When I saw the news that Anna Kournikova’s mom had been charged with neglect for leaving her little boy home alone for an hour while she ran errands, I thought, how terrible. And then I thought, there but for the grace of a little more restraint go I.
I’ve left my daughter alone. Not for an hour – not for anywhere near an hour; more like a handful of minutes – and not at any significant distance, but still. How much difference does time and distance make, anyway? If you live in a big house, with a big yard, does leaving a child napping while you go outside to garden count as neglect? Running next door to borrow sugar from a neighbor? Crossing the street to return a snow shovel? Is it okay if you’re only gone a few minutes? If you haven’t gone too far away? Should you never, ever leave your children alone in the house, for any amount of time? Or does keeping your children at your side even while you’re dragging the recycling bins back to the garage mark you as an incurably hyper parent?
I left my daughter alone.
It was the other week, when it was cold and wet and windy and miserable outside and Emilia was home sick – not a lot sick, but sick enough that I didn’t want her going to school or outside or any great distance from blankets and tissues – and my husband had just called to say that he wouldn’t be able to leave work early enough to pick up Jasper from daycare. I would have to go get him. Which wasn’t a big deal, really, because the daycare is only a few steps from our house, just around the corner, less than ten minutes round-trip including coat-buttoning and boot-zipping time. Except that it was kind of a big deal that day, because I had on my hands a sick, bedraggled child for whom the walk in the wet, blowing snow would not – no matter how short – be pleasant and would likely make her feel worse.
“Just leave her,” my husband said. “You’ll be back in less time than it takes you to go to the bathroom. She’ll be fine.”
“Really,” he said.
He had a point. She and I would be out of communication range longer if I took a shower or went down to the basement to do laundry. I was just going around the corner. I’d only be a few minutes. I would never tell anyone.
“Never tell anyone,” said Katie, when I told her that I’d done it, that I’d left Emilia for a few minutes while I ran to get Jasper. “I mean, I totally think it’s no big deal, but you know. People judge.”
Of course they do. Because, really, it can be hard to know where to find the line that divides free-range parenting from Madame Kournikova parenting, between making a choice based upon one’s confidence in one’s children’s abilities to function independently in appropriate circumstances and making choice that disregards the interests and well-being of the child. It can hard to find that line, because the location of that line depends very much upon the attitudes and opinions of the person looking for it. If you believe that a kindergartener should never, ever be left alone, under any circumstances, then even leaving them in front of the television while you take a shower or run next door to return a snow shovel might seem borderline neglectful. If you believe that if they can tie their shoes and operate an iPhone, they can take care of themselves unsupervised for reasonable periods of time, questioning the reasonableness of leaving them while you go outside to do whatever might provoke headache-inducing eye rolls.
I’m more or less in the latter camp. My own parents were a combination of hyper (they would enroll me in any activity – organ, voice, gymnastics, swimming, art, public speaking – if I showed even the slightest flicker of interest or talent, and then stage-parent me enthusiastically) and free-range (I was roaming our neighborhood freely, climbing cherry trees and stealing fruit when I was still in preschool) and I don’t think that their tendencies in the latter regard ever put me in harm’s way (and I say this as a child of the Clifford Olsen era in British Columbia, lest anyone think that that is only true because the late 70’s/early 80’s in Canada were a simpler, more innocent time). I think, actually, that their practice of worrying only about what they thought was the big stuff – was I being encouraged enough? was I being given enough opportunities? how could they best work toward ensuring that my future was bright? – as opposed to what they saw as the small stuff – was I old enough to be wandering off on my own to explore the neighborhood and ransack cherry trees? – was pretty reasonable, as far as parenting philosophies go. They wanted me to have a world of opportunity, so they guided me toward and encouraged me in the pursuit of and held my hand in the exploration of as much of the world as they could. But they also wanted me to be independent, and so they let go of my hand, a lot, and let me be independent from an early age.
I don’t know if they ever left me home alone while I was in kindergarten. I do know that my dad forgot me at the mall, once, and that my mom gave him shit for that for years, but that’s a different thing, I think.
This is, I think, a long-winded apologia for what is really just another parenting confession: I left my child in the house alone, and I don’t want to be raked over the coals for it, even though I know that I might be raked over the coals and even though I know that such coal-raking is actually good for the conversations that we’re having or should be having about our choices in parenting and how we react to each others’ choices and so on and so forth. It is, too, one more effort to stick to my guns with the philosophy that if I’m willing to do it – ‘it’ being some act of motherhood – I should be willing to talk about it. If I really were unwilling to talk about leaving my daughter alone in the house for a few minutes, then I shouldn’t have done it; if I can defend my choice to myself – and I should never make a parenting choice that I can’t so defend – then I should be able and willing to stick up for that choice out loud.
So, I admit it: I made the reasoned choice to leave my child alone, in the house, for a few minutes, and I don’t think that I was neglectful to do so. What do you think?
(Go easy on me.)