[Transcript] – “America’s Worst Mom” Explains Why We Need More Free-Range Parenting & Less Helicopter Parenting: Let Them Grow With Lenore Skenazy.

Affiliate Disclosure


From podcast: https://bengreenfieldlife.com/podcast/freerange/

[00:00:00] Intro

[00:00:53] Podcast Sponsors

[00:03:14] Guest Intro

[00:04:48] Why Lenore Skenazy became known as “America's Worst Mom”

[00:07:13] What was going through your head knowing your son hadn't ridden the subway before?

[00:11:12] Where did the idea come from that kids are not safe? How did fear in parents shift disproportionately to the actual risk kids face?

[00:14:55] How much has the fear-driven media contributed to the litigious society in which we live?

[00:23:48] The Hygiene Hypothesis and why we would do well to allow our children to fail

[00:26:37] Podcast Sponsors

[00:31:56] Rites of passage and how should parents deal with kids so far away from home?

[00:38:08] Tips on defying the status quo and raising free-range kids

[00:45:38] Is there a sort of rite of passage in Let Grow or Free-Range Kids?

[00:48:42] Navigating modern legal matters with a desire to raise independent children

[00:54:27] Closing the Podcast

[00:56:05] End of Podcast

Ben:  My name is Ben Greenfield. And, on this episode of the Ben Greenfield Life podcast.

Lenore: These things happen automatically when kids are playing together and there's nobody organizing their game except them and there's nobody solving their spats except them. So, how do you get that to happen considering so many activities are run by adults now? It's pretty obvious. You give them some free time, free space, and an adult who's not going to get involved, and then you just watch these kids blossom like little sunflowers because finally they're back in the soil they were meant to be in, which is free play.

Ben:  Faith, family, fitness, health, performance, nutrition, longevity, ancestral living, biohacking, and a whole lot more. Welcome to the show.

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Ben:  Well, folks, it was, gosh, I think several years ago when I sat transfixed reading a newspaper article entitled “Why I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone.” This was an article that kind of created a media firestorm and got the author the nickname, “America's Worst Mom.” I remember making mental notes to myself at the time. I think, my kids were just little toddlers, but I was already kind of interested in things like rites of passage, and creative free play, and letting kids kind of engage in what I think kids should be engaged in, which is creative free play, and as my guest on today's podcast alludes to, a more free-range style of education and upbringing.

And so, fast forward, several years down the road and I'm working on a parenting book, and a big, big part of the parenting book is about creativity, and free play, and kind of doing things a little bit differently when it comes to the way that we educate and the way that we raise our kids. And, today's guest is the actual author of that article. Yes, I have America's Worst Mom on the podcast, Lenore Skenazy.

Do you pronounce your name Skenazy or Skenazy?

Lenore:  It happens to rhyme with crazy. So, there you have it.

Ben:  Crazy, Crazy Skenazy.

Lenore:  In a nutshell, literally.

Ben:  America's Worst Mom, crazy Skenazy, welcome to the show.

Lenore:  Yeah. Thank you, Ben. Happy to be here.

Ben:  Yeah. And, you may have seen Lenore on The Today Show, on the Daily Show, on her own reality show, the World's Worst Mom. And, she's lectured all over the place since that original article came out and also founded something called Free-Range Kids. So, I would actually love to hear this story from your mouth, Lenore. Why were you dubbed as America's Worst Mom? What actually happened, this whole subway story?

Lenore:  Years ago, and I have to say the 9-year-old subway writer is now 23. So, it's been quite some time. But, he was our younger son, still is, thank God, and he started asking me and my husband if we would take him someplace he'd never been before here in New York City where we live and let him find his own way home by subways, one of those subway kids. I'm sure in the suburbs there's scooter kids, or fire truck kids, or whatever. He just loved the subway. And so, we talked about it, my husband and I, and we decided, yeah, he's ready, we're on the subways all the time, so we get around. He speaks the language. He can read a map. Let's do it.

So, one sunny Sunday I took Izzy, our son, to Bloomingdale's fancy-schmancy department store in a fancy-schmancy neighborhood, and I left him there. And, sure enough, the reason is it happens to be that the subway is right underneath, there's a subway stop right underneath Bloomingdale's. And, he found his way down there, and he took the train a couple of stops, and then he took a bus across town and he came into our apartment levitating because he had done something on his own that he knew he was ready for and we trusted him. That's also a key thing; parents trusting their kids. And, I'm a newspaper columnist by trade, so literally a couple months later because I didn't think it was such a big deal, but a couple months later when I had nothing to write about, I said, how about I write about this subway ride that my son took by himself? And, my editor said sure, sounds like a nice local story. And so, that was the story why I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone. And, two days later, I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. And, that was just the beginning of me getting to the Ben Greenfield Show. So, it's just been this wild ride.

People were so sort of divided. A lot of people remembered that the childhoods they had with a lot of independence and freedom. And, if they were in New York, they remembered their subway ride. If they were in the suburbs, they remembered being on their bikes. Everybody remembers staying out until the street lights came on. And, nobody was allowing their own kids to do that. And, it's been my life's work to figure out why not considering that most parents today do remember that. Not only fondly, they think of it as the formative experience of their childhood was that free time that they had with their friends. And, that's the one thing that most kids don't get anymore.

Ben:  Yeah. What was going through your head when you are Bloomingdale's and you have the subway station underneath? Obviously, your son has ridden the subway before. Was this intentional for you? Were you kind of familiar with the tradition of rites of passage and the idea of a young person doing a hard thing is emergence into adolescence? Or, is this just like, “Hey, let's see how he does”?

Lenore:  Well, I'm as familiar as anyone, I guess, with the idea of rites of passage. You take anthropology at some point. And, I'm Jewish and we have a rite of passage at age 13, which is the bar mitzvah when a child becomes a man or a woman and they have to do some tough stuff, they have to learn some Hebrew, and they have to be in front of a big crowd and give a speech. And so, I love the idea of rites of passage, and I'm happy they don't involve tattoos or flaying of the skin in our culture.

Ben:  Yes.

Lenore:  But, I hadn't thought of this as a rite of passage when I was letting Izzy do it. It just struck me as sort of maybe a New York thing, but not that everybody has to do something at age 9 that proves that they're ready for the world. I hadn't thought of it that way.

