Monday, April 20, 2015

The legal complexities of giving kids independence

The other day, Sam, Alrik, and I wanted to head out to the playground — and Mikko didn't. Now, the playground is literally a block from our home. Mikko is 7 years old, nearly 8, and perfectly capable of amusing himself and retrieving drinks or snacks as needed in a short absence of parental supervision.

But we knew we couldn't leave him home alone, and told him as much. "But whhhyyyy?" he asked. Indeed, kiddo, why?

Because the neighbors might call the cops on us, that's why.

Instead, we had to cajole and bribe him into accompanying us. In fact, Alrik, Karsten, and I left first, and Sam followed a good forty minutes later, with new plans and relevant toys to meet up at the beach for a digging party, the activity Mikko finally agreed to.

Let me tell you a bit about my childhood in less (?) enlightened times. I walked to and from kindergarten in Alaska. My mom used to say she'd watch through the window until we disappeared into the fog. When I was 6 and living in Colorado, my mother went back to work, leaving me in my 10-year-old brother's care throughout the summer break. By the time I was 7 or 8, my best friend and I, and her brother and mine, would frequently walk as a group alone to the swimming pool. I remember wearing our towels in elaborate concoctions on our heads and pushing our bare toes into the hot, melting tar stripes on the pavement. When we got there, we swam without adults besides whatever teen lifeguards were on duty. By the time I was 8 or 9, my friend and I were going on walking or bike-riding jaunts by ourselves, visiting my dad at his office or the hospital (he was a social worker in the Army) or running errands for our moms, like picking up stamps or the newspaper. I began babysitting my little brother soon after he was born when I was 9. I had a chart to track my $1-per-hour payments. (I was surprised when I began babysitting for other families at age 11 or so and figured out they would pay me more than that.)

When I was 10, I moved to Berlin, and at 14 to upstate New York. I remember in both locations, both urban and rural, having a huge amount of freedom. In Berlin, my friends and I rode along the bike paths (they have awesome bike paths) pretty much everywhere by ourselves. We walked miles through tree-lined trails and took shortcuts without fear. My best friend and I went by ourselves to the P.X. to spend our babysitting money on ill-advised cheap cosmetics and hot-pink dangle earrings that my mother didn't want me to wear. We spent hours at the pond between our houses, building a fort within a weeping willow tree and heading home only at dusk. Through junior high, I took city buses by myself and frequently walked the nearly 2 miles home from school. When I moved to New York state, I routinely rode my bike for an hour and a half each day in a big loop through the dilapidated "old post." My mother was working then, too, so I was one of those dreaded latchkey kids — only, I didn't dread it. I appreciated the quiet of the house when I'd come home from school and have an hour or two all to myself to do something of high value, like watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and eat cookies.

This was, let it be emphasized, before the dawn of cellphones and easy access. My mom knew generally where I was and when I'd be returning but not exactly. In a pinch, I'd hopefully be able to call someone, somewhere, with our home phone or a pay phone, but this was not guaranteed, and mostly my friends and I just acknowledged we needed to fend for ourselves when we were out of adult supervision — and, so, we did.

Today I looked up when children are allowed, legally, to stay home alone in the U.S. There is a great variation by state, with most states not having a definitive law. Exceptions include some states on the low end, such as Maryland and North Carolina, which say 8, and a notable one on the high end, Illinois, that says 14. FOURTEEN. 14!!!!!!! Sorry, I just wanted to let that soak in a bit there. FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. In HIGH SCHOOL.

Ok, when I look at the actual statute, it's much more vague: "Those who are neglected include: […] any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent 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" (Illinois Compiled Statutes: Neglected or abused minor). That says "unreasonable period of time" and "without regard," so there's quite a bit of wiggle room there.

Though, as I'd like to point out, that wiggle room concerns me. So much of these choices are open to interpretation. As long as we stay on the good side of the authorities, such interpretation is in the hands of the parents or guardians. In other words, assuming there's no interference, it's up to me to decide whether Mikko, at his current age or any age in the future, is safe to stay home while we go to the park for an hour.

However, if we run afoul of the authorities, then it's up to them to decide whether we were being unreasonable. If a concerned neighbor or stranger calls the police or CPS because my child was walking to the playground alone, then it's no longer up to me to decide whether I was right to let him.

Just ask Danielle and Sasha Meitiv, who were found responsible for child neglect after letting their children, 10 and 6, walk home from the park. They're in the aforementioned Maryland, where kids can stay home by themselves as young as 8, but apparently walking a mile is too dangerous, and kids have to be 13 before they can babysit.

