Moms Talk Independence
Michel Martin, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, should you confront a friend whose stories are always a little too good to be true? We'll talk about that in our monthly conversation about ethics with members of the O Magazine ethics panel. But first, they say it takes village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mothers' support group each week, with their comments and some savvy parenting advice.
The issue today is independence. Just how do you know when it's time to give your child more freedom? This question came up after one woman decided to let her nine-year-old son, ride the New York subway home alone, one day. It made sense to her, but not to many people who wade in on parenting blogs and various TV and Radio shows who wanted to know, is she crazy? So we decided to ask her, and the mocha moms. We joined by Mocha Mom regular Jolene Ivey, and new to our panel, Sue Goodwin, executive producer of NPR's Talk of the Nation, and the subway mom Lenore Skenazy, a writer for the New York Sun who let her son ride the New York subway alone and lived to tell about it. Welcome, ladies, moms.
Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.
Ms. LENORE SKENAZY (New York Sun Writer): Hi, Michel
Ms. SUE GOODWIN: Hey from New York.
MARTIN: Lenore, first tell us more how the whole subway caper started?
Ms. SKENAZY: The subway caper. The subway ride heard around the world. My son - nine, now he just turned ten - loves busses and subways, which are how we get around here in New York City. And I think they're safe, and so does he. And so he said, mom, some day I would like you to just take me some place and let me try to find my way home on my own. And I said OK. And a couple of weeks later, today was the day. And I took him to Bloomingdales. And then I said goodbye to him in the handbag department, but not before giving him a map and a subway card and some quarters - in case he had to call me - and $20 if God forbid he needed to hail a cab, which would be, I think, probably just as hard for most kids as taking the subway.
MARTIN: What about a cell phone?
Ms. SKENAZY: I didn't give him a cell phone because I don't trust him to take care of his things. I trust him to take care of himself. I mean, he loses a lot of homework and stuff. But I knew that he would be safe and that if he had any questions he would ask a stranger. And I trusted the strangers, and in fact he asked a guy, and the guy said, no, that way is downtown. And he hopped on the downtown train and came home very happy.
MARTIN: Well, needless to say it had a happy ending. But - and I'm going to bring Sue into this conversation because you wrote about this for the New York Sun, and Sue you had Lenore on your show. Needless to say, everybody did not agree with this decision. So, Sue, tell us what was the response from the public.
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, I actually was screening the calls for that segment, and I would say the majority really disagreed and really thought that we were doing a disservice to the public by underestimating the dangers that kids could encounter. And we had emails recounting different stories of abduction and horrible things that could happen. But then we also got some wonderful stories from adults, remembering their moments of independence.
MARTIN: Lenore, tell me did you hesitate at all? And what was it, it sounds to me like, and you're recounting, you're saying, sure, no problem. But was that the dialogue you really had internally? Was it really that easy for you? And what were the factors that led you to believe that this was an OK thing to do?
Ms. SKENAZY: It was pretty easy for me, I mean, I spoke about it with my husband, and we both thought it was fine. And he showed Izzy(ph), who is our son, the subway map. And you know, showed him these are different colors, different lines. But he was pretty aware of that already because, as I said, we live in the city and we take the trains all the time. You know, if I had one little twinge, I thought maybe he would have a hard time finding - the subway is actually under Bloomingdales, you've got to figure that part out. But he could. All you have to do is ask people, and I believe in that. And the twinge was so minor, because if it was any bit more than minor, and I really felt I was putting him in danger, I wouldn't have.
I don't put him in danger, he's always wearing a helmet when he rides his bike, and he's always in a safety belt. And we laugh at kids who don't wear their helmets when they are on skate boards. So I think I'm really safety conscious. I'm mean, I'm scared when their stick isn't long enough and they're roasting a marshmallow. So I'm a nervous parent, but I'm not nervous about something that is really proven to be safe. Although I am nervous about marshmallows, which are probably safe.
MARTIN: OK. We'll ask the other moms, Jolene what about you? You have five boys, ranging in age from?