Ben:  So, for you when you did that, were you at the time engaged with education? I know that you have this website now called Free-Range Kids. Was this an interest of yours? Or, was more the controversy that that created for you as a journalist to kind of pivot and begin to really focus on this idea of creative free play and what you call free-range kids?

Lenore:  At that time, I was a newspaper person. And so, I was writing about something different every day. But, years later when I went back and looked at earlier columns of mine, I found a couple that seemed like, “Oh, my god, these are the bread crumbs leading, I guess, to the evil witch.” Maybe we'll forget that metaphor. The point is that I had written a column when my sons were, I don't know, 5 and 7 about yes, I let them go to the bathroom by themselves when we're at a play. They're boys, I'm girl, so I just stand outside and I don't think that was terrible. A lot of people dragged the kids in with them to the ladies' room. And then, I found a column of mine from a few years later that said, yes, I let my kids go downstairs and play in the courtyard. We lived in a skyscraper basically with a big courtyard down below where there were no cars. And, I was like, “Don't arrest me just because I trust my kids outside.”

So, I did see a thread of this idea that our kids are safer and smarter than our culture gives them credit for. And, I did see that culture had changed obviously since I was a kid walking to school and today. But, I started Free-Range Kids, that blog, the weekend after I'd been slammed on all of those television shows for letting my 9-year-old ride the subway because most of the time and subsequently, I mean, years and years of interviews, there'd be a little bit of banter. And then, at some point, the interviewer would go for the kill and say, “Okay, it sounds great. Your son looks happy, but how would you have felt if he didn't come home?” And, it was a response to that, the idea that I didn't care about safety. I do, and so the Free-Range Kids blog. And, Free-Range Kids has since become a non-profit called Let Grow. And, that's what I'm head of now, Let Grow. But, the whole idea was that I love safety. Free-Range Kids and Let Grow believe in safety, believe in helmets, and car seats and seat belts would be stupid to drive without a seat belt. They're right there. They don't change your experience. We just don't believe that kids need a security detail every time they leave the house.

And so, what I've been writing about and thinking about for many years is, how did we get so afraid for our kids considering crime rise? I realize we're in a little bit of a weird moment now since COVID. But, since the '90s, crime had been going down. And so, parents who weren't letting their kids play outside in the '90s, or the 2000s, or the 2010s were actually those kids were safer than we were growing up in the '70s and '80s. And so, it wasn't that crime was so dangerous or so off the charts, it's that our fear had grown. And, that interests me because there was a sort of mismatch between our perception of what our kids could handle and our memories of what we could handle ourselves as children.

Ben:  Where'd that come from? Where'd that idea come from that emerged as you alluded to in the '90s and beyond that our kids are not safe, that they're going to be in constant danger from kidnappers, and germs, and bullies, and baby snatchers, and you should never let them go to our sleepover, and God forbid that you not be able to see every last bite of food that goes into your mouth? Where'd that actually come from?

Lenore:  Well, there's a lot of reasons as you might guess. The easiest one to understand, and I'm sure everybody sees this and agrees, is that the media really didn't focus on predators and child kidnapping until the '80s. And, I don't know what age you are, but you might have grown up with–

Ben:  Yeah, I was born in '81. In '81.

Lenore:  Okay, yeah. So, there you are around age three or four, and the milk carton in front of you as you ate your Cheerios or Cookie Crisp, depending on your family's religion, I guess. Were you a Cheerios family or a Cookie Crisp?

Ben:  I was a peanut butter Cap'n Crunch family.

Lenore:  Oh, my god. My kids were that too and perhaps sort of still are. Anyways, the thing is that there were two really high-profile kidnappings in the late '70s, early '80s, Etan Patz here in New York City and Adam Walsh in Florida. And, after a mini-series was made about Etan's disappearance and murder, which is the worst horriblest thing you can imagine, I think in a move to try to help the world, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children started putting pictures of missing children on the milk cartons. I'd say that was sort of a good idea, but sort of a bad idea because they neglected to mention that most of those children were not snatched by a stranger off their bikes or off the street, they were generally runaways or taken in a custodial dispute between divorced parents. But, the impression we got or you got eating the cereal or your parents did was that all these children were being snatched right and left by kidnappers. And, in fact there was testimony in front of Congress that was absolutely wrong that said that 50,000 children are stolen every year. It's not the case. Thank, God. It's about 100, which is still horrible. But really, we got the magnitude wrong and it sank into the fibers of our bones because we're parents and we want our kids to be safe.

And then, the TV having made this mini-series and broken all ratings records about Adam Walsh's disappearance said, “Let's make more of these, these are great.” TV exists to make money. And, the more eyeballs you can get, the same with the internet now, the more money you can get for whatever for your station. And so, was the birth of “Law and Order,” which we see is just coming back again. I mean, 20 years of every night, some horrible murder and then they got “Law and Order SVU,” some worse murder of a child or disabled adult and just the scariest most enraging saddest stories. And, your brain works like Google. And, if you ask your brain, “Name some cereals,” it will come up with the Cheerios, and Frosted Flakes, and eventually it gets to the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. But, they're relevant answers to your question. But, if you ask your brain, “Is my kid safe waiting at the bus stop?” Up comes the picture of Etan Patz, up comes the picture of Jaycee Dugard because the horrible stories are the easiest for us to remember. You can't remember stories of the millions of kids who waited at the bus stop and were just bored and got on the bus.

And so, your brain also thinks that if something is easy to retrieve, if a result appears on the first page of your search results in your brain, it thinks it's relevant. And so, by having these stories so easily reached by our brain and so vivid, and we all share them, it started to feel as if children were in constant danger even though if children were always being snatched, it wouldn't be a story, we wouldn't be able to remember them. So, it's sort of like the most weird sad story comes up easiest for us even though it is a story because it is so weird and sad and unusual.

Ben:  Yeah. It's kind of funny I was explaining to my children the other day. I have twin 13-year-old boys, I was explaining to them what an ambulance chaser was. I made a joke when an ambulance went by about looking for the ambulance chasers. And, I had to explain to them this idea of a lawyer in waiting following the ambulance to help the family sue based on the accident. How much of this do you think is based on kind of the fact that we seem to be living in an increasingly litigious society where there's safety precautions that need to be put up, gosh not just kids, but the people who spill hot beverage on themselves at McDonald's? How much of that is driven by this?

