Home Alone

January 21, 2010

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.”

I hesitated.

“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.)

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    sixis January 24, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Was Emilia okay with it? That’s all that really matters.

    While we’re confessing – I was left at home alone when I was three. Apparently, I didn’t want to go pick up mom at work. So dad had a heart to heart with me, went over the rules – primary of which was not to leave the yard. So 45 minutes later, the car comes wheeling up with my frantic and furious mother and contrite dad to find me sitting on the curb with my pocketbook. I did NOT leave the yard. Staying with in the rules while testing the boundaries. Been the story of my life. No, I don’t have any first hand memories, just the story. However, I did take a certain amount of pride in that story over the years. Home by myself and totally calm. It gave me the feeling I could handle anything.

    I left my 9 year old for 15 minutes yesterday while walking the dog. At her request I called and spoke with her on the cellphone the entire time. She’s a little nervous being home alone, but she’ll get there.

    sixis January 24, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    BTW, leaving your child in car around here will get you arrested.

    I still haven’t figured out if it’s better to leave the baby in the grocery cart behind the car to unload groceries or put the baby in the car seat while unloading. If you do the second, then what do you do with the cart?

    kootnygirl January 24, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I always did/do the second. I load my kids, then my stuff, then I take the cart back. I try to park right next to the cart corral, but frankly it doesn’t bother me to walk 30 or 40 or 50 feet back to my car, while my kids are inside it. I don’t lock it, and I don’t buckle them in first; they enjoy playing around in there for the 20 seconds or so, and while I’m sure some would scream about the risks of carjackings or being rear-ended in the parking lot, I have always been perfectly at ease with my choice, given the environment here.
    .-= kootnygirl´s last blog ..maybe this time =-.

    pixielation January 24, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    I’ve left my kids alone in certain circumstances. Going around the corner to drop a letter in the post box being one – total walking trip time of 8 minutes.

    I’ve also left them in the house while popping over the road to borrow things from a neighbour. I think worrying about those moments when you’re out of voice range, but still very close is ridiculous if your children are old enough to walk and talk.

    Once I left them both watching TV when they both had bad colds and were home sick while I went to the shop which is down the road slightly. I was gone maybe 15 or 20 minutes. But I discussed it with them, and left them with the phone. They know how to use the phone. They know not to answer the door. Both front and back doors were locked from the inside.

    I got back with the things I needed, and they hadn’t moved an inch from the sofa. To have made them get dressed and walk down the road in the cold would have been the poorer choice. They are old enough to follow instruction, and were not worried about being alone.

    It’s just common sense, and knowing what would be dangerous and what wouldn’t. Leaving an 18 month old awake and roaming around the house while you were over the road would be stupid. Leaving a 5 year old who is engrossed in a game or the television while you did the same would be fine.

    If the occasion arose that my 8 year old was home sick and I had to pick up the other from school, I would probably leave the 8 year old at home with the phone for the 15 minutes it would take me to get the other one.

    When they were babies I would put them in the car first, unload the groceries and then take the trolley back. Usually that meant walking all of 5 cars to where the trolleys go anyway. The car isn’t out of my sight.

    And when I put petrol in the car I leave the kids in it while I pay. I lock it though. I think It’s far safer to leave small children contained than to drag them across the forecourt where cars may suddenly turn in. And they are still in my view while I stand there paying.

    The sad thing is there are some people who DO leave their children in dangerous or neglected positions. But those people are not worrying about it, or asking if it’s ok. Those are the ones who should be under scrutiny.

    Karina January 24, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    I left my infant in the house once. We were in the process of moving and it was very late and I was alone with her (she was 4 months old at the time). It was also the middle of December and snowing. I had parked behind the garage to unload her and what I had in the car. We had parked in this same place the night before and our tire had been slashed so I was very hesitant to leave the car there.

    I had already gotten her out of her warm clothes and knew that it would only take a minute to move the car. So, I put her in the pack-n-play in the living room and RAN to the car, moved it and RAN back to the house. I admit that I was nearly hysterical by the time I got back to her. Now, at 18 months, I will let her hang out in the living room (which is entirely blocked off and childproofed) and go upstairs to do laundry.

    Is this the right thing to do? I don’t know, but it works for us. I don’t have her taking the clothes out of the dryer that I am trying to put into them and she gets some alone time. She’s a very independent little girl and plays very well on her own.

    More than likely, I will let her play outside by herself when she is 4 or 5. We live at the end of a street and there is a large courtyard with a play structure. I was allowed free rein of our yard when I was young (which was huge, I lived on a farm!) and our block when I was only a little older. I thought it was a great way to grow up!

    Tammy January 25, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Ok, different continent, same story. “Tolerant” Amsterdam, pouring, freezing rain, sleep-comatose, buckled-in child. Ran to ATM within sight of locked car on busy street, then bakery, which I had to enter to purchase bread for said sleeping child, thus out of sight. By the time I returned (7 minutes), cop was waiting, called by a passerby (who was lurking and watching but pretending not to). It took twice as long to make my defense to cop than it took to run the errand. 2 year old child slept through the whole damn thing. Just doesn’t seem balanced, this zeal to report, this hyper-alertness. Believe me, I do enough worrying myself over my children’s well-being.
    .-= Tammy´s last blog ..The black diamond. =-.

    Tina January 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    I used to live in NYC. We lived on the 7th floor of a doorman building. Laundry was on the 1st floor. When my son was a newborn I wanted to throw some laundry in while he was in his crib sleeping. I did not and never did because I was petrified that if he woke up and cried too long the neighbors would call the cops and I’d be booked for neglect. It infuriated me.

