Live from Music Row Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement to the newsmakers line to talk about her background and what prompted her movement.
Leahy: We are delighted to have on our newsmaker line right now. Lenore Skenazy really the founder of the Free Range Kid movement. Welcome to The Tennessee Star Report Lenore.
Skenazy: Well, thanks. I guess I am a newsmaker now? That’s great!
Leahy: You are on our newsmaker line because this is actually pretty important what you’re doing. What you have in common with a lot of folks here is that you don’t like the way our kids are being treated. You made some news. You’re a Yale graduate. Did you get a journalism degree from Columbia after?
Skenazy: I did.
Leahy: And then you went to work for the New York Daily News.
Leahy: Very different at the New York Daily News than The Tennessee Star. And the Daily News is kind of left-wing. The Tennessee Star is an honest, conservative, online news site that we own and operate here in Tennessee on the web at Tennesseestar.com now. So you left there. You went to The New York Sun, and you wrote this column. Your son was, what, nine years old the time?
Leahy: And what was the controversial column you wrote.
Skenazy: I must have written 2,000 columns in my life. But the only one that I’ll be remembered for is why I let my nine year old ride the subway alone. That was the column (Leahy laughs) that really somehow caught fire, ticked off a lot of people. And two days after I wrote the column, I was on The Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR. It’s sort of like being in The Tennessee Star and The Daily News defending myself.
And that weekend, I started a blog to explain a little more because I got the nickname America’s Worst Mom, because I let my son do something on his own. And I really wanted to explain that I love safety. I love helmets and car seats and seatbelts. And I believe I want my kids outlive me. And nobody thought that because I let my son do something by himself. So I started the blog Free Range Kids to say, look our kids are a lot smarter and safer and stronger than our culture, gives him credit for. and the nine-year-old is 23 as of Monday.
So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we got to this point where we don’t think our kids are capable of doing anything that we did when you were young. And it just sort of drives me crazy. And that’s been the mission for 14 years. But a few years ago, I started a nonprofit called Let’s Grow. And the goal is the same. Just to give kids back some freedom and give parents back the right to take their eyes off their children without this being considered a crime.
Leahy: So your then nine year old son survived that trip on the subway alone. Now he’s 23. How’s he doing?
Skenazy: He’s fine. I’ve got two sons. They’re muddling through. Everything’s cool. (Leahy chuckles)
Leahy: We’re about the same age. I’m a little bit older than you, but when I was a kid, I would get up in the morning. I lived in a little small towns in upstate New York, and I would get up in the morning, in the summer, I’d ride my bike down about a mile and a half to the playground. I would play baseball and basketball all day. And then when the sun came down, I’d ride my bike up the hill and be in before sunset. I did that every day for years and years and years in the summer. That was fun.
Skenazy: You know, it was fun. And I had a similar childhood. What’s weird is that it evaporated. What I can’t believe is it something that was so normal and that everybody agreed made sense. Kids are playing. They don’t always have to be with their parents. They don’t always have to be being read to. They don’t always have to be in some enriching, supervised, expensive activity, and they could still get enough out of their childhood to make it to adulthood.
There is this whole sort of lack of belief in kids in our community that has sprung up. And the reason I get up to write the same story and think about the same issue 14 years on is that it’s wrong, right? It’s not that our kids can’t do this. It’s not that our kids would be less safe than you going a mile and a half to play baseball or basketball at the local park.
It’s not like they can’t organize their games. It’s not like they can’t solve their own arguments. It’s not like they can’t follow up their bike sometimes and get hurt and then get back on it and realize, like, hey, I can handle this. We’ve just decided that only adults can handle anything for kids. It makes me so sad, because let me ask you, you were playing those games of baseball and basketball, who organized them?
Leahy: Yeah. Let me continue on that, because I haven’t thought I want to invite you to think about something. What we would do is you’d go down to the playground and whoever showed up, they would self organize a game. They play baseball. Maybe it’d be five on five, maybe seven on seven. But you organize yourself and they worked out great. You learned how to interact with your fellow kids without having an adult there to monitor everything and intervene in it. And you developed independence.
Skenazy: You’ve summed up basically the mission of Let Grow in that one sentence, which is that with your independence, you learn how to interact with others, how to become a leader, how to change the rules if you didn’t like it. That’s called democracy. You learn how to communicate. If there were some older kids, you held yourself together because you wanted to be like those cool kids. The 12 year old when you were 10 or seven.
And if you were 12, and you were with a seven-year-old, you learn a little empathy because you weren’t going to slam the ball at them, right? They were little kids. So you learned how to be an adult and how to be responsible and how to be empathic. So I just have to say, so Let Grow the reason I started Let Grow after doing Free Range Kids for 10 years was that, you know, talking about all this made people nostalgic or they made people sad or angry or thoughtful. But it didn’t change anything.
When I started Let Grow, which I started with Jonathan Hi, who wrote The Coddling of The American Mind, and a couple of other wonderful people and we decided that we would try to change the culture back to what you’re talking about but through action. And one of the actions that we have is that at school, we encourage them to start what we call Let Grow Play Club, which is really the moral equivalent of just having kids at school before or after school, playing mixed ages, no electronics, nobody’s organizing the games or solving the arguments.
