No child left alone

Volokh’s David Bernstein discovers that he was a neglected child — at least by the “minimal acceptable standards for the supervision of children developed by professionals in collaboration with the community”  in his Virginia county.

According to these guidelines, eight-year old children “Should not be left alone for any period of time. This includes leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and yards.” I not only played in my back yard unattended at age eight, but, if I remember correctly, was free to wander around my neighborhood unaccompanied by an adult so long as I came home before dark, and in New York City (Queens) no less. Somehow, I survived unscathed, as did each and every one of my peers.

He learned about the rules from a mother who faced endangerment charges for leaving her child asleep in a car for five minutes while she ran an errand.

My mother told me it was routine in Chicago for mothers to park their babies outside grocery stores or drug stores while they were shopping. Certainly when I was growing up in the suburbs as a baby boomer, we walked or biked to school from kindergarten on and played unsupervised after school in the park, someone’s yard or the street.

There were risks. A man who turned out to be a convicted sex offender once offered my brother a “ride” when he was walking to school.  He ran away and, unlike the other boys offered rides, reported it.  The man was warned, but not arrested.  Then a girl walking home from school was kidnapped, raped and “released unharmed” the next day.  The man was arrested and convicted. Parents continued to let their kids walk to school and play unsupervised. The kidnapping was seen as an aberration.

About Joanne


  1. We do it all for the children.

  2. When I started kindergarten in 1958, my mother walked with me a few times (carrying my baby sister), and then I was on my own. This was just 2 or 3 blocks, with only one side street to cross. We moved to Minneapolis before third grade; this walk was six blocks, including crossing a part of the railroad yards, and nobody questioned that 8 year olds could walk it alone.

    If you are afraid to let your kid face little dangers, what’s going to happen when he turns 18 and goes out in a world full of big dangers?

  3. momof4 says:

    All of my kids (both sexes) were the very active type that needed lots of active outdoor play to burn off their excess energy constructively. They, like all of their forebears, played in a fenced yard as toddlers, and graduated to general neighborhood play shortly thereafter. They knew they were not allowed to go beyond hearing range of my call without permission, but they spent many happy hours climbing trees, making forts, riding bikes, catching frogs, damming the stream, playing games, going to the elementary school playground etc. etc. Since it wasn’t closely supervised by adults, the kids in the neighborhood learned how to set up their own rules, make up their own games and get along with others. Their boundaries were gradually increased as they grew and proved that they could handle themselves responsibly. I think most kids need that kind of increasing freedom.

  4. I grew up in New York City and walked three blocks and crossed a major avenue (where there was a crossing guard) to kindergarten when I was five. It was no big deal.

  5. At least by the time I was 4 I was free to go around the neighborhood to friends’ houses. There was construction of new houses behind my house. A friend and I would often go out to look at what was happening. Imagine the thrills for boys to see earth movers, graders and dump trucks, as well as houses being built.

    When it rained we would go out in our rain boots and wander through the puddles left in the construction sites. At least my boots always developed holes, so I had dirty wet feet when I got home.

    Once I got my own bike I was allowed to ride to any of my friends houses using the public streets. In the summer I rode nearly daily to the local rec center ( a converted room of my school for summer).Not much later than that my friends and I were riding all over town.

    BTW – without the safety police, I would ride on the bar of a bike with no chain or breaks down a steep hill at the end or our street while a kid who was already SIX and I was four or barely five steered.

    These people are turning kids into fearful wimps.

    BTW – when our kids were young, we let them bike or ride around our community, perhaps scaring those parents that had to make sure the kids were safe and sound every second.

  6. Joanne’s readers: I think Joanne and I are within a year or two of each other in age, so I suspect we grew up under similar conditions.

    As an eight-year-old, if I missed the school bus that let us off out of sight of all the children’s homes, I was expected to walk home: cross a busy street and walk about a mile, past about 25 homes.

    I am now working in a couple of schools, including the K-5 school my children attended 1985-2000.

    I lead an after-school program. Right now, I have 7 and 9 year olds in the program. At the end of my program’s time, I have to (a) release children only to their parents or (b) personally escort the children to the other daycare program, and sign them in. The daycare program is 3 doors down from my classroom — I am not supposed to just watch them, I am supposed to line them up and sign or initial that the children have been transferred from my program to the daycare program.

    I have some understanding about this type of tight control of children’s movement — litigation, the school-violence episodes triggering control of who is on campus and so on.

    But I do think this sort of micro-management of children has a detrimental effect on the kids — “you cannot take care of yourselves” “it isn’t safe for you to be out alone” “the world isn’t safe” and so on.

    I also think it makes children dependent upon adults in a non-beneficial way.

  7. greifer says:

    –If you are afraid to let your kid face little dangers, what’s going to happen when he turns 18 and goes out in a world full of big dangers?

    But I don’t think this has anything to do with my fears for my child. I doubt it does for many parents.

    I’m not afraid to let my children face danger. I’m afraid that the State will take my child away or otherwise ruin my life if I’m caught allowing the child to be a child without my over-protection.

  8. My husband and I work very hard to let our children have the kind of freedom we experienced at their age. It’s hard today. Our parents didn’t have to suffer through 24 hour news programs completely devoted to children who died while they were unsupervised. And so many parents who keep a tight leash on their own children feel compelled to support legislation to make the rest of us conform. Paranoia.

  9. Growing up in the 50’s, the only rule we were told was:
    “Be home when the street lights turn on”

    So I guess our whole neighborhood was considered “neglected”

  10. “If you are afraid to let your kid face little dangers, what’s going to happen when he turns 18 and goes out in a world full of big dangers?”