Lenore:  It's a lot. I mean, I was going to go into that as my second reason. When you have a litigious society like this, you start thinking like the lawyer. Actually, I was speaking today with some educators who want to start what we call a Let Grow Play Club at their school where the school stays open before or after school for free play like you were just talking about at the beginning of the show where kids of different ages are there, and there's balls, and jump ropes, and chalk, and cardboard boxes, and kids just play. And, they really want this, but they're worried that what if a kid trips and then the school get sued, does Let Grow gets sued? I mean, it's so strange that we started thinking like lawyers, all of us, whether we have to or not. And, I would say schools probably have too, although they generally have a policy that covers recess and that also covers Let Grow. But, to frame everything in terms of what could go wrong and what could we be blamed for, it's the new way of looking at life but especially looking at childhood. I mean, there's almost no product. I would never go into the business of making products for children because they keep getting recalled. I was just looking through the Consumer Product Safety Commission recall list the other day to see what's going on, what's the latest crazy thing. And, there was some little outfit for some small outfit for a small child, and it was recalled because a snap could fall off, thereby posing a choking hazard. And, I'm wearing a shirt, it's got buttons. These could fall off. I've got pants on. There's a zipper tag. That can fall off. I have a watch on. I guess the watch face could fall off.

I mean, once you start looking for danger, you see it literally everywhere. And, once you're forced to think that way because there's this looming fear of a giant lawsuit, you start really mistaking everyday life in the safest times in human history. We're not drinking from lead pipes anymore and we're not subjecting children to child labor. And, there's squishy stuff on the playground if the kids fall and yet we're seeing it like a hellscape of choking hazards, and tripping hazards, and fall hazards, and hazard hazards. And, I think you're exactly right. When you start having a litigious society, it warps our view of reality.

Ben:  Yeah, yeah. I mean, if the playground was a perfect example, I think it was an article in “The Atlantic” that I also read a few years ago that was showing a playground place. And, it was an old tire and some beat-up boards that were planked over a ditch and some chains. And, there was an old person's walker that the kids were using as a prop. And, I mean that would be a litigious nightmare right now in America where we've like stripped away merry-go-rounds and slides, those slides that go around with the gravel where we'd always kind of scuff up our knees growing up or a kid would go flying off of it, or the swing sets with the hard rubber. Remember the slides that burnt your bottom, the silver slides that burnt your bottom?

Lenore:   Yeah, they were like frying pans that happened to be long.

Ben:  Yeah. God forbid, we learned that metal things in the sun are hot. And so, yeah. I mean, a playground is a perfect example of a soft culture. I mean, this might be controversial, Lenore, for me to say this but I think it extends out to a lot of the rest of culture too. For example, there was that Twitter thread going around a few months ago comparing, and I guess this is relevant for our times, the Russian army recruiting video versus the U.S. army recruiting video. And, the U.S. was this soft fun cartoony. I'm going to go be in the army. And, it was just this girl doing push-ups and stuff. And, the Russian one, it was just epic like, “Oh, we go to battle now.” And, it was kind of this idea that America, for the most part, is getting kind of soft. And, I think part of it is we're raising our children in a very, very soft sort of way. And, this is probably a little bit controversial too, I think part of it is we really clutch at life very, very intensively now. I think there's almost this fear of death or this dishonor around death where I think COVID was a perfect example of that. We shove our elders into nursing homes and hospices and watch them die via Zoom while we shut down the world's economy to keep anyone at all from getting injured or dying when in fact death and injury, and not only learning from those, but also honoring them as portals to a better place. Either a better life or becoming a better person, it's something that we almost totally deny nowadays is the culture that the value and existence of when we just run in fear from death, and injury, and failure period.

Lenore:   Ooh, there's a lot there. I'm going to go back to the playground. 

Ben:  I know there's a lot there. 

Lenore:  I'm skipping the Russian army. I'm skipping whether death is a portal to a better place. I'm going right back to the playground. And, the story I want to tell is that in Germany, they're starting to build playgrounds that are three stories high. You have to climb up them. They're made out of ropes. You're 10 meters. Remember, it's 10 meters or 30 meters, whatever three stories is above the ground. And, sometimes when you're climbing the slides, the slides don't have the steps exactly 6 inches away from the next one, the next one, the next one. They're misaligned and imperfect. And, they were being made this way now at the request of the insurance industry in Germany. And, here's why. They were getting sued so many times. And, the cities actually are insured by themselves or something. So, the cities were getting sued by all these young people who weren't watching where they were going, were tripping and falling. “Oh, my god, this is somebody else's fault. I should never have tripped. How come this wasn't perfect and safe and fine?” And so, the insurance company did a little study and it turned out that when kids are young and start paying attention to their surroundings more and feel like they have to rely on their own selves more because it's not perfect and it's not somebody's always helping them, it actually made them into sturdier, smarter, more savvy adults who didn't trip as much.

And so, the whole idea of making life “risk-free” has this unseen risk that we never talk about, which is that if you've raised kids to think that nothing should hurt them and that somebody else should always be there to assist, or solve, or swage, or soothe, then they don't have to develop those skills on their own. And, that's something that's missing later on. And, at Georgetown, there are three psychology professors who are studying whether American and Canadian children get their freedom so late that the window that mother nature thought kids would be playing running around, goofing around, climbing trees, tripping and falling, and learning some risk assessment. That happens so late in kids, it's too late. That window has shut. And, it's not too late like they're going to be crippled forever, but it's sort of if you learn language, the older you get, you're going to have a harder time learning it, and you're going to be a little less fluent, you're going to maybe have an accent or get the grammar wrong. That's young people today who are getting their freedom and their responsibility a little too late. And, the preliminary study they did on this little pilot study was they gave college students in Turkey and Russia. Those were the other side versus America and Canada. A list of some very simple situations like you're in a cafe by yourself and it's dark out or something like that. Is this safe or unsafe? And, the Turks and the Russians said, “Of course, it's safe.” But, the Americans thought it wasn't safe because there had been so little that they'd been doing on their own, so little independence that they'd had that they thought anytime they weren't under direct supervision of some kind of adult, or coach, or teacher, or helper, they were in danger. So, to me, that's a danger in and of itself. You want to grow up kids who are going to feel at home in the world, and capable, and confident. And, right now, you look at charts and their childhood anxiety and depression and icky things like that are going up. And, that was even before COVID and then during COVID even more so.

