Exclusive: How One Boy Inspired the Free-Range Parenting Revolution
Ten years after Lenore Skenazy let her young son take a solo subway ride in New York City, Americans are finally embracing a 'movement'
“It all comes back to taking the subway when I was nine,” 20-year-old college sophomore Izzy Skenazy, who recently returned from a five-month stint in Ghana, Africa, told LifeZette. He’s currently attending the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland.
“I’m so glad my parents took the free-range approach, because it really made me into a much more competent young man than I would have been otherwise,” he said in an exclusive interview. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to live in the middle of Africa for five months had I grown up a helicopter child.”
But let’s back up a moment to explain his role in a “movement.”
In 2008, then nine-year-old Izzy Skenazy (shown above with his mom, Lenore Skenazy) boarded the downtown Manhattan Lexington Avenue 6 subway line and went home by himself. He wanted to do it and had begged repeatedly — and his mom gave permission.
It was that “by himself” detail, coupled with his mom’s article in The Sun about the experience (it went viral) that triggered a national conversation about parenting. Fast-forward to today, 10 years later — and the state of Utah has just passed a bill decriminalizing the acts of parents like the Skenazys, who allow responsible children to engage by themselves in such common activities as traveling by subway and walking down the street.
For fostering her son's independence, Lenore Skenazy was labeled by scores of people 10 years ago as the "world's worst mom." That moniker also became the title of a television series she hosted on the Discovery Channel in which she helped grossly overprotective parents let loose a little — much to the parents' and kids' benefit.
Lenore Skenazy says it was all worth it, including being called a horrible parent. And so would her son.
"I'm so glad I grew up with 'the world's worst mom,'" said Izzy Skenazy, laughing about the obviously grossly inaccurate label his mom received.
Lenore Skenazy has since coined the term free-range parenting, written a book on the topic, hosted a television show about it, established an organization devoted to it — and provided the inspiration for a new Utah law that some are calling "The Lenore Skenazy Law."
Izzy Skenazy's red-hot success flies in the face of his helicopter-parented peers. In other words: A snowflake this young man is not.
He graduated a year early from an arts-based high school and is currently interning in his chosen field on a children's television show. And he attributes his successes, in part, to that subway ride all those years ago. When he faces challenges, he bolsters his confidence by mentally returning to that day.
"I'll always go back to a nine-year-old me telling myself, 'I've got this.'"
For both this young man and his mother, the subway ride was not that big a deal. Both felt confident the fourth-grader could handle himself just fine.
Even after Lenore Skenazy wrote her article about it and media outlets came calling, her son still didn't quite grasp at the time why a simple subway ride generated so much attention.
It started with an appearance on the "Today" show, and it snowballed after that.
The young man said he thought at the time, "'What is the big deal?' That's what was going through my head. I thought, 'What's all the fuss about?' All I did was take the train.'"
In the original "Today" show interview, the boy and his mother appeared alongside a psychologist. Lenore countered concerns expressed by the psychologist, who said the child could've been roughed up or bullied, and that his mother might've been better off giving her son the same (illusory) experience of independence in a "safer" way. But Lenore Skenazy refuted that.
"The 'same experience' is going on the subway. And that is safe. It's safe to go on the subway. It's safe to be a kid," she insisted in 2008. She echoes that same message to this day.
"This is like 'boy boils egg'," she added at the time. "I mean, he did something that any nine-year-old could do."
"Looking back on it now, I can understand why some parents were crazy about it," said Izzy Skenazy. "But at nine years old, I knew it wasn't a big deal that I was taking the subway because I knew I could handle it."
He noted that his first appearance on the "Today" show at age nine was what inspired him to pursue a career in television production.
"I got the inspiration [for my future career] from going on that show [10 years ago]. It was the very first show we went on," he said. "I definitely remember sitting down on that couch and thinking to myself, 'Wow, look at those 10 enormous teleprompters in front of me. These cameras are triple the size of me. I want to be on that side of the camera! That's what's cool. What am I doing on this couch?'"
The college student is currently interning for the "Wonderama" children's variety show, where he will be establishing a SnapChat presence for the show.
"I'm so glad my mom let me do that when I was nine. I could understand why some parents would be nervous, but I'm glad mine weren't."
"Growing up a free-range kid, I [may have gotten] a few more scrapes and scratches than if I'd been brought up with a helicopter parent," he said. "But it's a good thing that you have those few more scrapes and scratches because those develop independence, they develop confidence, and they develop problem-solving skills."
"Looking back at it 10 years later, I've gotta say, I'm so glad my mom let me do that when I was nine. I could understand why some parents would be nervous, but I'm glad mine weren't."
Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and regular contributor to LifeZette.