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Free-Range Kids guru and blogger Lenore Skenazy speaks to parents at Beverley Acres Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., May 16, 2011. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Free-Range Kids guru and blogger Lenore Skenazy speaks to parents at Beverley Acres Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., May 16, 2011. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Controversial Free-Range Kids blogger hits reality TV Add to ...

In person, I don't immediately recognize Lenore Skenazy, the woman famous for the "Free-Range Kids" movement she spawned after leaving her nine-year-old son in Bloomingdales to make his way home on the New York subway system alone.

The headshot anchoring her popular blog shows a regular mom, with messy hair and glasses. But tonight, she's looking so well rested and expertly made up, I momentarily confuse her with one of her younger handlers.

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Then again, I'm meeting her moments before she steps in front of reality-TV cameras.

A Canadian production company has tapped Ms. Skenazy to host her own show, called Free-Range Parents. It ain't Oprah - actually, it's the Beverley Acres Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., where she's speaking to a gym full of parents - but it's a significant step for one of the most controversial parenting voices on the North American scene today. And, for the record, she's okay with the makeover.

"You have to get used to it," she tells me later. " I always thought that looks don't matter, that the message mattered. … But you have to look better than you would normally."

It all started with a flurry of media attention the day after she wrote about her son Izzy's subway ride in a newspaper column in 2008. A request to appear on the Today show the next morning led to others from Fox to NPR and international requests from China to Australia.

She created her blog that weekend, she says, as a way to organize her thoughts - and anointed them with a catchphrase that pokes fun at a culture that frets about the freedom we give to chickens while constricting the freedom of children.

It all struck a nerve, both with people who dubbed her "America's Worst Mom" for endangering her son (who made it home safely) and those who were also mourning the loss of simple childhood pleasures: the freedom to walk to school, to play without a parent hovering nearby.

"It's that vibration between 'Oh my God, I loved my childhood' and 'I could never give my kid that childhood,' " she says.

The blog grew in to a book, published in 2009, and now a movement. (Yes, Free-Range Kids is also trademarked.) She's become a hot speaker on the lecture circuit, delivering about 20 lectures a year and appearing everywhere from The View to Dr. Phil as a talking head. She also spurs the occasional call to action. Saturday, for instance, is Ms. Skenazy's second annual Take Our Children to the Park … And Leave Them There Day. (And she means kids 7 or older.)

But she's still dumbfounded by the career that has come out of that single column.

"You think it's just another column that's due. Thank god I didn't know."

Along the way, Ms. Skenazy has identified the forces she blames for changing the rules of parenting, from sensational media tales of child abductions to the rise of parenting experts. ("Except me!" she jokes during her speech.)

Indeed, the widening of the field of so-called parenting experts - once dominated by pediatricians such as Dr. Spock and Dr. Sears - to include moms who opine based on personal experience has given Ms. Skenazy a boost. Today, being named "Most Controversial" blogger by parenting hub Babble.com two years running is a legitimate calling card.

As she teeters on the cusp of a bigger kind of fame, Ms. Skenazy's mission itself remains a work-in-progress. Even her speech tonight is getting last-minute edits as she stands off to the side of the audience. No one mobs her there. Maybe they don't recognize her either.

Once she takes the podium, the petite brunette in skinny jeans unleashes a loud, brash performance that is part polemic, part stand-up. She blends stories from her book with newer material gleaned from like-minded blog readers.

There are Boy Scouts who have to whittle with potato peelers instead of actual knives. Girl Scouts who have to roast marshmallow with one knee on the ground so that they don't fall into the fire.

In a bit she does about how we now describe going to and from school as "drop-off" and "pick-up," she acts out a particularly extreme case, in which a row of idling cars outside a school is serviced by a staff member with a walkie-talkie. Children are beckoned and nervously rushed one by one from a secure location inside the school.

"It's like the fall of Saigon!" she screams.

The camera man has his work cut out following her. But other than makeup and hair, this is 100 per cent her own shtick. In each of the show's episodes, she'll bring it to a family in New York or Toronto and try to inspire them to loosen up.

"You don't need to coach her," says the show's co-executive producer, Susan Crook, of the Cineflix production company, which is planning to shoot all summer and air the series on Slice and TLC International.

"The show is built around her great personality. It's all there - it's direct and heartfelt."

Still, Ms. Skenazy admits that the TV turn makes her "really nervous. …

"But as my husband said to me, you can write a million columns, but people watch TV."

Still, with only one episode in the can, it remains to be seen whether she'll be able to win over parents who sign on for the show. Tonight's talk - which included many dubious audience members - may have been good practice.A particularly tense moment occurred when one mom stood up to tell Ms. Skenazy that she had recently allowed her son to ride his bike to the park and back. When his bike broke down, a man helped him fix it. And patted his butt while saying goodbye.

"She's convinced this is proof that there is a pervert in the neighbourhood who's interested in her son," Ms. Skenazy said the next day. "And I think it's proof that when life throws you a curveball, oftentimes strangers help."

While Ms. Skenazy admits that she spent the rest of the night mulling over the exchange, it was a helpful reminder that "there's work to be done. …

"I also think, 'How will I use that story in my next lecture?' "

Follow on Twitter: @traleepearce

 

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