And that’s because we’re worried that they weren’t learning the things you just talked about. How to deal with each other. How did we get to have fragile kids? How do we get to have kids who are so easily hurt or offended, and so many kids dealing with mental problems? It’s because they never had the chance to build up the where with all that you get from being angry at your friend and then having to get over it so that you could keep playing.
Or being mad that you thought that I fouled or you that I thought that you fouled. But okay, we got to continue on from there. If you have somebody, as always, an adult, intermediating and say, and making these decisions for you, you don’t learn how to how to deal with life. And I think we’re seeing that on campus now. And so really, Let Grow was founded to give people back what you got automatically.
It’s sort of like giving people back whole wheat in their bread. We took it all out. We thought we’re making it better, better, better. And then finally we realized, like, oh, no, actually, some of what we took away was really necessary for growth. So we called it Let Grow. So that’s it. We’re trying to get it back and not just the free flight time.
We’re also trying to give them time to run an errand and to be outside and to do something on their own. And not every second has to be supervised or organized by an adult. The idea that the only time a kid is learning something valuable is when they’re in a class or when they’re taught something by an adult also is insulting. Because you were just talking about what you learned. Even I bet you learned something even from riding to the game, right?
Leahy: Oh, absolutely. You learned how to not get killed going down the hill, right?
Leahy: You learned responsibility, and you learned what the quickest route was. You had to do some of your own individual thinking. You had to learn timing a little bit. How long does it take me to get down? How long does it take me to get up the hill? And that sort of thing, right?
Skenazy: And those things sound silly, but those are extremely important skills. Timing. Holding yourself together, figuring out that you could handle something if you fell off your bike. I read an article in The Wall Street Journal recently about a mom who loved her childhood and wanted to give the same childhood to her kid.
And when she was eight, she used to go to the creek in her neighborhood and just poke around and throw rocks and look at little crabs or whatever. And so when her daughter was eight, she said, I’m so grateful now, because there are these watches that you can clamp on a kid’s arm that are like little trackers. And so she let her daughter do the same thing and take her bike.
Leahy: And had a little bit of independence.
Listen to the full second hour here:
Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Live from Music Row Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed President of Let Grow and founder of Free Range Kids Lenore Skenazy to the newsmakers line to talk about her two new initiatives.
Leahy: On our newsmaker line, our new friend, Lenore Skenazy, the President of Letgrow.org. And really the founder of the Free Range Kids Movement. So, Lenore, I have a question for you. Are you open to it?
Skenazy: I thought you had a great idea for me.
Leahy: I do. I have a question for you. So first, before we get to our idea, why don’t you describe some of the K8 projects that Let Grow has currently?
Skenazy: Oh, thank you so much. Sure. So we just have two school initiatives. They’re both free. So it’s not like I’m selling something. One is like I was telling you before the Let Grow Play Club. We encourage schools to open before after school for kid-led, no adult. There’s an adult in the corner with an EpiPen. But otherwise, it’s just kids playing. And throw a lot of junk out there balls and jump ropes and cardboard boxes.
And if you need some help organizing that or dealing with it, how do you explain it to parents and make them see that it’s not just a waste of time. You can get what we call our instruction kit or something at Letgrow.org. And the other thing is the Let Grow Project. And this is a homework assignment that teachers give kids anywhere from K through eighth grade that says, go home and do something new on your own without an adult.
Without your parents. And of course, you talk about it with your parents. But it’s just to renormalize the idea of kids running an errand. Kids walking to school. Kids go over to a friend’s house. Kids making dinner because parents have been so frightened by this whole culture that is telling them that any time that they’re not helping their kid or watching their kids, their kids in danger, that they don’t even know how to let go anymore.
So I don’t blame them because they’re living in a culture where Parents Magazine says, don’t let your kids ever have a play date without you listening to make sure that they don’t have an argument because if they do, you want to jump in. I mean, Parents Magazine theme has been telling parents that kids can’t do anything safely on their own and that they will live to regret it.
And so the Let Grow Project, because it comes from a teacher just gives parents permission to say, you know what? You can let your eight-year-old walk outside, your nine-year-old go run an errand, and your five-year-old play on the lawn. It’s up to you, but it renormalizes it because everybody at the school is doing it. You’re not the crazy mom. You’re not Lenore. (Chuckles)
You’re just doing something for homework. So those are our two school initiatives. And then the other thing that Let Grow is working on is we are trying to encourage states to change their neglect laws to make sure that like playing outside or walking to school or staying home briefly by yourself, that’s not considered neglect. We want neglect to be actual neglect, not trusting kids with a little bit of independence when the parents feel their children are ready.
Leahy: All very good stuff. So you’re ready for my big idea and like to throw it out there?
Skenazy: I can’t wait. I need a new idea.
Leahy: Well, I’d like to see if you might have an interest. There are some people here in Tennessee that might be interested in starting perhaps a statewide pilot program. Here’s the idea. Let Grow Baseball.
Skenazy: I bet I know what it is. I’m guessing it’s just sort of getting initiative like it’s Saturday morning kids go play baseball.
