When Kids Are Home Alone

During the recent blog entry called Home Alone, Just Wondering posted a question about balancing home, family and work on those days or hours when children -- not adults -- are home alone.

Great question.

I remember a Saturday years ago, out running errands with a baby in a Snugli and another in a stroller, I bumped into friends whose kids were a decade older. "Where are Zach and Ben?" I asked. "Home alone!" the parents gleefully told me. Until that moment, it was inconceivable that my own children would one day be able to stay home without adult supervision.

When are kids old enough to stay home alone by themselves? How long do you leave them alone? How do the guidelines change based on your children's personalities? Have work demands ever forced you to leave your children home alone when you knew it wasn't in the kids' best interest? What can you do to keep kids out of trouble when you're at work?

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  October 13, 2006; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Free-for-All
Previous: The Meaningless Child Care Debate | Next: Raising Balanced Kids

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According to my friends that have older kids 12 yo seems to be the age when they will leave kids alone for a short period of time - running an errand, etc.

I did have this very conversation with a friend last week though - her daughter is 12 and she maintains that kids this age are very vulnerable. She does not leave the 12 yo home alone after school when most older kids tend to get in trouble. I think tweeners are susceptible to on-line solicitations and even abduction at the mall if they engage in conversation with predators. Obviously watching computer time and continued coaching on talking to strangers will help, but kids in the 11-12 age range start to feel very independent and question authority - which is why they are so vulnerable.

Another question might be - at what age do you let your kids play outside by themselves? I see 4 year olds running around by themselves in my neighborhood and it makes me cringe.

Posted by: cmac | October 13, 2006 8:16 AM

Depends (of course) on innumerable factors, which include but not limited to, what your neighborhood is like, what your kids are like, whether you have a collection of rare swords in basement, etc.

My parents let us roam free when we were about 7, home alone by 10, babysitting my kid brother by 12, overnight alone by 14. Worked for us.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 8:35 AM

Playing outside- my 4 year old sometimes plays outside by himself. He sticks to our yard mostly but will sometimes wander over to a neighbor's yard. He's pretty good about watching for cars, etc. I played outside by myself or with friends at age 4 (and even earlier) as well.

As for being at home alone- dunno. Depends on the kid, I guess. I started babysitting at age 12 and I'm sure I was at home alone many times before that.

Posted by: randommom | October 13, 2006 8:38 AM

Warning for all parents that do the mall, bowling alley, movie, football game, or church youth group dropoff for your 15 or 16 year old daughter. You may want to stuff a few condoms in her purse before she jumps out of the car. If today's teenage boys are anything like I was when I was that age, 1 condom is not nearly enough for a 2 hour time slot.

Posted by: Father of 4 | October 13, 2006 8:43 AM

We've just this year started allowing our 9yo son and 11yo daughter have very small windows of time alone at the house IF they had been behaving peacefully AND were doing something too interesting that they didn't want to stop. If they had been squabbling or acting bored then they go with us. We're testing it right now so I'm looking forward to today's discussion.

Just this year we've also allowed these two to play outside (close to the house) by themselves but lucky my office window is right in front and I can keep an eye on them - otherwise I wouldn't be too comfortable with it.

Also, to add to today conversation: we happen to live in the neighborhood that has the highest number of registered sex offenders in the city. They are everywhere, within just a few houses from us. We, with these two older children, regularly (every 3 months) check the city website to see *who* has moved out and *who* has moved in. We actually take the time to read the files, learn where they are living and study their pictures. Not too long ago my son reported that one of *them* recently said hello to him while riding his bike but he didn't say anything back and peddled away as fast as he could.

I would like to hear folks opinion on this too, we don't know how else to deal with this particular challenge.

Posted by: Tracy | October 13, 2006 8:46 AM

The maturity level matters even more than the age. While, at least in Maryland, state law dictates at what age a child can be left home alone, and what age an older child has to be in order to babysit younger siblings (of a certain age), parents have to decide if their child is mature enough to handle being alone for 2-4 hours. While my oldest is immature in some ways, I have not seen him do foolishly unsafe things b/c he also has a certain level of fear. My youngest I think will be responsible, but she's very inquisitive, so she will likely end up having the maturity, along with the tendency to get into things.

When I was young, I was a first or second grader at home alone between the end of school and one my siblings coming home. By the time I was 10, my siblings were out on their own, and I was alone from the end of school until my mother came home from her 3-11 shift. It was lonely and boring at times. Sometimes I sneaked out of the apartment (I wasn't allowed to play outside if she wasn't home). Once she caught me. I suppose you could say I could handle it, but I didn't want to, because I really wanted my mother to be home in the afternoon. To be honest, it seemed like she was so busy working, she didn't have much time for me. That's another indicator of whether your child should be alone until you get home -- potential for boredom. With boredom comes mischief.

Posted by: theoriginalmomof2 | October 13, 2006 8:46 AM

A 4 year old on a busy street seems risky to me, in a fenced yard or with older kids in a group might be okay. We had a 4 year old neighbor that was outside all day - all seasons - wandering from house to house knocking on doors - parents never checked on her. I ended up watching her half the time because I was out with my kids - it became an issue.

Posted by: cmac | October 13, 2006 8:49 AM

I'm interested in views on both topics, but the younger child topic is a current one for me and my husband. We have a fenced back yard with a swing set. I think our five and seven year old would be fine back there while we're in the house, but my husband disagrees. Admittedly there is a registered sex offender within walking distance of our house, but it seems to me that there comes an age where you have to trust your kids out of your sight for short periods of time. We have windows in our house that look out over the back yard that we can peek out of. I also think our oldest would be okay riding her bike on our cul-de-sac by herself, but not my son. He's good at running to the sidewalk when a car's coming, but not good at looking for cars in the first place.

I used to leave for school after my mother left for her school (she taught) and be home alone for short periods of time in the afternoon before she got home when I was 11. One problem - I spoke too much to a stranger calling on the phone who pretended like he knew me, and we started getting obscene phone calls. I never engaged in risky activity during my high school years when I was home for an hour or so before my mother, unless you count eating maybe ten oreo cookies at one sitting as risky behavior. We als had strict rules about no friends (particularly males) being over while we were home alone, and I think I only broke that rule maybe once.

Posted by: Sam | October 13, 2006 8:49 AM

"Warning for all parents that do the mall, bowling alley, movie, football game, or church youth group dropoff for your 15 or 16 year old daughter. You may want to stuff a few condoms in her purse before she jumps out of the car. If today's teenage boys are anything like I was when I was that age, 1 condom is not nearly enough for a 2 hour time slot."


Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 8:56 AM

I grew up in a very rural area on a medium sized farm, so my parents allowed me to wander everywhere unsupervised at an early age (less than 10 yo). I just left a note saying I was out on the farm somewhere, and they could always yell for me if they wanted me back home.

Now though, I'd be concerned letting any child that age out unsupervised in a subdivision. Too many people around you don't really know enough about, too much traffic, too many attractions.

A friend of mine ferries her 10 yo daughter to her dad's home every time she goes to work in the evening rather than leave the girl at home with her baby and current boyfriend. Don't know if there is some concern on my friend's part about the boyfriend, or if she just doesn't want to make him feel like he's being asked to watch both his daughter and the older girl too.

Posted by: John | October 13, 2006 9:00 AM

When I was a kid, playing outside was a given from age 4. Of course, we lived on a street full of stay-at-home moms and you'd have half a dozen of them outside in a second if a kid starting crying.

Nowadays, everyone is inside with the windows closed and the AC running so who would hear them?

Home alone wasn't such a big deal either since mom would let at least two neighborhood moms know to keep an eye on us while she was out.

I've been told that the state of Maryland has some laws which set a minimum age for leaving kids home alone, it is 9?

Posted by: Rufus | October 13, 2006 9:14 AM

I was home alone at about age 12 and that usually meant babysitting my 1 yr. old brother for an hour or two. I agree with many of the other posters that it depends a lot on the child and where you live. Our son is 4 and he plays in the yard by himself some--he doesn't wander off, but we usually either have the front door open and check on him when we can't either see or hear him. Lately, there's 1 or 2 other kids at our house playing, so it's easy to hear them if we're inside (or one of us takes a book and sits outside).

Posted by: marc | October 13, 2006 9:15 AM

I think my parents left me alone for more than about an hour somewhere around age 11 or so? It was somewhere in that general vicinity. They started leaving me alone for long periods of time (like a full day when they went to visit my sick grandmother who lived about three hours away) when I was about 14ish. I always had a number to reach them at though if I got into trouble and knew that I could use it and not be reprimanded for interrupting something.

For reference as to the time period this entails, I'm 22 now and I grew up in this area.

Posted by: For what it's worth... | October 13, 2006 9:16 AM

"A friend of mine ferries her 10 yo daughter to her dad's home every time she goes to work in the evening rather than leave the girl at home with her baby and current boyfriend."

Dad might just want to spend time with his daughter. It's not uncommon for right of first refusal to be written into the custody agreement; if Mom or Dad goes anywhere, the other parent gets first dibs on that time.

My parents started leaving me at home by myself when I was around 11. I loved it so much. Never got into any trouble in high school; there were two main reasons for this:

1. I was Dorky McDorkster, hailing from Dorktown.

2. My parents were very active in our town - fire department, school board, et al - and knew a ton of people, many of whom would call them at work. "There's a red car outside your house!" "Yeah, that's her friend Becky. It's okay."

Posted by: Lizzie | October 13, 2006 9:20 AM

This is a good topic. I always wanted to be home in the afternoons when my kids were around this age, that's why I am trying to build my career now so I can have that choice. I wouldn't let a 4 year old play outside without a fence, but that's just me, no judgment there to anyone. I think that I may let my kids start staying alone around the age of 12 for a few hours.


I don't know what to tell you about sex offenders, they are everywhere. The only thing you can do is watch your kids and the other kids in the neighborhood and just let the sex offenders know that they better not even look at your children. They are sick people, who shouldn't be allowed out of jail ever.

Father of 4,

I didn't know that conservatives gave their sons and daughters condoms. You are so progressive.

Posted by: scarry | October 13, 2006 9:23 AM

One thing parents may want to consider is how siblings regard each other. My sister and I weren't fond of each other from birth. When my parents started leaving us home together (I was about 12 and she was 10), we beat each other up all the time. We had some awful knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling, biting, bruising fights. This happened several times a month. Siblings who generally don't get along and have a fierce sibling rivalry may not react well to having one child suddenly "in charge" of the other. My parents never knew but we did and it's something we carried into adulthood.

Posted by: Emily | October 13, 2006 9:28 AM

Do those sites tell what act the sex offender committed? I've heard cases of a a 16-yo's parents getting het up that she had sex with her 18-yo boyfriend and charging the boyfriend with statutory rape. The boyfriend then has to register as a sex offender. That's a whole lot different from a violent pedophile; I'd want to know what the actual offenses were before getting too worked up.

