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Kids CAN be left alone for a few minutes


When everyone in a society shares a crazy belief, they don’t know it’s crazy. That’s the problem. Take our current delusion in America that we can never – ever – let a child out of sight for even a single second. 

Most folks feel this way, but actual crime stats don’t bear it out. Even though stranger abductions remain astoundingly rare, a recent Pew study found that kidnapping is the third biggest parental fear, after kids’ mental health and bullying – way above drinking, drugs, and pregnancy. But this outsized worry is making adults angry and obtuse. Ironically, it may also be one reason kids are so fragile.

Example? Last month I heard from a woman in suburban Connecticut who’d brought her 6-year-old to the library and left him in the Children’s Room for five or six minutes while she went across the street to buy him a snack.

When she got back he had two books under his arm and was browsing the shelves for a third. Sweet! But the librarian looked up and glared.

Was this her son? Had she left him alone for several minutes? Literally, left the premises?

The embarrassed mom stammered yes, she’d done that. She’d wanted her son to feel independent. She felt he was safe.


In an earlier era, children were allowed to play unsupervised without causing adults to freak out. They could also journey short distances solo to places such as school or a friend’s house. Most kids survived the journeys unscathed.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Whereupon the librarian told her assistant to go print out the Connecticut State Law Regarding Unsupervised Children. It states that no child under 12 can be unsupervised for “a period of time that presents a substantial risk to the child’s health or safety.” (This is a law my nonprofit, Let Grow, is working with Connecticut legislators to amend.) 

Magnanimously, the librarian assured the mom that “no further actions” had been taken at this time.

No handcuffs? How kind. But let’s discuss what the librarian considered a “substantial risk,” and why she was so annoyed at having to keep the boy “safe.”

The boy was not unsafe. In the past 10 years, I can find two stories of kids abducted from a library anywhere in America. In a country of 70,000,000 children, that is . . . well, I don’t have to do the math. That’s the thing. When we start saying, “It’s just a 1 in 873,423,010 chance,” people respond, “I don’t want my child to be the one.”


The infamous "missing kids" milk cartons have for years caused families to focus on stranger abductions. These fears are understandable — but almost all underage kidnappings involve someone the child already knows.
The infamous “missing kids” milk cartons have for years caused families to focus on stranger abductions. These fears are understandable — but almost all underage kidnappings involve someone the child already knows.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a parent I get it. Still, we have to stop turning remote dangers into “risks.” Some things are not risks, even if once in a while someone gets hurt in the process. People sometimes fall off couches and die. That doesn’t make couch-sitting risky. Kids can get hurt at school, but sending them to school isn’t reckless.

We also have to stop thinking of kids as expensive, inert objects. When my colleague, the psychologist Peter Gray, posted the Connecticut library incident on his Facebook page, the responders were divided between “That’s outrageous!” and “The librarian was right!”

 “Children are precious and a 6-year-old should never be left alone like that, not anywhere,” wrote one. “I’d bet [the mom] wouldn’t leave a million dollars at the library while she ran across the street would she?”

But a million dollars can’t yell! Or kick! Or bite! A million dollars is also a lot more tempting to grab and run.


Current laws dictate that kids may not be left alone for amounts of time that place them at heightened risk. Efforts are underway to amend and clarify these statutes in order to reflect the reality of the risks most kids actually face.
Current laws dictate that kids may not be left alone for amounts of time which place them at heightened risk. Efforts are underway to amend and clarify these statutes in order to reflect the reality of the risks most kids actually face.
Getty Images

Not to harken back to the Middle Ages, but the 1981 book, “Your Six Year Old: Loving and Defiant” has a checklist of things most 6-year-olds could do, including “travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to a store, school, playground or to a friend’s home.” Back then, kids were still considered people who could actually accomplish things on their own — not simply someone’s precious property.

This new way of seeing kids – as always requiring oversight – might explain the third issue here: The idea that it is a huge imposition to expect an adult (a children’s librarian, no less) to be in the same room as a child without the child’s parent there. I hear this same thing when I suggest letting kids play at the park unsupervised: “What if a kid falls and breaks his arm? Now I’ve got to deal with him?”

Um, yes. If a mom broke her arm at the playground (perhaps by falling off the bench!), most of us would run over. It’s disturbing that “I don’t want to have to deal with someone else’s kid” carves out an exception when it comes to helping humans who are young.


The anxiety around leaving kids alone in busy spaces such as libraries may have more to do with the unwillingness of some adults to look after other people's children.
The anxiety around leaving kids alone in busy spaces such as libraries may have more to do with the unwillingness of some adults to look after other people’s children.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I asked a children’s librarian here in Queens, where I live, how old a child had to be before they could be left alone, she waffled and finally said, “Well, the thing is: If someone comes in and takes them, we can’t be responsible.”

Again with the kidnapping!

So what if we adults would have hated a helicoptered childhood like that? So what if all that hovering is pointless? So what if it’s actually driving kids crazy! The Journal of Pediatrics reports that childhood anxiety and depression are skyrocketing at least in part because kids have so little unstructured, unsupervised free time.

So we are ruining children’s mental health for no reason, and criminalizing rational parents to boot.

It’s time to quit treating kids like dumb, abandoned, cash-stuffed wallets and let them browse for a book. Or walk to the store. Or spend 10 minutes breathing free, without mommy.

And let mommy spend 10 minutes breathing free, too.

Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence, and author of Free-Range Kids. She also writes for Reason.com.



This story originally appeared on NYPost

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