As a child, summertime meant freedom.
I was free to walk half a mile to the pool with my cousins. We also walked to the grocery store for snacks and headed to a park, the blistering Houston heat melting the tar on the roads. We rode bikes or just wandered around the neighborhood, making up games with whichever other children turned up outside.
Our parents worried about plenty of things, but they didn’t worry that we would be abducted off our suburban streets in broad daylight. They never imagined that they might end up jailed for letting us roam the neighborhood during the day.
An idea that seemed ludicrous 30 years ago has become a parenting reality.
In December, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Silver Springs, Md., let their 10- and 6-year-old children walk a mile home from the park. They then faced a child services investigation, which found them responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” last month.
Last summer, a South Carolina mother who worked at McDonald’s while her 9-year-old played in a nearby park was arrested for child neglect.
Shortly prior, Kim Brooks published a haunting story about the time she left her 4-year-old son in the car for a few minutes while she ran into the store, then found herself fighting charges of endangering her child.
“Parents used to worry that every unsupervised moment will lead to kidnapping. Now, parents worry that every unsupervised moment will lead to their arrest. Everyone is afraid of being arrested,” said Lenore Skenazy, author, creator of the Free Range Kids project, and outspoken advocate for giving kids the freedom to develop critical life skills.
“No one in the history of the world was expected to spend every single second of their lives with their child. Why do we think that today?” she asked.
While crime rates are lower now than the ’70s and ’80s, the news and stories about crimes against children are broadcast to such an extent that we have internalized these irrational fears.
Perhaps that explains last year’s Reason-Rupe national poll, in which 68 percent of Americans believe the law should require children 9 years old and younger to be supervised while playing in public parks. Astonishingly, 43 percent say that even 12-year-olds should be required, by law, to be supervised in public parks. The age at which children should be allowed to stay at home? In this survey, it was 13. The age at which children should walk to school unsupervised or wait alone in the car for five minutes on a cool day? Twelve.
I asked a few 9- and 10-year-olds what ages they thought they should be left home alone. Their answers mimicked the answers most people gave in this poll: 13 or 14. Children tend to believe what their parents believe about them and the risks around them.
Of course, no law can accurately determine when a child is mature enough to stay home alone, sit in a car unattended or walk home from school. About half the states have either laws or guidelines about the age at which a child can stay home alone or be in a car unsupervised. The wide range of acceptable ages shows just how arbitrary and subjective this is.
In Missouri, there is no law dictating how old a child must be to stay home alone. In its neighboring state to the west, the Kansas Department for Children and Families suggests children 6 to 9 years should be left for only short periods, depending on their level of maturity, while children 10 and older probably can be left for somewhat longer periods.
Missouri’s eastern border state, however, would take a dim view of the lax parenting standards in Kansas. In Illinois, it’s a crime for “any minor under the age of 14 whose parents or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor.”
It’s determined on a case-by-case basis what is considered “unreasonable.”
Skenazy describes the law in Illinois as “cruel and insulting to 14-year-olds.”
It’s also insulting to parents.
Parents who love and want to protect their children will not leave them alone if they haven’t taught them how to handle emergencies and know that they are capable of handling situations that may come up.
There are plenty of cases of child abuse that should be investigated before criminalizing a parent who wants to teach their child a little independence.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.