Independence For Kids: When To Give It And How Much Many kids crave the freedom to go from place to place alone. But last week in N.Y., an 8-year-old who asked and was allowed to walk home alone was murdered. So at what age should kids be granted more independence, and how do parents know when these kids are ready? Host Michel Martin speaks with moms Jolene Ivey, a Md. state representative; Sue Goodwin, an NPR executive producer; and Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). Also joining the conversation is the National Crime Prevention Council's Michelle Boykins.

Independence For Kids: When To Give It And How Much

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we speak with a diverse group of parents to get their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today we are revisiting a topic we've addressed before, which is how to give your kids more independence while keeping them safe.

And we'll just admit it, this is something that's on our minds in the wake of that terrible tragedy in New York. An eight-year-old boy, Leiby Kletzky, had begged his parents to let him walk a few blocks home alone from day camp. They'd even practiced the route before. But he got lost. And at some point he encountered a stranger, someone he trusted to help him, part of his Orthodox Jewish community. But instead of helping the boy, the stranger allegedly kidnapped and then killed him.

So we're asking, when and how do you grant young children enough independence to strike out on their own, playing outside, taking public transportation, walking home from school, walking the dog? Joining us to talk about this, Michelle Boykins. She is the communications director for the National Crime Prevention Council, home to McGruff the Crime Dog and Scruff, his nephew.

Also with us are our regular moms, Jolene Ivey. She's a state lawmaker. She's the co-founder of a parenting support group and the mother of five boys. Sue Goodwin, executive producer of TALK OF THE NATION and mom to one son. And they're all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And with us on the phone from New York is Lenore Skenazy, author of the book and blog "Free Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Safe-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)," mom to two sons. Thanks, everybody, for joining us once again.


JOLENE IVEY: Thank you.

SUE GOODWIN: Thank you.


MARTIN: Jolene, I'm going to start with you because of the age range of the boys. You've had to figure out when to loosen the reigns for each child. I wanted to ask, how do you decide when each is ready to do what? And I just have to ask and it may be irrational. Has what happened in New York changed your thoughts at all about that?

IVEY: Well, I have to say, Michel, that most parents do their best to keep their children safe. But you just can't plan for a psychopath. I mean, unfortunately. But aside from that, I think if you look at your individual children and know what their strengths and weaknesses are, that's really going to help guide you as to what they're ready to do. Just like some kids, some babies walk earlier than others, some talk earlier than others, some are ready to strike out on their own with a little more independence earlier than others.

MARTIN: And what was the defining moment for each child? What is it that you were looking for? Like I know with one - and I don't call their names and embarrass them, 'cause, you know, you'll be hearing about it later - but with one, you were - I know this, 'cause, remember, we talked about this - you said he was able to take a long subway ride with transfers and a bus by himself when he was 12. But with another child, 13 and a half, and you're still not feeling it. So, what was the defining question for you?

IVEY: Their personalities are just so different. I mean, one child is already, you know, very independent, trying to do more, more on his own. That particular child who's not quite ready to do all of those things, he's a little bit spacey. He won't remember to take out the trash. He won't remember what today is. He's going to be the absentminded professor. He's a real bright kid, but he's just not ready to handle a lot of life on his own.

MARTIN: So, what about you with your son? I know that he was clamoring to do things on his own for a while. How did you decide when he was ready?

IVEY: Well, it's interesting, and thinking about this event that happened. What I think more about is how did I prepare him? And a lot of my thinking on this actually comes from a personal experience that I don't want to talk with at length. But I did have an experience with a stranger and I was extremely lucky to get out of it before it got out of hand.

But what I learned from that experience - I was five - is number one, we need to be very explicit with our children. We use a lot of softer terms - private parts - or, you know, we need to tell - and my choice was to tell my child in very explicit terms what could happen, what body parts are not to be touched and what are their names. And I actually had to tell my child at five years old what a rape was. And no one wants to bring that type of ugliness into a child's consciousness.

But I felt that I had to because I think when you are a child, you don't know what's going on. There's this big person. You're experiencing something that's never happened to you before. And it's very hard to intervene and take action. So I think we need to be very explicit with them and also do role playing, where you actually pretend to be a stranger and have your child say... I think we need to be very explicit with them. And also do role-playing...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

BOYKINS: ...where you actually pretend to be a stranger and have your child say, what would you say to me if I said, come walk my dog, which is often what they'll say.

MARTIN: Hm. I see. Lenore, I bet you've been catching it, because you have...


MARTIN: You, not only do you live in New York, you wrote about letting your son ride the subway alone when he was nine years old - something he really wanted to do.

