kids, random

Is Thirteen Too Young to Babysit?

My thirteen-year-old daughter. Is she too young to babysit?
My thirteen-year-old daughter. Is she too young to babysit?

In Bridgeport, CT a mother was arrested for leaving her three children, aged 13, 4 and 1, home alone so she could go out “clubbing.” So says the article at NBC Connecticut.

There are many issues with this scenario if the article is truthful and nothing is being omitted, which is common with any news report.

Obviously the main issue is that the woman was supposedly out all night partying while her kids were at home, hopefully sleeping. In many states it’s legal to leave kids that age home alone with the thirteen-year-old babysitting but not at night, and especially not overnight.

Issue two that came up was that a thirteen-year-old is too young to be left alone or responsible enough to watch his two younger siblings. This isn’t just concerning the late night scenario of the article but just in general. For many in today’s society, thirteen is just too young to be alone ever. People still get babysitters for their teens in many parts of the country.

As a follower of Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids website and philosophy (which I consider just normal parenting) I’m perfectly okay with a thirteen-year-old being home alone and babysitting. That was the norm just fifteen to twenty years ago, back when I was a teen.

My older children are 13, 12 and 11 and have been staying home on their own since they were around eight or nine. In a group I also leave my 7 and 3-year-olds with them. At least one of the older kids has to be there. And we do go out at night for dinner and movies, never overnight, though.

I think a main key to keep in mind is that my older kids know how to take care of the younger ones. Since they were toddlers themselves they were expected to look-out for and help each other. As the younger children came along they learned to feed, change diapers and how to deal with babies/toddlers. They have been changing diapers for the youngest since he was born in 2010 when they were 10, 8 and 7.

So is thirteen too young to babysit? I really think it depends on the kids involved, their personalities and how they were raised. There are many sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds I would not let stay home alone because they weren’t raised to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.

As for the article and what the Bridgeport mother did, I do consider it a bit negligent to go out all night to party while the kids are home, even if they were sleeping. Mostly because she could become impaired and not be able to help if a situation arose at home. My opinion would change if she had family, friends, or neighbors she trusted to help in a situation. Such as my grandmother who lived downstairs from us when I was a child allowing my mom to leave us home alone at eight and six. If anything went wrong we knew to get Gramma.

Do I think this woman deserves jail time and to lose her kids? Absolutely not. Unless this is a regular thing I think she should pay her fine, maybe take a parenting class, and learn from her experience. She was not a “bad” mom for want to go out on her own and have her own time. She was not selfish, she was just human. Every parent needs a break from the kids and if they tell you otherwise they are either lying or in denial.



Why I Love Having Free-Range Kids

“Free-Range Kids” is a term coined by Lenore Skenazy who stirred up a lot of backlash for letting her 9yo son ride the New York City subway alone (something they did together often and he was comfortable doing on his own) and then writing about it.  For that she was dubbed “The World’s Worst Mom.”  That article spawned a blog, a book, a TV show, and a whole lot of hate mail.

But she’s also become a torch in the abyss of parenting where helicoptering rules the day and children’s freedoms are greatly limited.

Basically, she’s my hero.  Before I learned about Free-Range Kids I was constantly worried about something happening.  Not to my kids but to our family if some busy-body neighbor decided they didn’t think it was safe for my kids to play outside without me watching their every move.  I’ve been Free-Range since I started having kids but she gave a “title” to the concept.  I just called it, “parenting.”  Or doing things the way my parents did because if it was good enough for me and my brother then it was good enough for my kids.

But if you’ve ever been on parenting sites/message boards like CafeMom or Circle of Moms you’ll know that parenting isn’t that “easy.”  There are many books and experts and rules to follow or your kid will be totally screwed up (or so they tell you).  And if you really, really love your kids you will NEVER let them out of your sight and will track their every move with GPS and never let them have any independence (because they should just get to be kids without responsibilities–why should Johnny make his on PB&J if Mom is sitting there doing nothing, that’s her job… nevermind Johnny is 10 and perfectly capable of making his own damn sandwich) for fear “something” might happen.

The paranoia that surrounds modern day parenting is suffocating.  And if you don’t fall in line you can become a social pariah.  Or worse, you could lose your kids thanks to reactionary busy-bodies, cops and family members (what do you mean you let 9yo Susie ride her bike around the block! Don’t you know there are predators on every corner waiting to snatch her away, I’m calling CPS right now!).

But thanks to Lenore there is a safe-haven online for parents to go when they refuse to fall into the paranoia and fear-mongering and believe the world ISN’T more dangerous than when we were kids (it’s just advertised more).  And that kids CAN be capable and trusted.

Since moving out of Chicago I’ve been able to relax even more with my parenting philosophy. It helps that there isn’t a whole lot of traffic here (compared to our neighborhood in Chicago) and just about everyone else is Free-Range here (not that our Chicago neighborhood wasn’t Free-Range).  I just don’t even think about it anymore, don’t second guess my decisions to allow them freedom.  It’s just “normal” here.