Leahy: Yeah, well, the idea would be maybe to work with little leagues and maybe even some professional baseball teams to set up everywhere and every county. There are 95 counties in Tennessee, fields where kids can go, perhaps have one adult there, just so that in case somebody falls and needs to go to the hospital, they could take them.
But basically, this is a field that’s open all the time in the summer, in the spring, in the fall, where our kids can go and play baseball and self organize and play baseball the way their dads and their grandfather’s and their great grandfather’s did in America for years and years and years before. That’s the big idea. What do you think?
Skenazy: I absolutely love it. It’s actually an idea that we’ve kicked around something like this. One of our co-founders of Let Grow is a guy named Peter Gray.
Leahy: Dr. Peter Gray, Boston College.
Skenazy: Yes, exactly. Oh, my God. Yes. And so Peter Gray said, why can’t we get sand block baseball going again? Which it sounds like what you’re talking about.
Leahy: That’s exactly right.
Skenazy: The fields are there, but nobody thinks to go, because unless you’re in an organized activity, we sort of think that baseball is just for three-hour practices a week. And we just have to renormalize the idea of kids getting up and going out. And so, yes, figure out how to make it happen. I mean, really, you need two things to happen.
One is for kids to recognize that there are going to be other kids outside. So there will be somebody for them to play with. And then two weeks for parents. Well, I guess you need a couple of things. Two weeks for parents to let them go and not think that the parents have to be in the bleachers all day. No parent wants to be outside as long as a kid wants to be outside. Kids want to be out longer because they just want to play.
And no parent wants to stay there from eight in the morning till seven at night on a Sunday like you used to spend. And then I think it behooves your state to consider what we call a reasonable childhood independence law, which used to be called the Free Range Kids Law when it was passed in Utah, which is just what we were talking about before. Making sure that it’s not mistaken for neglect by letting your kids go outside and play baseball for three hours while you’re at home doing whatever else you prefer to do.
Leahy: That makes an awful lot of sense. I see from his biography that Dr. Peter Gray was the co-founder of Let Grow at letgrow.org. I see from his biography that he grew up in small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He’s a little older than I am. I’m betting every summer he’d go out and play baseball in a sandlot.
Skenazy: Believe me, he did that. And even in winter in Minnesota, he was outside. In the winter he was ice skating, and in the summer he was fishing. And actually, he took a test recently to see, is your child an addict? Because he also believes that his kids like playing video games. That’s not the end of the world either. You don’t want them only doing that, but kids are allowed to have some fun.
And when he took the test are like, do you always think about this activity? Did you wake up and think about this activity? Have you skipped school to think about this activity? And he realized as a child he had been a fishing addict because all he would do was he would just be so interested in getting that pole and going off to wherever the fishing hole was. And look, he ended up a Professor at Boston College. I don’t think all that time spent playing baseball, fishing, hanging out outside, and sometimes even skipping school, just because he had the drive to do something else and some fascination with something.
I mean, what I worry about is the kids growing up being driven from one activity to the other they like them and its fine and I did that with my kids. But when you have some free unstructured time without an adult telling you what to do and why it’s good for you, you develop something else and that’s this internal sense of I can handle things. Life is interesting. I’m pretty intrepid. And without that internal locus of control, you’re very depressed. It’s like going to a job every day where you’re micromanaged. The assumption is that kids today are having higher levels of depression and anxiety because everything is done with them and for them and they dont’ get to do anything on their own.
Leahy: They have no agency, no control.
Skenazy: Yes, absolutely.
Leahy: So Here’s what I’d like you to consider.
If you and Dr. Peter Gray, let’s set up a phone call, and let’s plan this thing out and introduce Let Grow Sandlot Baseball or whatever you want to call it. We’ll introduce Let Grow Sandlot Baseball to every County in Tennessee. The fields are there. We just need to get some private money into it. And I can tell you right now in Tennessee, I’ve been talking to a number of Little League people and some professional major league sports teams that I think would be very interested in helping this happen. And Tennessee of course is the best state in the country to start this…
Leahy: Because we want to do it because, of course, we have no state income tax, and we have a tradition of freedom and liberty. And it’s, of course, the volunteer state.
Skenazy: Oh, that’s right. I’m thinking about the license plate. Yeah, well, the ideas of freedom and liberty are pretty much dead if you think that people need constant supervision. And that’s what we’re raising kids with. The idea that they’re never safe, and they shouldn’t even feel safe unless somebody else is always watching them, either in person or electronically. And I want to contract this idea that no, actually, you yourself are okay. You can handle things. The world is your oyster. It’s not a threat. So I think it has to start pretty young, and that’s what Let Grow is about.
So we’ll have our first phone call with the Let Grow Sandlot Baseball-Tennessee Star idea. And then we’ll invite you down here to Nashville. You and Dr. Peter Gray to talk to some baseball people. Look at some fields, and let’s get this thing rolling.
Skenazy: Let’s aim for the stand. Now you know how little I know about baseball. That wall at the back. How about a home run.
Leahy: If you build it, they will come.
Skenazy: Especially if you don’t go there with them.
Listen to the second hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.