Ms. IVEY: Eighteen to eight.
MARTIN: Eighteen to eight.
Ms. IVEY: Yeah, well, you know, I think back when I did not have any children and I worked at a television station. And it was like 25 years ago, oh my God. And there was a big campaign beginning at that time, about fingerprinting your children. So I was involved in it, and I asked about it. And I found out that the only thing those fingerprints are good for are identifying the body.
Ms. IVEY: Now that's too late. That's not helping you keep your kids safe. And from that moment I started questioning, well, what are we doing here? It's just a bunch of PR bull. And so I've never had my kids fingerprinted, I don't buy into all of that. And I tell my kids that strangers are friends they haven't met yet.
Ms. SKENAZY: God, you sound like me, can we get our kids together? It's so great. You know, I...
MARTIN: Hold on, Jolene, you live in the suburbs and...
Ms. IVEY: I grew up in northeast D.C., Michel.
MARTIN: OK, but you live in the suburbs now, and there isn't a lot of public transportation. So really how do your kids get around? Is the stranger the big issue? Or is the issue driving? What is the big issue to helping your kids be independent where you live? Is it teaching them to drive safely, or what?
Ms. IVEY: Well, we do try to do that at the appropriate age. But I only have one child old enough to drive, and he's in college now. But the others, I have a standard. I'm not quite as adventurous as Lenore. But when my kids are 12, that's when I take them to the subway. And then I put them on when they are 12 and off they go. And I, you know, I'll see them later in the day. And the other moms in the neighborhood were very alarmed when they found out that that's what I did.
Ms. SKENAZY: At 12? At 12, they are you know...
Ms. IVEY: Seriously.
Ms. SKENAZY: My great grandmother was married, I think, at 15, I mean, 12 is pretty much on your way to being a thinking, functioning human being.
MARTIN: So let me ask you about this, you...
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, my son is 14 now.
MARTIN: He's 14 now.
Ms. GOODWIN: And he uses public transportation a lot, of course. But I remember when I read your article, Lenore, I thought nine, I definitely could not have done this at nine years old. But when he was 12, and I realized that if he doesn't take the subway I'm going to have to get up at seven in the morning and drive him to school. So what I did was I said, OK, you're going to go to the subway, and I want you to start here, your dad's going meet you on the other side. And then I followed him!
Ms. SKENAZY: Oh you didn't? I kept asking, why didn't I follow him? Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ms. GOODWIN: And what I was looking for, I think what you don't know yet is, who is your kid when you're not around? And you want to watch them and see. Does this look like someone who is thinking? Does this look like someone who has good judgment?
Ms. SKENAZY: But you know what, I think they turn into kids who are thinking and have some judgment, at least, because they don't have somebody making the decisions for them. And I think that's how they get this independence that we want to see in them.
MARTIN: Sue, I have to ask you, though, did you have any qualms about this?
Ms. GOODWIN: Oh yeah.
MARTIN: And it isn't necessarily from the stranger, but one of the issues we've talked about on this program is the fact of kids of color being subjected to additional scrutiny by law enforcement authorities, of not having the veil of innocence that perhaps white children are deemed to have.
Ms. SKENAZY: Oh, that's an interesting thing.
MARTIN: So, Sue what about that? Did that factor enter your discussion? Your son is bi-racial.
Ms. GOODWIN: Right. Well, we've talked about it a lot. We've talked about how he would handle situations like that. But sure, it's a factor. And sure, I'm wondering how adults and authority figures are going to treat him, and how other kids are going to treat him. But we talk about it a lot, and we've been sort of role playing situations ever since he was probably five. So I think he is very over-prepared.
Ms. SKENAZY: That's an NPR mom.
Ms. GOODWIN: Yes.
MARTIN: Jolene, I have to ask you because your husband prosecutes criminals. I mean, he prosecutes - what do you want to call it? - violations of the law, or alleged violations of the law.
Ms. SKENAZY: Right.
