Things the Free-Range Kids vs. Child Safety Debate is Forgetting

Key points we should remember when discussing when kids can be alone

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When can kids walk to school alone? It varies. Getty Images/Danielle Donders

Recently, there have been a spate of stories about kids who were stopped by police officers when they tried to play at a park or walk to a store without adult supervision. One of the most prominent examples has been a Maryland family whose story made national headlines when Child Protective Services investigated the parents for letting their children, ages 10 and 6, walk home alone from a nearby park.

Several months later, the children were picked up again by the police for being in a park alone. (Maryland law mandates that a child must be at least 8 years old to be left alone in a house or a car and that a child must be at least 13-years-old to babysit another child.)

This story, and others like it, have set off heated debates about who--parents or government--should decide when kids can be unsupervised and in what circumstances. They have also prompted yet another round of discussion of the pros and cons of so-called "free-range" parenting, which advocates for kids being more self-reliant and doing more things on their own versus "helicopter" parenting, which is the style of parenting marked by close--sometimes overly close--supervision and involvement.

As a child of immigrants who had little choice but to have me stay home alone and supervise a 3-year-old younger sibling from the age of 8, I can say without a doubt that there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to being a young latchkey child and being responsible for someone else.

I think in many ways we were lucky that nothing happened while I was in charge, particularly since I was simply too inexperienced to be able to handle many possible challenges and emergencies that could have occurred. And while being in charge made me grow up faster and learn how to take care of myself and someone else, there was a great deal of stress and anxiety that went along with all that independence, not to mention the fact that I didn't have the freedom to NOT constantly think about safety and just enjoy being a kid.

In the many articles I have read about the saga of this Maryland family and others like them who are advocating for letting kids "explore" unsupervised, I find that many essential points about the issue is missing from the discussions. Some key considerations that need to be factored into the debates over when kids should be on their own include:

  1. The debate masks the real threat--not having kids prepared. Kids need to know how to deal with possible threats to their safety, whether or not they ever walk alone anywhere. The world may not be filled with potential threats around every corner, but there are very real dangers, whether it's from a stranger or acquaintance that means them harm; the possibility of an accident, such as slipping on a wet road when crossing the street or being too close to the wheels of a school bus when the driver cannot see you; or an accident at home. (For important school bus safety tips for kids, read, "School Bus Safety.") Does your child know what to do when an acquaintance asks her to "keep secrets" from you or tries to get too close? What if a seemingly harmless stranger--say, a smiling teenager--approaches her and gets into her "personal space"? Does she know the myths about child sex offenders, and do you? Do she know what to do to prevent choking and what to do if a younger sibling is choking?
  1. Younger kids generally do not have the experience to make decisions in an emergency. Child care centers, babysitters, and parents are--ideally--trained in CPR and other emergency medical treatments. When parents leave young kids alone or in charge of younger siblings, they should make sure someone is nearby and ready to step in if there is an emergency.
  2. What if something happened to a younger sibling while the older child was in charge? Think about the consequences. Abduction by a stranger may be rare, but accidents are not. Accidents can happen even when grownups are in charge, and we all know that it can be tough to always be on the lookout. How would a child feel if he feels responsible for a younger sibling getting hurt?
  3. For some families, leaving kids without an adult is a choice they deem the best option for their family. Child care may be something they cannot afford, or they may decide it's safest for their kids to be alone at home. Working parents need better child care options on a national level.
  4. You don't know who is near your child. As much as stranger danger may not be as common a threat as the danger posed by someone your child knows, the fact is that you have no idea what kind of person will interact with your child. Fully-grown adults have been tricked and persuaded to do something by clever con artists or skilled liars. When kids are in school, for instance, the teachers and staff have (ideally) been vetted to make sure there are no dangerous predators near your child; but how do you know who's going to enter that restaurant or stadium bathroom?
  5. Kids are just that--kids. Safety experts have conducted countless experiments in which children who were taught by parents not to talk to strangers willingly went with people they didn't know in certain circumstances (when the stranger was a friendly person who asked them to help them find a lost puppy, for instance). And even lanky teens and young adults can easily forget or get distracted while crossing a street and drop their guard in certain situations. Young children cannot be expected to match wits with someone who is intent on fooling them or to be always on guard and watch for dangers to their safety and welfare of a younger sibling.
  6. Some kids are more ready and able than others. Children are very different, and while one kid may be great at being focused and vigilant at all times at a certain age, another child of the same age may forget or become easily distracted. Where one child may feel energized by having the responsibility to be on their own or to care for a sibling, another may feel overwhelming stress but do it to make his parents happy. Before you decide what's best for your child, really gauge how your child feels at this point and time and what he really wants.
  7. Child protection laws are there to try to help all kids and are particularly necessary for children whose parents may not know where their kids are or what they are doing. While many parents who advocate for relaxation of rules about when kids can and cannot be on their own without adult supervision may be engaged, responsible parents who know where their kids are at all times, that is unfortunately not the case for every parent out there. How do we sort out which parents are the engaged and caring kind and which are the ones who are neglectful? Do we have a different set of rules for different kinds of parents, and who decides which is which?
  8. Laws vary from state to state, and sometimes from one county to another. Some, like Maryland, have age requirements stating when kids can be alone or in charge. Other states are not as clear. This lack of uniformity emphasizes just how difficult it is to apply one policy to all, and makes it difficult for parents who are trying to do what they think is best for their family.
  9. There are lots of ways to encourage independence and maturity. Letting kids walk to school or the playground alone or use a public bathroom by themselves is not the only way to encourage independence. Having them be in charge of more household chores and have more responsibilities at home (making sure your pet's food and water bowls are full or helping you plan menus that build healthy eating habits for the whole family, for instance) are also great ways to encourage independence and a sense of responsibility.

The bottom line: If you decide that your kids are ready to go it alone, check the laws in your state and be sure to get them prepared--and go over safety rules with them periodically from time to time. And if you or your kids want to wait, give it some time. It isn't "helicoptering" if your child or you want to wait till he's in middle school before he tackles babysitting duties. Independence AND safety are both important, and kids will grow soon enough--all too soon.

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