Today I decided I was going to make tacos for a late lunch/dinner.  I had the ground turkey cooking when I remembered we didn’t have any refried beans.  Now I can make them without but they are better with the beans in them and they tend to last longer that way (which is very important with a family of 7).  What to do?  Now one of those helicopter type moms would turn the food off, gather up all the kids, get them in the car, drive to the store, take all the kids in, pick up a can of beans, check out, get all the kids back in the car, drive home then continue cooking.  For the ones that don’t have a car (like me) it would entail walking.  And sometimes you just don’t feel like walking (like after you spent the morning cleaning the house).

I was about to just eat them without the beans because it isn’t that big of a deal but then I remembered I have three very capable, independent children.  Meagan, who will be 12 next month,  just happened to be at home so I told her to go to the store.  At first she didn’t want to because she’s too afraid (she has generalized anxiety) to go alone.  Sigh.  So I told her to go find Owen (10) and Brenna (9) so they could do it.  She never did look for them.  Instead she ran into a friend and she agreed to go.  So Meagan; her friend, Alyssa (12); and Nora (6) walked to Safeway.  They came back an hour later with the correct items I asked for.  But not the correct change.  Still not sure what they did with that extra dollar.

And what did I do?  I continued to cook the meat and watch Jack (my almost 2yo) and watch random videos online.  The girls had a blast doing something on their own and I got a quiet house for an hour (Jack, not withstanding).

Now, a lot of non-free-range parents would balk at my naivety (as they would call it).  Don’t I know that ANYTHING could happen?  How I could I put my kids in that kind of danger?  Don’t I care?

What exactly is “anything?”  Well there’s getting hit by a car, tripping, scraping a knee, choking on change, getting scared, getting lost, having to cross the train tracks, having to cross a busy street.  And, of course, the constant threat of kidnappers just waiting behind every bush and in every nondescript white van.  I would get reamed on the parenting message boards for something like this.  I can just picture the reactions: horror, disgust, threats to call CPS (even if they have no idea where I live).  I obviously must not care much about their safety and well-being if I just let them walk a mile to the store without me right there.  Not to mention making them do something that should only be the mother’s job (shopping).  Why aren’t they playing video games or texting friends inside their safe houses like they should be?  Never mind I have no idea where my other two kids are.

I haven’t seen Brenna or Owen all day.  Owen popped in my room this morning to say he was going to the park (they were having some kind of BBQ hosted by a local church–free food… I’m all over that, saves me money).  They were gone when I got up.  I assume they’re still at the park or at their friends’ houses.

And never mind that all of this is perfectly normal in our neighborhood.  There are always kids all over, no parents to be seen.  Kids walk/ride bikes to the Safeway and Bi-Mart all the time.  Just the other day Owen and Brenna went to RiteAid (next to Safeway) to buy some candy.  They had $4 ($2 that was Brenna’s and $2 I gave them).  They had a blast and came home just in time for dinner (of course they were full of candy but whatever).

I love having free-range kids.  They are independent, self-reliant and capable of caring for themselves.  All of which makes my life easier because I don’t have to pour five bowls of cereal every morning or make five sandwiches every afternoon.  I don’t have to do all that laundry or spend hours sitting on the porch bored out of my mind while I watch them play with their friends.  And better for them because they aren’t stuck only playing with each other where I can see them.  There’s a whole world (well, neighborhood for now) out there to explore.

Do I worry about them when I can’t see them?  Of course.  I’m their mother, it’s what I do.  There are panicky moments occasionally when I wonder where they are and if they are okay but they pass when I remind myself that the chances of them not being all right are pretty slim.

But I refuse to let the media-induced fear rule our lives.  My kids will play outside on their own, walk to the store alone, sit in the car while we run into Wal-mart, stay home alone, take their baby brother to the park, cut their own food, do their own laundry and take care of themselves as much as they can.  And, amazingly, after all that there is still plenty of time to just be a kid.  Or maybe it’s because of that they have so much time to be kids.  Because, really, what kind of childhood is it if Mommy is always two feet away, waiting for you to screw up so she can fix it, filling your little head with fear and paranoia?  I know my best memories of being a kid did NOT involve my parents… just me, my brother and our friends.  And the world.

2011 08 08_0058

[that would be my kids up there on that bridge somewhere… by themselves where once some people were nearly washed away when a rock fell from the top of Multnomah Falls causing a tidal wave in the pond below the bridge]


Let them be free

Found this great article in The Atlantic about kids and free play thanks to a link by Lenore Skenazy (my hero).  The article says, “The researchers found that compared to 1981, children in 1997 spent less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18 percent more time at school, 145 percent more time doing school work, and 168 percent more time shopping with parents.”  Holy crap that’s a lot of time being directed by adults and shuttled around from place to place.