And so, those are actual dangers that we ignore because they are not bleeding.

Ben:  Yeah, yeah. I think there's biological implications too. You've probably heard of the hygiene hypothesis, this idea that kids who do get exposed to germs maybe don't have all their bottled nipples boiled and who get dogs licking their face, or maybe have some extra pets, or hanging around other kids. Even other kids who are sick, they develop stronger more robust immune systems. It's as though you give their biology a chance to fail kind of using this concept of hormesis, things that don't kill you make you stronger. And then, they bounce back a little bit stronger.

Lenore:  That's called hormesis?

Ben:  Yeah, it's called hormesis. That whole idea that saunas, and cold baths, and exercise, and all that stuff would kill you if you did a whole bunch of it, as with germs, but in little doses, they actually make your body have to adapt, and become more resilient, and become stronger. And, that actually leads me to something that I wanted to ask you about, and that's this idea of failure in general. If you send a kid packing down the road with 18 training wheels and two helmets and full body armor, and they fall off their bike, isn't it going to be less of a learning experience than just letting them fail and maybe even, God forbid, get a little scrape or injury?

Lenore:  Well, let me tell you a story because here you are, you're a fitness guy. And, I was once talking to Jesse Ventura who was a wrestler turned governor of Minnesota. And, as people are wanting to do when they talk to me, they think back, and he was telling me a story about when he was 10, he'd ridden his bike 2 miles from home and he fell off it and it was like some accident and got mangled, the bike was mangled. And, it was before cell phones, and I guess it was before his friends because he was there by himself. And so, how did he get home? He had to ride his bike with his mangled foot. So, he only could press down on like one pedal because the other foot wasn't working, so he'd have to wait till the pedal came back up and then press sit down and wait. And, this took him a long time to get home. And, actually it turned out he had broken his foot. But, here he is, he must have been about 60 when he was talking to me so he's remembering something for half a century. And, I think it's because it was formative. Here was the kid who triumphed. He's the boy who lived. He fell off his bike, he mangled his foot, he was far from home, he had nobody to help him and the injured warrior made it home. It's sort of the odyssey in Minnesota. And so, I feel like when you're asking if you fall off the bike and there's so much padding, or you don't fall off the bike because somebody's holding it, or because somebody's driving you and you're not riding your bike, of course, there's something that's missing.

And earlier, we were talking about rites of passage. And, I wouldn't say that Jesse Ventura set out that day for a rite of passage, but clearly it was. Otherwise, he wouldn't be bragging about it in a way or thanking it 50 years later.

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You know, I'm honestly shocked every time I see a bodybuilder or fitness influencer or anyone really promoting branch chain amino acids, also known as BCAA. You see these things all over the place. I just don't get it. They only have three of the nine essential amino acids your body needs. They can cause issues like messing with your serotonin levels and depleting your B vitamins, they affect your blood sugar deleteriously, and a whole lot more. But the dark and dirty secret and the supplements industry is that you can make a lot of money off of the overpriced flavored water that is essentially BCAAs. So, I use the word “essentially,” I suppose, quite fittingly, because the alternative are essential amino acids. Essential amino acids actually have all the amino acids your body actually need. They are great for energy, great for preserving muscle, great for fasting, and keeping the appetite satiated. Great for nourishing the body for sleep, good for cognitive performance. They're like the Swiss Army knife of supplements. These essential amino acids. 

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Alright, folks, I got a personal invite with your name on it. Alright, Chris, right, or Jennifer. No? Maybe John. Well, whatever your name is, this invite is for you. It's an invitation to come hang out with me and my whole family for the one weekend I look forward to every year way more than any vacation or event or trip I planned. It's basically the most epic party of the year with a wellness twist, a true biohacker's paradise, and relaxing retreat, all in one, a gathering jam-packed with the latest anti-aging and wellness tools, a smorgasbord of healthy home-cooked paleo-friendly food, clean keto-friendly natural wine and organic coffee, an event so intimate that only 50 people are allowed to attend. It's called RUNGA, R-U-N-G-A. You as my podcast listener are officially invited. Here's a tiny sneak peek of what's included. There's a full schedule of breathwork, cold plunges, yoga meditation, and sound healing all day long. You can attend or skip any or all the events that you want. Intimate access to live talks and podcasts by renowned health and wellness experts, I'll be there. There'll be workouts led by many fitness experts, I'll be leading a few. Extensive nutraceutical bar stocked with NAD injectable and liposomal nutrients, peptides for recovery, for immune, for gut health. There's a bunch of docs walking around to easily advise you on a lot of those stuff. There's unlimited access to hyperbaric oxygen chambers, unlimited PEMF, vibration platforms, electro stimulation muscle activation, maybe most importantly, you'll learn how to make my wife's incredible mouth-watering sourdough bread. Plus it's in Austin. If you want to arrive earlier, stick around after for a little bit of barbecue. You know what I'm saying. Claim your spot for this event happening October 13th through the 15th if you go to BenGreenfieldLife.com/RUNGA. BenGreenfieldLife.com/R-U-N-G-A. There are only 50 slots available. I'm serious. It's very small, very intimate but it's amazing. After the 50 slots fill up, they close the doors. 

So, October 13th to the 15th in Austin, Texas, I'll be there, my wife will be there, it's an amazing event. So, BenGreenfieldLife.com/RUNGA. I hope to see you there.

Ben:  Yeah. I mean, I haven't told you this but my sons, they're 13 now, when they turned 13 and granted this wasn't just totally random and unplanned, but they had a knife and a wool blanket and a backpack and had to go off on a solo five-day wilderness trip on their own without dad and mom, surviving in the wilderness. And, it was facilitated by a camp called Twin Eagles that facilitates adolescent rites of passage. But, you know what, I have to admit, because I think a lot of parents are going to wonder this, and I want to hear how you advise parents to deal with kind of going crazy and worrying. But, mom and I, we were going to bed at night and we were like crying. We're like, “Gosh, I hope they're okay. I hope they're not getting eaten by a bear.” We can't do anything. They're 200 miles from our house. And, it was it was super hard for us. Mentally, we got through it and our kids obviously survived. But, it's hard on the parents when you stop protecting and then you open up the floodgates to worry over what could be happening to them because whatever, they're out riding their bike, or they're out past dark, or they're out in the forest, or maybe they're getting kidnapped. What's your counsel to parents who just get all these worries going through their head?

