“My son isn’t allowed to stay home alone till he’s 12, even if I just have to run to the corner store for five minutes,” my neighbor was explaining to me. “That’s why I always take him with me, or I just don’t go. That is the law.”
But, in fact, that is not the law. What’s disheartening is that my neighbor is just one of many people — perhaps the majority — getting the wrong information.
This is so upsetting because the nonprofit I run, Let Grow, recently published the first comprehensive look at every state’s rules about when you are allowed to let your child stay home alone or engage in other normal childhood activities unsupervised.
It’s easy to see how parents are confused because it turns out there are two different sets of neglect laws in each state:
One is the criminal law. If you commit a crime against a child, law enforcement steps in. The other set comes from child protective services. If you are suspected of abuse or neglect, the child protection folks step in.
The problem arises from the fact that the majority of states’ neglect laws are so open-ended that parents don’t have a clear idea of what is allowed and what is not. That’s how my neighbor ended up thinking that she couldn’t leave her child, age 7, alone for even a minute until he turns 12.
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The actual criminal law in New York state says child endangerment is a “lack of reasonable diligence as to a child under 18.” Great. But what is “reasonable diligence?” The law leaves it wiiiiiide open...
For 18 years.
Likewise, the child protective law in New York says neglect occurs when the parent fails to “exercise a minimum degree of care,” or leaves the child “without proper supervision or guardianship.” Once again, the problem in New York, as elsewhere, is that no one has defined “proper.” And so parents are left hamstrung: “What if I think it’s proper to run to the store, but the state thinks otherwise?”
We need neglect laws that are narrower. Instead of, “Parents must provide proper care!” the law should state that parents who let their kids to do something on their own are only guilty of neglect if they put the child in immediate, obvious and probable danger.
Laws like that would NOT suddenly allow parents to let their 3-year-olds run around at night or their 6-year-olds to babysit their baby brothers for a weekend — because those things are NOT reasonable.
But if a mom thinks her 7-year-old would be fine at home while she runs to the corner grocery, she can’t be second-guessed by any authorities because she has not put her child in immediate, obvious or probable danger.
Our laws should also prevent the authorities from hounding parents just because something COULD have gone wrong. Yes, the house COULD have caught fire while mom shopped. A burglar COULD have broken in.
But a child walking with mom to the grocery COULD get hit by a drunk driver, or caught in a gun fight, or chewed by a rabid chinchilla. Just because bad things COULD happen doesn’t mean they are likely, and if they really aren’t likely, you can’t castigate a parent for trusting the odds.
Confusion about open-ended neglect laws has made people such as my neighbor convinced that the state is ready to pounce the instant she takes her eyes off her kid, even when she knows he can handle some time alone.
Our job as reasonable parents is to find out the local laws. But if those laws won’t let us trust our kids when we believe they’re ready for some independence, it’s time to change them.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a contributing writer at Reason.com and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?” To learn more about Lenore Skenazy (Lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.