of peak joy as a young kid, something that they just felt so proud, or happy, or they could remember just with glee, a moment in their childhood. And I have people think for a minute. And then I say, “Okay, now raise your hand if your mom was with you.”

Emma Johnson: Yes. Yes, that's what I say to people. When we have these discussions I say, yeah exactly that same thing and everyone laughs because it's so absurd.

Giving your children freedom

Lenore Skenazy: I teach early childhood educators a lot too, like seminars for them and one of the questions I like to ask them is to go back and think about their early childhood memories and something that they used to do that they realize was like the germ of who they became, like the seed. So many of us either we played school as kids, or I was always trying to invent new words as kids, trying to popularize new words, which I did. I came up with Free Range Kids but before that I came up with like gleeps. If you give your kids this freedom and you can't be totally free, if you feel like somebody's watching you and judging you, or even helping you, because then it's a different experience. It's like you really need time that nobody's going to judge you even if they love you, but they're not judging like, well that was a stupid way to throw the ball, or no honey the ball is over there.

Lenore Skenazy: Any time that you're not completely free to use your imagination, to goof up, to try something new, which might be a disaster you don't get that growth, you don't get to see where the seeds are planted for your future you. You don't get to expand. You don't get to be creative, because you don't want to look stupid in front of somebody, or you don't want to do it wrong in front of somebody. So, we have to give our kids that space if we want them to be the kind of creative, open minded, even leaders. If we want to raise leaders you can't be leading them all the time, you have to have them have that squabble with their friend and figure out it's not the end of the world, and that gives them a little confidence to go forth and maybe assert themselves the next time, you can't do that with your mom next to you. I don't say that moms should never be next to you, and very young kids you gotta watch over, but if you remember your childhood your mother was not mediating your entire existence either for your safety or for her own fulfillment, she stepped back.

Emma Johnson: Very well said.

Lenore Skenazy: Right, it bummed me out so much when my younger son was in middle school … he's in high school now. And after school he would have his basketball with him and he'd want to play, and kids would be going home because there's also other reason, technology is very seductive, and people have classes that they have to go to. I tried running a class called I won't supervise your kids. Do you remember that? It was a disaster.

Emma Johnson: Was it when people would pay to drop their kids off unsupervised at the playground?

Lenore Skenazy: Yeah, people would pay to drop their kids off with me in Central Park, and then they get my phone number and they meet each other. And I wanted it to be mixed ages because I think one of the things that's missing in kids lives these days is also playing with kids of different ages, because when you do any kind of organized activity you never get a chance to have a 12 year old pitch a ball to you when you're seven and have the excitement of playing with the big kids, and the 12 year old has the sort of joy and confidence builder of being the big kid to the seven year olds. So anyways, I wanted all these different age kids to come together, they get my phone number and then I go to Starbucks. They would have to come up with something to do, and something to play. And to me of course nobody signed up for it, even though I actually did offer it for free, but I wanted it to just start this conversation about what is childhood about.

Give children choices and responsibility

Lenore Skenazy: If you go to little league or soccer program those are great, your kids are going to learn technique, but they're not going to learn how to choose sides, how to make teams that are pretty even, how to throw the ball softer to that younger kid, what to do if I say the ball is out and you say the ball is in, because there's always a grown up that's going to deicide. And these are things that it's like we've left out the whole week of the bread. Look it's a delicious light fluffy loaf and it's so wonderful, but it looks like an old time thing. Kids are still playing baseball but it's very circumscribed as to who's on the team, and how long you play, and what you do next. And if you decide not to play, too bad you're there for little league you can't decide to suddenly play kickball. So, it's a very different thing from kids organizing their own games, and their own entertainment.

Emma Johnson: Yeah, we could talk about this. I'm going to have you back again very soon. I always come back to the money, right? I think life has for me personally and I know a lot of other moms, it becomes an economic issue.

Lenore Skenazy: For sure.

Emma Johnson: So if my kid is not just playing outside and I am with them that means I'm not working or I'm hiring someone to supervise them.

Lenore Skenazy: Right.

Emma Johnson: And then it's not only that I'm spending money or I'm spending time away from my business but then I resent it, and then the time that I do have with my kids is maybe not as meaningful.

Lenore Skenazy: Muttering under your breath.

Emma Johnson: Yeah. And it's all very unfortunate because …

Free Range Parenting is financially healthier for moms

Lenore Skenazy: And I think you're right to think about the money, because I think so much of it is about the money because if a company can make you afraid for your kid for one reason or another then you buy their app, or then you buy the after school class. As in anything you follow the money. And I just want to say that when I do talk to women's groups like at companies or whatever, one of the things I like to stress is that people think they have to make this choice between work life balance, but if you remember all the free time you had as kids you're not cheating your kids by leaning into your job, you're allowed to have your life and they will be grateful that they have some time that is not supervised. And you'll be grateful for the more resilient independent and confident kids that you're raising.

Emma Johnson: It's so true. I always say the best days are the days when I worked really hard, my kids come home late, I tell them about all the awesome things that I did during my day, they tell me about all the awesome things they did during their day and then we have a few really killer hours together. Personally as a mom I am so grateful for the work that you do because it is hard, you take so much flack on behalf of all of us, and it's such important work that you're doing so thank you.