Posted by: Lizzie | October 13, 2006 9:29 AM

One thing parents may want to consider is how siblings regard each other. My sister and I weren't fond of each other from birth. When my parents started leaving us home together (I was about 12 and she was 10), we beat each other up all the time. We had some awful knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling, biting, bruising fights. This happened several times a month. Siblings who generally don't get along and have a fierce sibling rivalry may not react well to having one child suddenly "in charge" of the other. My parents never knew but we did and it's something we carried into adulthood.

Posted by: Emily | October 13, 2006 9:29 AM

One thing parents may want to consider is how siblings regard each other. My sister and I weren't fond of each other from birth. When my parents started leaving us home together (I was about 12 and she was 10), we beat each other up all the time. We had some awful knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling, biting, bruising fights. This happened several times a month. Siblings who generally don't get along and have a fierce sibling rivalry may not react well to having one child suddenly "in charge" of the other. Keeping children safe is more than teaching them about strangers, sex offenders, fire hazards and choking.

Posted by: Emily | October 13, 2006 9:30 AM

Well, either the world has changed, or I have. Or both. I was a latchkey kid from @ 7 yrs old -- my mom was a grad student, but almost always had a class after my school let out, so I walked the mile home and took care of myself for a couple of hours. My mom prepared me and told me things to say if people called or came to the door (I once had one of her student's so convinced she was in the shower that she was stunned to find out my mom hadn't been home at all!). I was a little intimidated at first -- was never overly connected with reality, so worried about losing my key, getting lost walking home, etc. But once I got used to it, I liked just being able to putter around the house by myself.

Now my daughter is 5, and I can't even conceive of letting her do something like that in just two years -- I'm not even sure about 5-6 years from now! It's really a very safe neighborhood, as these things go, but unlike my mom, we can afford after-school care or activities, so I don't see any reason to push her toward that kind of independence. Of course, she's been Little Ms. I Do It Myself since she could talk, so I'm sure she'll be the one begging ME to pleasepleaseplease just let her walk home and stay home by herself!

Posted by: Laura | October 13, 2006 9:32 AM

Lizzie, usually you can find a link to the offender's list through your local police departement's website and, yes, the offenders file does include a brief description about the type of crime... and will include if the crime involved a child ... or not.

Posted by: Tracy | October 13, 2006 9:35 AM

Our neighborhood is set up to be pedestrian-friendly, with cars at the periphery and the houses facing paths, not a street. When kids are 4 they are usually allowed to go to the central green/playground by themselves, which is very close and visible from almost all of the houses. There are always other kids playing out there and many neighbors and other parents to keep an eye on them. Plus, it's a rural, isolated area so there really aren't other people who come by who are not in the neighborhood. We know every neighbor and there are no registered sex offenders.

One 5-year-old lost his fingernail last week. All of the parents in the vicinity could tell the seriousness of the situation by the intensity of the screams, and raced out. There were about 6 parents out there, though his parents were inside and hadn't heard. By the time the mom was summoned the other parents already had an ice pack, first aid kit, childrens' Tylenol (not given until the Mom was there), etc.

Posted by: Ms L | October 13, 2006 9:37 AM

One site for locations of registered sex offenders is www.familywatchdog.us.

Good point on siblings. My sister was four years older. Our school schedules never coincided so we were much together without my mom in the afternoon, but my parents started using her as a babysitter at night when we were about 10 and 14. Just what she needed - another excuse to boss me around. Not that my parents should have shelled out money for babysitter when we were that age. But I resented being told to do whatever my sister said for those few hours. My neighbors across the street hired me to babysit even though I was only two years older than their oldest to avoid a "who's the boss" situation with their two children.

Posted by: Sam | October 13, 2006 9:40 AM

I would be left at home alone at 10, but my older brother (12) would always be there two. I think I had the house to myself at 13 while my family went to an overnight Pow Wow. I got into trouble, but what kid didn't? It helped that lots of our friends were latch-key kids, so we walked home together from the bus and looked out for each other.

As per yesterday's conversation, our parents divorced and fought like cats while they were married, my mom had depression, and we lived in 14 different states because my dad worked for the World Bank.

My brother and I are smart, well-adjusted people who knew that our parents weren't perfect, that our dad was a bad husband but a great dad, and that our parents would do anything for us.

Kids are smart and will pick up on things, but they are also resilient people who, given the right resources, can over come many obstacles.

Posted by: Meesh | October 13, 2006 9:41 AM

In Maryland, it's illegal to leave a child under 8 years of age at home without someone who is at least 13 years of age watching them. And you have to be 13 to babysit.

Posted by: Marylander | October 13, 2006 9:43 AM

In Maryland, it's illegal to leave a child under 8 years of age at home without someone who is at least 13 years of age watching them. And you have to be 13 to babysit.

Posted by: Marylander | October 13, 2006 9:44 AM

My parents would start leaving us home alone for a few house when my older brother was about 12-13, but there are three of us (me and my little sister, we're all only a year and a half apart) so it was a safety-in-numbers mentality.
We started being left home alone over night when my brother was 16 or 17. Whenever he got his driver's license and could drive. But I think a lot of it depends on the maturity of the child. I had friends whose parents wouldn't leave them home alone over night till they were in college because thier parents didn't trust them not to throw a ragging party. You know your child the best and can make the best decision for them.

Posted by: Melissa | October 13, 2006 9:44 AM

Yikes, ..."would always be there TOO."

Posted by: Meesh | October 13, 2006 9:46 AM

Ms L - do you mind telling what area you live in? I ask because it sounds like such a wonderful arrangement, and our family has just never been able to find a neighborhood like that. Or, shall I say, a neighborhood like that that we can afford. What do you call that kind of community-oriented neighborhood - is there a term for it?

Posted by: Curious | October 13, 2006 9:47 AM

where do you live? It sounds like heaven!

Posted by: to Ms. L | October 13, 2006 9:51 AM

I find this discussion interesting, since I have no frame of reference. I was never, ever left alone in my house as a kid, not for a moment. I hope I'll be less psychotically overprotective than my parents were. I'm planning on playing it by ear as my daughter gets older.

On the other hand, I see kids no older than 13 or so riding their bikes to the Starbucks near our neighborhood, and that seems awfully young, both to be so far from home unsupervised and to be drinking coffee.

Posted by: NewSAHM | October 13, 2006 9:57 AM

I live in a cohousing neighborhood. http://www.cohousing.org/default.aspx There are ones like it all over the country. I think it's the best-kept secret. It started in Scandinavia and about 20-30% of folks who live in Denmark live in these kinds of neighborhoods.

Basically, it's a neighborhood designed to be pedestrian-friendly and have the neighbors know each other and interact. They all have private homes on small clustered individual plots of land, and then larger shared areas, like a playground, community house, acres of woodlands (for rural neighborhoods), etc.

As for affordability... these neighborhoods become very popular once they are built and can be expensive. But almost every cohousing neighborhood believes in mixed-income and has allotted affordable-housing spaces (the one being designed in Charlottesville right now will be 30% affordable). Once they are purchased, however, they become market-price. However, because you are more likely to share things (like a lawnmower, or childcare swaps, etc.) life is a lot more affordable.

It's not for everyone, but moving here has increased my happiness, my kids' happiness, and our ability to balance work life and family life.

Posted by: Ms L | October 13, 2006 9:59 AM

Oh, yes, and "affordable housing" is not necessarily for those with poverty-level income. It means less than 80% of median income for the county-- which, in a place like Fairfax County, is still pretty high!

Posted by: Ms L | October 13, 2006 10:05 AM


I'm not so sure that's what is going on with my friend and her 10 yo's dad. When he is out of town and unavailable she won't work rather than let her current bf watch the girl by himself. I've asked her if she just doesn't trust her current bf and she says that isn't it, but she would not work rather than have him watch both her and his own daughter while she is out.

Posted by: John | October 13, 2006 10:07 AM

John, that is odd.

"I see kids no older than 13 or so riding their bikes to the Starbucks near our neighborhood, and that seems awfully young, both to be so far from home unsupervised and to be drinking coffee."

That seems young to be pounding espresso shots, but I don't think it's all that young to be riding your bike somewhere and hanging out with your friends. I was doing that when I was 10.

Posted by: Lizzie | October 13, 2006 10:10 AM

I let my 4 year old play alone outside in our yard (though her older sister is usually with her). I keep an eye on her through the window. Our neighborhood is pretty safe, but I've also talked to my kids about never talking to adults they don't know (I don't use the word strangers-- apparently kids think a "stranger" should look scary), and they know to keep out of the street. My understanding is that in a reasonably safe neighborhood, the health risks of keeping your kids inside and inactive far outweigh the likelyhood of abduction. Sadly, kids are usually molested by adults their parents trust.

A word of warning about relying to heavily on the sex offender lists-- not every pedophile has been caught.

Posted by: YetAnotherSAHM | October 13, 2006 10:21 AM

Gavin de Becker wrote a really good book called "Protecting the Gift," about how to talk to your kids to keep them safe. One thing he hits hard is the "Don't talk to strangers" thing. You kids see you talking to strangers all the time, which undermines that message, and if you ever get separated from your kid, she'll *have* to talk to a stranger. His main message is that in a case like that, you want your kid to choose the stranger that she talks to - you don't want a stranger to search her out.

His advice is to give your kids practice in talking to strangers (checkout clerks, stuff like that) and to tell them that if you ever get separated from them, to find a mom with kids and ask her for help. Men are likely to drop the kid off at an information desk and go on their way; women are much likelier to stick with the kid until the situation is resolved. And the chances of a mom with kids being a predator are vanishingly small, whereas someone who makes a point of going up to a small child on her own isn't necessarily someone you want talking to your kid.

Posted by: Lizzie | October 13, 2006 10:25 AM

A lot of people talk about how it was different when they were younger. Is it actually less safe now, or are people just more aware of things now or is the media just blowing things out of proportion, which they seem inclined to do once in a while.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 10:29 AM

When I was in first grade I would spend an hour alone before my older brother would get home from school. This was usually only once a week when elementary school let out early. I lived in a neighborhood where the parents all knew each other and there were some older couples as well that watched out for others. We never had any troubles except the fear that my brother and I would kill each other! I was always a latch key kid and played outside with my friends without supervision. It was an awesome time and I loved it. For reference I am 22 now and grew up in Manassas. Sadly though, I think Manassas is changing and not for the better.

Posted by: Amber | October 13, 2006 10:38 AM

Thanks for the familywatchdog.us link - very eyeopening!

Posted by: fabworkingmom | October 13, 2006 10:49 AM

John, statistically, the person most likely to kill or mistreat a child is the mother's boyfriend or husband.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 10:50 AM

I was a latch key kid from 3rd grade (8 yrs old) onward. When I was 12, I started watching my baby brother after school. I'm 26 now (so this wasn't that long ago). I loved it and felt like my parents trusted me completely. Nothing bad happened. Funny thing is, they're a lot more nervous leaving my brother home alone (maybe because he's the "baby" of the family). I think if you're comfortable with your neighborhood and child, feel safe and wouldnt' be consumed with worry, then it can be a great learning experience for the child.

