Pay for Unsupervised Play? No Way!

I am definitely not a helicopter mom (although I do have overscheduled kids, but I think Lenore Skenazy’s tongue-in-cheek plan to run an after-school program where children are left to play unsupervised in New York’s Central Park is a horrible idea and I would never do it, let alone pay for it (not that anyone really would).

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The blogger and “free-range parenting” advocate’s 8-week program, announced Monday and set to begin this afternoon, is titled I Won’t Supervise Your Kids.  Children aged 8 to 18 will be left to freely roam around Central Park from 3:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. and to return home alone should they wish to do so.  Meanwhile, Skenazy says she will be sipping a latte at a nearby Starbucks, catching up on emails and writing her blog.  The “non-program” is priced at $350 because, as Skenazy told, people “value what they pay for.”

Although I’m a fan of Skenazy’s work and appreciate the emphasis on independence and creative play, I have three things to say about Skenazy’s latest version of extreme free-range parenting:

One: It’s irresponsible. How can Skenazy leave kids she knows nothing about in the wilds of Central Park?  Rather than sit in Starbucks, why doesn’t she run a “How to Be a Child in Public” boot camp consisting of real-life training on how to be safe, responsible, and navigate the real world.  Kids need to learn skills like how to be safe around strangers and how to take the bus. And what if a child gets seriously hurt?  Personally, I trust my-8 year-old, but I don’t trust everyone else roaming through Central Park.

Two: It confuses independence with free play. Surely, children need to engage in unstructured, creative play.  And they need freedom to grow and learn and make choices.  But they don’t need to be abandoned in Central Park to make this happen.  And how does Skenazy know they will play?  Maybe they will end up bullying each other or texting and watching videos on their iPads.

Three: It’s probably illegal. Although Skenazy claims she’ll ask parents to sign a liability waiver, this might not work because child endangerment laws make it a crime to endanger the health or life of a child through an adult’s recklessness or indifference. I have to suspect, as a former lawyer, that the case could be made that leaving 8 to 18-year-olds alone in Central Park is per se recklessly putting children in harm’s way. You can’t waive away criminal laws, so Skenazy could be criminally liable.  Ouch!  That would certainly put an end to her “free-ranging!”

You may have already heard of  Skenazy and her Free-Range Kids website — some years back she caused a stir by letting her 9-year-old ride the New York subway by himself.  Adamantly against helicopter parenting and being overprotective, she is using the creation of this camp in Central Park to make her classic points: 1) children are overscheduled with all of these expensive activities and what they really need to do is go out to play in the world, and 2) overprotection and our safety fears make no sense given that our kids live in a safer world with less crime than we did when we were children.

So when Skanazy says that she has “zero kids [enrolled] and about a million interviews,” she is sitting pretty.  She has created a media buzz, appearing on “Good Morning America” and in pieces in the Huffington Post and Babble, among others.  She will no doubt be the talk of hundreds of mommy bloggers debating this on social media.  One thing is for sure, Lenore Skenazy is a much more well-known person today than she was yesterday.  And her point of view is now in the national consciousness. Effective!

So maybe there is a lesson here for all of us after all. Wondering if I can hold a how-to-breastfeed-on-a-schedule program in Central Park and charge $350 a pop?

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