At What Age Should Kids Ride the Subway Alone? Several weeks ago, columnist Lenore Skenazy left her 9-year-old son at a Manhattan Bloomingdale's armed with a subway map, a metro card and $20. When she wrote in her blog about her son's successful journey home, she received a barrage of responses accusing her of being a bad parent.
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At What Age Should Kids Ride the Subway Alone?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Every parent eventually faces the question of when to let their kid travel alone, across the street, through the neighborhood, or across town. And every single one worries that something terrible might happen. Of course, they also worry that protecting their child will stifle independence. Well, recently, Lenore Skenazy left her nine-year-old son at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan.

She equipped him with a subway fare card, a map, 20 dollars, and several quarters in case he needed to call home, and congratulated both him and herself when he arrived safely. Skenazy wrote about the trip home alone in her column in the New York Sun and found that some of her readers wanted to call Child Services.

So parents, kids, and former kids, when is the right time? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Lenore Skenazy joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on the program again.

Ms. LENORE SKENAZY (Columnist, New York Sun): Oh, it's really fun to be here.

CONAN: And I understand this was not necessarily your idea.

Ms. SKENAZY: Well, my son Izzy - nine at the time, he just turned ten - had been bugging me for awhile that he really wanted to try getting home from someplace on his own. And he gets home on his own from school and gets around town a little bit by bus and foot, and I decided OK, let's try it. So I really thought it would be funny if I left him at a department store, since that's sort of the classic place that people lose their kids, and they all turn out fine.

So that's what I did. I took him up to Bloomingdale's. It's on the east side of Manhattan. We live on the east side of Manhattan, about five stops away. And I said OK, and I left him in lady's handbags, you know, because that happens to be the place close to the door, not for any other reason. And then I went a different way home, and that was it.

CONAN: And were you tempted to follow him?

Ms. SKENAZY: No, I was not tempted to follow him. I would have been tempted to follow him. Everybody wonders why I didn't follow him behind. Because I would have, if I thought there was some problem, or if it was dangerous. But, if I thought it was dangerous, I wouldn't have let him do it in the first place. So no, there was no reason to let him go and follow him. I really thought he could do it.

And frankly, it's like "boy makes piece of toast." I mean, it was something that kids could do, and maybe they don't do it because we do everything for them. But really, it was not a big deal. And some of - a lot of people are just sort of marveling, including me, that this has become the "talk of the nation."

CONAN: And nevertheless, some names always come up when this happens, 35 years ago, Ethan Patz.

Ms. SKENAZY: Yeah, that's the point. Let's look, 35 years ago. I mean, it's a horrible story. I moved here about 25 years ago, and people were still talking about it. But if something happens once in 35 years, out of the millions and millions and millions of children who have come through and are now adults.

I mean, if you were zero then, you're 35-years-old now, and this didn't happen to you. You can't keep calling that as your point of reference in how you have to watch your kids. It's crazy. And yet, people are starting to think I'm crazy. I'm starting to feel a little crazy, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I know you got some responses to the column that included things like, you know, how would you have felt if he...

Ms. SKENAZY: How would I have felt? You know how I would have felt? Take a guess how I would have felt if something horrible happened to my son. And now, of course, if anything does happen to my son, it will only be proof for the naysayers. But the point is that it is a rare and tragic event.

I have the statistics that I'm now manned with, which is, in 2006, most recent statistics, 50 kids were abducted by strangers and killed out of 75 million children in America at the time. They were, if you were a kid in 2006, you were 40 times more likely to be killed in a car. But your parents will put you in a car, but they won't let you cross the street. And there's something really weird with the way we are assessing risk.

And I think, personally, the reason I think we are assessing it so wrong is because you don't see every car accident on CNN, but you see every child who was ever abducted. And you see their picture, and you see their parents. And you see the talk shows, and you see it for 24 hours for a good couple of months after it happens.

CONAN: There's also that terror that lives in every parent's stomach.

Ms. SKENAZY: Every parent does have terror. My God, you think I'm like - my sister-in-law is laughing at me because she doesn't know any parent who is more nervous than me. I'm a helmet mother. I'm a seat belt, car seat, everything mother. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't in a car seat when I was two. I was in a car accident.

