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Family Biking: ‘Free range’ kids and the value of transportation independence

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Are you a bad parent if you let your kid use public transit on their own?

Well, if you go by what other people think, you might not just be a bad parent: you could be “America’s Worst Mom.” Just ask Lenore Skenazy, who earned that title for letting her nine-year-old son (who had been begging for such an opportunity) navigate his way home by subway and bus, on his own, in New York City.

Skenazy details the non-incident (her son got home just fine, totally proud and happy) and its aftermath in her newly updated book, Free Range Kids: How Parents and Teachers Can Let Go and Let Grow. As Skenazy recounts, she defended her now infamous parenting choice in a newspaper column, (note to self: it’s dangerous to write about parenting in front of other people), and was then invited on a multitude of news, TV, and radio programs, where she was quickly condemned by “experts,” hosts, and parents nationwide, and earned the unforgettable label of “America’s Worst Mom”.

A bit further back in time, say forty years ago, or fifty, or even one-hundred years back, such an action wouldn’t even have been a topic of conversation. Back then, city kids navigated city streets on their own all the time. They played on sidewalks, walked to school and stores, ran errands, or otherwise walked, biked or bused around. Some kids even had their own jobs, like newspaper delivery. The parents of those kids–and their newspaper employers–actually expected kids to ride their bikes in the dark of pre-dawn mornings, pick up a load of papers, and successfully deliver them around town to paying customers, on their own.


What changed? You’d think the answer was gangs, drugs, violence, abductions, pedophiles, serial killers, and the like; but as Skenazy points out, those sorts of things are no more prevalent today than in those bygone days when kids could ride a bicycle around the city without attracting the shocked attention of concerned citizens.

So, what did Skenazy do, in the face of a public skewering of her parenting choice to give her kid some transportation independence? Did she give up writing, leave New York City, throw away her cell phone, cut off all internet connections and flee to a remote cabin in the woods, where she could raise her children in the peace of obscurity? Nope. Quite the opposite. She bravely stood her ground, stubborningly dug in her heels, wrote a book, hosted a TV show, gave lectures around the world, became president of a non-profit, and started a movement to promote reasonable childhood independence, now known as Free Range Kids.

It’s a good thing too. Because there are a lot of us out here who want to do the sort of thing she did, quite preferably without all the hullabaloo. We’d very much like to let our kids ride the MAX, or the public bus, or ride a bike to school, or walk to the library, or play at the park on their own…but even if we have decided our kid is old enough, mature enough, and the local conditions are safe enough, we’re pretty sure we’ll be roundly condemned if we give our kids that sort of freedom and responsibility. At least, thanks to Skenazy, we can’t be America’s worst Mom or Dad, since she already has that title.

The Free Range movement Skenazy started encompasses a whole lot more than childhood transportation independence–and I sincerely recommend you check out her book, her blog, and her non-profit for a full view of her advocacy: you’ll be inspired, or so I hope, because I’d sure like more mom-friends like her around. These resources are a great place to find encouragement, bust fear-mongering myths, and connect with a community of like-minded free-range parents. They’re also a great place to begin, if you aren’t quite sure if child transportation independence is right for your family, or something you could handle without implanting a micro-chip in your kid, or surreptitiously following them around until they turn twenty.

It’s important to me personally, because as I wrote recently, I don’t want to drive my kids everywhere for the next sixteen years. That’s not just because I’m lazy or anti-car, but because I believe transportation independence is good for children, an important part of their development, confidence, maturity, and connection to their community. It’s also really fun, part of the adventure of growing up and learning one’s way in the world.

Thus, I daresay, it won’t make me a bad parent at all, or you either. So buck up, be brave, and follow your heart…and I hope that will mean letting your kids do the same, regardless of what others have to say about it.

— Shannon Johnson,
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