I had no idea of the risk I was taking!
Here’s what happened: this spring, my nine-year-old son asked if he could range through our neighborhood on his own. Since I walked to school as a five year old, I replied that of course he could. We printed a map of the neighborhood and marked out what he called his “territory,” which expanded as he grew confident that he could find his way home.
I thought this was responsible parenting.
I should have been setting aside bail money!
Here’s the case that sent chills down my spine: South Carolina mother Debra Harrell was charged with child neglect for letting her nine-year-old daughter go to a playground on her own. Ms. Harrell wound up in jail and her daughter in the care of the Department of Social Services.
It’s true that Ms. Harrell wasn’t at home making cookies while her daughter was out alone for an hour—she was at her job at McDonald’s for several hours.
Several hours at a park without a parent isn’t an ideal child-care arrangement. It came about at the instigation of Ms. Harrell’s daughter, who, like my son, had asked to be allowed to be out and about on her own while her mother was at work. Ms. Harrell apparently limited her daughter to a very busy playground, where there would be others around to stop any attempts at mischief or worse, and she equipped her daughter with a cell phone. The daughter is reportedly an honor roll student and the mother was ready to trust her.
An employed mother, a high-achieving daughter, trust between mother and daughter… Sounds like a pretty high-functioning household. And, while it’s not ideal child care, the chances of something going terribly wrong in a crowded playground are very, very small.
Instead of taking this view of it, some nanny-state busybodies threw Ms. Harrell in jail and sent her daughter through the harrowing experience of being put into protective custody—an experience much scarier than being without a parent in a playground. To top it off, MacDonald’s fired Ms. Harrell.
The good news is that Ms. Harrell is out on bail and mother and daughter have been reunited.
I can attest that there’re lots of folks who doubt that it’s acceptable for a nine year old to be on his own. Our son, who at first relished the freedom of the neighborhood, has started to balk at going places on his own because he has been challenged too many times by adults wondering what he is doing without a parent.
For crying out loud, nine year olds will be rising college sophomores in a decade! When children aren’t allowed to take simple steps toward independence, it’s no wonder college students can’t behave like adults and college administrators are overwhelmed by helicopter parents.
Letting children learn to look after themselves is essential to their individual futures—and it’s also essential to the future of civil society. If young people don’t believe that they can look out for themselves, they can hardly be expected to learn to look out for others and eventually to assume leadership roles in their schools, jobs, and communities. If you want to raise someone who will grow up to be a leader, you’ve got to let him or her try out responsibilities as a child.
Without an active civil society, we’ll end up with even more of a nanny state than we have at present. And a sure way to get there is to insist that nine year olds can’t be out of the house without a nanny.