SKENAZY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: We talked to you about this a couple of years ago and this is what you said then. Here it is.


SKENAZY: My son loves buses 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, someday I'd like you to just take me someplace and let me find my way home on my own. And I said, okay. And I took him to Bloomingdale's. And then I said goodbye to him, 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: And it all went fine. And...

SKENAZY: And continues to. Thank God.

MARTIN: And continues to. Yeah. Thank God. But can I ask you, because I know you're catching it on your blog after this incident. Has this caused you to revisit your philosophy in any way?

SKENAZY: It certainly caused me to reiterate some of the points that I think people forget about free range kids, which is that we never - I would never send a kid out before doing what your other guests have talked about, which is you train the kid. Obviously in this case the parents of Leiby did train him. And as your first guest said, you know, sometimes there's nothing you can do because you are faced with a psychopath.

But I totally believe in talking to kids at a young age about, you know, nobody can touch where your bathing suit touches. That's an easy way to sort of explain where good touch and bad touch occur. You know, good touch is not where your bathing suit is. And talking to them about that they can - I think one of the best lessons to give kids is that you can talk to a stranger. You can never go off with a stranger. Because that just makes it really clear. You can talk to somebody, fine. You can get your directions. You can just never get into a car with somebody.

And I don't think that the parents of Leiby did anything wrong. Just like I don't think the parents of - last year in New York we had another horrible tragedy where a mother was holding her baby under a tree in Central Park posing for a photo that her husband was taking and the tree branch fell and killed the baby. And, you know, there's once in a while something so awful and unpredictable will happen and, you know, you can either say so therefore, nobody should ever go in Central Park again or because of Leiby no child should ever walk outside again. That's sort of an understandable reaction because we are so horrified and so sad, but it doesn't make any sense.

Our children can be safe outside, and for the most part they're extremely safe outside. And I just have to say in defense of my own city, New York City, that we do have - we're back to the crime rate of 1961. We've enjoyed the lowest murder rate in 50 years this past year. And one horrible out of the blue, unpredictable anomaly shouldn't change childhood for every other child in that city and the country.

MARTIN: You write in your blog, by the way, which is you say, I would pose a different question based on the fact that 25 times more children die as car passengers than as a abduction victims. That's 1,300 children younger than 14 die in cars annually, whereas about 50 are murdered by strangers but nobody writes is putting your kid in the car dangerous. And you say that as a society we've decided to focus on the least likely, most horrific, most TV-ratings-garnering child deaths and-based parenting decisions on them. You say, you call it dangerizing(ph) . You say it's irrational, which is. But it...

SKENAZY: It is. It...

MARTIN: But it does affect your consciousness. But I want to go to Michelle Boykins.

SKENAZY: It is (unintelligible).

MARTIN: But Michelle, your organization represents McGruff.


MARTIN: And Scruff, his nephew, the crime dog. What would McGruff and Scruff tell us to do in a situation? How do you, your organization and McGruff and Scruff prepare kids for these kinds of situations? What do you tell us?

BOYKINS: Well, we talk to both parents and kids about what they should do. And in this case, we've all talked about it - that they practiced with Leiby, they walked the route with him, and those are certainly things you'd want to do. But you also want to tell them about the kinds of strangers that they should be looking for, the police officer. They were in a close-knit community so were there people that they could have identified with him to say if you get into trouble here's a place to go along the route.

So doing things like that that help them map out not just the route that they're taking, but also where they can stop and get help if they need to. We also encourage parents to look at things like GPS tracking devices. Those kind of things that if they do get lost you have an opportunity to know how to locate your child in that situation.

And one of the biggest things that we tell parents and young children is if you are ready to take that step, walk by yourself, that you might want to invite a friend to walk with you. It's so much better to have some safety in numbers in those situations.

MARTIN: To Lenore's point, what are the more common scenarios where children get into difficulty? Is it walking alone or is it that scenario, walking to school, walking to - on a route that they normally think is safe?

BOYKINS: It's walking to and from school. You're walking to a friend's home. There are so many different things that kids can get so easily distracted and then you're finding yourself walking around and then suddenly you're not sure which turn you were supposed to take. So we as adults can get lost so you should expect that your kids can too. And that's really...


MARTIN: (Unintelligible) .

BOYKINS: ...what you have to do to work with them and practice with them. We all need to have repetition for the things that we do. That's how you really learn.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the Moms, and we're talking about in the wake of that terrible story in New York where a young boy was kidnapped and apparently killed by a person he encountered while walking home alone from day camp. We're talking about how to give kids more independence while still keeping them safe.