Posted by: latch key kid, dc | October 13, 2006 11:03 AM

I have read this blog off and on and have wanted to comment before but usually didn't have time. Hope this may be helpful. I have 2 kids, now ages 13(boy) and 9 (girl)and live just outside DC. I have generally tried to phase-in their independence. My mom was over-protective and I try not to be and want to encourage their confidence but I still am pretty much against much home-alone time after school for any kid -- hence, extended day programs or after-school nannies since both I and my husband work full-time. (Yes it is very expensive but it still pays for both of us to work -- financially and psychically -- I took one year off a few years ago, and am still paying off the debt we got into that year) But to foster some independence, for my son, at around age 9, he could walk to a friend's house in the neighborhood and I gave him one of those 2-way walkie-talkies (the adult kind). We would agree on what frequency we would use and check on him. He had to let us know where he was and if he and his friend were at the park or moved on to another child's house. These must be used carefully because they are open frequencies. We told him it wasn't a toy. (We dropped this later when one of his friends did treat it like a toy and we overheard the friend chatting with a stranger on one of the frequencies and told the stranger his name and where they were.) We then moved up to loaning him a cell phone as he got older which he takes with him on excursions. He will take the Metro bus or bike a couple of miles to Bethesda or Silver Spring to go shopping with a friend or to a movie now. He just needs to know to check in with us regularly. The funny thing is I am not ready to give my daughter quite the same freedom I gave to him at the same age. She seems more vulnerable because she is a girl. Ironically, I had an older brother and my parents gave him a lot more freedom in high school than I had, not because he was more responsible but just because I was female (they were completely forthright that was the reason. We lived in a small town in the Northeast. I resented it terribly until I went off to college and could do my own thing. Do other parents find themselves applying a gender-based double standard to their kids in this way?

Posted by: Suzy | October 13, 2006 11:05 AM

I'd say that by the age of seven or eight, most kids are ok to leave at home by themselves for short periods of time, maybe 15 to 30 minutes. Doors locked, strict instructions on what to do if the phone rings or someone comes to the door. There's no real danger and they learn from having the responsibility.

Posted by: Arlington Dad | October 13, 2006 11:08 AM

uh, Arlington Dad, I was "Arlington Dad" first.

Oddly, I agree with just about everything you post.

Posted by: Arlington Dad | October 13, 2006 11:13 AM

Just wanted to add one quick thing to my prior comment. I think the neighborhood you are in makes a huge difference. Many of the homes in our neighborhood, because it is older, are retirees (some of whom are in Fla or elsewhere for the winter) and middle-aged singles (because a lot of the houses are small by today's family standards). Very few people especially parents are around afterschool or anytime on weekdays. My husband and I often lament this but we both wanted to avoid long commutes and I wanted my kids to be able to get around on public transportation as they got older to have fun doing things with friends like movies and museums and shopping without needing to drive them or for them to be driving around with friends at too young an age. But my 13-year old will stay home by himself now when he does not have school but we need to work and this year, for at least several hours of a day with his sister, if they both don't have school. (He gets home much later from school than she does). Less need for a "referee sitter" now that they are bit older.

Posted by: Suzy | October 13, 2006 11:17 AM

I saw a program one time on tv with hidden cameras, can't remember which one it was, but it was about parents who left children, under the age of 10 home alone. They all thought that their kids wouldn't talk or open the door for strangers but guess what, everyone of them did.

Posted by: scarry | October 13, 2006 11:20 AM

I guess the law Marylander cites makes my parents lawbreakers, then; I definitely remember being left alone for short periods of time with my younger brother before I turned 13. They'd taught us both what to do in an emergency or if someone called/rang the doorbell, and we had lots of attentive neighbors, so I don't think they were guilty of neglect.

I was allowed to go bike riding on my own when I was 10, with very set rules about certain streets I couldn't ride on. I didn't feel inclined to break them; the cars were scary!

Posted by: fs | October 13, 2006 11:21 AM

Anonymous at 10:29 a.m., it could be a combination of the three. I think it was safer when I was young, but the lack of safety wasn't nonexistent. In an apartment complex where I lived as a child, children as young as 3 played outside by themselves. Sadly, a 3-year-old boy doing that was murdered by a 12-year-old girl in that complex. She lured him to some nearby woods and bludgeoned him. That was in the 1970s. That poor baby.

It's not just sex offenders or strangers, it's older kids, it's whether severe or untreated mental illness is involved, etc. Supervision is key. The older child mentioned above apparently was known to have some issues, because several older kids refused to go into the woods with her.

Posted by: theoriginalmomof2 | October 13, 2006 11:23 AM

We've just started letting our 10-year-old stay home alone after school for a couple of hours. Before that we always put her in aftercare.

Now we will probably be putting her in aftercare on days when she is totally off school. She is still too young to be by herself more than a couple of hours. And I would NEVER let her stay home along after dark - even with our 2 dogs.

I had a best friend in school who was a latchkey kid at age 9, and was in charge of her 2 younger siblings until her Dad got home from work. The mom was an ER nurse who worked about 5 minutes away so she could get home quickly. Now the parents would probably be charged with neglect!

Posted by: Librarianmom | October 13, 2006 11:26 AM

Ms. L, everytime I read one of your posts abou co-housing I regret jumping into buying this house! Not in a super serious way, but the co-housing sounds so awesome, a lot like where I grew up actually, that I do get a sense of longing...

Sam, we live in a quiet neighborhood on a quiet street and have a fenced backyard and we will actually let our two year old play out there by himself if one of us is either at the kitchen window doing dishes or sitting in the dining room (where the patio doors are going out into the back). He talks a lot to himself while he plays so as long as I can either hear or see him I feel ok with it. I suspect by the time he's three or four (depending on whenever he can comprehend the idea of stranger and what to do when he sees one) we will let him be out there by himself when we're in other parts of the house.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 11:32 AM

I remember when I was 12 I really wanted to take the metrobus home from school alone. Lots of kids did it. We were in DC and went to private school. The ride was only about 15 minutes long, and the bus stops were right in front of the school and right in front of the house. After much begging, my mother relented with the condition that she would ride the bus with me for the first few times. After that, I was on my own. By the time I was 14, I was an expert at navigating Northwest DC by bus, and so were my friends. I remember the 30 line on Wisconisin Avenue was packed full of kids back then, from Friendship Heights all the way to Georgetown, and it was not rare to see 11 and 12 year riding on their own. I wonder if it is still that way.

Posted by: Rockville | October 13, 2006 11:35 AM

I also let my son play in the back, as long as I can see him from the kitchen or dining room. He has been doing this since he was about two. He did this at my parents house at a very young age as well, but their rottweiler was always out there with him. Talk about a reliable babysitter!!

Posted by: Rockville | October 13, 2006 11:40 AM

I believe the crime rate has fallen in most ways, especially since the 80s. I could only find statistics showing the sharp drop in crime since 1993:

Society has changed, and safety has become much more important. Remember all the playground equipment installed over blacktop?

Posted by: Ms L | October 13, 2006 11:40 AM

This is a very interesting topic all around. My 13-year-old (8th grade) is by herself for about an hour after school - but her 8-year-old brother is in after-care at school. The problem is that he gets out first, and I AM NOT comfortable leaving him home for even an hour without her. Once she turned 13 (see Maryland law cited above) she started babysitting him at night if my husband and I are out. I'm not ready for overnights yet... I usually find them both friends' homes to go to on those rare occasions (or if we know we're going to be very late).

Fortunately for me, my daughter turned 13 at the same time as all our teenage babysitters were graduating from high school :)

Posted by: Loren | October 13, 2006 11:42 AM

When they hit middle school most children without SHAP's are going to be left home alone for some period. I personally enjoyed this many years ago.
We are just starting to deal with this but some of the best ways are to keep the child involved in activities (not at home alone as much). Try to juggle hours to minimize unsupervised time (my daughter goes to her father's after school because he gets home earlier) Require them to do certain things before you get home (they will have less time to get into trouble). Also go over the rules, many times, no visitors, what to say if someone calls, what they can do on the computer, not opening the door, etc.

A lot also depends on the child, some are more responsible, some are more introverted, some have more common sense (dealing with strangers, etc).

For information purposes the guidelines from Fairfax County http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dfs/childrenyouth/homealone.htm

Posted by: Divorced mom of 1 | October 13, 2006 11:42 AM

There are many variables, maturity of the child, area, and duration. I was never left home alone, my Mom stayed at home until I was 9, and then my great aunt moved in with us when she went to work.

I have an 11 year old son, and this summer, I started letting him stay home alone for up to an hour. I am going to increase the time and next year when he is in middle school and comes home at 3:00, he will be home alone an about an hour or so before I arrive.

He left the key in the door on one occasion when he did come home alone on the bus with a friend as opposed to going to aftercare, for a birthday party. He stopped by the house to get a video game. An hour later when I arrived the key was still in the door. Thank god I have 2 big barking dogs!!!

Posted by: AJ | October 13, 2006 11:47 AM

Great discussion. My oldest is 9.5 and I have been wondering when it would be safe to leave her alone at home for a few minutes. She is pretty mature and responsible. She has asked to be left alone if for example I have to run out of the house to pick up her brother from school, which would take about 15-20 minutes. I don't feel comfortable doing that. Don't know what the law is in Virginia but I think: what if I get into an accident, what if there is an accident on the road and I am delayed etc.
We have let her play outside by herself in our cul de sac after she turned 7, but with very strict instructions about how far she could go,etc. and we would step out and check on her every few minutes. Later on she became close friend with a neighborhood kid who is a year older, and I feel more comfortable when two of them are outside together.
It is really hard to balance our fears as parents (which may be irrational knowing for example that abductions and molestation by stranger are rare vs by acquaintance or family member), with the need to slowly emancipate our children, allow them to make choices etc to prepare them for making their own way in the world without being fearful.
For me, the dilemma is compounded by the fact that I grew up in a war zone with parents that, of course, had to be overprotective given the circumstances. So there is part of me that wants to hide my children under the bed to keep them safe (just kidding) and another part of me that wants them to enjoy the blessing of leaving in a resonably safe and normal environment, and have the freedom of movement that I did not have.

Posted by: FC mom | October 13, 2006 11:50 AM

As most of us know- it's a lot about the kid, their maturity, the environment and practicality.

As always, if you instill good values and perspectives in them, they will do the responsible thing and at least not burn the house down or get themselves killed.

Emily- I completely agree with you. While my older sister was never in charge of me, we fought constantly and viciously. But the situation was unavoidable due to my mother's work schedule.

Luckily as we got older, my sister got a job, and our school schedules were shifted and she could have sex in the afternoons before I got home when I could enjoy my afternoon sex in peace.

Posted by: Liz D | October 13, 2006 11:53 AM

I work in an adiministrative support position for a Virginia Child Protective Services program. I've glanced at some of these messages, and just wanted to let you know that if you live in Virginia, you might want to check with your local CPS. Each city/county has different guidelines about children being left home alone. As to the abuser web sites, while lots of the folks in the Sex Abuse unit like the idea, I think that they're overrated. What about the folks who aren't caught? What about the cases that the prosecutor fails to win or prosecute because the victim's not a good witness? I figure that everyone is a potential abuser of my nieces until I know better. Here's a hint, if someone thinks your child is wonderful, watch out. You have to think that your child is an angel, but if someone else says it, or acts that way (wanting to spend time with the child, give gifts, call, etc.), open your eyes. I've seen many reports, and that seems a constant for out of family abusers. The previous poster was correct, many (?most?) sexual abuse is done by our nearest and dearest.