I believe in taking safety precautions, but I don't believe that a normal precaution is not letting your kid out of the house. And yet, so many times, we live above a courtyard that is surrounded by four buildings. And my son will look down, and he wants to go out and play. And no one's outside. People just aren't letting their kids outside. There's something wrong with that.

CONAN: We've been talking about the negative side, what might have happened? Let's talk about the positive side. How did your son react when he got home?

Ms. SKENAZY: He was happy. It wasn't that big a deal. I wrote about it on a slow news day. Now, it's, of course, going to his head. He thinks he's the greatest kid in Western civilization. He laughs at kids who ride bikes without helmets. Look, Mom, there's a kid without a helmet, and I sort of cringe because, of course, I know I grew up without a helmet.

And that's really become one of my causes at this point. We all grew up much more - less protected. Let's put it that way. And it wasn't like our parents were lackadaisical. It's just that parents today are sort of hyper-vigilant, and that's why, I have to say, I'm starting a movement, Free Range Kids.

And I started a website freerangekids.com, where you can, sort of, go and just say right on because I have gotten a lot of letters, way more letters in favor of this than against it. And then, a bunch of letters that I really like, which are, gee, I started reading this, and I thought you were crazy. But then, as I read a little further, I started thinking about it and now, and then they always say, I'm going to show it to my wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SKENAZY: For some reason, I ended up on the dads' side. I really don't know why.

CONAN: So does your son now have a T-shirt saying "I survived the 34th Street cross-town bus"?

Ms. SKENAZY: How about "I was on the Today Show"? I'm so cool. I'm not going to school today. That's really what it should say because he's been a pill. What can I say?

CONAN: He'll get over it. Lenore Skenazy is with us from our bureau in New York. She's talking about a column she wrote in the New York Sun about her nine-year-old's trip from Bloomingdale's to home via subway and bus. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Don is on the line with us from Wichita in Kansas.

DON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Don. Go ahead.

DON: Neal, I have a great story. I think it's a great story. I was and still am a Brooklyn Dodger fan.

Ms. SKENAZY: Right on.

DON: We lived in Newark, New Jersey when I was a kid, and we visited relatives in Brooklyn. And we took the subway, the Brighton Beach local, and every time we passed the stop for Ebbets Field, my mother would say, there's the stop for Ebbets Field. And she said sometime, if you ever want to go to the game, you can go. I was nine-years-old. So I, one morning, Saturday morning, found out there was a game, packed a lunch, wrote my mother a note...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DON: Got on the bus down to the train station, took the Hudson tubes, took the Brighton Beach local, got off with everybody else at the Ebbets Field stop. Bought a 75-cent bleacher ticket to watch the Duke Snyder and Campanella play ball and came home the same way.

Ms. SKENAZY: Lived to tell the tale.

DON: When I got home, my mother was screaming and yelling. She had literally called out the National Guard, and all I did was try to remind her that she said I could actually do exactly what I did, and I did. And I think I went to three or four games that season.

CONAN: Less charitably, she might have reminded you that the Newark Bears could probably have beaten the Brooklyn Dodgers.

DON: Well, that's the year they actually won, 1956.

CONAN: Ah, so that was the great team.

DON: It was actually the year, and I was there when Gil Hodges hit a homerun to win the last game of the season and clinch the pennant. Those were before the league championship series. You won the last game. You won the pennant. You went to the World Series.

CONAN: And so, do you let your kids have the run of Wichita?

DON: Well, actually, I did. My daughter, my wife was saying that she didn't want her to go down the street to the convenience store, and I said, well, you know, she crosses a much bigger street to go to school, and she wouldn't even be crossing a street to the convenience store. And so she let her go.

That's not to say my judgment is better than hers. It's just - it's great to have a perspective of two different parents, to say, well, I want to protect the child, and well, I want the child to have some adventure and to grow in life.

Ms. SKENAZY: Can I say one thing about your Dodgers trip? All the people who are writing to me saying right on, or at least writing to me, are remembering that very moment. I mean, I want to hear these stories, but I am hearing them a lot, of the moment of freedom, of independence.

