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Lenore Skenazy, Let Grow

Lenore Skenazy

In this episode, I’m talking to Lenore Skenazy about how letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone in New York City led to her being labeled the “World’s Worst Mom” and sparked the Free-Range Kids movement. Her book, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry, along with the programs developed and promoted by Let Grow, counter the culture of overprotection.

Big Ideas

  • Over the last decade, Lenore has been fighting the societal belief that our children are “in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”
  • People feel so much fear for their kids’ safety, even when there’s no reason to be afraid.
  • A free-range childhood means kids can go outside after school and play with their friends without it being a structured, supervised activity.
  • There are 5 reasons why parents today are so much more afraid for their kids:
    1. Media — news, films, and crime shows.
    2. Laws and fear of litigation.
    3. Experts in books and magazines that produce anxiety.
    4. Marketplace and safety products that capitalize on our fears.
    5. Technology that allows parents to monitor kids at all times.
  • The Let Grow organization promotes two school initiatives:
    • Let grow Project: Kids get a homework assignment to do something on their own, without their parents’ help. This promotes independence, a sense of pride, competence, and confidence.”
    • Let Grow Play Club: Kids stay after school or arrive early for extended, unstructured playtime with other kids.
  • The Let Grow movement is promoting Free-Range parenting laws in states around the country. The bills define ‘neglect’ as a blatant disregard for a child’s safety and wellbeing. It’s not letting a kid walk to school, come home with a latch key, or play outside.


Lenore: “It’s not like parents are crazy, it’s that we are being fed so much fear from so many corners of our life and culture that it’s almost impossible not to breathe it in. It’s like pollution. You’re just breathing it in and it gets into your body.”

Audrey: “I look to you as a hero because you were at the forefront when this crazy overparenting came into play.”

Lenore: “It feels so much less safe, even though statistically the crime rate is lower now than it has been in 25 years.”

Lenore: “Your brain works like Google. It takes in all this information and then when you ask, ‘Is it safe for my kids to walk to the bus stop today?’ up pops the pictures or stories you’ve heard about, whether it was from 30 years ago or a Law & Order episode yesterday. Those stories are so easy to recall but they’re not the most relevant results…so we start making our decisions based not on any kind of statistical reality, not on any kind of reality at all, but on the basis of all these terrible stories that have been shoved into us as we’ve been growing up.”

Lenore: “The media is certainly an enormous reason that we are so much more afraid than our parents who weren’t as saturated with these fears as we were.”

Lenore: “We live in a litigious society. When you start thinking like a lawyer, which we all do, nothing seems safe enough…So you take something that is extremely safe and it is rewritten through the lawyer brain as potentially dangerous and you see everything through the lens of risk.”

Audrey: “People perceive camp or especially letting your child go to camp as being so risky and dangerous. But what’s amazing is that statistically, summer camps are far safer than people’s backyards.”

Audrey: “I think parents feel like when someone’s not under their exact, very close supervision, there’s this fear. You really want to trust other people with your kids, but there is always a risk.”

Lenore: “(Technology) gives us this level of omniscience that is actually very oppressive to parents because it feels like you have to know literally every breath your child is taking.”

Lenore: “It’s as if our child is in such danger that we better be on high alert all the time or something terrible will happen and it’s all our fault. That’s why I feel sorry for parents raising kids in this era. The pressure to know everything and be aware of everything and worry about everything is at a breaking point.”

Audrey: “I think it has actually gotten worse than what you were talking about back 12 or 13 years ago when you first wrote Free-Range Kids.”

Lenore: “Let Grow, rather than working on changing minds, is focused on changing behavior. And the behavior we’re thinking about is extremely similar to what happens when parents send their kids off to camp. We are trying to give kids a smidgen of independence and when they get that they’re less anxious afterward and the parents are less anxious, everybody is allowed to grow.”

Lenore: “Until you see that they can do something on their own, you don’t even know if it’s going to work, this great experiment with the people you love the most. But when you see that they’re blossoming, they can handle it, it’s just a remarkable transformation. And you don’t go backward…You watch them and your heart fills.”

Lenore: “The Let Grow project is just a way to make it easy to let go because everyone’s doing it. Either everyone in the class or the school or the or the school district.  So you’re not the crazy mom. So there are other kids doing it, other parents doing it.”

