Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bad Mom?

NYC subway
Originally uploaded by Ioan Sameli
In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Sun entitled "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone," Lenore Skenazy recounted her decision to, well, let her nine-year-old son find his way home by himself in New York City. She doesn't go too far into detail, but getting home involved taking the subway downtown one "sunny Sunday" and then transferring to the 34th Street crosstown bus. She supplied him with a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and some quarters for a pay phone just in case (but no cellphone — she didn't want him to lose it). She didn't spy on him or have someone else shadow him for her. Her son was truly on his own.

Turns out that her son made it home just fine, "ecstatic with independence." Skenazy writes:
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.
Needless to say, the general reaction wasn't too friendly — "How could you", "What if," etc. Slate's Emily Bazelon, whose writing I tend to nod my head to, used the episode to wonder about the rise of Parent As Bodyguard and finds herself thinking that much of it has to do with anxiety and guilt felt by working moms making up for their absence through overprotection. There may be something to that, but I think that we might be getting ahead of ourselves.

I have more than a little problem hanging an entire child-rearing philosophy upon a single anecdote, but that said, it's worth wondering where proper parenting leaves off and "helicoptering" begins. After all, I was raised without helmets and cellphones (though I did have a babysitter now and then) and I was free to move about my neighborhood on my own, particularly in the summer.

I also want to agree with Skenazy that New York is remarkably safe, particularly Midtown Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon. Recently when I was on-line to exit the train at Newark, I saw a mother of two struggle to lift her stroller out the narrow door, and in doing she had to leave her older daughter (4, maybe?) standing alone the in the car. Behind the little girl stood a pretty rough-looking teen—black baseball cap with black hoodie pulled over it, oversized pants pulled low, the stereotypical works. Seeing the mom occupied, he gently offered his hand to the little girl, who gently accepted it, and they stepped onto the platform together. He walked her up to her mom, still holding her hand, and then bolted off into the moving crowd. And this was Newark, folks.

In any event, I think the best answer to whether Skenazy was a Bad Mom for turning her son loose on the MTA is: it depends. In her article she points out that "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 it's not as if Skenazy, a propos of nothing other than faith in natural selection or something, was curious whether her son could survive the ordeal; he asked for it, and she no doubt concluded that he could handle the hurdles that might normally come up—MetroCard doesn't work on the first swipe as opposed to, say, alien invasion or devastating earthquake. The Boy is on the cusp of 5, and he now likes to go to the public restrooms in our building by himself. He doesn't yet feel comfortable, though, taking the elevator to or from our apartment on his own despite knowing the floors and having taken it several times a day since he fell into this world. So I ask but don't make him. Knowing him as I do, he may not feel ready at 9 to be alone on the train. (Q may be ready at 5, if she's not ready now.)

We'll see when the time comes, and that's the point.

My wife and I joke sometimes about being the Bad Parent Story on the Channel 9 News when we, say, let Q and The Boy scale the sandy rocks in the park out back on their way up to the slide. It's hard not to worry about them slipping into an injury, one that could be avoided by simply not letting them do it all. But we let them do it, however reluctantly, because all of us believe they — right now — can.

1 comment:

Nadine said...

What a coincidence,last week my husband and I talked about that article.

I haven't been to a city where I felt safer as Manhattan. Even when my husband an I accidentally took the wrong subway to go to the Musuem of Natural History and ended up close to the Bronx (if I remember correct) we still felt safe due to the police at the subway stations.