Off to school... without mom tagging along

Thinking about how little kids get to play makes me sad.  I used to be on this parenting site (Cafemom which I no longer frequent) and I was constantly aghast at the extent of hovering some mothers do all in the name of “safety”.  I mean not letting a 16yo outside alone, ever.  That means no trips to the mall with friends, no hanging out after school (unless they are at a preapproved friend’s house and their parents are there), no movies, no dating, no anything but mom half way up their butt.  I don’t even know what I would have done as a teen if my mom had wanted that much control over me.  I’m sure it wouldn’t have been what I did do: behave.  I was a good girl (no drinking, drugs, smoking, parties, sex or anything) because my parents expected me to behave and trusted me.  The thought of disappointing them kept me in line because I actually cared about their respect.  Not letting your kids have a life is disrespecting them… you can see where that can lead.

Then there was this one crazy woman who said she only allows her kids outside alone IF they are in the locked, fenced back yard and are together.  Okay, that seems reasonable for toddlers.  Except her kids were 7 and 11.  Her 11yo could only be outside if he stayed in the locked back yard.  No wonder today’s middle schoolers act like babies.  They’re treated like them at home.  My 11yo (when she isn’t in front of the TV) is off with her friends doing who knows what.  I assume it’s good because she hasn’t, so far, given me reason not to trust her when she is away from me.  She even goes with her friends to the store a mile away (her friends are 12 and 13).

Heck, my 5 1/2yo has more freedom than the 11yo above.  She’s allowed in our front yard alone but if her older siblings are outside or the older kids in the neighborhood she can go off with them.  She goes to the park with them and for walks around the neighborhood.  She’s also allowed to walk to and from her friend’s house down the street.  She just has to tell me where she’s going.

At home I don’t interfere with the kids play time.  I don’t play with them.  I’m an adult and I’m no longer interested in playing Barbies or toy cars (although, I can be persuaded to do a puzzle or build with legos).  We find other things to do together that don’t involve playing, usually watching favorite TV shows we all enjoy.  My kids play with each other or alone or with their friends.  As it should be.  That is the rightful order of the world, not this distorted idea that a kid’s best friend is his Mommy (and I don’t mean that in a, “my mom was great and now she’s my best friend as an adult,” I mean actual BFF because the kid doesn’t or isn’t allowed to have anyone be closer to them than Mom).

On another website years ago there was a woman having trouble with her sons.  At the time my oldest son was 5 or 6 and was the same age as her oldest son.  She asked if it was normal for her child to not know how to entertain himself.  This wasn’t a case of, “Mom, I’m sooooo bored.”  The kid literally could not play without Mom being right there.  If she wasn’t giving him her undivided attention he would just sit there and stare or cry or whine.  He didn’t know how to self-direct himself or play in a room alone.  In that particular post she sighted a night when she was trying to cook dinner.  Her son kept begging her to play with him because he was bored.  She felt so guilty she stopped cooking to “play.”  He wanted to do a puzzle but when she tried to put a piece into the puzzle he got mad and said she couldn’t help.  So she went back to cooking and 5 seconds later he was in the kitchen complaining she wasn’t playing with him and he couldn’t finish the puzzle without her “help”.  His idea of “help” and “playing” was for her to sit there with him and watch him do things on his own (um, sounds a bit boring to me).  She was flabbergasted and confused.  And desperate.

I never did find out if her son learned to play alone.  The last time I checked that message board was a year later and her son was still unable to be left alone for a minute (because he would be bored) AND her younger son, who was 3, was having the same problem.  Not only were the kids depressed and anxious all the time (they didn’t even like being in a room alone, they had to have Mom in sight at all times) but so was mom.  She was stressed out from never having a single moment to herself.  Her boys followed her everywhere she went.  I mean, if she had to pee they were sitting on the tub watching, if she was cooking they were underfoot, if she was watching TV they were right there (which meant only G rated shows), if she tried to do anything they needed her 100% attention.  I can’t imagine that life.  I would have had more than a nervous breakdown from the stress of being the sole entertainment for 2 kids.

My kids, on the other hand, have no problem playing in their own room (out of sight), entertaining themselves, devising their own games and don’t need my constant, undivided attention.  That goes for all of them, even the 15 month old.  He’s perfectly happy to sit next to my chair and play with his cars.  Or he’ll toddle off to another room to see what mischief he can get into.

Makes me wonder which kid (my son or hers, both are 10 now) will make it in the real world.  My son is confident, friendly and is friends with everyone.  He knows how to take charge of a situation and get things done.  And to play fair.  He’s considerate of other’s needs and wants.  I imagine, if she didn’t find a solution to her over-involvement, her son will still be demanding, inconsiderate (always expecting to be the center of the universe), lazy, uninspired…  I just can’t imagine.  I sure hope she figured it out for her son’s sake.