Audrey: “Because we’re in a time where people look askance at the child or two siblings walking to a park to play. It’s too bad. But being able to say, ‘Oh this is an assignment from school.’ You almost have to give your kids the words they need in order to defend themselves doing something that they are perfectly capable of doing and giving parents the permission to let their children do this.”

Audrey: “If you and all of your friends at school are all letting your kids do this stuff, you’re going to start talking about that. The community will start understanding–it is genius.”

Lenore: “Kids have been so stunted, in a way. When there is always around somebody who’s saying, ‘Let me handle that for you.’ We say, always helping kids isn’t always helping them. And so, going to a store and talking to strangers, well, it’s a store full of people. And I guess they’re strangers, but they’re just people. They’re not criminals. And they just felt so much better about themselves and better about the world that they were making more friends. That was a, a bonus that I didn’t expect.”

Audrey: “People think, ‘Oh well my child’s not ready for such and such.’ But the thing is, the way you get ready for things is practicing. And if we don’t let them practice, then are they ever going to feel competent and confident and capable.”

Audrey: “I’m always encouraging parents to just have kids do little things like making dinner or handling the checkout at the store. If you’re not comfortable sending them on your own yet, let your child do the talking and handing them the card and running it through the thing or putting in your phone number and just let them try it in front of you until you feel confident.”

Lenore: “It’s not just fun for kids to do things for their parents, it’s also telling them that their parents trust, believe in and need them. Those things feel so great. It’s great to know that your parents don’t think you’re so endangered or incompetent that you can’t do things on your own.”

Audrey: “One of the reasons so many adolescents feel so bad is because they feel unneeded. When we are doing everything for them and not letting them start doing for themselves or helping others then they don’t feel needed or valued, or necessary to a household, or to a school or a community. That’s a terrible feeling.”

Lenore: “When you rise to the occasion on the playground and there are little kids there and you’re the grownup, cause you’re a fifth grader or a fourth grader, it is a great feeling. It’s not just the leadership, it is the kindness that you get into yourself and realize this is fun. They didn’t even realize what they were enjoying was empathy.”

Lenore: “I think camp is one of the last bastions of childhood freedom. And I think kids who are lucky enough to have it, whether it’s day camp or overnight camp, they should take advantage and parents should take advantage too, because, as you said, the parents feel a lot more relaxed when they finally get to take their eyes off their kids for summer. Summer should be a time of freedom.”

About Lenore Skenazy

After her column “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone” landed her on every talk show from The Today Show to Dr. Phil, Lenore Skenazy got labeled “America’s Worst Mom.” Nice.

She turned around and founded “Free-Range Kids,” the movement that says kids are NOT in constant danger. That grew into “Let Grow,” a non-partisan nonprofit working to make it easy, normal and legal to give kids back some independence.

To that end, Lenore has lectured all over (Microsoft, DreamWorks, Sydney Opera House…) and been profiled everywhere from The New York Times to The New Yorker to The Daily Show. A journalist herself, she spent 14 years at the New York Daily News and has written for everyone from The Wall Street Journal to Mad Magazine.

Yep. Mad!

Her reality show “World’s Worst Mom,” airs on Discovery Life (from time to time, late at night, in re-runs).

Last year, Utah became the first state to pass a “Free-Range Parenting Law,” guaranteeing parents the right to let their kids do things like walk to school or play at the park without a security detail.


Website: Let Grow: Future-Proofing Our Kids & Our Country

Let Grow Project (for schools)

Free Range Kids, Lenore SkenazyFREE-RANGE KIDS has become a national movement, sparked by the incredible response to Lenore Skenazy’s piece about allowing her 9-year-old ride the subway alone in NYC. Parent groups argued about it, bloggers blogged, spouses became uncivil with each other, and the media jumped all over it. A lot of parents today, Skenazy says, see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range. Any risk is seen as too much risk. But if you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child’s everyday life, that child never gets a chance to grow up. We parents have to realize that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters choice or independence.



Interviews with Lenore Skenazy

Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy co-authored “The Fragile Generation,”

Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom we had without Going Nuts with Worry, Lenore Skenazy


Ep. 60: The Importance of Outdoor, Child-Directed Free Play with Andy Pritikin

Ep. 65: Raising Engaged, Happy Kids with Mary Hofstedt

Ep. 78: The Danish Way of Parenting (Part 2)

Ep. 87: The Impact of Camp Experiences with Laurie Browne, Ph.D.

American Camp Association

The Camp Impact Study