Thanks to Twitter, my attention was brought to a recent story of a single mother who was arrested for leaving her 13 year old home alone for one week, while away on a business trip. According to this article, the mother left cash, credit cards, and prepared meals for the week. Also mentioned in the article was the fact that the mother had been out of work, and she received a business contract which sent her to Taiwan (the implication being, I assume, that accepting the job was a necessity), and that permission was denied by her daughters’ school to bring her along on the trip for the week (Let’s set aside for a moment the craziness of why a parent would ever have to request permission from a school to keep their own child out of said school for a week).
The question was posed on twitter: What’s the problem? [with a 13 year old being left home alone]
Answers ranged from outrage at the police for arresting the mother to outrage at the mother for leaving a child alone. That there are more pressing cases of neglect/abuse that should be pursued. That there’s just no problem whatsoever. That it’s all subjective – some 13 year olds are very responsible, they can babysit other children, and a thirteen year old can even marry in some cultures or areas of the world.
My personal thoughts ranged from: why did the mother have to leave, did she have time to plan, did the child know what to do in an emergency, did the child have an adult checking in on her periodically to remembering having responsibility for my younger siblings at that age (certainly not for a week, but definitely for several hours – in pre-cellphone times), and conceding that some children are more developmentally ready for independence earlier than others.
But, above all else, the thought that kept recurring, and bothering me the most was: wondering if the mother had foreknowledge about the trip, and what the nature of the trip was: Was the trip work related? An emergency?
It was suggested that the above questions don’t matter, in the mother's case. Yet, I submit that the why and how may truly make a difference with regards to the mother’s culpability, and ultimately whether or not she made a responsible choice. Had she ample opportunity to plan, it would have been appropriate to coordinate alternate care for the teenager. Had she not had advanced warning, or, if she had no alternative care available (no relatives, friends, nor babysitter), then, at the very least a “safety plan” should have been readied. Any less than these two options (particularly if the trip were a “pleasure trip” which could be postponed or cancelled) could substantiate the claim that the child was left in a potentially unsafe situation, could call into question the earnestness of the mother towards her child’s best interest, and thus may go towards validating the reason for her arrest (misdemeanor child endangerment).
But then, what really is safe, what is endangering, and what is right when it comes to children left alone? Does it matter how old the child is? Where the child is left? Why the leaving was done? For how long? And when do these things matter?
What if the child in question is… a baby?
As an addendum to the conversation, an experience was posed in which a single mother disclosed that she routinely had left her baby alone, sleeping in his crib, for a half hour while she went across the street to do her grocery shopping. The baby was known to sleep soundly for long stretches, wasn’t able to get out of his crib, and the house was within sight of the grocery store. It appears that this particular mother had no assistance or support in terms of childcare, though by her own admission, she did leave her son because she “didn’t want to” bring him with her – it was quicker and easier to do so alone, and she asserted that it was her right as his mother to make the decision based on her best judgment of the situation.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the reaction to the above anecdote was far more vehement. Words such as irresponsible, wrong, neglectful, abusive were used in response.
I admit to jumping to judgment myself in my mind. I thought of my own possible solutions: bringing the baby along, putting the sleeping baby in the carseat & setting it in the cart while wheeling around the store, putting the baby in a sling, calling a friend to watch the baby for a half hour just in case something were to happen…
In her own defense, the mother of the baby asked: Where do we draw the line? Don’t we have the RIGHT to raise our children as we see fit? Isn’t parenting just a matter of opinion?
It was these questions which really had me thinking, and is perhaps the crux of my post. DO we have the right to raise our children as we SOLELY see fit – without outside influence or suggestion or oversight? Where IS the line of when a child is truly in danger versus when is he is just in perhaps a less-than optimal situation? When should a parent’s right to make the call on that line be taken away? When does our own personal judgment about what is safe and responsible deserve to be overridden? Just because I might sling my sleeping baby in the grocery store, because leaving him in a separate space while sleeping seems unsafe – does that mean it’s the only RIGHT answer, and that a baby alone – but generally within sight IS unsafe? Or is it just my opinion, based on my experiences & beliefs?
Certainly, each of our personal experiences and situations greatly influence us lead us to make the choices and draw the lines we do. In my life, I am blessed with a wonderful support system. Within that frame of reference, the above situations and decisions seem foreign to me, and the dangers seem surmountable and workaround-able. Yet, what if I were an unemployed single mother without family support, and a job came up which meant the difference between food on the table or not? Perhaps leaving my self-reliant teenager alone for a week with prepared meals and money might not seem as unsafe or irresponsible as it would otherwise?
Or, regardless of situation, would I find a way to parent to the same safety and comfort standards I hold now (in my secure and supported life situation)? And what is right? Is it subjective?
So my questions to you: Is parenting just a matter of opinion? Or, is it more black and white? Maybe children just shouldn’t ever be left alone (and woe to the mother who makes the choice otherwise, regardless of situation)? What do you think?