We're joined by our regulars Jolene Ivey, she's a Maryland state representative and a mom of five; journalist Sue Goodwin and Lenore Skenazy and Michelle Boykins with the National Crime Prevention Council, known for McGruff, the crime dog and Scruff, his nephew. Lenore, you wanted to add something?

SKENAZY: Yeah, I did want to add something because when we start focusing, as we're doing now, with all the dangers of a kid going outside and getting lost and walking to school, God forbid, let's remember that 90 to 95 percent of all the crimes against children are not committed by strangers that they meet on the street. They're committed by people they know, often family members or close family friends.

And I think one of the reasons parents do get so nervous about sending their children out in the world is because we only concentrate on these horrific stranger-danger crimes, when really, I mean not that we should negate them and not that we shouldn't prepare our children for them. But more crime is committed in the home than outside the home and yet parents don't send their children outside nearly as much as our parents sent us outside because we're so afraid of this stranger-danger that has been emphasized and is being emphasized right now. And...

MARTIN: Well, Lenore, excuse me but it's on a lot of our minds. And I'm sorry, you know, we, just because it's, you know, we cover plane crashes too and those are rare as well, but they, you know.

SKENAZY: I know. I know and that makes people scared to go on planes when actually...

MARTIN: Hm, I don't know about that.

SKENAZY: After, right after 9/11 - what did I read? That so many people were afraid to take planes that they took cars in record numbers and record numbers of people died in car crashes who normally would have been taking planes. So sometimes in our desire to avoid this horrific scary thing that does dominate our brains for obvious reasons, it's so horrific and so newsworthy, we end up making decisions that don't help us or even keep our children safer.

MARTIN: Okay. We get it. We get it, but, you know, feelings - there's a reason we call them feelings and the way to address it is to talk about it, which is what we're doing.

Sue, you wanted to add something?

GOODWIN: Yes, I wanted to ask Michelle if this has come up in looking at what happens in crime. Because I think they're sort of two things we're doing at the same time that are kind of contradictory with our kids. On one hand we're teaching them to be friendly. We're teaching them to be helpful. We're teaching them to be respectful to adults. And often one of the many ploys that an adult will use to the child, you know, we've always heard about candy, but often is: would you help me walk my dog? You know, they'll ask for help and assistance.

SKENAZY: Mm-hmm.

GOODWIN: And many children they want to be helpful. And they want to be - and they're sort of trained to be respectful of the adult. And again, this goes to the preparation of having to explain to them there are bad people and...

MARTIN: Michelle, what about her point? That sort of a deference to authority we teach people to be respectful of adults and yet, an adult takes advantage of that? Its, what do you say about that?

BOYKINS: Well, it's really about those teachable moments. And you talked, Sue, about doing some role-playing. Those are the perfect times to try that oh, help me walk with my puppy, those kinds of moments, so that you're teaching them to recognize some social cues. Something might not feel right, that they need to be in tune to that and pay attention to that. You want to talk to them about those kinds of things that can happen when you're encountering an adult.

And again, I think you have to talk to your kids about what are the safe strangers; the strangers that if they do need help that you want them to seek out.

MARTIN: Jolene, you wanted to add something?

IVEY: Safe strangers are mommies.


IVEY: That's who you tell to go find. That's what I told mine when they were little. If you get lost, if anything happens, go find a mommy. Now, you might run into a bad mommy but most of the time if you see some lady out pushing a stroller, she's okay to approach and ask for help. But I also tell my kids to draw boundaries so that even if it's someone they know, someone who they love even, if that person tries to cross a certain boundary and either touch them or say something to them that's inappropriate, then the kid feels comfortable even though, you know, it's not disrespectful to say no.

MARTIN: Do you, Michelle, what about that, final thought? Do you talk about - I take Lenore's point about stranger-danger and how that sometimes can be overplayed when in fact more likely threats are often people within the social circle, you know.

BOYKINS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Do you talk about that? Does McGruff and Scruff, do they talk about that?


BOYKINS: We do, actually. And we talk to parents about giving their kids code words were safe words, that if for some reason they can't pick their child up from school and they have to send someone else that there's a word that they're supposed to use with that child so that they know it's okay to be able to go with them. We also talk about those kind of adults in your life that you should be able to go to to interact with. And it's again about using every teachable moment that you can to make them streetwise and life smart.

MARTIN: All right. Streetwise and life smart. I love it. Michelle Boykins is communications director for the National Crime Prevention Council, home of McGruff and Scruff, the crime dogs. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker and a regular Moms contributor. Sue Goodwin is executive producer of NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. They were here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and the blog, "Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)." She was on the phone with us from Munro, New York. And thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

GOODWIN: Thank you.

BOYKINS: Thank you.

SKENAZY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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