Lenore:  Well, first of all, I am one of them, which is too bad. I'm a worrier myself. My kids are older. They're in their early 20s now and I'm still sorry that they drive cars. I worry about that. I worry about a lot. So, I don't have a cure for worry, and I think that expecting to both be a parent and not worry does not compute. You can't be here and in China at the same time. Worry is part of your life as a parent. But, so is what I'm hearing from you as you tell this story, which is this excitement and pride that they did it. And, I would guess that maybe you see them a little differently and they see themselves a little differently since then. Do they?

Ben:  Oh, my gosh. Yeah. The way they carry themselves even when we went to pick them up from that experience and they came wandering out of the forest, they were proud, they were tall. When we brought them home, they were more honest, more responsible. The slight unwillingness or hesitation towards say going out to milk our goats at 6:30 am when it's under zero degrees Fahrenheit, and they got to trudge through the snow and they're just woken up, all of a sudden–

Lenore:  They have just slight unwillingness?

Ben:  Yeah.

Lenore:  Oh, my god.

Ben:  They had this sense of autonomy and responsibility that I hadn't witnessed before in them.

Lenore:  Yeah, yeah.

My solution for the fear problem requires doing things backwards, which is you can't wait till you're not afraid to let them go. You have to let them go and you will be less afraid afterwards. You need the experience of letting go and seeing them come back taller, prouder, or scraped, and scared, but they still went through something. And, knowing, first of all, that you trust them to do something is an enormous part of a healthy childhood, I think. Kids don't want to just be loved, they want to be trusted. And then also, you get this surge of pride and excitement because you are hardwired. Why do you have kids? You have kids so that they'll be around when you're not to put it bluntly. And so, until you see them do something successfully or at least come through something without you, you don't have any proof that your grand experiment has worked or is going to work.

I worked a lot of parents where it was a television show called “World Worst Mom,” which nobody's seen where I would sit with parents who were extremely, extremely overprotective and anxious while I sent the kid out to get milk, or to climb a tree, or to ride his bike around the neighborhood or whatever. And, the neat thing is that when the kid came back, the parent would be so excited and so thrilled. At first, I thought they were just happy because the kid hadn't died. I really thought that that was okay. So, he lived because he went to Target, he got a pillow and he came back and he's alive. But now, I think it's because they realize like, “This is my budding young blossoming young adult.” And, it feels existentially right and I can't tell you that. I mean, I can tell you that, but it doesn't change you. The only thing that changes you is you seeing your beloved child do something without you and then come back. Even when your kid is young and they go have dinner at a friend's house and then the friend's mother calls and says, “Oh, it's so nice that Benny put his plate in the sink. What a polite young man.” You think, “Benny put his plate in the sink?” He never does that here. But, it's when you start seeing who your kid is in the real world, you get this feedback loop. But, unfortunately, the loop only begins with this difficult thing, which is why Let Grow, which grew out of Free-Range Kids. Free-range kids everybody agreed with me and listened to my lectures and thought I was great and bought the book and then things weren't changing.

And so, Let Grow is devoted to making behavior change. And, one of our big initiatives and everything we do is free, so I'm not selling anything, is to have schools do the Let Grow project, which you can download. And, it just has kids bring home this homework assignment that says, “Mom it says I have to go home and do something new on my own without my parents.” “What?” “Yeah, I got to do this for school.” “Oh, well, what are you going to do?” It's like, “Well, I want to walk to Cindy's house.” “Well, that's too far.” “Well, can I walk to Jenny's house?” “Okay.” So, the parents and the kids discuss this, but because everybody else in the class is doing it which means all the other parents are letting go, you've taken out the weirdness and the how-dare-that mom-ness. And so, the kids go and do something and they can do it together with a friend, they can do it by themselves, they can run an errand, walk the dog, do anything, go get a slice of pizza here in New York. And, when they come home, then the feedback loop begins. I'm so proud, I'm so happy. “Mom, can I do that again? It was so fun.” “Sure. What do you want to do next time?”

And, I've talked to so many parents where the first time, it's terrifying, and the second time, it's weird, and the third time, it's like, “Oh, you're going? Okay. Could you also pick me up a carton of milk or whatever?” So, I was going to say Marlboros, but that's from another era.

Anyways, so action breaks the cycle. And, until you take action, you can't break the cycle.

Ben:  Yeah. I think that's a good point like part of it is understanding that statistics despite perhaps indicating to us that the world is a much more dangerous place to be, really, it's not, there's just more reporting about the dangers. And, media is of course in our faces a lot more than it used to be. And then, in addition to, as a parent understanding that, I think that a big part of it is what you've just explained. You have to at some point just go do that scary thing one time. Even for me, like let's look at this from a fitness standpoint, the first time I raced in a triathlon in the ocean, I was like, “I'm going to get eaten by a shark. I'm going to get eaten by a shark. I know I'm going to get eaten by a shark. I'm not even going to be getting to the bike ride because I'm going to be inside of a shark's tummy.” And, I got through the swim, I was out there in the open water like maybe 45 minutes, came out, it was safe. I kind of just had to do it because the starting gun went off and everybody left and I didn't want to be the odd man out standing on the beach. So, I just did it. There was zero mental block whatsoever after that. After I did it once, I realized, “Oh, the ocean is not a big dark scary place full of sharks, it's a fun place to swim.” But, it took doing it once which was super uncomfortable. Yeah. I mean, granted there are sharks out there but they're not running around eating triathletes at least not last time I checked.

So, I would love to shift focus here for just a little bit into some practical tips, whether people whose stories that you've been able to experience through Let Grow or Free-Range things you've implemented with your own son or had implemented with Izzy, or ways that parents can literally just start to defy the status quo and in their household or at their school develop free-range kids. You have any practical tips?

