How I Ended Up on 'Today' Without Help From a Publicist

A Lesson on Being an Unplanned Viral Sensation

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Watch out -- I'm viral.

I don't really know how anyone can deliberately make this happen. But here's one gal's totally unplanned case study:
Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy

Three weeks ago I wrote a column for the New York Sun, "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take the Subway Alone." It was a cute little story about how my son had been asking me to let him find his way home from someplace by himself, so I finally I gave him a map, a MetroCard, some quarters for calls and $20 for emergencies. Then I left him at Bloomingdale's.

I didn't trail him or give him a cellphone, because it really didn't strike me as anything dangerous. Sure enough, he got home safely, end of story.

And the beginning of a media firestorm.

The night my story appeared, the "Today" show called me at home. Two days later my son and I were on the "Today" show couch -- that launch pad of all pop culture -- being interviewed by Ann Curry, who asked, straight to camera: "Is she an enlightened mom, or a really bad one?"

That's the question I've been answering ever since, on every medium known to momkind.

After "Today," we were on MSNBC. Our Fox News interview generated more e-mail than the collapse of Bear Stearns. "Why I Let My ..." became the top story on Digg. Bloggers were going wild, and my phone kept ringing from weird area codes -- Canada, it turned out. TV stations up there aired me as a disembodied voice, so desperate were they for this story.

Back home, I was on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," where a caller wondered why I chose to give my son one day of fun that would probably end in death instead of letting him grow up to enjoy a normal adult lifespan.

Yes, they really put that caller through.

And I'm glad! That's the kind of controversy that fueled this thing, which then became fodder for "The View" and Penn & Teller's "Bullshit" show and even my rival paper, the New York Post.

But when I got a call from the South China Morning Post, I just had to shake my head. China? This is a story in China now?

The reporter assured me that parents there are just as worried about overprotecting their children. They feel that neighborly trust is disappearing and wonder if there's a way to bring it back. "Is there?" the reporter asked. "Do you hope to start a movement?"

Uh ... yeah. Sure!

When this all broke, my husband and I quickly started a blog -- Free Range Kids (freerangekids.com) -- to give people sick of overprotecting their kids some support. Mail has been pouring in. And despite the NPR caller (and Ann Curry and Joy Behar), the vast majority of people are saying, "At last! Yes! Let's stop bubble wrapping our kids!" Some of them actually are kids. One 13-year-old wrote that her class went on a field trip, and her friend's father followed the bus "just to make sure she was safe."

That's just the kind of hypervigilance parents are getting sick of. They want freedom from fear, and their kids do too. And that's where you come in, message makers.

This does seem to be the start of a movement, but it needs some great ideas from the worlds of media and marketing. So many times the media promote parental fear ("Child abducted far away -- details at 11!"), as does the world of marketing. ("Does your toddler need a helmet while he learns to walk? Depends how you feel about traumatic brain injuries!")

Is there a way to change that message? Any way to rebrand parenting from "All worry, all the time" to "Proudly giving our kids the same freedom we had"?

I'd love to hear. Figure it out, and you, too, will have a great virus to spread.
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