For people, it is this rich memory, and we better let our kids have some of these, or they are going to remember the time they held their mother's hand and went shopping for their prom dress.

CONAN: I have to say that my memory is, in fact, that of a parent, as my son, I think eight or nine years old, wanted to go solicit neighbors to see if they would pay him to shovel their sidewalk, which, of course, I did when I was a kid. And I was in living terror, and, of course, I let him do it, but you know...

Ms. SKENAZY: Wait, you were in living terror for him knocking on people's doors?

CONAN: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. SKENAZY: These normal peoples, who are your neighbors, you assumed would suddenly, oh, look a child. What a convenient thing for me to snatch!

CONAN: Well, Jack Ripper down the street, he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SKENAZY: You know, well, it says "J. Ripper" on the bell, you go to the next house.

CONAN: Don, thanks very much for the call.

DON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get another caller. This is Janine, Janine with us from Pacifica in California.

JANINE (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to say that I think a lot of parents aren't letting their kids take any kind of independent steps because we're actually afraid we could be arrested if we did so.

Ms. SKENAZY: I have to say that, over at WNYC, when I was talking about this issue, they went so far as to look up the law, which I was glad about. And there is no law about, at least here in New York. You're allowed to leave your nine-year-old.

CONAN: Leave him alone on the street? In the house?

Ms. SKENAZY: Well, I think on the street. It didn't say. I mean, they just said that I hadn't broken any laws. But I know there are kids who take the subway and the bus, and it's not a big deal. It's just, if you sort of over-think it, then it becomes a big deal.

CONAN: Janine?

JANINE: Yeah, I have a son who was actually arrested. She just got out of her car for two seconds to drop off a video at Blockbuster, and a police officer arrested her.

Ms. SKENAZY: How old, there was a little kid in the car or something?

JANINE: The kids were ten and two in the car.

Ms. SKENAZY: Ten and two and they arrested her?

JANINE: They arrested her, and I think that I heard...

Ms. SKENAZY: Such a weird society.

CONAN: You'd figure, even if the windows were all the way up, and it was a really hot day, the ten-year-old would figure out how to crank them down.

Ms. SKENAZY: Or open the door, yeah.

JANINE: It was just from the car to the store. It was like two steps. I've heard a couple other of these stories, and I just wanted to say that I think a lot of parents won't take any kind of risk because you never know who's going to report on you. It's getting to be a little bit...

Ms. SKENAZY: You know, isn't that interesting. At first, it was people who are saying, you never know who's going to snatch your kid. And now, it's, you never know when there's a policeman nearby. It's like the rules have changed, but, either way, something terrible is going to happen.

CONAN: Janine, thanks very much.

JANINE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Lenore Skenazy of the New York Sun about her column about sending her child home alone from Bloomingdale's on the subway.

Ms. SKENAZY: It's that "Home Alone" movie that did it.

CONAN: I think so, but that kid came out all right, as I remember.

Ms. SKENAZY: That kid came out for many sequels, but I'm not sure how the actual actor turned out. But in the movies, everything was fine.

CONAN: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR news. And here's an email we have from Saul. "When I was nine, I ran away from my grandfather's apartment in the Bronx and walked home to Leonia, New Jersey."

Ms. SKENAZY: Whoa!

CONAN: And that's quite a walk.

Ms. SKENAZY: I think he walked down a river.

CONAN: "After that, my parents knew I could navigate myself."

Ms. SKENAZY: Right, see, that's the joy of this memory. Right, I mean, that's something you can't take away from him. That's better than a Bar Mitzvah. I mean, it's really quite a turning point in his life.

Right? And after that, he saw himself differently, and his parents saw him differently. But, if you never give your child that chance, you won't see them as grownup, and they won't see themselves as having any capability.

CONAN: After that walk, I would also guarantee he needed a new pair of chucks.

Ms. SKENAZY: Yeah, right.

CONAN: Let's get Todd on the line, Todd with us calling from Toledo, Ohio.

TODD (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TODD: Yes, I don't necessarily agree with the premise that your guest is using. Just because a child is able to conduct themselves and get through a situation, doesn't mean that they should be able to.

Ms. SKENAZY: I agree, I agree if it was a bad situation...

