A mom is in prison, and her daughter is in foster care. And odds are, you (or your mom) might have done exactly what this woman did: She let her 9-year-old child play outside in a park, unsupervised.
The circumstances, however, might be a little different than your situation. Debra Harrell in North Augusta, South Carolina, couldn't find any child care for her shifts at McDonald's in a Walmart. So her choices were to let her daughter play in a park alone, leave her at home, or bring her to work, where she was forced to hang out for hours in McDonald's with little to engage her. Debra picked the park. But when other parents noticed this girl by herself for long stretches, they alerted authorities, and Debra was arrested for unlawful conduct toward a child.
There's so much that's anger inducing here. There's the fact that so many jobs don't pay a living wage, which means that even though moms like Debra are working full time, they still need public assistance to get by. There's the fact that affordable (or subsidized) child care isn't available, even for people like Debra who are trying hard to earn their living, but may need a little support to make ends meet. There's the fact that what she did doesn't even seem to be illegal in South Carolina, where the laws say Debra's daughter could have legally stayed home alone (kids younger than eight are the only ones who are legally required to have supervision). And it's my opinion that it likely wouldn't have been as big an issue if, say, it was a white middle class woman who left her child there (Debra is African American).
But really, what's the appropriate age to leave your child unattended? And why has it shifted so seismically since we were kids? If you tell me about your childhood, odds are you were roaming the streets and hanging out in the park for hours at a time. I was. I remember leaving for the playground in the morning, coming home for a quick lunch, then heading back out until the street lights came on. (And I had a stay-at-home mom who in theory, could have come down to monitor us and make sure we slid down the slide properly until we turned 25. But she had better things to do.) I was definitely left to my own devices for hours at a time, at an age younger than nine—and likely for as long as Debra's daughter spent in the park.
You have to start somewhere with giving kids independence. And despite the pervasive helicopter parenting in my neighborhood, I've worked hard to let go. For the past several months, I've let my daughters, now 10 and 7, go to the park unsupervised. (They go together, they've been instructed on stranger danger, and they both have brown belts in karate and jiu jitsu and wicked roundhouse kicks.) It's been very hard for me to let go, but I know that they need some space to learn how to develop independence, leadership, empathy and problem-solving skills. And they won't necessarily do all that if I'm hovering ready to solve any quandary that comes up. Does that make me a bad mommy—and a potential felon? I honestly don't think so. And I don't think it should make Debra a felon, either.
Tell us: When do you think is the right age to leave your kids unsupervised? Do you think Debra should have been arrested?
Image: Girl playing the park by Zurijeta/Shutterstock.com.