Dear Abby: Am I Paranoid Enough?

Hi Folks — If you ever wonder why parents seem so terrified these days, here’s why: We live in a society filled with more paranoia than a convention of Moon Landing conspiracists.

Below is a prime example of us being told by a trusted “authority” to always conjure up the least likely but most devastating scenario possible and then proceed as if it’s likely to happen.  As a parenting philosophy it’s depressing, delusional, debilitating — and apparently Dear Abby’s modus operandi:

Dear Abby: I know some children who seem to be mature and are able to make logical decisions on a fairly regular basis. Still, making a decision under stress when one has not had a lot of experience can be difficult.

Having said that, at what age do you think it is appropriate to leave a child alone at home? Sometimes it’s difficult to arrange for child care when kids are out of school. Do you have any guidelines as to what to look for that can help make this decision? — BUSY WORKING PARENT IN KANSAS

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Dear Busy Working Parent: I don’t think children should be left alone if there is any other alternative available — after-school programs, YMCA, activities where they will have adult supervision. Too many things can go wrong, and you would never forgive yourself if one of them happened to your child.  
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Hi again, folks: Yes, those italics were mine. But here is a response written by Free-Range Kids reader (slightly edited by me):
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Dear Abby: Your answer is a classic example of what Lenore Skenazy (www.freerangekids.com) refers to as “Worst-First” thinking. If we are encouraged to over-prepare for all the rare, tragic things that could happen, we will end up handicapping  our children’s independence, and our finances, and our  ability to shop alone for brief periods of time.

Can you really not imagine any age when a child is capable of being left alone in their home? Not at 8, 11, 14? Or 17? How is it that these children will ever become capable adults if they don’t get any incremental practice? Is this why, as a professor, I see college students today who are incapable of facing the regular bumps and glitches of daily life without calling on their parents to fix their problems for them?

Perhaps instead of “never” we can look for indicators that a child is capable of spending short time periods home alone: Are they generally responsible? Do they know basic safety measures?

Instead of infantilizing our children for fear of remote risks, we need to empower them. If you will recall, just a few decades ago, we did that very thing. I was a latchkey kid at nine and babysitting at 11. In the 70s, this was regular practice. Before you argue that the world was safer then, note that the crime statistics show that life is safer today than it has been any time since about 1973.

In that time on my own as a child, I learned how to feed and clean up after myself, how to take care of others, and who to call when I needed help.  I developed the confidence that I could take care of myself. That experience was invaluable and remains with me to this day. — Kari B.