To most kids, being left in a department store by Mom is either a sign of extreme disobedience or parental negligence. But to Izzy, it was a sign of independence.
Repeatedly nagged by her nine-year-old son Izzy to let him take the subway home alone, New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy decided to conduct an experiment. She gave Izzy a subway ticket, some money and a map and left him at the Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, telling him that she would see him at home. He survived the New York City subway system, and she wrote about it.
Despite focusing her column on the reason she decided to encourage her son’s independence – recent statistics show that New York City is among the safest in the country – Skenazy received a lot of criticism for the decision itself.
“Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse,” she wrote. “As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids.”
According to 52 percent of the respondents to an informal poll posed by MSNBC.com, though, that is the right way to rear kids – at least under the guise of “Even if I trust my child, who knows how many crazies there are out there?”
But when should parents put aside their sensationalist fears about crazies in favor of more rational concerns, like whether they’re raising independent, self-sufficient individuals?
With commencement fast approaching, these qualities seem to be hanging like an albatross around the necks of my graduating friends. We couldn’t get out of high school into the “real world” of college fast enough, but now some of my peers just want to hold off for another year on entering the real “real world.” From my observations, it’s actually a fairly common sentiment. The fact that so many college students don’t feel ready makes me wonder if generational parenting choices should take some of the blame.
If unsupervised subway travel is a good gauge, then I didn’t reach independence until age 16. My friend and I had decided to audition for a professional theatre company in downtown Atlanta, and my parents had run out of excuses to keep me off the subway: It was daylight, I had a buddy and the evening news had been relatively violence-free recently. With cautions of “be yourself” and “make good choices,” they let me go. I felt the same way Izzy said he did when asked about his adventure on the “Today” show last week: “I was like, ‘FINALLY!'”
But maybe 16 was a little late. While my parents had only the best intentions and encouraged my independence in other ways, I always wished they would give me the freedom to learn a few more things firsthand – within reason, the opportunity to make more mistakes and put the values I had learned to better use. I didn’t really get the chance to miss my stop on the subway and find my way home until I was old enough to drive home anyway. Five years later, my mom still worries when I walk home alone, and I’m already worried about what will happen when I graduate next year.
In many respects, this seems to be the root of the problem for many of us: Our parents didn’t let us fail. We’re the generation who reveled in certificates of participation. We got trophies even if we lost the soccer game. And now the thought of not finding a job that pays six figures immediately after graduation scares many of us.
When these fears came rushing out to my parents recently, I remembered that my parents were once nervous graduates, too. My mom pointed out that she hasn’t worked in her field for years. Aside from my dad’s only half-joking, experienced advice that graduate school is the best place for new graduates in a struggling economy, he reminded me that his field didn’t even exist when he graduated. I encountered one of the great virtues of this generation of protective parents: encouragement.
There’s a fine line between protecting and coddling. After all, while Skenazy’s experiment in baptism by fire and public transportation is hardly exemplary parenting in practice, it makes a decent metaphor. When it’s time to find my way after graduation, I’ll be glad my parents left me with a map.
Emmarie Huetteman is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.