Pervasive Fear and Loathing in the Suburbs: Leaving your children home alone

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Tools like Find my iPhone allow parents to track their children's whereabouts.
Tools like Find my iPhone allow parents to track their children’s whereabouts.

I want to establish something at the beginning of this post. My parents are amazing. They are loving, caring, protective and responsible.

The reason I say this, is because what they did to me as a child, directly relates to the way I’m raising my own children.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I was left alone.

From the stories I’ve been told, I was a bit of a wanderer, often disappearing, leaving my parents to find me preaching to a crowd or singing songs in front of whatever audience I could find.

In grade school, my best friend lived a mile from my house, just down Battle Creek road, which at the time was a narrow, two-lane country road with a 55 mile per hour speed limit that went largely ignored.

We rode our bikes back and forth to each other’s house almost every day for many years.

I know it wasn’t this way exactly, but it felt like when school let out in June, we just took off with the general idea that we had to be back in late August before school started up again.

My best friend and I took a bus across the United States when we were 13. Of course my parents made sure one of the adults on the bus would supervise us.

I flew home from Washington D.C. on that same trip by myself.

Two years later, I went on a torch run from Texas to California, where we ran along busy highways bearing a torch with a large bus crawling along the shoulder a few hundred yards behind us.

A year after that, I went with a performing group to Ukraine for two months, where we had to make several dangerous border crossings and navigate a world just freed from 70 years of Communism.

At some point in high school, my parents stopped leaving my brother and I with our grandparents when they traveled and started leaving us to fend for ourselves at home while friends of theirs looked in on us from time to time.

We were allowed to go camping overnight with our friends from a fairly early age. We wandered all over the countryside we grew up in, learning which fences to cross and which fences not to.

Wandering was encouraged.

With no digital devices to contend for our time, we always wanted to go off to explore.

My brother and I hunted and fished, miles from home, often miles from any other human.

We took long road trips with other families and spent weekends away as often as we could get away with it.

At 16, I was allowed to drive my car by myself from Oregon to California to go to work for a cousin for the summer. Three months later, I drove that same car by myself all the way back to Oregon.

At no time did I feel like my parents didn’t love me. I never felt like they weren’t thinking about us or worried about our well being.

We just had a long leash.

My Facebook feed has been inundated this week with a story about Maryland parents who allowed their 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to walk home from a nearby park unsupervised, which led to an investigation by Child Protective Services.

The problem today is pervasive fear, which leads to pervasive helicopter parenting.

There is much to fear today.

The media does a delightful job of raising our awareness of every single kidnapping and tragic accident that occurs.

But the world is no more dangerous today than it was in the 1980s, when I was traipsing around the Northwest by myself with no cell phone.

In fact, the world is much safer now.

There are safeguards in place for when children get abducted, and the media often neglects to let the public know that most abductions are pulled off by people related to the child in some way. They are not the random things that parents so often live in fear of.

There are surveillance cameras everywhere and laws that protect areas where children are likely to spend their time like playgrounds and schools.

We have mostly followed the law in each state we have lived in.

Our oldest son was 9 when we moved to Montana. My wife and I hadn’t been out on a real date in years, so when he turned 10, we decided to see how well he could manage on his own before we allowed him to watch his siblings.

We would leave him for an hour on Saturdays when we went grocery shopping.

Gradually we increased the time he was allowed to stay by himself.

I simultaneously taught him how to do simple things like boil water for ramen or how to fry two eggs and remember to turn the stove off.

We taught him where the fuse box was and what to do if one of the breakers tripped.

He was already a very responsible boy, but he took to his newfound freedom with gusto and proved to us that he deserved more of our trust.

We allowed him to ride his bike to his friend’s house and to spend the weekend away from us.

When he turned 11, we allowed him to watch his siblings for an hour or two, following Montana state law.

We let out the leash a little more each year, trusting him with bigger tasks, knowing he had earned it through diligence and good decision making. Things he had to learn when he was alone and faced with many different choices.

In Alaska, there are no age restrictions on children staying home alone. They don’t care much for government intrusion in their lives up there.

Our middle child, who doesn’t have the same 40-year-old vibe that our oldest child has, was given some freedom to explore his world a bit. But because Anchorage has a moose and bear problem, we kept a little tighter hold of him.

By the time we moved to Illinois, which requires that a child be 14 to be left home alone or to watch their siblings, our oldest was nearly ready to be left alone for the weekend, which would probably breach the state’s loose definition of child abandonment.

So we waited a year before we left him home while we took the other two to Kentucky for a long weekend of exploring.

Meanwhile, our middle child, who is now 13, has been given a longer leash. He’s allowed to ride his bike to the houses of his friends, though they live almost two miles from us. We even allow him to stay home by himself for times that are probably longer than the state of Illinois considers prudent.

We do this because he’s proven himself responsible. He does not lack for things he might need, including shelter, clothing and food, and he has a cell phone that not only allows me to contact him or him me, it allows me to track his whereabouts any time I want.

I should note that I do not use this feature, because I want to establish trust the same way my parents did with me long before smart phones existed.

I can track his whereabouts if I need to. I don’t track his whereabouts, because I trust that he is where he says he is.

Our youngest, our daughter, is starting to crave some of that freedom.

We live in a beautiful, tree-lined subdivision on the Southwest Side of Chicago.

We know most of our neighbors, and for the most part, there isn’t much to worry about here.

A few small dogs have been lost to the packs of coyotes that roam the Forest Park Preserves behind our home, but I’m convinced they would not attempt to drag a child off.

Still, it was difficult for me the first time my daughter wanted to walk around the block, which is something she defines as a measure of freedom.

I let her do it but was later questioned by my wife thoroughly about my decision. We decided together that she was old enough to at least walk around the block.

Today our 8-year-old is allowed to walk the half-mile to her friend’s house and back by herself. She can ride her bike around the neighborhood at will.

I’m teaching her how to make her own food, and in a few years, she too will be able to stay home alone.

It’s a process with kids. The more they are allowed to explore and learn about the environment around them, the more they encounter choices that need to be made. Choices that impact their safety. Choices like when to cross a road and how much time will be needed to get home before dark.

Without encountering these choices while alone, kids can’t get a diversity of experiences to build up the thinking that leads to good decision making.

It’s always going to be terrifying to parents to let their children spread their boundaries.

Without the mechanism of experience, it’s even more terrifying.

As my oldest learns to drive, I am comfortable being in the car with him. I’m comfortable with the decisions he makes.

I’m scared to death of the day I hand over the keys to let him go on his own. I’m scared of the other drivers out there. I’m terrified of the unknown.

But I know that the more he’s allowed to confront this situations that force him to make decisions, the more he’ll tend to make good decisions.

Freedom is an exceedingly important tool in child rearing. Fear is an exceedingly over-used excuse for not using freedom. And government intrusion, it seems, isn’t helping parents help their children develop the skills to live a free-range lifestyle.

I feel like if you asked people if they want to live in a society ruled by fear, they would say no.

So why are we building that kind of society together?

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