Posted by: Non-mom | October 13, 2006 12:02 PM

I don't think it's relevant to talk about what we did when we were kids 20-30 years ago. Not because I necessarily think the world is a more dangerous place, but because I think we as a society have evolved to where we understand the dangers that are there. Not just from the stranger lurking on the corner, but the Internet & cable television, the possible psychological damage from being a latchkey kid (being scared, lonely, or just wondering "why can't mom and dad or someone be with me?") and all of the things that can happen (a child being hurt and not knowing first aid, older children turning to drugs, sex, etc. to fill the time).

For me, it's like car safety seats. We didn't know 30 years ago that we could prevent most serious injuries from car accidents - now we do, so most of us wouldn't dream of not using them. Now we know a lot more about what can happen when a child is left alone, so we shouldn't ignore that information either.

In most communities, there is no excuse for children to be alone after school and during non-school days, even for low income families. In our community, the Boys & Girls Club has open clubhouse during those times - the cost is $20 a year, and scholarships are available. Buses bring the kids there after school.

Posted by: momof4 | October 13, 2006 12:08 PM

From the time I was 8 or so, on Saturdays, my dad would tell us to "get the hell out of the house and get some fresh air!" We weren't always appreciative of getting kicked out of the house during prime cartoon time, but those hours of unsupervised childhood mayhem are the memories I cherish most. Playing basketball, building dams, multi-hour bikerides through rural Pennsylvania farmland, etc. It was probably better for both my and my parents' sanity. Sure, we got into our share of trouble, but our parents gave us pretty good guidelines before loosing us upon the neighborhood.

Posted by: GhettoBurbs | October 13, 2006 12:09 PM

Tracy, I think your oversight is to the extreme. And you are teaching your child dangerous parameters.

You should live with the knowledge that there are sex predators EVERYWHERE, and teach your children how to react accordingly. It doesn't matter if there is 1 or 20 on your block - you need to educate your children.

What is really dangerous is that you think your child will recognize an offender! An offender will be innocent looking and possibly someone known to your child. In the direction you are going, your child will be caught off guard, while you are busy counting and reading their files.

Posted by: concerned | October 13, 2006 12:11 PM

On the sex offender issue, I think Tracy is wise to read the files and be aware what known predators are there, but the posts by concerned and non-mom raises a really important point: there's no way of knowing who is going to try to assault a child, it could be anyone and it is more likely to be someone you know.

For that reason, I think it's really important to not only teach your child to be wary of strangers, but to teach them to have respect for their bodies and for their own feelings and intuition so that they feel comfortable about saying "no" to another adult and about talking to you. Here there's a rape and sexual assault awareness organization that provides information for parents with very young children about how to start talking with your kids about their bodies in ways that will help them feel comfortable and confident about their bodies, and comfortable and confident enough to talk to you if someone tries to touch them or talk to them in an inappropriate way - I highly recommend looking for similar resources in your area.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 12:21 PM

Regardless of what CNN and those stupid "To Catch A Predator" or whatever shows tell us, the majority of missing kids in the US are not young white girls, and the majority of molestations occur between kids and adults the kid knows (as opposed to kids and strangers). This isn't to say that you shouldn't take care, but at the same time, your fears might be a bit overblown.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 12:21 PM

I have a 14 y/o and a 13 y/o I started letting them be alone while I ran a few errands when they were 10 & 9. At the time we lived in a townhouse complex and I'd phone my neighbors to keep an eye on the kids and be gone less than an hour. We all helped each other out, especially on the weekends. Our neighborhood was great, the kids all played together and there were more kids in a close area than our current neighborhood of single-houses.

K-5th grade my kids were in before and aftershool care run by the local Y at their school. Once they became middle schoolers they protested and complained. I gave in and let them walk home after school
with the provision that they call me and let me know who they are walking home with, call when they arrive home or let me know if they go to a friends house or to the park. For three years this has worked well and I think they have become very responsible. They are on their own for 2 1/2 hours before either my husband or I get home from work. We've set ground rules on TV watching, the computer, answering the door and phone. I do let them have friends over with the provision that homework needs to be started before I walk in the door. Most days, I come home to 2 girls doing homework or IMing their friends and 2-3 boys playing football in the yard or shooting hoops. They know what they are responsible for and it has worked well for us.

Posted by: CAmom | October 13, 2006 12:22 PM

I remember walking to my friends house when I was 3 and 4. Of course I am a navy brat, so mostly on base in thier vast housing neighborhoods. We moved off-base at 7, and I stayed home alone afterschool until my parent's got home (walking distance to my school, about 3/4 mile through the property of the highschool next door, never on a busy street). One time, I fell and hit my head on the way home. I was by myself and bleeding out of my forhead. A neighbor saw me walking, walked me the rest of the rest of the way home and called my mom with me and she came right home.

As for after-school shenanigans, from 7-12 it was cartoons all afternoon (GI Joe at 3, She-ra at 3:30, Smurfs at 4:00, etc..) By the time I was 13, I provided the after-school care for younger kids in the neighborhood, so i never had boyfriends after school or anything. By the time I could drive, I was a nanny for another family after school. Different strokes for different folks.

However, if there are lots of family's in your neighborhood, the olderkids could share the babysitting duties for hte younger kids. That puts the olderkids watching over non-siblings, and gives them responsibility, while the younger ones are taken care of.

Posted by: Great Aunt | October 13, 2006 12:23 PM

I remember walking to my friends house when I was 3 and 4. Of course I am a navy brat, so mostly on base in thier vast housing neighborhoods. We moved off-base at 7, and I stayed home alone afterschool until my parent's got home (walking distance to my school, about 3/4 mile through the property of the highschool next door, never on a busy street). One time, I fell and hit my head on the way home. I was by myself and bleeding out of my forhead. A neighbor saw me walking, walked me the rest of the rest of the way home and called my mom with me and she came right home.

As for after-school shenanigans, from 7-12 it was cartoons all afternoon (GI Joe at 3, She-ra at 3:30, Smurfs at 4:00, etc..) By the time I was 13, I provided the after-school care for younger kids in the neighborhood, so i never had boyfriends after school or anything. By the time I could drive, I was a nanny for another family after school. Different strokes for different folks.

One idea, if there are lots of family's in your neighborhood, the olderkids could share the babysitting duties for hte younger kids. That puts the olderkids watching over non-siblings, and gives them responsibility, while the younger ones are taken care of.

Posted by: Great Aunt | October 13, 2006 12:23 PM

Concerned: The sheer number of offenders in our neighborhood is extreme and using that list is only one of a number ways we try to protect our family. I didn't really think anyone would be interested in a long discussion about us personally. However part of our networking does include good connections to our neighbors, we need to know which doors NOT to knock on. Especially considering how fast these guys are coming and going around here. While I'm revisiting this subject I would be concerned about ever giving a sex-offender the benefit of doubt in the way of their age or their victim's age (ie the discussion about older boyfriends with their younger girl friends). That just doesn't happen often enough to warrant such a casual response to the list.

And Lizzie: Thank you so much for your book suggestion, that will certainly be a valuable contribution to our family!

Posted by: Tracy | October 13, 2006 12:27 PM

momof4 - I agree - 20-30 years ago we didn't KNOW as much about child predators. I grew up in Northern VA in the 70's and 80's and we used to walk (a couple miles) to the mall, hang out at the movie theater, go to the pool, leave at 9 am and return before supper in the summer - all when I was 9 or 10. I would NEVER let my kids do what I did, neither would my parents.

Having said that - I don't want my kids completely sheltered. I want them to be independent, but not at the cost of their safety. Not safety from skinned knees and riding bikes, but people that would do them harm.

Posted by: cmac | October 13, 2006 12:29 PM

When I was 9 years old, my parents moved my siblings and I out of a medium sized city to a rural area about an hour out of the city. Almost immediately they started leaving us home alone for short periods of time. They kind of announced they might do this before we moved and I remember being a little excited about the prospect. However, they also made a rule that we were to stay inside and we could not answer the door for anyone (even people we knew) while they were away. Of course, the rule about the phone was to say they couldn't talk right now. I was the oldest child and those rules lasted at least till my early teens, when it got kind of ridiculous one day when we couldn't even answer the door for my mom's best friend.

Back then we had no Internet and my parents never bought cable, so there was less trouble to get into inside the house. Just a few fights over the tv channel. ;)

Posted by: Manuel | October 13, 2006 12:31 PM


My parents also were very protective of my sibling and I growing up because we were girls, and in their view, girls were more likely to be targetted by predators. They didn't actually use that term, but they talked about a well-publicized nightmare where two sisters were kidnapped from our local shopping mall.

These days I think the gender difference is crap and had no basis in reality. I knew *two* boys in my graduating high school class who had been sexually abused growing up, and my own husband has told me his Scout Troop leader propositioned him when he was a kid.

In the end, I'm trying to trust my daughter to be independant and also teach her to stand up to adults and other kids when she needs to. Even if it isn't a horrible predator- but just some jerk cutting you off in line.

Posted by: Rock Creek | October 13, 2006 12:31 PM

Nice to see that white was brought up!

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 12:43 PM

Local jurisdictions these days have guidelines for when children can be left, and you can be reported (and potentially have your children removed from your home) if you're reported as having violated them. In Fairfax County the guidelines are:

Age Guidelines ...

7 years and under:
Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.

8 to 10 years:
Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.

11 to 12 years:
May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.

13 to 15 years:
May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.

16 to 17 years:
May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).

Check with your local Child Protective Services or Family Services agency when making the decision to leave or not to leave.

Posted by: Springfield, VA | October 13, 2006 12:50 PM

When I was 5 or 6 my mother would leave me home alone for about 15 minutes while she walked around the block to pick up my little brother from day care. We had an answering machine to take calls, and I had strict instructions never to answer the phone or the door. At 8 I was sent out alone on my first errand (to buy a package of carrots from the grocery store two blocks away). By 9 my parents would leave me and my brother alone for about an hour once a week after school, and I was very glad for the practice one day when I was 10 or 11. It started snowing heavily while we were at school, and school let out at noon because the roads were becoming hazardous. My carpool picked up me and my brother from school, and dropped us off at home. Once home, I called my parents and let them know what happened, but due to the road conditions, Mom took 3 hours to get home instead of the usual 20 minutes. Because I had been left alone before for shorter periods of time, I knew how to handle things, and didn't panic.

Posted by: College Student | October 13, 2006 12:52 PM

"Siblings who generally don't get along and have a fierce sibling rivalry may not react well to having one child suddenly "in charge" of the other. My parents never knew but we did and it's something we carried into adulthood."