    You call up their college professors and harass them when your child doesn’t earn the A you are SURE they deserve…you “helicopter parent”…you threaten employers on your child’s behalf.

    I suspect that if a lot of us looked at how we ate as children, compared to modern standards, our diets would constitute OMG CHILD ABUSE to the more conchy parents. (My parents – oh no – let me eat a Ho-ho occasionally!)

  11. Richard Nieporent says:

    I grew up in New York City and walked three blocks and crossed a major avenue (where there was a crossing guard) to kindergarten when I was five. It was no big deal.

    I grew up in an apartment building in the Bronx in the 40’s and 50’s and that was also my experience. (I had to cross Westchester Avenue. The elevated IRT Pelham subway line runs along that avenue.) In fact when I was in elementary school, we came home for lunch so I got to walk to school twice. After school I would go out and play with my friends without any parental supervision. The only rule I had was to be home in time for supper. But my parents weren’t totally irresponsible. Before I was old enough for school, I had to ask any adult who happened to be there (it couldn’t be an older child) to “cross me” when I wanted to go the other side of the street.

  12. Stuart Buck says:

    People are insane here. A child is hundreds, if not thousands, of times more likely to be killed in a car wreck than to be kidnapped by a stranger while playing on the street.

  13. Keep in mind that many of these same parents of the Baby Boomers were, themselves, not all that old when they became parents (although married, for the most part), often teen parents.

    Their perspective may be a truer one – that relatively young children can handle responsibility, and that the experience may be a maturing one. In other words, the more we give REAL responsibility to kids, the faster they mature (and I mean faster in a GOOD way).

    In today’s society, parents often fail to allow children to develop judgment by taking on real tasks, but have no qualms about foisting on them, at an early age, responsibility for making good decisions about drugs, sex, and such.


  14. Parent2 says:

    Parents are marrying later, and having fewer children. As families get smaller, each child seems more precious. Also, I think that more people are having no children at all. It’s easy to underestimate how much work children are, if you don’t have any.

    For example, I know that car seats are a major hassle. Yes, we use them, as required by law, but life gets much easier once the children are large enough to rely upon seat belts alone. My grandmother was astounded that we used car seats. “What, every time?” She would ask.

    We let our children play alone outside. They haven’t come to harm yet, apart from the normal bumps and bruises of childhood. I think keeping too close a watch on children’s play harms them in the long run.

    In our community, though, there’s a weird switch which takes place. Overprotective until the end of middle school. In high school, too much trust placed in teens’ judgement. It can be hard to get adults to monitor their teens–and those who show up to talks about parenting teenagers are never those who really need the information.

  15. Research has determined that from the Moment of Commitment (the point when a student pulls their weapon) to the Moment of Completion (when the last round is fired) is only 5 seconds. If it is the intent of a school district to react to this violence, they will do so over the wounded and/or slain bodies of students, teachers and administrators.

    Educational institutions clearly want safe and secure schools. Administrators are perennially queried by parents about the safety of their schools. The commonplace answers, intended to reassure anxious parents, focus on the school resource officers and emergency procedures. While useful, these less than adequate efforts do not begin to provide a definitive answer to preventing school violence, nor do they make a school safe and secure.

    Traditionally school districts have relied upon the mental health community or local police to keep schools safe, yet one of the key shortcomings has been the lack of a system that involves teachers, administrators, parents and students in the identification and communication process. Recently, colleges, universities and community colleges are forming Behavioral Intervention Teams with representatives from all these constituencies. Higher Education has changed their safety/security policies, procedures, or surveillance systems, yet K-12 have yet to incorporate Behavioral Intervention Teams. K-12 schools continue spending excessive amounts of money to put in place many of the physical security options. Sadly, they are reactionary only and do little to prevent aggression because they are designed exclusively to react to existing conflict, threat and violence. These schools reflect a national blindspot, which prefers hardening targets through enhanced security versus preventing violence with efforts directed at aggressors. Security gets all the focus and money, but this only makes us feel safe, rather than to actually make us safer.

    Some law enforcement agencies use profiling as a means to identify an aggressor. According to the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education’s report on Targeted Violence in Schools, there is a significant difference between “profiling” and identifying and measuring emerging aggression; “The use of profiles is not effective either for identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted violence at school or – once a student has been identified – for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence.” It continues; “An inquiry should focus instead on a student’s behaviors and communications to determine if the student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack.” We can and must assess objective, culturally neutral, identifiable criteria of emerging aggression.

    For a comprehensive look at the problem and its solution,

  16. momof4 says:

    Unfortunately, there is far too much government meddling in family matters. Yes, child abuse/neglect does exist and should never be tolerated, but there is MUCH over-reaction. I remember reading that the mom of a 2-year-old was arrested and jailed for child abuse because she carried the child out of the building (forget the setting) by the straps of his overalls, while he was having a screaming tantrum. That’s ridiculous.

    The fear of adverse consequences is all too real. Think of the possibility of being reported for abuse because of the NORMAL bumps, bruises, scrapes and cuts of active childhood, even to the point of occasional sutures, broken arms etc.

    I’m also against over-protectiveness in the matter of chores; I believe in them and I believe it’s good for kids to have increasing responsibilities. That used to be the norm; the whole concept of childhood has changed in the past 50 years or so. The concept of adolescence didn’t exist until about 100 years ago, and still does not in most of the world; teenagers were expected to be productive, even if only part-time.

  17. Kirk Parker says:


    You need a better state.