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What is reasonable risk? One mum on why she leaves her kids home alone

Has our obsession with keeping kids safe destroyed something beautiful and valuable in their lives – and in ours? Lily Richards considers some new research that suggests unattended children are often in far less danger than many parents think.

Sometimes my partner and I leave our children alone at home while we walk down to the supermarket about ten minutes from our house. Our children are seven and four years old. We live in one of the safest suburbs in Auckland, we leave a mobile phone with them so they can call if they need us, and yes, part of me feels sick about it. But I also suspect I shouldn’t and here’s why: an American study released recently titled No Child Left Alone found that the moral outrage parents incur when they leave their children unattended is very often disproportionate to the actual risks their children face.

I grew up on the side of Mt Victoria on Auckland’s North Shore. Aged nine, I’d come home from school, stuff a heated burrito in my mouth, and head up the mountain. For hours I’d be totally alone, wandering the nearer side of the cone, 10 minutes from home but completely out of sight and totally not within earshot. In today’s climate my parents would be crucified for such lax judgement. Hearing about my after school freedoms, it’s likely they’d imagine my gruesome death in a hundred different guises.

Is the pervasive fear many parents feel for their children actually founded? Consider cars for a second. Children are more likely to die in car accidents than they are as the victims of abduction, yet no one crusades for cars to be made no-kid-zones. In New Zealand children are probably more likely to die inside their homes, at the hands of a family member or someone they know, than as a result of straying from them. Yet I feel confident that many parents wouldn’t condone my decision to leave our kids at home so my partner and I can walk to the supermarket.

Why? Research points to a wonky conscience. Morality has shifted in the last decade to favour the ever watchful parent and essentially criminalise the alternative, which I can’t think of a neutral adjective for as they all seem to be pejoratives: ‘lax’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘inattentive’, ‘careless’.

The researchers behind No Child Left Alone tested the theory that perceived risk was linked to moral judgement by undertaking a series of experiments in which participants were asked to rate the level of risk for children in various scenarios.

For example, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool underground parking garage. In another, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a coffee shop, one block away from her parent’s location.

To test the moral element of the experiment, the reasons given to subjects as to why the child was left unattended varied. They included the parents having to go to work, being injured, volunteering, relaxing, and meeting a lover.

Not surprisingly, the perception of risk to the child escalated when the participants (over 1,300 of them) found the parents to be acting immorally.

The researchers summed up their findings thusly: “People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”

So where does this leave us? In New Zealand (according to the NZ Police) young children must never be left alone in a house or vehicle – they require constant supervision – and it is illegal to leave a child under the age of 14 without reasonable provision for their care.

What’s your definition of reasonable? Mine is locked inside a house with a mobile phone in case they need to call for help or request more rice crackers. The reason why this shifting morality (and the eventual blowback on parents) interests me is that I remember the rush of freedom I felt as a kid when I was alone.

Not alone in my room within the norms and regulations of my overlords (read: parents), but truly alone, on my own terms, in the wild (of Mt Victoria).

Some of the stuff I did defies explanation, probably because I wasn’t being watched and didn’t have to explain myself. I rolled fresh grass into papers I’d bought from the dairy across the road when I was 10 and tried to light them. I pretended I was being interviewed by Oprah and conducted both her side of the interview and mine. I spoke to fairies and pretended I was a single parent constantly angry at my recalcitrant ex-husband for letting the kids down. Shit got real. Shit got weird. I was able to go wherever my freaky brain took me and I honestly think I can partially credit those experiences for my ability to have ideas, to be brave and creative and think unusual things.

Young Boy with Backpack Hiking in the Woods Alone

Being alone outside as a kid is an antidote to the cult of noise and control and accountability that sucks life from all good things. In this condition, silence is a balm. Silence is the kind of space you naturally slip into when you’re alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we boot our kids out the front door and wish them the best – but I do think there ought to be less judgement and more rational analysis when we think about the kind of risks we’re willing to expose our children to. Are they terminal risks? Or, after some level-headed thought, are they the kinds of risks that have a 1 in 100 (or 1 in 1000) chance of going wrong but otherwise would really blow the kids’ hair back?

When my partner and I first started dating, we walked. That was our thing. We did it everywhere. We did it during parties. We did it early in the morning. We did it to get places and to have fun. We were walkers. Then we had kids and realised that their tiny legs and finite energy – and endless whinging – meant that we could no longer do the thing we loved.

We accepted this, and we waited. I grew fatter but that’s neither here nor there. Fitness and thinness wasn’t the reason we walked; we walked because it’s ancient and magic and it gets you talking. We walked because no one interrupts you when you’re walking; in such an unfixed way you are unavailable. And every now and then, when we decide it’s worth the risk to feel that magic again, we give the eldest a mobile and lock them inside. Then we walk down to the supermarket and talk widely, uninterrupted.

And what about the kids? They call us about seven times in ten minutes to tell us what the other one is doing or if they said something rude, or to inform us that they saw a bird or ate an old biscuit they found under the couch. In other words they use that freedom to be themselves and then relish in sharing these moments with us.

Lily Richards has two young children with her partner, an unfinished philosophy degree (in ethics) and an invidious interest in looking inside other people’s houses. She has reviewed books for The Listener and Metro magazine, started the 95bfm book review and was the book reviewer for TVNZ U. 

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