My husband and his younger brother were left alone over the summer from a pretty young age--maybe like 9 and 6? They've always gotten along well, but my MIL left them with chore lists and forbade them from playing, even going, outside at all. My husband was in charge of getting the chores done, and his brother flat-out refused to help. Well, guess who got into trouble? The point made about siblings not being happy about another being "in charge" made me think of this. :)

Megan and Rockville, we do the same with our kids, 3.5 and 20 months. Our backyard is fenced and pretty kid proof, and they can pretty much wander in and out as they please if one of us is downstairs. Big brother does a pretty good job of keeping an eye on little sister, too--not that we rely on him to "babysit." There are windows all along the back of the house in the kitchen and family room, so we almost never lose eye contact. And anyone attempting to come into the backyard will be greeted by 140 combined pounds of overprotective dogs.

I miss my childhood neighborhood: a tiny little subdivision built around a family farm in rural Wisconsin where everyone could let their kids and pets run free! Different time, different place...

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 12:53 PM

I agree with all that say it depends on child, neighborhood, etc. I only saw one entry though that talked about gradually increasing the time alone from say 15 minutes to 30 minutes to 45, etc. rather than starting at an hour or so. We have 2 daughters who were left at home alone for short increments from when they were about 7 & 9. We were ok doing this because there were 2 of them - the safety in numbers and less scarey. Slowly, they were given more time until they were 10 & 12. At that age, they were allowed to walk the 3 blocks to school together. When they were 10 & 12, the younger one was at home for about 10 minutes alone before the older one. This was a bit scarey for me. Unlike earlier times when they were home alone, she was getting off the bus in public view and entering the house by herself. The bus did stop directly in front of our house however. At all other times, no one saw them enter the house alone. Once the older one was home, they were together alone for maybe an hour or so. We live in a neighborhood where we are comfortable going in and out of several neighbors houses (they have kids of similar ages), and we look out for each other's kids. This has worked well for us. I really encourage the gradual time alone though.

As far as being outside, I admit that I wasn't comfortable until they were about 8 & 10 and then only with others (at least the 2 of them). However, just the way our neighborhood is, there was usually an adult out . . .

For the parent who is inclined to give her son more freedom than her daughter, I think I would treat them according to their level of responsibility and personality rather than their gender. For 12 and under, boys frequently don't have a size advantage and are as susceptible to being physically accosted. They may have been taught to be/may inherently be more assertive or agressive (don't know which, probably a combination) and may resist more, but I would argue that your daughter needs to be encouraged to be that assertive.

Posted by: momuv2 | October 13, 2006 1:00 PM

Comment to Rockville: I was one of those private school kids in the back of the 30 busses going up Wisconsin Ave in 80s :-) I was 14 but recall being QUITE scared waiting for a bus alone on dark winter evenings after play practice. I didn't tell my folks tho for fear of being told to quit the play.

Fast forward a bunch of years to today... I have no intention of giving my 6 yo son the freedom I had growing up in Potomac. Since the summer, he's been allowed to play outside our townhouse without direct supervision but with checks every 5 or 10 minutes. He cannot ride his bike without one of us outside. We're moving soon and will have a real back yard in which he and his big brother who has severe autism be able to play in without supervision. HOWEVER, the rule will be no leaving the yard without permission. There will be an alarm on the gate to ensure that rule is followed.

It terrifies me to think of everything that could have happened to me while I roamed our "safe" neighborhood alone in 1st and 2nd grade!

Posted by: germantown mom | October 13, 2006 1:01 PM

Anyone remember the two latch-key sisters who were abducted down in Spotslyvania a few years ago? I wish I could forget.

Posted by: Rufus | October 13, 2006 1:03 PM

I grew up in a wonderful 'hood surrounded by many families with tons of kids in all age groups. I was latch key (don't remember how I old I was) and we played everything in the street. Not that much traffic back then. I don't remember doing anything dumb while being left home alone. But I can tell you now that even though I live on a farm, when my son is old enough to play outside I will never be quite comfortable with that. The family dog will be sent out there too. A great source of instant reaction to possible threats of strange individuals should they happen to be in the area. Even though our home sits far back off of a road without street lights, he ALWAYS knows when there's someone walking along out front. I would only be able to see that figure when a car passes by.

Posted by: CJ | October 13, 2006 1:07 PM

When I was in kindergarten I was alone in the backyard (which was large but unfenced) in a semi-rural area in OK. The worst that happened was I got stuck up a tree once and the neighbor had to call my mom to get me down.

I was loose outdoors from about age seven on. My parents gave me a watch and told me what time I had to be home. That was around military housing in Germany and into the woods. Same for NoVa (4th-5th grade) where we all played in the street in a development in Woodbridge (not base housing). I can't really remember any boundaries on where I could go, but I rarely went too far (though sometimes I did).

CA was a vastly different place. I didn't play outside because no one else was allowed out. It was a pretty boring place. I did start babysitting there at age 12.

My experience isn't that long ago (late 80s, early 90s). I do have to say I loved roaming around and hated the paranoia of CA. I suffered plenty of injuries (many involving trees and bikes, sometimes together) but in all nothing bad ever happened. I hope to allow my future child plenty of autonomy, I think it definitely shaped who I am.

Posted by: Running | October 13, 2006 1:09 PM

CJ, you gotta love the hyperactive sensors of those four-legged baby helpers, right? :) No one turns down our street without being greeted 5 times, twice from our house, and three times from two neighboring houses.

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 1:11 PM

rufus - I remember the spotsylvania abductions.

Does anyone remember the Lion's (maybe Lyon's?) sisters that were abducted from a mall in this area in the mid-late 70's? They were not too young, maybe 10 and 12. I was just a little younger and it terrified me.

Posted by: cmac | October 13, 2006 1:13 PM

Is anyone else worried about the Titans this week? The Skins should win easily but I'm afraid with our defense this might just be Vince Young's coming-out party.

Posted by: Priorities N Order | October 13, 2006 1:13 PM

For those of you who don't let your kids outside unsupervised-- how much time do your kids get to play outside? What do you do while you're out there supervising?

Posted by: YetAnotherSAHM | October 13, 2006 1:13 PM

To Suzy about gender-based standards,

I don't have kids, but my parents certainly had gender-based standards for allowing independence. In fact, my wife current applies gender-based standards to us. "I can't do x or y alone like you do, I'm a small woman, you're big man". Okay, so perhaps there's also a size based standard there too.

Posted by: Manuel | October 13, 2006 1:16 PM

Ours were out quite a bit. We did yard work, washed cars, talked to neighbors, grilled, etc. As I mentioned, it was kind of a collaborative effort to watch kids. There are 4 households with kids - only one of the 8 parents needed to be outside, but that's because we didn't mind watching the other kids and all the kids were taught to respect all of us.

Posted by: momuv2 | October 13, 2006 1:17 PM

Anyone else depressed about our safety zealous culture? I just think back 20 years ago in the burbs, when I had a job (8 years old delivering newspapers), rode my bike without a helmet, climbed on rocks on the beach, wandered around the neighborhood from dawn till dusk, played tackle football with no pads, explored construction sites, walked alone to the bus stop....seems like everything is on lockdown now, and my 7 month old is never going to have the childhood I had. Not that there's much I suppose I can do about it for him, but it does just make me depressed...

Posted by: Depressed | October 13, 2006 1:28 PM

As Ms. L and a couple of others pointed out, crime rates have actually gone *down* significantly in the last 30 years. But reporting about crime has increased greatly during the same period. I remember seeing a case study in grad school about how people's perception of neighborhood safety bears no relationship to actual crime rates but rather to how many news stories related to crime appear on the local news. As they say, "if it bleeds, it leads" and the press gets a lot of mileage out of crime/abduction/pedophile stories. According to the facts, we're safer than ever, yet many of us feel more threatened. Interesting. The same grad school prof who showed us that case study discussed the well documented phenomenon that people tend to overestimate the risk of something extremely unlikely happening (e.g. child abduction or shark attack) while at the same time grossly underestimating much larger risks (e.g. driving/traffic accidents), particularly if we think we're in control (again, like driving).

Given all that, it's probably significantly more risky to take your 8 year old kid with you on a short errand (because of the inherent risk anytime you drive) than to leave her alone for 15 minutes.

I think circumstances and the surrounding environment also play a big role. In NYC, kids have to take the subway to school, so afterschool, there are packs of 12 year olds heading for the pizza parlor... but it's unusual to see a kid on the train or out and about by themselves; since everyone else does it, there is safety in numbers. Same is true in Germany, where my 10 year old nephew takes a city bus to school-- he once met me after school in the city to go shopping and I remember thinking he looked awfully small bobbing along among the pedestrians as he approached me. But he knew the city like the back of his hand and wasn't the least bit fazed-- but he'd also been visiting pals and riding his bike around the small village outside the city where he lives for a couple of years before he began his big city school commute, which I suspect helped build his confidence and taught him how to interact with neighbors and strangers alike. Local culture seems to be a big determinant.

Posted by: JKR | October 13, 2006 1:35 PM

I am 23 years old and the oldest of 6 kids. I was home alone at age 9, babysitting at 11. The same goes with my youngest sister, who is turning 11 soon.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 1:39 PM

Yup, me too. We've become safety obsessed but it has created many kids who rarely play outside or have free play time, who have a higher incidence of overweight and diabetes, and spend a lot more time on TV and computers.

I'm not sure if the consequences are really better than the statistically slight risks they would be facing.

Posted by: I'm depressed, too | October 13, 2006 1:45 PM

JKR, I think your insights into risk and risk perception are really valuable in this regard. I think as our societal emphasis on childhood safety has increased, we as parents often get torn between teaching our children responsibility and allowing them to learn and grow, and protecting them. I tend to think its important to teach my child how to deal with situations so that if for some reason I'm not there to protect him, he knows what to do; but it's hard to let go of our fears long enough to actually do that.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 1:48 PM

I was a latch key kid from the age of 8. Back then, we were living in a suburb of Tucson, AZ. It was very quiet and, in retrospect, probably pretty safe. But I hated it. I was really nervous about being alone in the house by myself--and my mom probably got home around 4 or 5, so it was quite a while from the time I got off the school bus that I had to be alone. I would be scared of a stranger coming into the house, etc. Nothing ever happened, thankfully. It did get a little bit better when my sister joined me after school. She was 2 grades below me, and my parents had her in an after school program until she was a little bit older.

I wasn't completely petrified while home alone: I did homework, watched some cartoons, ate a snack, etc. I never did anything "bad" while home alone. But I do have slight anxiety to this day about being alone in a house. Oddly enough, I feel fine in a multi-family dwelling such as a condo, apartment building, or domitory.

My kids are still very young, so I haven't given much thought to the question of what age I should leave them home alone. Maturity matters, of course, as does personality. But I'd also want to be sure that they feel comfortable with the decision to be alone. I may or may not have been consulted--I don't remember--but my mom was the kind of person who handed down a decision, and that was that. For something as important as staying home alone, I think input from the child is critical, too.

