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Shooting down the helicopter mums
Host Lenore Skenazy. Picture: Supplied.

When former New York syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy revealed she had let her then nine-year-old son Izzy catch the subway by himself with $20 and some change for a payphone the tabloids and current affairs shows were quick to label her the "world's worst mum".

The hype propelled Skenazy to instant fame, talk shows and spawned a book which got everyone talking about the rise of overprotective "helicopter parenting".

Taking it all in her stride (and occasionally wondering why nobody had labelled her husband the world's worst dad) Skenazy said her "free-range parenting" left her son more confident. In fact, since his first venture in 2008, Izzy has become a subway expert.

"He's certainly proud of himself getting around on the subway " she said.

"Like if you go 'Oh, I have to get to W. 4th Street. What's the best route?' He still knows. He's like 'Oh, you can take the F and you can take the E and transfer at Queensboro,' or whatever."

Now Skenazy is starring in her own "Supernanny-esque" TV show, World's Worst Mum, where she goes into people's houses and helps paranoid parents learn to let go a little. She met 10-year-olds who weren't allowed to use knives, 11-year-olds who weren't allowed to cross the street and a woman who went into public bathroom cubicles with her daughter. In one episode she helps teach a 10-year-old how to ride a bike; the following school holidays he went on a BMX camp.

In another, she goes to a family home and lets the kids hold a lemonade stand on another block where their mother can't see them.

"She was frantic, swearing and yelling at me," she said. "The kids loved it, they made some money, they got to meet the neighbourhood kids. They laughed and said 'we made lemonade that was so bad', and the mother started smiling despite herself.

"She thought I was going to send her kids out to die."

Skenazy is clearly passionate about old-school parenting and scornfully tells me about the companies that cash in on the parental fear market, selling everything from crawling knee pads, shopping trolley seat liners, a helmet babies can wear while they are learning to walk and gloves children can wear so they don't touch anything that may have germs on it.

She blames her home country for sparking the global rise of fear-based parenting, starting with the massive media coverage of the 1979 disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz in New York and the huge coverage of many other middle-class child abductions since.

"We saw Law & Order and it was not the story of a child who was kidnapped, it was a story of a woman who had her baby ripped out of her womb at 8.5 months pregnant," she said. "And it's like, OK, it's not quite child kidnapping but any time you can show a child in danger, you can get people to watch.

"So it became so popular that any time you turned on the TV, 24/7, there's a missing kid. It's so popular there are 24/7 missing kids stories and you start to think 24/7 kids are being snatched."

As a journalist Skenazy was never good at predicting trends (she thought the sushi fad wouldn't last) but she hopes there will be a backlash against helicopter parenting.

"One thing people might start to realise is if you do let children go it gives them a big advantage," she said. "I really hope people watch the show and just have a private little reality check." <div class="endnote">

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