Profiling moms: When is it OK to leave a kid alone?

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The trailer for Halle Berry’s new movie shows beautiful Berry and her boy playing “Marco Polo” at a busy playground on a sun-dappled day. “Marco!” says Berry. “Polo!” chirps the boy, who looks to be about 5. “Marco!” calls Berry. “Polo!” comes the reassuring reply. “Marco!”

I think you can guess what comes (or rather, doesn’t come) next. The movie’s title is “Kidnap.”

The plot is based on our culture’s favorite parenting tale: The Mom Who Looked Away and Lost Her Kid. We have absorbed it so deeply that we shame any mom who isn’t watching her kids 24-7. Maybe you’ve seen the viral Facebook video where a guy screams at a mom who is buying a phone at the phone store and can see her kid in the car the whole five minutes she is running her errand? Or maybe you heard about the mom arrested last week for letting her kids, 8 and 9, wait in the condo under an hour while she went to pick up dinner?

A new study out of the University of California, Irvine, may have figured out why we are reacting as if those short waits were crazy dangerous. Researchers Ashley J. Thomas, P. Kyle Stanford and Barbara W. Sarnecka discovered that when it comes to child safety, our risk assessment is determined not by a rational analysis of the facts, but by our judgment of the parent — particularly the mom.

And in a society that has become convinced, mostly from a surfeit of “Law & Order,” that children must be under constant adult supervision, we think any mom who doesn’t do that has put her kids in danger. What kind of mom endangers her kids?

An immoral one. So it is a feedback loop: Unsupervised kids have immoral moms, immoral moms endanger their kids. But here is what the researchers found out: The more immoral we think the mom is, the more danger we see in her actions.

The study worked this way. Participants were given a series of vignettes in which kids were left unsupervised. In each of these vignettes, the kids’ age, location and amount of time they were left alone was the same. The only thing that differed was the reason the mom left. In one scenario, for instance, the mom was dropping a book off at the library when she was hit by a car, knocked unconscious and no one realized the child was still in the car until 30 minutes later. In other scenarios, the mom left the child for 30 minutes to do some work, volunteer, or simply relax. And in another, she left for 30 minutes to meet with her lover.

How much danger was the child in, on a scale of 1 to 10?

“When the mother unintentionally left the child alone, people rated those scenarios safer than when she intentionally left the child alone,” Thomas told me in a phone interview. So when the child was unsupervised due to circumstances beyond the mom’s control, the kid was judged safer than when the mom deliberately went to work, volunteer, relax or — the highest danger perception of all — have an affair.

In other words: If we think the mom is bad, we think her kids are in more danger than if she is good, like the mom who was hit by a car but otherwise did not intend to leave her child’s side.

And here is where it gets really nasty: When the researchers substituted dads for moms in their scenarios, the dads’ work-related absences were treated the same as their unintentional absences. Their kids were perceived at the lowest level of danger. But when women left their kids to do some work, the perceived danger increased.

We seem to unconsciously consider moms as selfishly, immorally choosing to endanger their kids by going to work.

The researchers caution that their dad-scenario sample was small. But they also point out that the only model of childrearing that the public seems to deem decent is an old-fashioned one that only the wealthiest families can afford today: A stay-at-home mom or someone hired to fill that role, constantly supervising the kids.

Now the researchers’ hope and mine is that once we start to recognize the difference between real danger and our unconscious condemnation of moms who don’t live up to some 1950s’ mom ideal, we will stop arresting the ones who give their kids some unsupervised time, either out of necessity or Free-Range choice.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday on

Lenore Skenazy is author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at

Posted 12:00 am, September 4, 2016
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Reasonable discourse

Mom says:
It depends on the kid. Some are very mature and responsible. Others get into trouble without supervision. Before leaving them alone, you can teach them to be able to take care of themselves by allowing them to figure things out and do things on their own. If they get used to thinking and handling things for themselves, even when you are there, they will be better able to do that when you aren't.
Are you a mother, or are these columns about kids just ways for you to boss around parents?
Sept. 5, 2016, 3:32 am
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
Another unfortunate legacy of the baby boomers. The generation that terrified us of "stranger danger" and who had DARE tell us that literally everyone else is doing hard drugs except us (oh and they are way cooler than you because they have that biker jacked and the good brand of jeans not the knock off kind), oh, and MADD said that if you wanted to drink after 18 (you know like every generation ever before you) that you're a terrible person because Tipper Gore wanted to keep "young people" out of concert venues because they might hear the poopy-words and so she got a dementia addled Ronald Regan (oh sorry, I mean to your generation "Saint Regan" because you know you voted for him... you know you did) to sign off on some bullshhiitt blackmail law which enforced your boomer will on us. This is your generation's fault, and here you are trying to shirk responsibility once again.
Sept. 5, 2016, 3:28 pm
Sean F from Bensonhurst says:
According to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services "All children develop at their own rate, and with their own special needs and abilities. Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. Likewise, there are some teenagers who are too irresponsible or who have special needs that limit their ability to be safe if they are left alone. Parents and guardians need to make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters."

In general, as an attorney friend of mine told me when our children were younger, children under age 12 are not considered ready to be left alone. Parents should not be leaving young children alone and unsupervised for any amount of time. It takes only a minute for tragedy to happen. If 5 minutes for a gallon of milk is worth your child's life and safety, you sell your child very cheaply.
Sept. 6, 2016, 9:51 am
Benson says:
It's all a matter of for how long, where, and how responsible the kids are. All children can use some time without adults hawking over them, but in a safe enviornment. There's no magic age where they can be left alone, although a child 13 or over who cannot be left alone is behind in maturity and might have some kind of problem.
I can easily leave my three year old unsupervised in our backyard while I cook dinner, because it's enclosed and safe for her. I would never leave her alone alone in the house while I went out.
Even if you feel you have no choice, you should not leave a child entirely alone for a long time. Use friends or neighbors, even just as a person they can contact, if they are not watching them the whole time.
If a child is in eyesight, it's not "alone". That child is with you, and near enough. Why you can't bring them into the store is odd to me, but whatever.
Sept. 7, 2016, 9:13 am
Old time brookkyn from Slope says:
Depends on he kid
I was 9 or so
Sept. 7, 2016, 1:20 pm
John Wasserman from Prospect Heights says:
Why, wasn't allowed to stay home alone until 19 years of age. I plan to keep this tradition alive with my son, Edgar. Thanks for reading. It means a lot.
John Wasserman
Sept. 7, 2016, 1:48 pm

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