Posted by: Former Latch Key Kid | October 13, 2006 1:50 PM

When we were growing up we had neighbors, two boys, who were not happy unless they were breaking things up. Toys, furniture, anything, including stuff that belonged to other people like my little brother -- just to 'see how it works.' One hit my brother in the head with a baseball bat. Their parents thought it was cute, 'boys just going through a stage.' One time when they were 10 and 12, their parents were both out for some reason on a Saturday. The oldest decides he wants to play in his father's wood shop in the basement. He cut off 3 fingers with the power saw. The youngest ran next door to my parents, my mother wrapped the older kid's hands in a towel and my parents hauled him to the ER. In the meantime, their father comes home to a house full of blood and fingers. At least it kept him out of the Army -- he didn't have a trigger finger. Another time the boys were home alone AGAIN and the oldest crashed his dirtbike. Again my parents hauled him to the ER. I believe these boys would have killed themselves if my parents weren't around to act as an ambulance service.

I also lived for a time in a condo community in Maryland and the family above me had 3 kids. Both parents worked evenings and left the 8-year-old alone with an infant. She invited her friends over the roller skating parties. The noise was unbelievable. My chandalier over the dining room table would swing from the vibrations until finally I called the cops on them to check their welfare and they made me out to be the bad guy because I called the cops on them. I ended up moving to get away from the noise. That mother ran a day care center out of her apartment for a while. Only one exit and for a while she was on crutches. Heaven only knows what would have happened if there had been a fire -- she couldn't carry anybody out if she was on crutches. I believe all this was unlicensed, highly dangerous, and very noisey living under them.

Posted by: Childless by Choice | October 13, 2006 2:01 PM

To YetAnotherSAHM:

Although our child is sometimes outside in the yard alone (like when we go in to get something to drink or fetch a toy), he's more often than not with my wife or me. He's 4 and is probably outside anywhere from 1 to 4 hours every day (not including the 30 minutes or so he gets from preschool). If he's engaged in what he's doing or playing w/ friends or neighbors, I'll read, play harmonica, or do yardwork. We have a lot of bike paths near us and a river, so sometimes we'll go biking together or take the dog for a walk and hang out at the playground--if we're there, I'm either playing with him, chatting with another parent, or sometimes wondering why I didn't bring a book or the harmonica ; ) There's a couple free outdoor destinations we like to hit too like Greenbelt Park, Buddy Atic Park, or the National Aboretum here in DC.

Posted by: marc | October 13, 2006 2:08 PM

You know you might feel more empowered around children if you took steps to protect them... like call Child Protective Service or some other helpful organization.

Standing by in judgement of children is not a better solution!

Posted by: To Childless by Choice | October 13, 2006 2:09 PM

To the "depressed" posters: your comments made me think of a book, The Nature-Child Reunion by Richard Louv, that I saw advertised recently about how kids don't connect with nature any more partially because parents are too scared to let them out into it. As he points out, kids today can tell you about the rain forest, but not what it feels like to just hang out in a plain ol' North American forest. Here's an article about it from the National Wildlife Federation's web site:


I can really relate to what Louv's saying; my parents had 4 wooded acres for us to explore freely. I probably spent a combined total of several months of my childhood up in the woods, four seasons out of the year, including Wisconsin winters. In our current neighborhood in the Denver 'burbs, we actually do get a fair bit of wildlife: a rabbit lives in the bush next to our garage, garter snakes sun themselves on the sidewalk, etc. We do everything we can to point nature out even when we're not out IN nature. The kids were fascinated by a flock of Canada geese that flew overhead while we piled into the minivan this morning.

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 2:18 PM

I call kids that have to wear pads/helmets/gear just to walk down the street bubble-wrap kids. If parents could - they would bubble-wrap their kids.

I have a friend who makes her kids go inside if they start to sweat. She doesn't want their shoes to get dirty so she sets up a table outside so that they can sit and play outside. Meanwhile my kids are digging in the dirt, running, hanging from monkey bars. Sad thing is that my friend's kids are beaten down, they don't even ask to run in the grass anymore.

Posted by: cmac | October 13, 2006 2:19 PM

Whoops, sorry--for anyone interested in Louv's book, the title is "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." What I gave as the title in my previous post is the title of the article that I gave the link to.

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 2:23 PM

I thought your mom was abusive? If she was, why would she care about the neighbor's kids? It seems like she may have had some goodness in her after all.

Posted by: to childless | October 13, 2006 2:28 PM

I do not let my five year old play outside our house unsupervised. She knows not to
let a stranger pick her up but at 40 inches and only 38 pounds she would be no match for a sexual predator.

I babysat at age 11 and I think my younger
sister at age 10. If my daughter wants to babysit I'll have her do it our condo building so I can check up. I want her to be independent but safety comes first, second, and last.

Have a great weekend. We will be eating birthday cake.

Posted by: shdd | October 13, 2006 2:28 PM

Not that the beautiful Saturday forecast and New England colors weren't inspiration enough, but now I'm definitely taking Jr. on a hike tomorrow. Thanks for the article.

Posted by: Depressed | October 13, 2006 2:28 PM

cmac, that's really sad about your friend's kids. I spent so much of my childhood romping outdoors and I really want my son to do the same as much as possible

Niner, our son was just learning to talk when we moved here and "geese" was one of his first words. It was so fun to watch him when he would hear them fly over and look up and shout "GEESE!" with such excitement.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 2:31 PM

I think it also depends on the culture you live in. When I lived in Utah, there were 8 year olds watching infants while their parents were at work. While I have to say that the LDS young adults I meant out there were really mature for their age, I wouldn't leave my kids alone at age 8 to babysite, but to them it was no big deal.

Posted by: scarry | October 13, 2006 2:35 PM

I think we have to remember when we were younger things were not as bad as it is today. My daughter is 12 years old and behaves very well. Although the computer is in a general location, I don't have to worry too much about her talking to any online because she just listens to music, watch videos and play games. I talk openly and frank with her about everything that is going on in today's society.

I started leaving her in the house around 10 for a couple of hours here and there. This is the same time that she started walking home from school. She never arrived home from school without someone being home (her grandmother). Now that she is 12, I can leave her home all day if school is closed while I am at work.

As far as a four year old outside, I pretty much went every where she went. When she got to be 8, I would let her go outside but I put limits to where she could go and would either sit on the porch or watch her from the window.

I know people are thinking wow no independence but if an adult woman can be kidnapped and rape how easy is it for a child.

Posted by: Great Topic | October 13, 2006 2:36 PM

To YetAnotherSAHM

The issue of when our kids can play outside is why the "are they old enough to be unsupervised" issue is such a big one for me and my husband. I work four days a week and he's full-time, so, to the extent weekends aren't spent running errands, they're spent doing laundry, home repairs, and the like. It's hard for either one of us to find time outside so the kids can go outisde, unless we're doing yard work. I think it's important for the kids to be able to go outside and play without us now, and that they can at least do so within the confines of our back yard. But he won't agree unless I assure him that I'm doing someting in our lower level, which has windows looking directly out on the back yard. I'm about at the point where I'm going to tell him he's being ridiculous and the can at least play in the back yard without us. I also think our oldest (almost 8) is old enough to ride her bike without our supervision, but then our son would want to do that also and he's not ready.

Fortunately the aftercare let's the kids run around outside as much as possible, so I know they're getting some outside activity during the week (though recess is almost non-existent these days).

Posted by: Sam | October 13, 2006 2:37 PM

Re: potential attackers. Our son is enrolled in a karate program through day care; it's an instructor with a franchise who teaches classes to preschoolers in day care centers. As most good martial arts instructors do, she teaches them appropriate non-violent use of their skills, and also "Stranger Danger" techniques. When I enrolled him, I though, "oh, that's nice, but how much of that will he really absorb?" Well, out of the blue one evening, he asked Daddy to pretend to be a stranger and grab his arm. He successfully broke out of the grip, and then punched poor Daddy in the...uh, boy parts. Even lying on the floor in pain, Daddy was impressed and quite pleased. A discussion about please not REALLY kicking Daddy because he wasn't a stranger followed, but we were impressed that he was interested in talking about and showing off what he'd learned about "Stranger Danger." I guess my point is that it's never too early to start talking to them about this stuff so that they're prepared if they need to be.

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 2:39 PM

"It was so fun to watch him when he would hear them fly over and look up and shout "GEESE!" with such excitement."

Our daughter tries to make the honking noise, but it just sounds like she has some horrible sinus condition. :)

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 2:43 PM

I'm interested in the generational changes.

I had a housekey at 9 and would come home and make myself
lunch (home was 3 blocks from school) because I preferred that
to eating a bag lunch at school on the two days a week my
mother worked. By 12, my parents took the view that DC had
a bus system and I should use it to get myself to doctor's appts
and the like.

At 12, my father, who lived in the NYC suburbs was free to
take the train into the city for the day, unsupervised.

Posted by: feeling old | October 13, 2006 2:46 PM

Yes, my mother was abusive but she wasn't about to let a child bleed to death. And my dad was a medic in the Army-Air Corps during WWII. I'm not standing in judgment of these children, just their parents who should know better.

Posted by: Childless by Choice | October 13, 2006 2:47 PM

I was home alone far earlier than I would let my own kids be. For my kids, I think they need to be at least 8 or 9, and we'll see when they get there whether I think they're ready to handle it.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 2:48 PM

Welcome back, Childless by Choice. I know your reception here can be very unfriendly, but I bet you can be a really neat person when you aren't feeling angry. I hope you come back often and talk with us.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 2:52 PM

gag me with the childlish by choice crap.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 3:04 PM

I concur with most of the things said by other posters -- when to start leaving a child home alone depends a great deal upon the temperament and maturity level of the child, the neighborhood surroundings, availability of neighbors to help if anything should go wrong, time of day, etc.

My frustration is that, at least in the Chicago suburbs, there simply is no aftercare or "school is out" care for middle schoolers. Its even hard to find summer camp programs for kids that age. Is that true in other parts of the country? Have your school boards and park district directors decided for you that your middle schoolers are old enough to stay home alone after school and on school holidays by not continuing aftercare programs past the 5th grade?

Currently I do trust my 15-year old to stay home alone and supervise his 13-year old and 5-year old siblings. But when the 5-year old gets to middle school both of the other two will be in college, so I'll be back to scrambling to make alternative arrangements or taking vacation time on all of those teacher workshop days, at least for a year or two.

Posted by: MP | October 13, 2006 3:11 PM

c'mon. Set an example and be nice.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 3:12 PM

At around 10 and 11 years old, my brother and I could pretty much go outside and ride our bikes as far as our feet could pedal us. Many times we took our fishing poles, rode a few miles through the woods, across the railroad tracks to the swamp. When we came back, we had a nice catch of blue gill, perch and catfish to fry up for the family dinner.

If my 11 year old girl has a friend with her, I'll let my 4 year old son go along down to Blockbuster to rent a movie. It takes a little less than an hour. All participants must demonstrate cooperation Any whining or resistance and the trip will get canceled.

Earlier this year, I was showing off to one of my neighbors how I taught my 4 year old, (he was 3.7 at the time) to ride a bike without training wheels. Everything was fine and good until the little punk just decided to take off around the block.