TODD: They can drive by themselves. They can use firearms by themselves. But to put them in a situation where - why take that extra risk that is not needed? Riding in an automobile, very often, that's a risk of life. You have to deal with it and accept it. But to put a child in unneeded danger, I'd rather see the child be a little bit overprotected and live to enjoy some things later one.

Ms. SKENAZY: Do you think I was actually putting my child in mortal danger, and I'm just hoping against hope that maybe he'll live to see another day and we can take the subway together?

TODD: Unfair risk to treat him as an experiment.

Ms. SKENAZY: First of all, it wasn't an experiment. It was something that I wanted him to start doing, and he wanted to start doing. Secondly, I didn't think he was at risk, and I think my statistics prove that he wasn't. And thirdly, it was a safe thing to do. The subways are safe, and I would never give him a firearm - because firearms are not safe.

TODD: I'm not saying - I was just using an example saying that...

Ms. SKENAZY: But you're equating them. That's the weird thing. You're equating firearms...

TODD: Because they are not mature enough to handle themselves in certain situation, nor are they strong enough to...

Ms. SKENAZY: Right, but I think he was mature enough.

TODD: I wouldn't dream of sending her across town. I know New York fairly well, and just because things are getting a little better in Hell's Kitchen.

Ms. SKENAZY: Wait a minute, a little better? You know what...

TODD: Doesn't mean you can let a kid walk through...

Ms. SKENAZY: Stop, stop, let me throw statistics at you. We are New York City, here. Of cities over 100,000 people in population, in terms of danger, guess what number we are? Are we number one? Are we number seven? We are number 136. We are there with Boise, Idaho. So, if you would send your kid down the block in Boise, Idaho, you can send your kid across town in New York City.

Secondly, it wasn't like I was saying, oh, let's do something risky. You know, I'm going to throw him in the Hudson and let's see if he bobs up. And, if not, well, I've learned my lesson and so has he. I was giving him a chance to exercise a skill that everybody needs in New York City, which is to get around town by public transportation because we don't use a lot of cars.

And I knew he was capable of it because we take busses and subways all the time. He takes the bus home from school, or he walks home from school. This was the next step, and I think you are allowed to let your children take steps towards becoming independent human beings. And a little overprotection is not what you are talking about. You are talking about coddling.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in, and Emmy joins us. Emmy, where are you calling from?

EMMY (Caller): Illinois, Chicago.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

EMMY: Yeah, when I was a kid, my grandmother used to put me on public transportation because I am from the Philippines. And she would literally - maybe six, seven years old. She'd put a note in this grocery bag, and I would take this public transportation.

I would go straight to the public market. I know exactly who the guy to go to. It's the butcher. Whatever my grandmother wanted, he'd put it in the bag, and I take the ride back home. And it was never an issue.

Ms. SKENAZY: Right.

EMMY: And then I moved here in the States when I was 22 years old. The landscape is very different. We are so very protective. So, when I went back home, I always see kids going to church by themselves, or parents would be walking maybe a mile away from them. I still see kids walking around, so I really wonder.

And I would never, never, never let my daughter go to school by herself. She's 11 years old. Always, if I drop her off at a friend's house, I always make sure she gets into the door before I leave because all the things that we hear.

Ms. SKENAZY: But that's the problem. We hear things. Do you really think that something's going to happen...

EMMY: Yeah.

Ms. SKENAZY: Between the time you drop her off at the front door and the door opens? I mean, people would have to be descending from the trees.

EMMY: Right, right.

Ms. SKENAZY: Right, that's weird.

EMMY: If I were doing this in the Philippines, I really think I can let her walk from our house to my aunt's house and not even worry about it...

Ms. SKENAZY: It's the culture. It's the culture of fear here.

EMMY: Right. I'd be terrified.

CONAN: Emmy, thanks very much for the call.

EMMY: Thanks, bye-bye.

CONAN: And Lenore Skenazy, can we wish your son a belated happy tenth birthday?

Ms. SKENAZY: Yeah, you sure can.

CONAN: I'm sure he's getting a lot of them. Lenore Skenazy joined us from our bureau in New York. She's a columnist for the New York Sun and appears on our member station in New York, WNYC. I' m Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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