The Lenore Skenazy Law
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Now that Utah has just become the first state in the nation to pass a law protecting “free-range parents,” please indulge us while we salute our erstwhile columnist Lenore Skenazy. They say that lightning doesn’t strike the same newspaper twice, but her column about letting her nine-year-old son ride the subway alone — which led to the new law in Utah — may well be (we’re speculating) the second most widely reprinted piece of journalism in history.
The first almost certainly was The New York Sun’s editorial, by Francis Pharcellus Church, known as “Yes, Virginia.” Church’s piece was a scoop — disclosing, as it did, and for the first time, that Santa Claus is real. Frank Church crafted it so beautifully that the piece has been reprinted in newspaper after newspaper every Noel since 1897. It has been turned into Macy’s famous “Believe” ad campaign, and at least one musical has been made.
Ms. Skenazy’s celebrated column, issued in 2008, is different. It wasn’t that she broke news or wrote it up with poetical flourishes. It’s that she touched a profound nerve. She opened up a national, even global debate about whether we are coddling our children to the point of stunting them. It took some grit, not just in risking her own nine-year-old on the world’s most horrifying subway but in facing down the controversy that the column was sure to ignite.
Everyone spotted that right off. Ms. Skenazy herself, a wisp of a woman with true grit, was immediately asked to appear on nearly all the morning talk shows. Half the viewers seemed to be horrified at what she’d done. One called her “America’s worst mom.” Ms. Skenazy promptly embraced her new nickname to promote what became a book — and then a movement to embolden the raising of “Free-Range Kids” (a phrase she trademarked).
By this she means children trusted to use their heads, children whose parents can leave them in a nearby park or allow to walk to school. Ms. Skenazy publicized horror stories of parents being arrested and their lives ruined for permitting a child to play unsupervised in a park a few hundred feet from their homes. She taught parents to confront their fears, to put risk into perspective.
Once a standard-issue New York liberal, she emerged as a staunch opponent of the Nanny State. It would not be too much to say that Ms. Skenazy changed millions of minds. (She has expanded her own horizons, too, emerging as a leading voice for repeal of the draconian yet pointless public sex offender registry.) It’s no small thing that an American state has enacted her free-range parenting into law.
Utah’s measure, according to the Washington Post, “exempts from the definition of child neglect various activities children can do without supervision, permitting ‘a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities …’” The Post reports that such activities include letting children “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.”
What the law means is that authorities in the state of Utah are no longer able to seize children from their parents when their youngsters are, as the Post put it, “caught doing those various activities alone.” Just so long as their kids are adequately fed, clothed and cared for. It’s a liberating moment for Utah’s parents and children, and we’d like to think that it’ll be the first of many. All because Ms. Skenazy permitted her son at the age of nine to take the 6 train home by himself.