Posted by: Father of 4 | October 13, 2006 3:15 PM

No thanks, she is always nasty and condescending. I truly believe she hates children and only posts on this board to get attention.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 3:17 PM

The generational changes are pretty drastic. The summer that I was 9, I stayed home for about 3 weeks until I got freaked out enough that I went to my mother's work for most of the summer. I played outside alone from the moment I was conscious, must have been age 4. I remember visiting neighbor's houses and asking their mom to call my mom- of course we had some community phone list on mimeograph next to our phone. by the time I was 10 my friends and I would make plans to bike into town and go shopping or play videogames. I don't understand how parents can stop kids from biking away. One friend had a strict mother and we'd just sort of drift away on our bikes, go to the library and read the Sporting News, listen to records on headphones, etc. How do today's parent's keep their kids from biking to the library illicitly? I think it's naivete.

Posted by: Bethesdan | October 13, 2006 3:21 PM

Hey FO4, our 3 yo could ride a bike without training wheels, too. I thought that was freaky - then I realized why. Get them a bike that is *too small* for them. When they can solidly put their feet on the ground they'll learn to ride that thing in a heart beat. You can skip the training wheels altogether and the Munchkin will be so proud of themselves! There's nothing better.

(Sorry to everyone else for the off-topic interruption. Just thought some folks might like to know.)

Posted by: Tracy | October 13, 2006 3:25 PM

In Maryland, it's illegal to leave a child under 8 years of age at home without someone who is at least 13 years of age watching them. And you have to be 13 to babysit.

That I didn't know. I started babysitting when I was 11 and my sister started when she was 10. Another weird job we had as young teens was feeding pets while on vacation. We'd do it for $5 a day and make a killing because everyone was willing to pay $20 to make sure no packages were on their doorstep and you could get as many as 5 or 6 neighbors per week to do it could mean a fortune for a kid. If parents don't let their kids have those kinds of jobs then they must have to give them serious allowances.

Posted by: Bethesdan | October 13, 2006 3:30 PM

If s/he "only posts on this board to get attention" then why do you give it to him/her?
You just wasted two posts (i.e., attention) on someone who you feel should be ignored.

Posted by: To anonymouse 3:17 | October 13, 2006 3:32 PM

To those who are depressed because of our safety-obsessed culture:

I would be a heck of a lot more depressed if my 4 year old was harmed because I let him play in front of our house and he was hit by a car; or if I let my 6 year old walk to school by herself and she was abducted; or if I left my 12 year old home alone and she burned herself on the stove making herself a snack; or if I let my 14 year old ride the bus home every day from school and be here for 3 hours by himself and started huffing household products to get high.

I would be guilt ridden for the rest of my life if something happened to my kids because I was too lazy to provide them with care and supervision - or too worried that they would resent me or be dependent on me the rest of my life that I listened to something other than my gut and common sense.

Scarry - " think it also depends on the culture you live in. When I lived in Utah, there were 8 year olds watching infants while their parents were at work. While I have to say that the LDS young adults I meant out there were really mature for their age, I wouldn't leave my kids alone at age 8 to babysite, but to them it was no big deal."

There was a LDS family in Portland, Oregon who suffered a huge tragedy about 10-12 years ago. The mother was with the older children at a dance festival, and the 9 year old was babysitting his younger siblings - 7 & 5, I think. He got the dad's gun out ended up shooting and killing his 5 year old sister. :o( So while I agree with you that the culture has a lot to do with it, it doesn't always mean that LDS kids are sheltered from tragedies caused by a lack of parental supervision.

Posted by: momof4 | October 13, 2006 3:36 PM

I pointed it out because you said

"but I bet you can be a really neat person when you aren't feeling angry. "

I disagree, so I posted so.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 3:37 PM

mom of 4,

I think you misunderstood my post. I was upset when I saw the 9 year old watching the children. I said I wouldn't let mey kids do that. What I meant was that the teenagers and young adults I went to college with were very mature, way more mature than some of the kids I went to college with back in Ohio. I think it comes from watching kids and looking after siblings. It may also come from being dropped in a country on a mission and having to learn to take care of yourself.

Posted by: scarry | October 13, 2006 3:45 PM

I looked into the Maryland age rules when we first moved here because I wanted my son to be able to walk to school by himself - we live only four blocks away. Maryland says 8, so I waited until he was 8. He stays home alone for up to 2 hours on weekend days if I am grocery shopping because it is his least favorite errand! He is now 10, and I have been considering letting him walk home after school and stay there until I am home (and I freely admit this is because I would like to save money on childcare). I trust him to do chores and homework and not get into trouble while I am gone, but oddly enough, one of the biggest reasons I hesitate is because I worry about him losing/forgetting the house keys. Talk about it being dependent on your child's personality! I really think he can handle following the rules for a couple hours, but he is horrible about remembering to put things in/take things out of his backpack and I'm afraid he would misplace the keys and then not be able to get in the house!

Posted by: TakomaMom | October 13, 2006 3:55 PM

Mom of 4 I also agree with you on the safety obsessed culture. Someone I am close to ran over a little girl because her mother was in a hurry and dropped her off across the street from her grandparents house on a rural road. I think the little girl was 6 and the mother must have felt that she was big enough to look both ways. She went around the mini van and walked out just as this person drove by. She died at the hospital. You can never be to safe with your children.

I can't imagine the guilt that she feels and my loved one who has to live with the fact that they ran over a child. I can't even imagine.

Posted by: scarry | October 13, 2006 3:57 PM

Originalmomof2, Do you know the age in MD that a child can babysit their siblings? Next door is an odd family. They allow their 12 year old boy babysit his two little brothers at all different hours night/day. One is 8 years old and the other is 5 with down syndrome. This child is frequently see pounding on their front bay window...naked. Any help would be appreciated, this is disturbing.

Posted by: DM | October 13, 2006 3:59 PM

Mom of 4,

Man, I'm glad you weren't my mom. (seriously, not meant as mean, just I would've gone nuts watching my friends blow by the house on their bikes on the way to the latest construction site while you sat on me).

And I wouldn't characterize parents who let their kids out as "too lazy to provide supervision". I almost let that get me riled up (then realized not worth it).

Dangerous stove snacks?

Posted by: Depressed | October 13, 2006 4:02 PM


Two key chain options:

1) Try a neck lanyard worn inside the shirt but long enough to open door without taking off the neck. Then, depending on child, keep on neck till you get home or have semi-responsible/reliable child take off neck and hang on specific hook on wall. This second step is so you have the key in the morning before trotting off to school. Your job is to check that neck chain is hanging on hook. I often forgot.....

3) At hardware stores, you can buy a retractable key chain thingie that clips to pocket. The key stays inside the pocket but the chain extends to open the door. Boys LOVE THIS. So much that they are tempted to share with buds. My son had his "confiscated" by teacher. Of course, everyone forget and he trotted home to sit on the porch that day and wait. Get the kind that can go through the wash. Final note: child has to change to current/clean pants. My spacey boy managed to do this well....kind of like a pocket watch in olden days.

3) I also like the IDEA of the key-hidden-in-the-rock thing, but you need a good one that matches your landscaping rocks.... AND many normal kids will forget to reset the key everyday.

Hard to find idiot-proof systems. I like no 2). Bad to ride a bike with a neck-strand on your neck.....

Posted by: College Parkian | October 13, 2006 4:04 PM

To those who are depressed because of our safety-obsessed culture:

I would be a heck of a lot more depressed if my 4 year old was harmed because I let him play in front of our house and he was hit by a car;

I don't like telling this story online, but I will. One of my high school friends had a very strict, religious mother. She volunteered at a church gym we'd go to and watched us like a hawk. She was VERY concerned for our safety and her son's safety. If we wanted to meet him at the gym, SHE would drive him, we were not allowed at their house while parents weren't home and weren't allowed to give him rides. He had to be in bed by 9am and would often do homework in the cafeteria before class because he couldn't stay up to finish it. 9pm bedtime is healthy for the body, but not for the grades. He went to a small college, possibly Frostburg. I remember getting the call at the dorms, he had taken LSD (what?!) driven a car (wait, I was the designated driver when my friends drank illegally, no one who was 18 dared drink and drive!) wrecked it (OMG!) then was hit by a car while walking in the highway and broke both arms and both legs and was expelled! He was someone who had no concept of how to control his own behavior, and how to keep himself safe, his mom made decisions for the family.

Ask yourself this, are you helping keep your kids safe by what you described above or are you going to keep them safe until they turn 18, when the possibility exists they have no internal structure other than to follow rules? Forcing kids to mature and face consequences is not lazy parenting as you suggested, it's smart parenting.

Posted by: Bethesdan | October 13, 2006 4:09 PM

I TOTALLY agree with Bethesdan (never thought I would say that after Tuesday! :) ) Similar thing happened to someone I went to high school with - went to college and was "asked to leave" for a year because she didn't know how to deal with her freedom.

Momof4 - I too would have gone crazy if you were my Mom - my Mom worked and came home to an empty house, which was great - made something to eat, watched tv, etc. was fine - and honestly, i could've done all sorts of things even if she was home (I know many people who somehow smoke pot and drank when the parents were home!)

Posted by: Betty | October 13, 2006 4:17 PM

this is an interesting posting. when i was 7 and my sister was 2, the bus dropped us off in our driveway and i came in the house and watched us both. while, to think that it would be considered child neglect these days. i don't remember how i felt during those times. it was only for 1 semester.

Posted by: lwa | October 13, 2006 4:19 PM

this is an interesting posting. when i was 7 and my sister was 2, the bus dropped us off in our driveway and i came in the house and watched us both. while, to think that it would be considered child neglect these days. i don't remember how i felt during those times. it was only for 1 semester.

Posted by: lwa | October 13, 2006 4:19 PM

I don't have the horror stories to tell like Bethesdan, but I do think it's important to distinguish between "lazy parenting" and teaching your kids responsibility and self-dependence. Teaching your kids how to make good decisions and rely on themselves is hard work, not laziness. If my son burned himself using the stove when he was 12 I would feel terrible too, because by that age he should know how to use a stove safely; if my 14 year old was huffing inhalants I would feel horrible that I hadn't taught him to make better decisions. Assuming that the only way either of those accidents would happen is because they are alone in the house after school is a fallacy - unless you really intend to keep your child in your physical presence 24/7, either of those things could happen while you are in the other room if you haven't taught them better life skills.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 4:20 PM

See, I told everyone I was being misunderstood about our responsibility to the next generation on Tuesday! I really was! We have a responsibility to create the society we want to live in as seniors and that includes "raising" or mentoring kids whether we want to or not.

eh, no one cares... I was a "troll."

Posted by: Bethesdan | October 13, 2006 4:22 PM

Thanks College Parkian - both great ideas!
If we had a house (as opposed to living in an apartment) I would definitely do the "hide a key" thing. But we will try one of these ideas out ... my son will be so excited! (ha - and probably want to show it off to his friends and will take it off and lose it!) :)
I think before we try this we will practice taking the bus to where I work, in the event that he DOES ever lose/forget the keys.

Posted by: TakomaMom | October 13, 2006 4:28 PM

If people want to read about kids growing up without much supervision, may I recommend Jeanette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle.

