I am by no means a “free-range” parent, but I’m not much of a helicopter parent either. I fall somewhere in between. I’m practical and wary of danger, but I also tend to go with my gut when it comes to parenting decisions, and I try to give as few fucks as possible about what anyone else thinks.
Of course, there are limits to my “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, and that was glaringly obvious to me today when I left my 5-year-old home alone for a handful of minutes while I walked his older brother to school.
Now, before you jump to conclusions about my decision, let me explain exactly how I came to it. My 5-year-old was home sick with a really bad cough. He was sitting there, miserably hunched over his iPad, watching a video. Already, my 11-year-old was late to school. Oh, and it was 30 degrees and windy outside, a pretty terrible environment for a little one with a hacking cough.
My kids’ school is on our street, but you have to cross a busy intersection to get to the school, so although my older son can basically walk to school by himself, I hate having him go alone in the morning because of the assholes who careen through that intersection as though they aren’t in a freaking school zone.
So my dilemma was that I didn’t want to bring my coughing 5-year-old into the freezing cold just for the 5-10 minutes it would take to see my older kid to school. At first, leaving my 5-year-old home alone did not even occur to me as an option. Five sounds terribly young, doesn’t it? It did to me. And I, of course, had never left him home alone, except to check the mail, empty the trash, or get something out of the car.
But then I realized something. Going out of the house for a few minutes to do something like empty the trash was perfectly fine, because I was right there, with the house in view, and would be right back. It’s also how I justify letting my 5-year-old play by himself on our patio. We may not be in the same exact location, but we are in eye-view, and I can get to him in a second if needed.
I realized that walking down the block to take my older son to school was just a degree farther than that. I would be back in literally minutes, and I’d be able to see the house as I walked. Also, my tech-savvy, already reading-and-writing 5-year-old already knows how to text me from his iPad. We do it all the time, and I knew he would get in touch if anything went wrong.
Every single part of the plan made total sense to me and I had zero fear that anything would go wrong. And yet, my gut froze as I began to tell the kids the plan. You see: I wasn’t afraid about what we were doing. I was afraid someone else might judge me for it—or worse, get me in trouble in some way for doing it.
In the 80’s, when I grew up, kids as young as five would wander around their neighborhood playing with their friends from dusk till dawn. I remember being allowed to hang out in our apartment complex at that age, riding my bike, going to various kid’s houses. It was absolutely nothing. The kids had each other’s backs, and the parents just seemed to know what was happening, and trusted that everything would be fine.
Flash-forward to 30 years later, and now parents are having CPS called on them for allowing their tweens to walk to the park alone, and others are facing charges for leaving their kids in the car for a minute while they run into a convenience store. WTF is happening?
Listen: I get that there is value in being more cautious. I get that not all parents are as conscientious as others, and not all kids are as ready to be on their own as others. Some parents are downright negligent. But the truly negligent parents are a very small minority. And it’s not okay that level-headed, smart, caring parents have to feel so scrutinized by every damn decision they make. It’s agonizing and unfair, and it stifles us and our children.
Also, I think we have to understand that every situation and circumstance is different, and each has its own nuances. Every child is different as well, and what might work for one child at a particular time might not work for another. But the point is that we can’t all generalize about these situations, and we have to allow good parents to do what they believe is right for any given situation.
In the end, I did leave my 5-year-old home alone (GASP!) for a total of seven minutes (I timed it) while I walked his big brother to school. I made sure that his iPad was set up for texting, and I gave him a big lecture about how he wasn’t to open the door for anyone, even if they said they were me or that I’d told them to do so. I walked his brother to the intersection, looking back at our house every two seconds as we walked. After I watched him cross the street safely, I ran back home, where I found my little guy, coughing and sniffling, still glued to his iPad where I left him.
I knew nothing would go wrong, and I felt confident that it was a good, clear, smart decision. But I had to swear both of my kids to secrecy that they wouldn’t tell any other adults about it. And I’m pissed AF that that it what the world has come to now.
How I am supposed to raise strong, resilient children when I can’t allow them to experiment with independence and grit at appropriate ages? How am I supposed to feel confident as a parent when it seems like everything I do is under a microscope and I will be judged (or worse) for the sensible, thoughtful decisions I should be allowed to make?
I don’t have all the answers, but I’m not going to let that stop me from doing what is right, evaluating each situation for what it is, and making judgment calls based on what I think is sensible. And I think all good parents should be given permission to do the same.