Last month, my 9-year-old had a day off from school (one of those god-awful conference days). I’d dropped his little brother off at preschool; it was still early in the morning. My son was immersed in video game land, and I was itching to go out for a run.
Usually I wouldn’t even consider doing such a thing while my son was home alone. But he had been showing a more mature side for the past several months. He’d been acting responsible about chores, being kinder to his little brother, and just generally seeming to have his tween shit together.
He’s got other important kid knowledge down pat: He knows how to dial 911, not to turn on the stove or do any other dangerous stuff — and never ever to open the door to a stranger. Our iPad is hooked up to text my phone, and my son knows how to do that. We live in a duplex, and our upstairs neighbors were home, as were our neighbors next door, all of whom know us.
So I went for it. I told my son I’d be out for 20 minutes on the dot. We went over emergency plans. I told him my route, that I was going to do a loop around our block, and then a few blocks over, and then back to our street. I would be within two minutes of our house at all times, and would jog past our house a few times during the run.
Typing it out now, I see even more clearly what a good plan this was — and the end of the story is that my run and my kid’s first time being left alone ended up being totally uneventful. But the worry I felt while it was happening was not fine.
I wasn’t worried about my son or his safety, not in the least. I wasn’t worried about something happening to me and not making it home to him. None of that.
I was worried about what everyone else might think.
As I was running, I felt like I had to constantly look over my shoulder. What if someone figures out that I left my son alone? Will they come after me, claiming I’ve been neglectful? Will I have to prove somehow that my son is mature enough to be left alone? Will I have to go over my whole jogging route to prove I was close enough? What if CPS gets involved? Shit, I forgot to look up the law on this…
What the hell is wrong with our world? When we were kids, our parents left us in cars while they ran into the grocery store to get a carton of milk. We were let out to play for hours and hours without any adult supervision. I remember being left alone at 9 or 10 years old, and my mother gave no thought to doing so. She was able to make the decision based on her own assessment and instincts as a mother.
We’ve lost the ability to do that these days. And it’s not just an internal pressure or social pressure: There are real consequences to taking a more freerange approach to parenting. We live in world where people have called the police on families who let their kids play right outside their own houses. Child Protection Services have been called on families who let their kids play in a fenced-in backyard within eyeshot. God forbid you run into the convenience store to pick up toilet paper while your toddler naps in your car on a cool day: there are several cases of mothers who have been arrested for this sort of thing as well.
Full disclosure: Before I sat down the write this article, I had to make sure what the laws are for leaving kids home alone in my state. Luckily, unlike some states, there is no minimum age requirement in New York for leaving a child home alone. In fact, the law states that common sense is needed for these decisions, and the age at which you can leave your child home alone depends on your child as well as the circumstances.
Thank you, New York state, for letting common sense parenting reign.
Still, having looked up the law doesn’t necessarily make me feel better. Even if I know I was in the right, the climate right now in terms of shame, judgment, and finger-pointing from both parents and non-parents is daunting — and downright frightening.
I’m going to do my best to rise above it, especially as my children get older and I face more scenarios when I will need to judge how independent they are ready to be. I will need to remember that I truly am the one who knows my children best, that I’m a good, careful, sensible mother, and that the rest of the world, frankly, can go screw themselves.
Still, I wish things were different. Safety is obviously a concern we all should have, but we also need to constantly be checking in to make sure we have not gone to the extreme with these things. Neglect happens, but more often than not, parents are doing a damn good job. And perhaps if we cut parents some slack, believed in them more, and stopped living in a culture of fear, parenting could be a more empowering and validating experience for all involved.