MARTIN: He's a states attorney in his other life, when he's not being a dad of five kids.
Ms. SKENAZY: And he is much more nervous than I am, about everything, because in his world he deals with crime. All he knows about are bad things that happen. But those are the things that are more of the unusual. They're the aberration, they're the news, which is I why we hear about them. The normal things that happen, the things that don't make the news, are 99.9 percent of the world.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with the Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivy, Sue Goodwin and Lenore Skenazy about how much freedom to give kids, and when.
Sue, you talked about role playing the subway ride with your son. And I'm guessing that that conversation didn't start with the subway ride. How early did you start talking to him about situations that he might encounter? And how explicit were you?
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, actually I started at a very young age, talking with my son, when he was even as young as four, I think. And I was extremely explicit with him about what could happen. And I didn't say, OK, someone might ask to see your private parts. I gave them names, and I just really talked in great detail about exactly what could happen.
And the reason I did it, is it did happen to me. When I was six years old I was abducted for an afternoon by a 19-year-old boy in the neighborhood. And I escaped some of the worst things that can happen to you in an abduction, but there still was some sexual abuse in that abduction. So I know exactly what can happen. And I know that when it happened - even though I had seen the little filmstrips in school that always ended with a red tennis shoe drifting down a stream, and you knew that somebody was dead - I was not prepared. I had no idea. And I want my son to know exactly what it is that could happen, so he's not making it up, so he can identify it as quick as possible and plan his response.
MARTIN: So, did you have to push through your own fear in allowing him to have more freedom?
Ms. SKENAZY: Well, like I said earlier, nine strikes me as a bit early. I did wait until 12 before I let him go out alone. But I really trust this guy. I mean, I know him, and we've talked enough that I do trust him.
MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? And your husband, you know, prosecutes people so, he spends a lot of time thinking about the worst that people can do. And that has to have some affect on the conversations you have in your family.
Ms. IVEY: Well, indeed. And the kids are more likely to come to me when they want to do something that they think might be a little borderline, because they think I'm more likely to say yes. But as a kid I experienced a certain amount of sexual abuse, but always from some adult man that our family trusted. And therefore, with my kids, when they were little, I started in on them saying, look, if anybody ever touches you, touches your penis or anything like that, I want you to come tell me and I will believe you, even if it's your grandfather.
Now, my father is somebody I trust a billion percent. I know this man would never do anything like that. And it upset him to hear me tell this to the kids. But I wanted them to know that's how extreme it was, that I wanted them to know I would believe them because so often kids are afraid that their parents won't believe them. And I was afraid my parents wouldn't believe me, and so I didn't tell them until I was much older what had happened to me. And I want my kids to know, tell me right away, I'll believe you no matter what.
MARTIN: So you're all about giving kids the tools to deal with the situation.
Ms. IVEY: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Lenore, what about you? Did you role play worst-case scenarios with your son or did you feel that wasn't necessary.
Ms. SKENAZY: I feel very remiss. No, I mean, we talk about AIDS. AIDS is part of the curriculum here in New York. And we talk about condoms, and we talk about personal space and stuff like that. But did I say that somebody might come up to you on the subway and unzip his pants and show you what's inside? I didn't do anything like that. No, I just said this is the green line, you take it down to 33rd street. That was it.
MARTIN: I wonder where this started. Because, you know, my husband was raised that way. You know, go play, come back when the street lights are on. And you better come back when the street lights are on. And you know, I was raised that way, and I'm wondering how it started.
Ms. SKENAZY: I don't know. But when I moved to our neighborhood I went to the other mothers around, and I said, I'd be delighted if your kids come knock on the door and want to play. But please don't expect me to set up play dates. I just don't want to be involved. Sometimes parents get too involved in their kid's social lives.
MARTIN: Do you think it has to do with, though, with the rise of the suburbs as the place that were perceived as the place for kids - do you know what I mean? Because of distances, parents became more involved.
Ms. SKENAZY: I'm sure.
MARTIN: Shuttling their kids around.
