We needed many, many things at Target. My list still included stain remover, a large bag of tortilla chips, grape jelly, and some day-glo cereal made with high fructose corn syrup and 1950s food science. My kids had already selected electric Baby Yoda toothbrushes. They’d picked their favorite unicorn sparkle toothpaste. We’d searched for #63 HP printer ink. My youngest clung to our cart’s side as we held our breath through the detergent aisles and I cursed about Spot-Shot. Their eye-rolling and muttering said they were done with my shopping agenda. So I told them to go look at LEGOs. They disappeared. I’d left my kids alone in Target.
I’d left my kids alone in Target and trusted them to walk unharmed across the store.
Someone call social services. I am clearly both incompetent and lazy.
Even worse, I do this all the time.
Never mind that my sons are 11, 10, and 8 years old. Never mind that on average, less than 350 kids a year are abducted by strangers in the United States, and these abductions generally take place as a child goes to or leaves school. There’s still massive stigma in leaving kids of their age alone in a public place while I continue my fruitless search for printer ink in peace.
These kids aren’t running up and down aisles. They aren’t pawing merchandise, shouting, fighting, or shoplifting. When I find them, they’re generally standing around like old men on a corner. But every time I send them wandering alone in Target, I have to warn them: “If anyone asks where I am, tell them in a firm voice that your mama said you’re allowed to be alone. If they ask if you’re lost, tell them no. If they tell you to come to customer service so they can page me, tell them no. If they keep it up, tell them they are harassing you. You have a right to be wherever you want in this store as long as you’re well-behaved.”
I do not say: “Don’t talk to strangers. Yell if someone grabs you.” No strangers are going to grab them. I don’t worry about child abduction.
I worry about so-called Good Samaritans. When I leave my kids alone in Target, I worry about you.
I worry that some nosy busy body will see them standing around unsupervised in the toy aisle, glance around for a parent, and ask, “Where’s your mother?” followed by a flip out. This isn’t an idle fear. It’s happened before.
This time, though, when I finished shopping and didn’t see my sons in the toy aisles, my heart hit my throat. Someone had harassed them. I’d left them alone in Target and some nosy do-gooder had dragged them to customer service. I raced to the book section. Maybe they were looking for the newest Dogman. No kids. Panic dropped down.
I went back to the toy aisles and called their names again. Hands in their pockets, they stood talking about Marvel LEGO. I’d just … missed them. They must have walked behind an aisle at just the right moment. I sighed heavily. My kids were okay. I was okay.
My fear isn’t unfounded. In 2017, a woman in New York was arrested for leaving her 10-year-old alone in the LEGO Store for two hours while she shopped elsewhere in the mall. Yes, two hours is excessive is different than what I was doing. But police said, “The child did not know where in the mall Mom was and had no way to get in touch with her.” It’s not like spell out exactly where I’ll be in Target at any given minute and leave my kids with a phone. The same article quotes the New York Office of Child and Family Services as saying, “Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age.”
My kids deserve independence. At their ages, they shouldn’t stand around while I compare prices. So I tell them to look at LEGOs. Or books. Or Nintendo games. Last I checked, they didn’t make child leashes in a boy’s size 10. So I left my kids alone in Target. They survived. They continue to survive this ordeal every time I go to Target.
Luckily, no one’s called the police. I shouldn’t have to worry about that. But the world has changed. It’s not like it was when we were kids. People are different.
They aren’t more likely to abduct kids, but they’re more likely to call the cops on their parents.