Ask Debra Harrell, a mother who let her 9-year-old play at a playground near the McDonald's where she worked. She'd previously had her daughter stay at the McDonald's, playing on a laptop, but when the laptop was stolen, she agreed to let her daughter go to a popular, busy playground instead. This a playground was a six-minute walk from her home, with free supervised breakfasts and lunches. Seriously, what kid wouldn't want that choice rather than to sit in a greasy-smelling booth all day? Her mother's reward for making a conscious parenting decision was 17 days in jail, temporary loss of custody, and fear of losing her job or going to prison. (It's worth noting that the Meitivs, who were not arrested and never lost custody of their children, appear to be white, and Debra Harrell is black and a single mother. Hm.)

So: In Washington state, where I live, the guidelines from the Department of Social and Health Services suggest that "children under the age of 10 should not be left on their own and babies and younger children should not be left alone even for a few minutes" and that "[m]ost authorities agree that leaving a 12-year-old alone at home for an hour or two is acceptable, but someone this age should not be responsible for other children." Meaning … I could disagree and make other choices, but, even though it says the "decision to leave a child home alone is a very personal decision that needs to be made based on parents’ feelings and experience with their own child," those choices could be severely challenged and even penalized if someone from DSHS finds out and comes to a different conclusion.

(Granted, I have the privilege that comes from being white, married, hetero, cis, middle class, etc., which privilege I do not take lightly, and which status with DSHS I wish all parents could possess. Plus, I know my rights for if someone from CPS comes a-knockin': To wit, do not let anyone in. Request, politely but firmly, that, unless they have a warrant requiring immediate entry, they call you to make an appointment. Do not let them talk to your children. Do not say much to them at all beyond taking note of what accusations or evidence they have against you. Then call a lawyer, pronto. And, not to bring further paranoia to the conversation, but since knowledge is power, you can demand that children be given into temporary care of an appropriate relative or friend rather than into the emergency foster care system.)

Can we circle back to "babies and younger children should not be left alone even for a few minutes"? Really? A few minutes? I assume this means at home alone, but … man, that sounds extreme. Do we really have to be within eyesight of our children at every minute of the day? What about at night? Should we stay up and creepily watch them sleep? Name me a parent who hasn't left a baby or young child alone for a few minutes. It's becoming ludicrous to me that there's this expectation that mothers (it's always mothers) will have their eyes on their children, even multiple children, 24/7. It's not possible, and the expectation itself is harmful for the burden it places on mothers.

In Washington state, you're also not legally allowed to leave a child under 16 (!) alone in a running parked car, but there's no particular statute about an idle one. Safe to say, even then it's strongly discouraged. I find it rather ludicrous that a 15-year-old couldn't safely sit in a locked car with the engine running, say on a wintry day as a parent runs into a drugstore or drops a sibling off at school, but ok.

Whenever I read a news story about a parent being prosecuted for leaving a child in a temperate car for a short period, I read comments from people who say they would never leave a kid in a car for any period of time for any reason. And I think, well, one or more things are going on here: Perhaps this person is not a parent, or not a parent of more than one small child, or has a garage or household help. The latter could certainly be true of many lawmakers, yes? Because where I live, and with the number of small kids I have, it's gonna happen. It just is. Here's a scenario, for instance: You come home from the grocery store. One or two of your three kids have fallen asleep in the back, and you also have three loads of groceries to bring upstairs to your apartment. You park in your parking lot and consider. Do you carry the kids up first, leaving them alone in the apartment as you go back for the groceries? Or do you bring up the groceries first, leaving the kids in the car? And if you bring the kids up first, then one or more will be screaming for you disconsolately while you go back to get the groceries, whereas if you bring the groceries up first, maybe they'll sleep through the whole thing and you can transfer them peacefully (you dreamer, you!) directly into bed. At any rate, they'll be left alone somewhere. And, yes, it would be nice if that never had to happen, but, dude, this is real life. And I'd really, really hate if a neighbor called the cops on me because I didn't have enough arms to carry all the groceries and all the babies in one trip.

I purposely avoid being the one to return the books to the library if I have the kids, because our branch doesn't have a drop-off chute that's on the side of the building near the parking, and I'm sure as heck not going to unbuckle three kids just so I can walk around a building with an armload of books and a baby, dump the books (not the baby!) into a chute, walk back around the building, and then buckle three kids back into the car. (What I wouldn't give for a drive-up chute!) But if I dare to leave the kids be while I run the books around the side for a whole heaping minute, who knows who might witness it and decide to pass judgment?