Lenore Skenazy: Oh well, thanks for having me on, and thanks for spreading the word. Tell people do the Free Range Friend thing so they can find other people …

Emma Johnson: Yeah give us your URL plug yourself.

Lenore Skenazy: is where you can put in your zip code and find other Free Rangers in your neighborhood. is the blog where you'll find a community of people who support you, and we're fighting a belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatches, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers, and/or the perils of a non-organic grape. So, Free Range Kids is just a great place to hang out. And then Lenore Speaks is my speaking engagement page, or you can just go to speaking engagements on Free Range Kids and I'll come and talk to your school, or your company, or your conference.

Emma Johnson: Yes, and you're awesome, and you're hilarious. And I am so grateful for your guest appearance today and for your work, so thank you Lenore Skenazy.

Lenore Skenazy: Well thank you Emma. Thanks Emma, and go get that money. That would be great.

Emma Johnson: What do you think I'm doing right now? I'm chasing it right as we speak.

Lenore Skenazy: Yeah. Good. I guess I'll go do that too. I'll hang up and go find that money.

Emma Johnson: All right, I'll talk to you very soon. Thank you.

Lenore Skenazy: Thanks Emma, great. Bye-bye.

Emma Johnson: So there you have it, she's the global reigning expert on Free Range Parenting, and she says I'm right, you know she's right. Check out her stuff, I do love Lenore. And I single handedly am challenging you to join me, little microaggressions that we can collectively make a big difference in the culture. So it is about collectively having a discussion with the other moms at the bus stop and saying, “You know what, what if we freed each other up and our kids up and let them walk to the bus stop by themselves?” Or maybe take baby steps and say, “You know what, let's get together and instead of all of us standing out here in the cold, let's take turns, I'll go first. I'll stand out here this week and you can let the kids walk to the bus stop by themselves, and so you don't have to leave the house in the cold and they have the independence of walking two blocks and knowing that an adult will be there for them.”

Emma Johnson: And maybe it's a baby step when you go to the playground, and maybe you kind of work with another mom or dad there and say, “Hey look, I'm going to run to the bank and so maybe you want to watch my kid.” Or you exchange the favors, to let other parents know that it's okay, because I feel like that's a lot of what's going on out there is that we're worried about being judged and persecuted by our parental peers, 'cause I know I definitely feel like that, so I know that you are probably feeling like that too.

Emma Johnson: And please if you enjoy this podcast iTunes, give me a review, give me some lovin'. Sign up, subscribe there, always get the latest episode twice a week, and head over to, that's really where all my content is. You can find my social, follow me on Twitter @JohnsonEmma on Facebook. Sign up for my newsletter, there's a little freebie there right at the front at in the red bar for my giveaway, but that's where I really announce all of my latest happenings, my latest blog posts, and that's really where I like to stay connected to my followers. So until next time, Emma Johnson of Like a Mother with Emma Johnson.

Related parenting topics on Like a Mother episodes:

Parental alienation: A call to change parenting culture — and law 

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Homework hurts kids and families, just say NO to overparenting




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About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Rachel on February 2, 2016 at 11:15 pm

    I’m neither a parent nor a religious woman: but HOLY SHIT Lenore Skenazy is doing God’s work! I’m actually referencing one of her posts in one I’m doing on Valentine’s Day (but is being attributed to a historical figure.)

    It seriously blows my mind that things my parents did a mere 20 years ago– let me walk to the bus myself, leaving me in the car for a few minutes to pick up a pizza– would get them arrested today at worst, snubbed by other parents at best. Apparently by today’s standards the entire Greatest Generation would be in jail. My dad rode his bike all over the South Bronx and my mom took the subway herself, both before they were double-digit ages. Crime was much, much higher in the South Bronx then.

    You’re both totally right that it’s just being able to hear about terrible things happening to kids so much more easily through Google, social media, etc. A kid is a lot unsafer in a car and more at risk of someone they know doing bad things to them than a total stranger.

    • Emma on February 4, 2016 at 2:30 pm

      ha! She is doing god’s work! And to think you were in the Bronx and had all that freedom .. awesome!

  2. Jen on February 13, 2016 at 10:50 am

    In the state where I live, allowing kids to do ANYTHING unsupervised, including playing in the park or walking somewhere by themselves, is legal neglect/abuse. It will get trigger a visit from the police and a referral to the local Department of Family Services, who may very well seize children and put them into foster care while a judge decides if the mother is fit to get them back. I know single mothers to whom this has happened (curiously, in this very religious, rabidly conservative state, it doesn’t happen nearly as much to families with married, cisgender parents).

    I hope Lenore’s philosophy spreads. For it to work, though, we’re going to need some cultural and attitudinal changes, like decriminalizing free-range parenting and not automatically assuming single mothers are deficient parents.

    • Emma on February 15, 2016 at 9:29 am

      Lenore’s campaign IS spreading, but far too slowly … infuriating those laws!

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