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.

Letting the Kids Stay Home Alone. For a Week.

Hi Readers! You’ll love this! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids:  This isn’t so much a camp story as it is an “independence” story.  My son was by nature very timid and could have easily have been crippled by this nature had I allowed it.  Instead, I kicked my kids out of the house on every nice day and made them find something to do rather than sit inside.  Many a summer night saw my backyard filled with up to a dozen neighborhood kids in sleeping bags under the stars and unsupervised.  Shockingly, they were never once kidnapped or molested.  In spite of this, my son never wanted to go to camp and rarely stayed at a friend or relative’s house overnight.

When he was fourteen and his sister sixteen, my husband had to go to New Orleans for work and I decided to tag along.  We chose to leave the kids home alone to fend for themselves; we had many neighbors they could call on in an emergency and they were trustworthy kids.

The week before, we took them to the grocery store and let them shop for the meals they wanted to eat while we were gone.  Did you know there are seven different brands of frozen pizza, so they wouldn’t have to once eat the same thing during the week?  Neither did I until after that shopping trip.  Though I was not terribly happy with their choices, this was their independence week and I was determined to let them be in charge.

Armed with pizza, a $100 bill and my daughter’s driver’s license, they faced the week alone.  As my husband and I said our goodbyes, I could see the concern in my son’s eyes, but we knew they could take care of each other.  During the week, they checked in before school, when they got home, and to say goodnight.  We heard tales of burnt pizzas, trips to the market for milk and getting along and taking care of each other.  That alone made the trip a success. But never did I expect what my son did when we got home.

He thanked us.

Always one to worry, he had apparently been thinking about college and had been concerned he would not be able to go because he had a fear of being away from us.  He said his experience during the week had made him realize he could take care of himself.

I could have very easily made him a mama’s boy, but instead I constantly pushed him to do something scary.  Our trust in him gave him trust in himself. — Janelle Cawley Kennedy.

What happens to teens taking care of themselves for a week?

P.S. Today, my son Stan is 24 and sharing a house with some of those same friends he played with as a boy.  My daughter is 26 and has moved to St Louis where she lives with her husband and my grandson.

A Nice Moment

A Reader writes:

Lenore,
 
I am a free range parent.  My kids are (almost) 15 and 12.  I don’t own a cell phone.  I was leaving them home alone to attend our high school’s pto meeting while my husband was out of town.  As I was heading out the door I told them I’d be at the school.  My daughter, the 12 year old, asked what the phone number was.  In my best serious voice I said, “9-1-1.”  They both laughed and I went (guilt-free) out the door.

Robin in New Jersey   

 

See readers? Sometimes, you can make a parenting decision that’s fun, easy, sane and even legal!