Lenore:  Yeah. Like I said, we're totally devoted to action and not just pondering or thumb-sucking. So, as you heard, I put in a word first of all for the Let Grow project. And, it's Let Grow not let go. Everybody thinks it's Let Go, it's L-E-T G-R-O-W, Let Grow, which is actually sometimes we've heard of parents telling their kids, “It's time to go out, let grow.” They let them do things. Or, the kids whine to the parents, “Mom, I want to go out, let grow.” So, we're hoping that someday it's a catchphrase.

So, the project is really good because our whole goal is to make it easy, normal, and legal to give kids some independence. So, the easy part is if the school is telling you you have to, that's really easy. You don't have a choice. And then, normal is the other parents are doing the same thing.

So, aside from the Let Grow project, we also recommend that schools do something I was talking about a little earlier, the Let Grow Play Club. And, I know we're obsessively putting our name on it. Just think about the idea, it doesn't matter people call it this. So, what's been going out of kids' lives for the last couple of generations is something that you alluded to earlier, which is like creative free play or just free play. When you get together with a bunch of kids and they're all different ages and you're trying to figure out what to do and somebody says, let's play tag or you have to decide the teams or whatever.

So, with free play as opposed to an adult-organized activity like soccer, or lacrosse, or whatever, a lot of things are going on. Kids are figuring out what they want to do. They're making it happen. If there's older kids with younger kids and they're playing ball while the older kid will generally throw the ball a little more gently to the young kid–actually, I talked to one guy who I remembered when he was a kid like around 15 years old playing soccer with these little kids, the kid would hit a ball and he was the goalie and he'd go like, “Oh, oh” as if he was hit so hard by so much force. And, the 4-year-old would be like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” And, it was fun for the older kid to see how happy he could make the younger kid. And, of course, that's the beginnings of empathy and leadership. And, the younger kid doesn't want to look like a baby to these gods who are in the double digits. And so, instead of having a tantrum, if they miss a goal or it's not their turn anymore, they hold themselves together so that they can look like they're big kids. And, that's the beginning of executive function. And, these things happen automatically when kids are playing together and there's nobody organizing their game except them and there's nobody solving their spats except them.

So, how do you get that to happen considering so many activities are run by adults now? And, the way you get it to happen is by sort of setting aside a time, almost like there's a wildlife preserve where the animals are still living their old-fashioned lives. This is like a child life preserve. You save some time in the morning or before school or after school for the school to stay open for mixed stage, no devices, no electronics, loose parts, balls, jump ropes, chalk, cardboard boxes, free play. And then, there's an adult there just like a lifeguard. If something goes really wrong, okay. But otherwise, they're not solving the arguments, they're not suggesting a game, they're not making the teams, it's all up to the kids. And, this is having so little free play time in kids' lives is a crime. It's like taking all the wheat germ out of bread and saying, “Here's perfect white bread, just live on this, kids.” And, you realize like, “Wait, that was wrong. We took out all the nutrients. We made things so safe and so pure and so soft that we actually deprived kids of something they need.” If you go to Let Grow and you click on Play Club or you click on School Programs, how to run one, our little implementation guide is there, but it's pretty obvious. You give them some free time, free space, and an adult who's not going to get involved, and then you just watch these kids blossom like little sunflowers because finally they're back in the soil they were meant to be in, which is free play.

Ben:  Yeah, yeah. It's kind of funny that you brought up the food too because it's almost like that similar mentality. And, it's interesting, the research that's been done on feeding your baby extremely processed, or blended, or pureed, or mashed food all the time as well as your toddler, they actually develop a weaker jaw, a weaker airway, more sleep apnea into their early teenage years, which was unheard of before because they don't develop strong teeth, and jaw, and bone density in the face. And so, you get like this recessed jaw a need for braces, dental decay. And, part of it is just because in the same way that we're parenting softly, we're feeding our kids softly. And, it's just a perfect almost biological example of what happens when you coddle your kid, in this case, your kid's mouth, too much.

Now, I think that the idea that you had of having your kid ride home on the subway was really interesting. But, one other thing that I think is because nature in the outdoors is obviously great because it's so unpredictable and a kid has to learn how to deal with snow, and mud, and rain, and trees, and sticks, and rocks, and none of this, the special bright yellow spongy material on the playground floor that you alluded to earlier. But, like, for example, sometimes we'll go on a hike and the kids find their way back to the parking lot using a trail that's different than the trail that mom and dad is taking. And again, if you're a parent and you're like, I could not deal with that. Trust me, when Jessa and I are hiking back 3 miles to the car and our kids are on a different trail, the main thing going on in the back of our heads is “I hope they're okay. I hope they're okay. I hope they're okay. What if they get kidnapped? I hope they're okay. There might be a bear. There might be a cougar.” But, you know what, it's life and it's better than having weak kids. It's better than not being able to send some free-thinking creative resilient adults into the world.

Yeah, yeah. So, in terms of the other part of this that we kind of started talking about early on in this conversation, this whole idea of a rite of passage, is that something that you guys do at all or write about at all or have researched at all in Let Grow or via your Free-Range Kids website? Like, anything regarding how kids used to have some type of remarkable or ceremonial recognition of them becoming responsible young adults and maybe even doing something hard as part of that?

Lenore:  That's interesting. We haven't. And, I think it's a really good idea because it will resonate with a lot of people because people, they're cognizant of the idea of a rite of passage and there aren't a lot of them. People think it's the rite of passage. Oh, now you're going to middle school or something. That's just sort of going with a lot of kids to something that isn't that, whatever. It's a challenge of another sort. Let's just put it that way.

So, I love the idea of a rite of passage. I was talking to a guy in California who had started in middle school and ran it for 10 years. And, he had a list of cool things that kids could do to feel older. And, I loved one of them so much that I want to take it for my own. And so, here it is, and you can take it too, which is go someplace you stick out. I love that.

What is a rite of passage? You're going from something that is comfortable where you fit to a new level, to a new world, maybe the world of adulthood. And so, going someplace where you stick out is requires leaving your comfort zone, being the thing that is hardest to be, which is embarrassed, and obvious, and knowing that people are looking at you and thinking about you and maybe talking about you, all that stuff that's so painful, and surviving it. And, the example he gave of a kid who had done that from his middle school was a boy who went to the Y, and he was at his swimming lesson, fine. And then, his lesson ended and he stayed in the pool for the next group, which was the senior citizen swimming class. And, you're going to stand out if you're a 13-year-old among the retirees. And, it was great. “What are you doing here?” “Who are you?” “Oh, that's great, you can swim with us.”