    Now, I live in the ‘burbs. Laundry is in the basement. My son is older and I often go to the basement (2 floors down) while he is sleeping to do laundry. I don’t really think there is much difference, except that no one can call the cops on me if they hear him crying in his crib for a few minutes. My son also often falls asleep in his stroller. I will leave him in his stroller outside with me while I do yard work. I’ve also left him in his stroller in the garage (during winter when he is all bundled up) when he is sleeping. If I brought him into the house he would wake up.

    It’s terrible that other parents / adults are so quick to judge and claim neglect. Often times the real crime is having fear drive your choices rather than sound judgment. I know I’m guilty of that!

    Arkie Mama January 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Many times, I’ve left my 6-year-old daughter in the car when picking up my youngest from daycare.

    I’ve done it when the weather was lovely and sunny and warm.

    And no, I cannot see her, or even the car, once I enter the building. And I’m fine with it.

    Nick January 25, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I find it so fascinating that once you “outed” yourself and admitted to leaving your child alone that 98% (just a guess, certainly not a calculation I did) of the comments have been similar stories. Very few have said they NEVER would do that and gasp how could you??!! Wonder what kind of comments you would have received had you posted about your friend who did the same thing and now you’re wondering if she’s negligent?

    Anyway, more to the point of what I decided to comment on is: One parent’s story of leaving their child alone involves their own property, 50 or 100 feet away from the child, 5-10 minutes of separation. Another (or several) includes a car, driving away, or leaving their property crossing a street, away from sleeping child for 20 minutes or so. All cases seemed to be anxiety inducing but also included examples of the comfort level growing as they continued the practice. Interestingly, quite a few commenters said that they think an hour is excessive and never to be done.

    So where’s the line? Your 10 minutes around the corner is within your comfort level. Personally, I totally respect the fact that you said if it is something you felt comfortable doing then it would be something you would feel comfortable discussing and defending if need be. Would everyone who have done this feel the same way? Would you (you now meaning the general audience of readers not YOU) REALLY be okay admitting to your neighbour, friend, whomever, that you drove away (it was only 15 minutes!!) from your sleeping baby at home? When you hear yet another story of the mom who was busted because she left her sleeping baby in the car (she only meant to be gone for a few minutes and it turned into a hour)-do you judge her?

    To clarify, I’m not asking these questions in judgement of my fellow readers or of you. I do have to admit that I was quite surprised and frankly uncomfortable with some of the accounts of the other commenters. However, I too have taken “calculated risks” and left my kids unattended in circumstances that I have both felt totally okay doing (ie left in car while ran back to the house). I’ve also done it when I did not feel 100% confident but did it anyway.

    I just wonder though by doing these little deeds of leaving on kids while we run to the corner store is what leads up to some of the more bolder acts of leaving our kids for more extended time in which it’s not okay. Not saying this is the case for all of course, just wondering if that is how some of these things happen.

    Heather January 26, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    So glad that I found this blog and this particular post!

    I’ve struggled with this ever since becoming a mother. My hardest moment of “do I leave him or not?” is when I have to go to the dry cleaners to drop off or pick up clothing. It is too cumbersome to take my child out of his car seat, put him in the stroller to walk him into the store (that is 5 ft from my car), and carry a load of dry cleaning in one arm. So, I always want to leave him in the car. But I don’t…mainly because I am afraid of being “found out” by someone who walks by and sees my kid in the car unattended, calls the police, etc. To avoid this dilemma, I’m going to the dry cleaners on the w/e when my husband can watch our son. But, this is just one example…like the many examples posted above, I’ve been tempted but won’t for fear of judgment/punishment. Thanks for a great post!

    Lisa January 26, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Love this post. Love the combination of personal and global. Love the boldness in “confessing” and your reasons for doing so.

    Even if I didn’t agree with you, I don’t think it merits a rake over the coals.

    Personally, I would have had her on my cell phone the whole time, but I’m a little neurotic like that. :-)

    Emma January 27, 2010 at 7:16 am

    I think in this situation you did exactly as I would have done. But I wish it didnt matter, I wish we didnt all compare ourselves to one another as mothers. I wish we didnt all feel so judged and as if we need to justify our choices.
    Interestingly, where I live it is illegal to leave a child alone in a locked car so when I leave my toddler in the car to run in and pay for petrol, back into the house to grab whatever I forgot or into the corner shop to grab milk I have to leave it unlocked. I take the keys with me but will leave a window down if its not summer (in Summer I leave them up hopeing to trap the airconditioning in!).
    I live 5 kms from the centre of a biggish city (Sydney) but in a relatively ‘safe’ neighbourhood (such a relative judgement?!) eg we sleep with our unbarred windows open and sometimes the backdoor if its stinking hot.

    and in comment to the post by Carrien, we often play outside or even walk to the shop without shoes, sometimes even in winter if its not too cold! I think I am (as I’m sure you are) capable of deciding if its too cold!

    Amy January 29, 2010 at 10:37 am

    As a “free-range” mother, I think you were justified given the situation. I’m not sure I would leave my 5yo alone for 1 hour..but I have left him alone (and his siblings) to run to the neighbours.
    One of our neighbours is appalled at our “lack of parenting” because we sat on our lawn while we watched our 3yo ride his two wheel bike back and forth down the road…I thought it was great he was 3 and riding a bike…she thought we were terrible people. So it’s all personal, and NOT to be judged. Her 6 year old can’t get out of the van by herself (which would drive me NUTS!) but that’s their choices not mine. I wish we (myself included) could all be more tolerant and understanding of each other.

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