Ms. SKENAZY: Just logistically, yeah.
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, what I'm thinking about, too, though, is there was some provocative research that came out just a few months ago. I think by Putnam, the guy who wrote the book "Bowling Alone." And what he found is that in neighborhoods that were integrated, people were far less trustful. And I think that there's something about - and neighborhoods aren't incredibly integrated in the United States yet - but I think that in those particular environments people tend to trust each other a little less even though there's no increase in incidents. There's nothing in reality that would cause you to be less trustful. There is a factor there that, I think, weighs in.
MARTIN: That's interesting. Lenore, I asked Sue about the kinds of calls that you all got when you were on her program, but what kind of reaction did you get for your piece, and are you surprised by it?
Ms. SKENAZY: Yeah. First of all, I'm surprised that it became such a big story and that we're talking about it still. But I am so glad, I mean, I want to start a day - and tell me if you would do this with me - I want to start a take-our-children-to-the-park-and-leave-them-there day. Isn't that a great idea? All the kids would be playing with each other in the park, and then they'd learn how to walk home. And then they could do it again the next day, and it wouldn't be such a big deal. And they would be back to going to the park just like we did.
Ms. GOODWIN: You know, one of the things - this is Sue - one of the things, I think, that's hard about this, too - and I have an only child - is it's hard for me as a mother to be independent. Like, letting go of him means I've got to go, sort of, do something else other than worry about him constantly. So that's a - we have to learn how to be a little independent ourselves.
MARTIN: Well, Lenore, give me a final thought here. The great subway caper, you feel was a success overall. What about next? Does he have - does your son have another adventure like this again? Take an airplane without you?
Ms. SKENAZY: And I wouldn't mind it someday. My husband tells me to tell this story to people. I don't know if it's a big deal or not, but one day a week he goes and he gets us our supper. I mean, it's not like he cooks it or anything, it's not like he kills it. He simply goes to the deli and picks up pastrami for us all, and then either walks or takes the bus home. And to me that's a nothing thing. But maybe kids don't even do that. Maybe kids don't go to the store. Maybe kids don't take the bus home.
So, yeah, it was a success. And it's part of our lifestyle now. And I have to say one last thing which is that it's not only freedom for him, it's freedom for me. I don't have to go pick him up from school. I don't have to worry about how he's going to get home. He knows how to get home, and most kids that age do.
MARTIN: Jolene, you have any final thoughts about this? Are there experiences that you had with your older child - because you've got this age range, do you think that you, kind of, loosen up over time, or...?
Ms. IVEY: You know, every kid is different. And I think you just, as a parent, have to pay attention to what they're able to do.
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, I'm very much in the middle of this now because 14 is, you know, every day there's a new way to be independent. And what I think is challenging for a parent is finding that gray zone of where to be. Because when they're young you're just all up in them and you know where they are every second of the day. And now I don't. But I have to be really present in his life, because ultimately what you want is you want your kid to make good choices and operate with some values and some judgment.
And how to stay in their life but out of their life: it's a tricky balance. But I've got to say, when I ask Chris(ph), what do you like about being 12, or 13, or 14? And he says independence. And his face just lights up, and it's so - it's just like, I can't take that away from you. It's so beautiful.
MARTIN: I'm so not ready for this.
Ms. GOODWIN: You know, you are not.
Ms. SKENAZY: You have time.
Ms. GOODWIN: But the thing is - there's a point there to make, though, which is when your children are four you can't imagine that they would do that, but when your kids are nine, or 10, or 11, then it will make sense because they will be such smart, wonderful kids it will make sense.
Ms. SKENAZY: They'll be able to reach the token booth.
MARTIN: I'm calling you. The Mocha Moms, Sue Goodwin, Jolene Ivey, were here in our Washington studio. And Lenore Skenazy, a writer for the New York Sun joined us from our New York bureau. Moms, ladies, thank you all so much for talking to us.
Ms. GOODWIN: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. IVEY: Thanks.
Ms. SKENAZY: Thank you.