And, it's so freeing when you realize, okay, I'm someplace new and I'm a little embarrassed. I'm a little awkward. I'm the one who doesn't know what's going on. Everybody else does because it's their place. And, it feels great. And, I have to say, “Here I am. Old as I am. I started exercising only recently. Ben, you should forgive me. But, it was COVID. And, I lived sort of near a Chinatown here in New York City in Elmhurst, New York. And, I went to the park and I saw these ladies exercising and they looked old enough and slow enough that I could join them, and I did. And, this became my new place. And, it's me and the Chinese teacher and a bunch of ladies in vails from Bangladesh. And, boy, do I not fit in. And, boy, do I fit in now. I mean, it was my rite of passage. And, I'm so grateful, I don't know, for trying something new and not being so bored with my life.

Ben:  It'd probably be incomplete on this show to not mention the fact that there are some child protective services juvenile court issues here. I'm familiar with something called “neglect laws.” Is that something we need to be careful about as we go down this road of like, I don't know, letting our children walk home from school by themselves? Can we get in trouble? How can you find out what you can and cannot get away with in your state?

Lenore:   Well, what a perfect segue. If you go to Let Grow, remember L-E-T-G-R-O-W.org and you click on Laws and Advocacy, I think is the name of the tab, and then you click on Maps or State Laws, you can look up your state laws right there. It's really easy. The laws are generally very vague. And so, even though you can look them up, it really won't give you much guidance. And, in a way, that's good because it doesn't say, “No child under 9 shall be walking alone,” but it also leaves everything sort of a little ambiguous.

And so, one of the things that Let Grow was working on and has been for a couple years is getting states to narrow their neglect laws, to say specifically that if a parent is letting a kid do something independently, unless that parent is putting the child in obvious likely and serious danger, then nobody can say anything. So, that means that if somebody calls and says, “I see a child outside,” Child Protective Services can say, “Well, do they have clothing on?” “Yes.” “Are they screaming and crying? Do they look like they're covered with bruises?” “No, no, no, no, no.” “Okay. Well, thank you very much.” And, click so it doesn't go any further than that. And, I have to say we passed the law in Oklahoma, Utah, and Texas so far. It's one vote away in Colorado. Anyway, so the point is work on these laws with us. We have about six states that are going to pass these laws hopefully very soon. So, you can work on those with us. Right now–

Ben:  Yeah. I'm looking at this on my phone right now. A reasonable child independence law. The states are “allowing.” Look at Oklahoma here, you actually are allowed to travel to and from school including by walking, running, or bicycling to travel to and from nearby commercial recreational facilities, engage in outdoor play, remain at home unattended for a reasonable amount of time, remain in a vehicle if the temperature inside the vehicle is not or will not become dangerously hot or cold, and engage in similar activities alone or with other children.

Part of me is like, “Great, we're allowed to do that.” And then, part of me is like, “Wait, we had to pass special laws that we wouldn't get in trouble if our kid does want to ride their bike 2 miles down the road to school?” You could actually get your kid taken away from you or get into trouble for something like that. To me, that's just ridiculous.

Lenore:  It is ridiculous. That's why we're trying to change them. I mean, there is a sense of a frontery here that I share. It's like, “How dare the government tell me what makes sense for me and raising my kids. You think I don't love them way more than you and know them way better than you?” And so, that's what the law is. That's why we're trying to change the laws. But, the fear of getting your children taken away is usually unwarranted. The worst thing you might have is like to take a parenting class or something like that. And also, it's very rare that even that happens, but we don't want parents to have to second-guess themselves because they're worried about the cop like I'm guilty of this, I publicize almost every case I hear of because I can't believe that anybody would have to be investigated for letting their kid walk outside or play outside. But generally, those are very rare. It's sort of like, I'm the Nancy Grace of that. She's the Nancy Grace of kidnapping, and I'm the Nancy Grace of parent investigated for letting child walk to school. But generally, you're not going to get in trouble. And, especially if you try to change the laws in your state or even try to get your neighbors together and discuss like, “We believe in this, right?” And so, you're supporting each other and you're not going to say, “I saw a child outside, how come?”

And, also on our site, there's the Let Grow Kid Card that kids can carry with them that say I'm not lost or neglected, I'm a Let Grow kid. If you don't believe me, call my lawyer. No, it says call my mom or dad. And, there's a place where you can call the number and just make sure that the parents know the kid is outside and that they've taught him how to cross the street, et cetera.

Ben:  When you actually look at what happens to a kid's brain and the actual evidence, and I'll link in the shownotes. So, I'll put the shownotes at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/FreeRange, BenGreenfieldFitness.com/FreeRange.

In terms of what happens as far as emotional reactions and physical capabilities, and coping skills, and even changes in the way that the amygdala, the stress center in the brain is hardwired when kids do things like play on high objects or play speedily like riding a bike fast down the hill, or playing with like tools or loose parts, or rough and tumble play where they're getting scraped or play where they might disappear or get lost like literally like hide and go seek, or getting lost in the forest. The way that kids' brains respond to this in terms of their emotional, and mental health, and their physical health, it's profound. It's actually pretty crazy how we can develop little like, I don't know if you've watched that movie, “WALL-E” where everybody's just rolling around Slurpees on an electronic wheelchair.

Lenore:  Yes.

Ben:  It's like, you could have that kid or you could have the kid who's, I suppose, the antithesis of that. I don't know, loincloth running around the forest throwing a spear or something. I don't know about you. But, even though it's kind of weird, kind of dangerous, kind of edgy, kind of non-status quo, I'd rather have the latter kid than the former.

Lenore:  Well, I think you do.

Ben:  Yeah, yeah.

Lenore:  You got two of them. They're twins, right?

Ben:  Well, I know about the loincloths but they still wear their T-shirts backwards.

Lenore:  That might be against the law, right?

Ben:  Yeah. Well, look, I know that there the website Free-Range Kids and then there's the website letgrow.org.

Lenore:  Right.

