In 2008, she let her 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway alone. The ensuing public backlash inspired her to write a book and create the Free Range Kids website, which support giving children freedom to explore life on their own. Whether it’s taking a subway ride alone, playing at the park with friends, or walking to the convenience store, Lenore and her supporters celebrate independence in childhood as a crucial element for creating successful adults.
Full disclosure: I kind of love Lenore. I think she’s got this charmingly-batty reverse Mary Poppins thing going on. She’s also incredibly smart, has more balls than your average bear, and appears to be afraid of only one thing: rampant stupidity. She and I are acquaintances and have had some delightfully energetic phone calls about the nutballs of the world and what we can do to combat them. We met after I had my own run-in with a busybody neighbor, and then the police, and then CPS. Lenore was (and still is) a fantastic ally in The Fight Against Nutballs.
When I sat down to watch a few episodes of her new TV show, World’s Worst Mom (premiering Thursday, January 22 at 9/8c and 9:30/8:30c on the Discovery Life Channel) I came to it with my own bias. I like Lenore. I like what she has to say. And I fully support any attempt to wrench people away from the 24-hour news cycle culture of fear that so many seem to be stuck in. If it takes reality TV to pull us from the La Brea Tar Pits of Nancy Grace Bullshit, then let’s give it a whirl.
Here’s the gist of each episode: An overbearing, Type-A mother is having trouble letting her children be children. There’s the mom who still tries to spoon feed her 10-year-old, the mother who insists her 13-year-old son use the ladies room when they’re out in public, the mom who has never let her kids ride a bike, play laser tag, spend the night in a tent … Lenore comes in to try to gently wrest the children from their mother’s suffocating bosom, and a moderately hapless father watches from a corner, bemused.
Because of this setup, the title of the show earns a double meaning. People who know Lenore’s story will get that the title is a winking reference to Lenore herself, but those who are unfamiliar with the Free Range Kids parenting approach will only glean that the moms featured on the show are The Worst. Which … ugh. Lenore’s ownership of the title is with full tongue-in-cheek acceptance. These women aren’t in on that joke, and that makes me feel a little icky. Even if they are over the top in their parenting styles, even if they’ve invited a reality TV crew into their house, the title of the show is a kind of beat down that feels a little harsh. But maybe I’m sensitive, having just been reamed all over the Internet for being the opposite kind of Worst (I let my kids play unsupervised too much). Isn’t it a shame that the continuum of mothering seems to have “worst” on both ends? That deserves an article all on its own.
As I watched the show, I felt for these kids being trapped in their homes. But also, I feel for these mothers. As it typically goes in the familiar 22-minute reality-TV milieu, by the end of the episode the mothers learn to acquiesce to Lenore’s reasoning and their family’s pleading. The children enjoy some freedom. Everyone sees how nice it is. Big ribbon tied in a sparkly bow. The end.
What goes undiscussed, unrecognized, seemingly unnoticed is that these women are not just haha-Type-A-crazy-cartoon-character mamas. These are women with deep, painful anxieties. You can see the struggle in their eyes. They know their behavior isn’t healthy. They don’t enjoy feeling that the world is a predatory menace that will see their children murdered at any opportunity. They are not happy with their compulsion. And while having Lenore come in to try and reason with them is an interesting and possibly commendable first step, what really needs to be happening is some kind of therapeutic intervention. But I guess Struggling Anxiety-Riddled Mothers Who Need Compassionate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is probably too long a title for a TV show.
When it comes to Lenore Skenazy’s Fight Against Nutballs, these women are not the nutballs to fight against. These are women who need support and a healthy dose of therapy. Show me a TV program where Lenore brings the concept of Free Range Kids to a neighborhood intent on calling police when a child rides her bike alone, when busybodies get a talking to from our favorite batty reverse Mary Poppins, and then … then I’ll watch it every single day.