Raising Richmond: Home alone

When is it time to let your child stay home or walk around the neighborhood unsupervised?

As the snow fell last Monday night, my four-year-old and I walked around outside while she threw snow, and we saw some neighborhood kids playing outside by themselves. I know they weren’t unsupervised, since I could hear the mom talking to them from their house. I counted down the minutes until I could reasonably tell my kid that we had to go back inside because it was too cold to play, and I marveled at the idea of her playing outside alone while I did things other than stand out in 20-degree weather.1

Not that she would want to play outside alone. She’s only in the last few months really embraced any independent play at home, and since she can’t go more than 30 seconds without calling for me for some reason, playing during her first real snow day should be a shared experience. Anyway, she fell down a lot in her new snow bib and often needed a hand up. And since I forget all the time that our fence-jumping dog is outside I would maybe-but-probably forget my child was, too. We are both not ready for her to play outside by herself.

Still, it had me think about when my husband and I would consider her old enough to play outside unsupervised, or even stay home on her own.

I can’t use my own experiences for this question, since I was the youngest of three and my sister, almost five years older than me, was old enough to watch me for most of my childhood. Also, when I grew up it seemed like kids were alone all the time, and I started babysitting younger kids by myself when I was 11. Now I know parents who won’t leave their 11-year-olds home alone. I guess things were different back in the stable, super-safe Richmond of the 1980s.2

I want to say six or seven is a good age to start walking down the street to go to a friend’s house alone, but then it depends on the neighborhood. I can’t see my daughter going anywhere by herself in our neighborhood until she’s legally allowed to drive there, but I’m sure when she’s not four I would soften on that age restriction. I’m OK with her playing solo in our backyard now (again, she doesn’t want to), but due to all the strangers we get via foot traffic, I don’t leave her alone in the front yard. She knows about stranger danger in theory but still wants to call out and talk to everyone who walks by.

This recent NPR story about laws surrounding unsupervised children discusses why sometimes “free range parenting” might look like neglect to some, but it’s hard to set broad laws.

The story offers some things to think about:

“As for allowing kids out without supervision, few states set a strict minimum age, instead advising parents to use their judgment. Parents must ask themselves, is my child mature? Do they know how to call 911? How to reach a parent?”

Virginia doesn’t have a legal age for children to be left unsupervised at home, but it recommends waiting until at least age 11.

I remember playing alone in the yard when I was a small kid. People were inside the house–I don’t remember ever being completely by myself, other than waiting at the bus stop in elementary school. When I was in middle school, my siblings and friends and I could spend a day wandering in the woods behind our neighborhood. We often got lost, but nothing worse happened than someone losing a shoe in a creek, and we ended up finding that later on a different adventure anyway.

We lived in a subdivision that was being built up during our time there, and we would use scrap wood and materials and build forts on yet-to-be bulldozed plots of land (though now I understand it was stealing and can realize why the builder kept coming to our parents to complain). We did all of that alone, but there were varying degrees of ages among the group of kids I ran with.

What are we afraid of when we let our kids go out alone?

For me, it’s a combination of environment and people. I’m used to nature-based problems, like the accidents my brother would have or my only real emergency situation that required us to find the closest adult.3 I was 11 and my sister was 16 when that happened–we just didn’t have a car. So we sought advice from a neighbor down the street before my mom was able to get home and take me to the ER.

And when we were younger, my brother used to get into any number of accidents that required medical attention while out alone. He, among other kids, always seemed to step on glass while barefoot, and, according to his stories, my husband spent his childhood being chased by bees.

The scariest thing that happened to us as children happened in our home when we were alone. I was in elementary school, probably around seven, and we had a woman in our neighborhood who would ride her bike around with her two-year-old son. One day, she just came inside through our back porch, without her child. She seemed unhinged, and yelled about how messy the house was. I don’t remember too much about it except that it was scary, my sister eventually yelled her out of the house, and later my friend’s mom told me that she had had her son taken away from her.

Though we were unsupervised, I don’t remember if we let her in ourselves or if she let herself in, but we probably did not consider her a stranger. My sister doesn’t remember any more than I do about the incident other than she was scared and never told our parents about it afterwards. I guess they know now. Sorry, Mom and Dad.

My daughter can probably sense some unease with strangers around the house. Our not opening the door when strangers come knocking is good practice for safety reasons, but in reality is just us not being interested in what they want or finding it worth wrangling the dog for. We know some of the neighbors on our street, but it’s not like when I was growing up when we knew everyone around us.

This is definitely one of those topics that seems so different when you’re the parent. I don’t think as a child I would have walked off with a stranger, based on my fear of a (now-gone) store on Midlothian Turnpike where a girl was kidnapped and her kidnapper took her to the bathroom and cut her hair to make her look like a boy. But bad things don’t happen to kids just because the kids don’t know better. Let’s all just stay inside together forever.

While I don’t know when we’ll decide to let our daughter walk anywhere on her own, I’m sure she’ll be ready a long time before we are. Exploring is one of the most fun things about being outside and being a kid. I hope that I can get past some unease and she can know the joys of getting lost in the woods and petty property theft.

  1. My daughter would always dress like it’s a warm spring day if we didn’t tell her otherwise, and doesn’t seem to get cold like most people do. I had to convince her she needed her gloves in the snow, and we often send her to school hat and gloveless because she doesn’t want to wear them (we’re teaching her lessons about the consequences of her own decisions and also don’t have time for a winter wear-related tantrum in the mornings). When she came in from the snow on her one snow day, she was wearing snow pants but her ankles and wrists got plenty wet and her gloves were soaked through. To warm up, she put on ankle-length leggings and a t-shirt and went barefoot. 
  2. Obviously things were not better. We just had two full-time-plus working parents who put lots of faith in the idea that we’d all be okay until they got home. Anyway, this is not one of those “things were better in my day” issues. No time was ever any better except maybe music in the 70s was cooler, but no one knew that until recently. 
  3. A piece of mulch went an inch into my foot. Don’t run barefoot outside, kids. 
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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

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