In short, it's bizarre and frustrating to me that as parents we now make decisions for our kids based not on what is safe and appropriate but on what strangers and bystanders will think is acceptable. The risk to my children sitting for several minutes in a locked car on a mild day is, statistically speaking, nil. The greater risk is my having driven them to the library or grocery store in the first place. But if, heaven forbid, we were in a car accident, no one would chide me, "You shouldn't have been driving them in the first place! Don't you know how dangerous moving vehicles are?!" No one calls CPS on parents daring to drive children around, despite the fact that car accidents are one of the leading causes of death for young people. But park the car for a second and, hoo boy, suddenly the car's a danger zone! To put this in perspective, lifetime odds of a (not necessarily fatal) motor vehicle accident are 1 in 100, but there's a 1 in 1.5 million chance a child will be abducted by a stranger.

So we won't be leaving Mikko home alone anytime soon, and he won't be babysitting at nearly as young an age as I started. In fact, I read the recommendations for when to consider leaving a child alone and actually do agree he's not ready. For instance, I'd love it if we had a phone at home he could use to call for help (that's a technical issue we have to sort out, not something he has to handle), and I want to be confident he knows our address and phone number as well as 911 (until recently, he kept saying 991). When he can read better, we could write emergency information down for him, but we're not there yet, either. For now, we're practicing our address and phone number regularly, and he knows his parents' full names. He also knows what keys to use on our doors and which of our neighbors are a good resource to run to for help.

Since I'm a big believer, though, in free-range parenting and letting my children develop their independence, I've come up with some safe, legally acceptable (I hope! I think!) ways for kids to test their wings:
  • I let the kids walk far ahead of me when we go out together if we're on a safe stretch of sidewalk. Alrik knows to stop before a street crossing if no one's with him. Mikko knows how to look for cars and cross safely. I keep them within shouting distance in case they're going the wrong way.
  • If I need to run a quick errand but don't want to get all the kids out of the car, I can sometimes compromise by getting just the oldest kid out of the car and letting him run the errand. There's a small drugstore where I can park right in front of the big glass windows and sliding doors (the only ones into or out of the store), and Mikko loves having the responsibility of taking a few dollars and running in to buy a drink or snack or bandages or whatever it is we need. He doesn't mind talking with salespeople for help, either, so I consider this all a great life-skills lesson. If I'm needed or someone inside wants reassurance he's not abandoned, he can point me out to the salespeople from the store. I'll also have him go up to, for instance, mall food-court counters by himself to order, staying nearby but at a discreet distance so the cashier won't default to interacting with me instead.
  • If a tween wants babysitting experience but can't or shouldn't be left alone, the tween's parent could babysit alongside. A friend of mine did this with her daughter. Her daughter was technically in charge of the babysittee and received the money for her work, but her mother was present in the house as a supervisor as needed. I'd love that for my kids, actually — they'd enjoy the energy levels of a 12-year-old, and I wouldn't have to worry that handling my hooligans would be too much for said 12-year-old. We already experience something like this when we visit my niece, because she routinely takes the boys away with her to play for hours but is still within earshot in case an adult is needed.
  • We let Mikko take one set of keys to let himself into the apartment if we're slow in emptying the car and getting upstairs (and we always are). This isn't a big thing, but it obviously means something to him. We also let him take the keys and go downstairs to get the mail on his own, and both boys like to meet package deliverers at the outer door.
  • Since Mikko was young, we've encouraged him to source and make his own snacks. (We haven't been as diligent about this with Alrik, hmmm — will have to work on that, though I think part of it is personality.) Mikko can easily feed and entertain himself for quite some time if needed, such as when we're getting his little brothers to sleep.
  • We give both kids jobs and responsibilities that suit their maturity levels. They help me put away clothes, scoop the litter boxes, clean the windows, etc., and not a day goes by nowadays where I'm not asking one or the other to "please make faces at your baby brother" while I go pee or get a glass of water or whatever I need to do sans bébé. They both feel a sense of duty and protectiveness toward their brother because they know they're needed by him and by their parents.
  • Mikko can go into his own public restrooms or wait outside the one I go into with the younger kids.
  • When we're out in public at a store or restaurant, we'll let the kids interface with the staff for us to ask where to find something or to get a refill or doggy bag or whatever. It gives them practice, saves us social awkwardness (Sam and I are incredibly awkward; it's an endearing fault…), and gets the job done. Mikko especially loves to chat it up with strangers.
  • Alrik and I were walking at the top of a hill the other day, and he wanted to run down it. So he did, and then back up again, and then back down. Meanwhile, I kept walking along the sidewalk at the top, able to yell down to him to keep me in sight as we walked in parallel toward our destination. I was able to keep an eye on him down below as he scrambled over every bench he came across. A couple older ladies were standing nearby, watching him, and commented on what a fine adventure he was having. Absolutely!
  • Even as babies and toddlers, we babyproof within reason, then give our kids safe(ish) spaces of our home to explore, within eyesight but with limited helicoptering.
  • Rather than declare dangerous things off limits, we teach our children how to handle sharp knives, fire, stoves, and other risks responsibly.
  • Alrik climbs, flips, and jumps. Everything. Today he was leap-somersaulting off a stool onto the bed. We've enrolled him in gymnastics before, and I plan to do it again.
  • I decline hovering at playgrounds. I just do. I mean, I'll play if I'm in the mood, but if not … it's a playground, kids. Play. I'll be over here with my phone and the baby. Smooch!

