How to raise self-reliant children

Would you allow your 9-year-old to ride public transit solo?

Flashback to 2008. Remember Lenore Skenazy who wrote an article in the New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old take the NYC subway by himself – and the public and media backlash that followed? Today, Skenazy writes the blog Free-Range kids (How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children without Going Nuts with Worry). She also wrote a book under the same title Free Range Kids.

A friend recently turned me on to the blog, and I’m loving what she has to say. Skenazy contends that children will never grow up or encounter choice or gain independence if parents attempt to shield them from every possible danger or difficultly in their everyday lives. I agree.

Raising self-reliant kids is no easy task. I sure wish I had the magic formula to make it happen, but I do have a few go-to books and other resources to help guide me along the way.

My all-time favorite parenting book is Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel. A clinical psychologist and parenting expert, Mogel helps parents learn how to turn their children’s worst traits into their greatest attributes. The teachings are relevant to all faiths, so you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to reap its benefits.

I’ve also read her latest book Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers. My copy is already dog-eared, and I’m sure it will sit on my bedside table soon.

The New York Times has an interesting parenting blog about kids at all ages and stages: Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting. A former NYC prosecutor, lead blogger KJ Dell’Antoinia has been writing about the personal, cultural and political aspects of family life for a decade. Read Lisa Belkin’s review of Blessing of a B Minus on Motherlode. Lisa now writes for the blog HuffPost Parents -- another good resource.

Back to my original question. Would you let your 9-year-old loose on the subway? I wouldn’t. Even though I rode public transit at that age – usually with friends or siblings – in Washington, DC. My answer might be different if I lived in a city with comprehensive public transit. 

I was a free-range kid as were most of my contemporaries. Not every kid on the team got a trophy. My parents were not at every game and every school event. Most kids I knew had some sort of paid job by age 11 -- babysitting, yard work, paper routes. There were no arranged play dates. If you wanted to play you went to the playground or walked down the street and knocked on someone's door. When and why did this all change?

Fact is, I don’t know many kids ages 10 and under, including my own, who can "work out" matters without a parent, teacher, coach or other adult at bay ready to swoop in and work it out for them. If this continues, what's gonna happen when our kids go to college. Wendy Mogel notes in Blessing of a B Minus that college deans refer to kids who have been overprotected as "teacups" and those who have been fried by over scheduling "crispies." 

If something doesn’t give, I’m scared that our kids won’t be able to cope when we finally do set them free. Are you?

Share your thoughts in comments.


  1. I have been doing the free range thing (to some degree or another) since Benjamin, now 13, was in first grade. The reality is that violent crimes against children are less frequent than they were when we were kids, and the only real fear I have for my kids getting around Decatur is the true predator... cars. For that, it takes training and solid rules about what to do to get around safely. Could something happen? Of course it could, but something could happen even if I was there.

    There are many of us who let our kids rome free at the park- crossing them over Church street and leaving the rest up to them. I leave them alone to run to the grocery, they walk down the street to knock on a neighbor's door, and they walk the dog up to Clairemont, picking up a random gaggle of kids along the way.

    Marta- well, no... if only for the smell! As you said, Maureen, maybe in a city with better transit. I remember riding a city bus to get to the mall when I was in 5th grade, and that included two changes and a friend to join me

    I want my kids to have independence. I want them to learn to self monitor and make decisions, and what better place than Decatur. They know almost all of the neighborhood kids, and they do have the savvy- they just need some guidelines and some friends to go along with them. I am a true believer in safety in numbers. I think four is the best number, because, even if someone gets hurt, there is no reason for any child to be alone.

    With a little one that spends a lot of his life in the hopsital, I have learned that there are a lot of kids who won't live to cross a street or ride their bikes or even knock on a friends door. This is the freedom of youth. Most of our children's lives are dictated by one adult or another. Will they have the skills to navigate the teenage years and make the best desisions if we have made all of them for them?

    The park, some yogurt, the Oakhurst market, or even the square. I am ready for my kids to venture out. Will you join us?

  2. Wow. You both, Allison and Maureen, are inspiring me. Ever since I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (which many think was written, at least partially, by Harper Lee) in high school, I've never been the same. My grandmother lived in the country and her winding beautiful driveway was probably a mile long. Post reading, I never went to sleep in her house again without a touch of anxiety (and she lived until 2005.) Cut to the present.....I tell myself not to read the horror stories....primarily the kidnappings but I do it anyway.....and then I hover and hover and hover. Maybe I can start with baby steps....we'll see.

    I have another topic I hope Maureen will blog about. Media Violence. I read a NYTs letter to the editor yesterday, "Invitation to Dialogue: Media Violence" by Susan Linn. Ms. Linn is the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood." She asks, "Do we allow our children to be targets for marketing violent media?" My worry is that I am guilty without even knowing it.

    1. Harper Lee did help Truman Capote research and write ICB. Read her biography "Mocking Bird." It's fascinating.

      Skenazy says that the media plays a huge role in making parents more afraid and overly-anxious about letting their kids out of their site. Kids are also seeing violence on TV. She also says that we (parents) tend to think like lawyers -- what if...

      Watch this interview:

  3. Yep. Love the skinned knee book and the blog (although I think Skenazy can be sensationalist in order to make her points).

    One thing I heard long ago which stuck with me is this: No matter how many kids you have, treat them as if they are one of 14. Meaning, it isn't healthy for you or them to get overly involved in the minutiae of their lives. They need freedom to explore who they are, be disappointed, and experience success and failure without being under a parental microscope. Easier said than done! But something of which to be mindful.


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