Ben:  And, I will link to those in the shownotes. And, if I could let people know, Lenore has a book called “Free-Range Kids.” And, I read it, I thought it was really good. There's another guy named Peter Gray who has a really good book called “Free to Learn,” which I also think is really good. There's a book called “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt also really good. And, there's actually a few other books. And, I'm going to link to some of the better ones in the shownotes because when I made a decision to unschool my kids five years ago, I read all these books. So, I have a whole list of them. I'll put them in the shownotes for people at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/FreeRange. And, I'll also link to some of the other podcasts that I've done on unschooling and kind of a more free and independent education.

Lenore, thank you so much for being America's Worst Mom, for coming on the show.

Lenore:  Thank you for being America's Fittest Dad if that's what you are. But, this was really fun. And, people can always drop me a line, [email protected]. Happy to answer questions.

Ben:  Awesome, cool. [email protected]. Okay, folks. I'll put everything at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/FreeRange, until next time. I'm Ben Greenfield along Lenore crazy Skenazy signing out from BenGreenfieldLife.com. Have an amazing week. 

So, there's two events coming up. You can go to both of them. I'm going to go to both of them. Obviously, I'm going to fly to Texas, then fly over to Lexington. The Texas event called RUNGA is October 13th through the 15th. The Wild Health One is October 22nd. Go to both. I am obviously.

You can also check BenGreenfieldLife.com/Calendar for all of the events that I'll be teaching at this year. So, I hope to see you there.

More than ever these days, people like you and me need a fresh entertaining, well-informed, and often outside-the-box approach to discovering the health, and happiness, and hope that we all crave. So, I hope I've been able to do that for you on this episode today. And, if you liked it or if you love what I'm up to, then please leave me a review on your preferred podcast listening channel wherever that might be and just find the Ben Greenfield Life episode. Say something nice. Thanks so much. It means a lot. 

Lenore Skenazy is known by the nickname “America’s Worst Mom.”

And yet I'm featuring her as one of several amazing parenting experts in my upcoming Boundless Parenting book.

Hear me out here…

Lenore has an interesting story. She graduated from Yale in 1981, and earned her master’s degree from Columbia University in 1983. A speaker, blogger, syndicated columnist, and reality show host, Lenore has been featured by national media outlets, including NPR, the New York Daily News, Good Morning America, and NBC News. Until 2008, Lenore was a regular columnist for the New York Sun. Her controversial piece in that publication, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone,” received worldwide news coverage and earned her that “Worst Mom” nickname.

However, the column also led to the founding of a blog called Free-Range Kids, which is “fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.” A bestselling book that followed, also called Free-Range Kids, kicked off a movement that promotes childhood independence and resilience as the path for children to grow into capable, confident, and happy adults. Lenore serves as the president of Let Grow, the non-profit organization behind Free-Range Kids.

On her television show World's Worst Mom, Lenore trains overprotective parents to give their children more independence and confidence. Lenore Skenazy believes that the concept of helicopter parenting, excessive and often unnecessary worry about safety, and lack of creative and slightly dangerous free play are hampering the health and growth of children.

During our discussion, which is part of the Boundless Parenting book interview series, you'll discover:

Why Lenore Skenazy became known as “America's Worst Mom“…4:57

  • Her youngest child, 9 years old at that time, wanted to ride the subway by himself (he's now 23)
  • It is key for parents to trust their children
  • Wrote an article on the experience, picked up by The Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR
  • Made it her life's work to figure out why we don't allow kids to be independent today

-What was going through your head knowing your son hadn't ridden the subway before?…07:13

  • Not intended to be a “rite of passage”
  • Free-Range Kids website
  • Our kids are safer and smarter than we give them credit for
  • Let Grow
  • It's not that we don't care about safety – there are still seatbelts and helmets
  • Kids don't need a security detail anytime they leave the house
  • Kids growing up in the 90s were safer than kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s
  • It's not that crime was off the charts; it's the fear that had grown

-Where did the idea come from that kids are not safe? How did fear in parents shift disproportionately to the actual risk kids face?… 11:11

  • The media did not focus on predators and kidnappings until the 80s
  • High-profile kidnappings of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh in the late 70s and early 80s
  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children started putting pictures of missing children on milk cartons
  • Neglected to mention that those children were not taken by strangers; they were runaways or taken in custodial disputes between parents
  • Estimates of stolen children are highly inaccurate (testimony in front of Congress claimed 50,000 children are stolen every year, but it was just around 100, which is still horrible)
  • The most awful stories are the easiest to remember

-How much has the fear-driven media contributed to the litigious society in which we live?… 14:55

  • You begin thinking like a lawyer in a litigious society
  • To frame everything in what could go wrong and what we could be blamed for is a new way of looking at life
  • Products for children keep getting recalled
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission recall list
  • Once you start looking for danger, you see it everywhere
  • A litigious society warps our view of reality
  • The Overprotected Kid – an article on playgrounds in The Atlantic
  • A playground is a perfect example of a soft culture
  • Russian army vs. American army recruiting videos
  • Fear and dishonor around death
  • Learning from and honoring injury and death should be a portal to becoming a better person
  • We deny injury and death as a culture
  • Germany is building playgrounds 3 stories high; the irregular steps, etc. encourage kids to pay closer attention to their surroundings and learn from what they are doing

-The Hygiene Hypothesis and why we would do well to allow our children to fail… 23:48

-Rites of passage and how should parents deal with kids so far away from home?…31:57

-Tips on defying the status quo and raising free-range kids… 38:07

  • The goal of Let Grow is to make it easy, normal, and legal to give kids some independence
  • Let Grow Play Club
  • Free-Range Kids
  • Free play allows kids to define what they want to do as opposed to adult-organized activities like soccer
  • Older kids had fun yukking it up with younger kids, and seeing how it made the younger kids happy is the  beginning of empathy and leadership in the older kids
  • Younger kids don't want to look like babies to the older kids
  • Younger kids start to hold themselves together so that they can look like big kids – the beginnings of executive function
  • “Childlife preserve” similar to a wildlife preserve
  • Taking free play time away is detrimental to kids
  • It's better to be a little worried than to raise weak children

-Is there a sort of rite of passage in Let Grow or Free-Range Kids?…45:36

  • Kids going someplace where you stick out
  • Leaving your comfort zone and surviving in it

-Navigating modern legal matters with a desire to raise independent children… 48:43

-And much more…

Resources from this episode:

– Lenore Skenazy:

– Podcast:

– Books:

– Other Resouces:

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