Some of those sound incredibly tame and some might be beyond your kids right now, but everything should be age appropriate and based on the individual child's readiness. I believe in being safe — but within reason. For instance, we do drive in a car even though motor vehicles are dangerous, but we use car seats that fit our children's ages and bodies. In the same way, we can take precautions that protect our children's vulnerabilities while still allowing them to build their own competence and self-reliance. I hope I can find other ways as we go along of acknowledging the more restrictive guidelines of today's fear culture but still letting our kids have a taste of the freedom I did when I was young.

What are your thoughts on free-range kids vs. the nanny culture?

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Holly Scudero said...

It sometimes seems that lots of people are hypocrites when it comes to this debate. I don't think I can go for more than a few days without someone sharing some article about how our children are spoiled, entitled, unable to fend for themselves, etc. And on the other hand, these same people turn around and share articles about why it's bad to leave your little one in the car for two minutes when you run up to the ATM or, heaven forbid, return some library books. (Why *aren't* there drive-up chutes for dropping off books? That's such a fabulous idea.) So a mother got jail time for letting her kids walk home alone! Good! Neglectful parents deserve to be punished!

I know I am lucky in many ways, since I only have one child. I have been known to not do an errand when my son falls asleep in the car (less of a problem these days, but when he was younger, he fell asleep all the time). I have gotten really good at only buying as many groceries as I can reasonably carry in one trip. My son is 3, and I try to give him as much space to explore as I can, but I do get pretty sick of the dirty looks from other parents at the playground or the comments from well-meaning strangers.

Anonymous said...

Great points about how warped and hypocritical our society has gotten, and great ideas for encouraging kids' independence! We do some of those things, but my son has been shy about talking to people. At 10 years old, he is just beginning to order for himself in restaurants, and although he likes going to the store he always precedes it with going over what he will have to say.

We do have a drive-by library drop-off here. It's great if you're in the car. If you're on foot, though, when the library is closed, it's scary to walk through the parking garage that's underneath the library--so I tend to walk all the way around to the far corner of the building where there's a walk-up box, even though it's a lot of extra uphill walking.

We live in PA, where the age for a child to be home alone is left to parental discretion. We started at age 8 allowing him to stay home while Daddy goes on a short errand, about 15 minutes. But because our child is not a homebody and dislikes being alone, he hasn't wanted to do it often or for longer times. He is more likely to go places by himself. It's pretty common in our neighborhood, so we haven't encountered much flak.

Christy said...

Great thoughts!

My kids go to public school and are 10 and 8. I let them walk to and from school by themselves (7-8 min walk) together, and the 10 year old is allowed to do this alone.

Mind you, the 10 year old now has a cell phone (we got for this purpose) and must text or call when she leaves and arrives.

All this will change next year when my 5 year old starts school. Regardless whether I think all 3 would be safe together, I worry about whether others will judge me for letting the 5 year old go with her siblings. And like you, I walked to and from kindergarten with a buddy without adult supervision, and rode my bike along busy roads from the age of 7 on.

I am afraid of what others think and am constantly talking to other parents about what is "acceptable" for this very reason. Now that my 10 year old is mature enough I leave all 3 in the car when I run into a store as long as the car is in my site the whole time.

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