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Writer and mom Lenore Skenazy has a novel idea for May 22

Saturday, May 22, free

On May 22, Lenore Skenazy wants you to take your kids to the park — and leave them there. Alternately referred to as America's Worst Mom and a national hero, Skenazy, a longtime New York City-based newspaper columnist, is the creator of the website and growing movement Free-Range Kids, which she considers "a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times." The married mother of two boys launched the site,, in April 2008 after getting attacked for her New York Sun column “Why I Let My Nine-Year-Old Take the Subway Alone.” A year later, her book FREE-RANGE KIDS: HOW TO RAISE SAFE, SELF-RELIANT CHILDREN (WITHOUT GOING NUTS WITH WORRY) was published in hardcover; it has just been released in paperback as well.

Within moments of each new post on the site, which examines child-related news stories, court cases, school dilemmas, and other parental topics, dozens and dozens either cheer her on or lambast this decidedly non-helicopter mom. As one would expect, her latest venture, Take Our Children to the Park . . . and Leave Them There Day, is stirring up its fair share of controversy, which promises to only get more heated as May 22 approaches.

twi-ny: Again and again on your website, you cite statistics that are either misinterpreted or ignored by the media and government bodies about children's safety. Why is it so hard for news and community organizations to get their facts straight?

Lenore Skenazy: Here’s the amazing news: We are currently enjoying a historic thirty-seven-year drop in crime, nationwide. In New York, the 2009 murder rate was the lowest in nearly fifty years! We are on par with the early ’60s, crime-wise. That was still the sweater set and college-boys-with-pipes era!

These statistics are hard to believe because on TV, it’s all crime all the time — from CNN to CSI. One woman once said, “How dare you say children are as safe as we were when we see abductions on TV every day!” The thing is: We see the same abductions on TV every day. We’ve been seeing the sad story of Etan Patz for thirty years, for example, and people still cite it as a reason they won’t let their kids walk to school. This, despite the tens of millions of children who have been born, gone to school, graduated and had their own kids since then — who were not abducted at the bus stop. And whose stories we don’t see on TV.

Tragic stories sear themselves on our brains. Then, when we ask ourselves a question like, “Is it safe for my kid to wait at the bus stop?” up pops the most graphic image: Etan. Then our brains act like Google: We assume the first thing that pops up is the most common. “Abductions are happening all the time!” Long story short: That is why it is so hard for us to keep the good news in perspective.

twi-ny: Your book FREE-RANGE KIDS is now out in paperback; what kind of effect do you think it and the website have had? What kind of response do you expect to get from your creation of Take Our Children to the Park . . . and Leave Them There Day?

LS: What’s great is that helicopter parents have existed for a while. So have Free-Range parents — folks who suspect we don’t have to be quite so worried about quite so much — but we didn’t have a name. Now we do, and a place to gather for moral support, and a book with tips, hard facts, and jokes!

Sometimes it’s hard to let your third grader stay at home while you go pick up some groceries or have your fifth grader walk home after school. The blog is a place to open up about these newly “radical” acts, and the book is a way to gain perspective: In my chapter “Why Other Countries Are Laughing at Zee Scaredy-Cat Americans,” I point out children walk to school starting in kindergarten or first grade everywhere else in the world. In my chapter “Relax! Not Every Little Thing You Do Has THAT Much Impact on Your Child’s Development,” I remind parents that we are not the only influence on our children’s lives. And, ultimately, we cannot control them or the world. (Darn!)

The response to Take Our Children to the Park . . . and Leave Them There Day has been wild. Other sites blogging about it have gotten big-time blowback: “The predators will have a field day!” “What happens if someone gets hurt?” On, meanwhile, folks are psyched to have a day to start giving our kids the freedom and fun that helps them grow up happy, healthy, and maybe even a little sunburnt.

And remember: This is for kids starting at about age seven or eight. I’m not saying we should abandon our toddlers.

twi-ny: If the trend of the widespread overprotection of kids continues, including their spending less and less time outdoors and more and more time in front of their computers as well as the limiting of what they are allowed to bring to school and eat there, what do you foresee for future generations?

LS: Well, I never like to imagine the very worst — that’s too easy. “Oh, they’ll all be fat and diabetic and slurping their meals like the people in WALL-E!” I just assume that the kids who do some of what we did as kids — hang out in nature, make up games, learn to settle their own disputes, and entertain themselves — will rule.

What’s kind of funny is that all the new studies about child development point to the importance of play. That’s why every human generation — until this one — just did it automatically. It’s the preprogrammed way kids learn to create, communicate, compromise. The way they learn to grow up. We can’t do it for them, even though lately that’s what it seems like we’re trying to do. We take them to play classes and enroll them in programs, or sit them in front of a screen that plays with them.

I’m all for enrichment. My kids have done a number of extracurriculars, from piano to football. But children need some down time, too. Say, a day at the playground — without us.

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