I'm in my low 40s and grew up on military bases and eventually a cul-de-sac in a big NoVA suburban development. I definitely remember being able to play outside on my own, go explore in the woods behind the house, walk to the pool by age 13 or so. There always seemed to be lots of kids.
I probably started babysitting my 3 younger brothers around 10-11 and neighborhood kids by 11-12.

We live in DC now and the kids are still young (4&6). They mostly play in the backyard and dead-end alley with the few other kids on the street. We can see or hear them from the house. We have woods across the street with a little creek and I hope that one day (8 yo?) they can play there by themselves. I love raising kids in the city and look forward to the day (again, maybe 10yo?) when they can walk down the street to the 7-11, video store, library etc. I expect that they will take the bus or metro to middle school and HS.

My husband and I are very active and love to be outside. I work FT and I need my Rock Creek fix on the weekends to keep my sanity. We do alot of biking, walking in the woods, going to playgrounds, etc. It's a priority for our family. Laundry can be done in the middle of the night!

Posted by: DCmom | October 13, 2006 4:36 PM

My son is 3 and, obviously, we do not let him play outside unsupervised or leave him alone in the house. He, however, has alternate ideas. He has let himself out the front door a couple times when I've been in another room and has once gone to the park (3 heart stopping blocks away!) and twice to run down our block to see the train coming down the tracks. We now make it a policy to lock the screen doors and keep him safely locked in. He's waaay too independent when left to his own devices.

On the other hand, back in the stone-ages (mid 1970s) when I was 4-7, my parents let me play outside unsupervised(living in a small Western US city) and I was going home alone after school in the 3rd grade.
We lived in rural WI at that point, I was mature for my age and like Lizzie I was Dorky, too. Probably even dorkier than she was.
I was so dorky, in fact, that my friends parents would let them hang out we me unsupervised because they KNEW I wasn't going to get in any trouble. That reputation followed me from 5th grade through 12th grade. Oh, the shame.

Posted by: MadisonWIMom | October 13, 2006 4:47 PM

Things have changed...My mother was a nurse and quite often was either at work before I left for school or not yet home when school was over, and Dad always left before and came home later. Our house was a mile from the elementary school, and considered too close to warrant bus service, so I had to walk or ride my bike to/from school every day. A ride from mom was a rarity. I don't remember not being a latch-key kid. When I was in third grade, my brother was in kindergarten, and I remember my parents deliberately choosing to put him in the afternoon session so that I could meet him at the end of the day and walk us both home. We were forbidden from accepting rides home--ironically the warning wasn't about strangers but about our neighbors. I think my Mom didn't want to be beholden to them or didn't want my brother and I to get lazy and start expecting rides everywhere. I started babysitting for friends of the family when I was 10 or 11, although I guess you could argue I was babysitting my brother long before that.
Regarding the differences in how siblings are treated or gender differences, I did experience that. For example, when I left elementary school and moved on to middle school, my mother opted to have my brother attend day care after school instead of going home alone. I guess she felt more confident in my ability to follow the rules and be sensible if left home alone at that age than my brother. Even more ironic, however, was how that confidence or over-protectiveness was reversed as we got into our teenage years. If I was going out with friends or on a date, I had very strict rules on where I could go, who I could be with, who I could ride with, what time I had to be home, etc. My brother, on the other hand, was basically given only one restriction--be home within 1/2 an hour of his date's curfew. When I asked my mom about this, her reponse was that the girl's parents were supposed to set the curfew rules, and a 1/2 an hour was enough time for him to get home after dropping her off. My biggest frustration as a teenager was this gender-based disparity in our rules. I know for a fact that my brother was at kegger parties when he was in high school (and I suspect my parents knew too, but chose not to confront him or limit him). I never touched alcohol outside of my parents' home (a sip of wine on holidays) until I was in middle college years. My biggest curfew violation in high school was sitting with my boyfriend (honor student, valedictorian, major geek, safest guy you can imagine) in his car in my parent's driveway for 15 minutes after my curfew (I was home, but not inside the house). On at least one occasion, my parents had to pick up my brother at 4 in the morning because he was too sick/drunk to drive home (and not because he called, but because they woke up, realized he wasn't home, and started calling his friends until they found him). Yet, the whole teenage years, I felt like I was the one they thought they couldn't trust and was held on the tight leash.
For what it's worth, I'm 37, female, and grew up in a suburb of Houston.

Posted by: AML | October 13, 2006 4:51 PM

Lost key problem: Is there a neighbour who could keep a spare key? That seems simpler than key-in-rock (or book-safe, or Maxwell Smart's "shoe safe.")

My two grown kids will still sometimes forget their keys. They go around the back and do their homework on the picnic table on the deck til someone gets home, or walk over to Starbucks and spend quarters calling home to see if there is anyone there. When they've done either during the winter when it is snowy and 20-below, they remember their key for months and months at a time!

Posted by: Very Old Mother | October 13, 2006 4:58 PM

"I would be guilt ridden for the rest of my life if something happened to my kids because I was too lazy to provide them with care and supervision"

Interesting comment, because it reflects that your choice is more about you than about your kids. Despite the statistics that tell us crime is lower than ever, despite the fact that the single most dangerous thing most of us do every day is climb behind the wheel of a car, despite the low risks of the abduction/horrible accident/shark attack happening to you, our decisions are dominated by a need to protect our babies from the red herring risks of abduction and other horrors we hear about in anecdotes or on the news.

Why? I think because, moreso than our parents, we have a belief that we have the responsibility and ability to control every moment of our kids' day. And because of our need to fulfill this impossible mission, and the growing tendency to make the ups and downs of parenting the ultimate barometer of our self-esteem, we go to extremes to protect and nurture our kids.

My husband had two younger brothers who died in a fire. There mother was home when it started. A t.v. imploded and caught fire in the upstairs playroom room they were in and spread quickly (in the 70's before t.v.'s got safer and everything was drenched in fire retardant). She couldn't get to them and they died of smoke inhalation after barracading themselves in a bathroom on the other side of the fire. It was a mothers worst, worst nightmare. It was a horrible, horrible accident. But you know what? She couldn't have done anything about it. It was a random, awful unlikely event that just so happened to land on her family. And ultimately, she did live with herself; amazingly, life did go on, unimaginable though it may be to parents who haven't lost a child. She went on to have another child, a daughter, who was loved and cherished, but certainly not hovered over every second of her life. She's now in college. And my husband's family knows from hard won wisdom that you can't live your life in fear that the worst may happen-- the worst can still blindside you in ways you never imagined. You simply have to cherish those you love in word and deed every second you have with them, and let them go when it's time for them to spread their wings.

Posted by: JKR | October 13, 2006 5:21 PM

DCmom - I read "Glass Castle" - it was unbelievable. What I found so interesting was despite the outright neglect and abuse of Jeannette's parents - she is smart and successful - in part due to her strange "education." Her father was brilliant but crazy and his unusual teachings made her unique. She suffered in her childhood but she did benefit from it.

Having been brought up in a very safe, secure, conventional home I was fascninated by her childhood and amazed she even survived. I highly recommend the book.

Posted by: cmac | October 13, 2006 5:33 PM

I was a latch key kid-- I became an expert at breaking into our house. Some of the stuff I did kind of scares me now:
Take 2 picnic table benches, stack on top of picnic table on deck, put third picnic table on these benches (one leg on each of the lower benches). Stand on top of this structure and hope to find an unlocked window.

I should've learned to pick locks. THERE'S a life skill!

Posted by: YetAnotherSAHM | October 13, 2006 5:36 PM

Thinking about this issue I am often left wondering whether a lot of the anxiety about leaving kids alone today is actually brought on by social pressure rather than just fear for the safety of kids. Sure there are situations and ages where kids should be supervised - there were even 25 years ago when I was a kid. But a lot of it to me seems like people are really, really afraid of being called out as bad parents. I do think there are less people home today in neighborhoods but that is really the only difference the rest, to my mind, is just perception. Not trying to a troll I just want people to think about another real reason we all get so worked up over this issue.

Posted by: not a mom | October 13, 2006 5:39 PM

JKR: that is a fine perspective given as an outsider looking in, come back and discuss it with us when you've dealt with your own children's tragedy. It just drive me nuts when people espouse their worldly philosophy based on others experiences and not their own. I'd be interested to know if you're so laissez faire about your own children's deaths.

I think it's a disservice to talk about safety for children in conjunction with statistics. Parents have to make decisions on behalf of their children every day and they (and they alone) are responsible for them. Statistics should be completely irrelevant to those choices.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 13, 2006 5:41 PM

Thanks to Bethesdan and Depressed. Your posts have made me feel much better about this whole discussion. I think there's way too much overprotection of kids these days.

I believe in being as hands-off as possible. Of course I want my kids to be safe, but it's all in how one defines safe. I want my kids to grow up to know how to take care of themselves. I remember telling my mom after my first semester away at college what a great job she'd done, because I was one of the few people in my dorm who didn't get out from under their parents roofs and lose their minds.

I believe children need to be exposed to progressive levels of responsibility, starting from the very beginning. I could continuously try to keep the drawer from closing on my toddlers fingers, or I could let it close on them once. She would be mildly hurt, but she would have learned something important. She would be given the power to protect her own fingers. (Now I would not let her close her fingers in the car door.) One time I was at the playground with my then 18-month old with another mom and her 3 year old. I saw my daughter start to step off the bottom step of the play equipment, which was maybe 10 inches above the sand, but too high for her short legs. It wasn't a conscious decision, but on some level I think I assessed the danger and decided I didn't need to react. The other mom dove for her as she fell into the sand. I'm sure some people would be horrified by that, but in my mind, I'm giving her the skills to deal with life.

I let my first grader walk to school by herself and play outside by herself (not just in our backyard) and started leaving her home alone for as long as 30 minutes when she was 7. She is a very self-assured and independent kid. Do I think that she's never in danger or that she wouldn't possibly get into mischief? Of course not. But to me, there's more long-term risk - both physically and psychologically - in trying to protect her from every possible danger.

I have a book to recommend related to this topic: "The Blessings of a Skinned Knee." Amazon review at: http://www.amazon.com/Blessing-Skinned-Knee-Teachings-Self-Reliant/dp/0142196002

I also recommend looking at a Department of Justice report on non-family abducted children: http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/documents/nismart2_nonfamily.pdf

From the report: "During the study year (1999), there were an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings, defined as abductions perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed."

Clearly that's 115 too many, and there are plenty of other abductions (i.e. forced detentions of one sort or another of at least one hour), but I think it's a lot fewer than most people think. And I agree that the risk is far smaller than of getting killed in a car accident.

May all our children grow up safe, healthy and able to fend for themselves.

Posted by: happy mama | October 13, 2006 5:45 PM

JKR, great post, thanks again.

Not a mom, I think you are absolutely right that the fear of being called out as a bad parent motivates much of our behavior. I'm not saying that we aren't all extremely concerned about our kids, just that the bad parent thing plays a role too.

Incidentally, that reminds me of another issue in keeping your kids safe, which is listening to them and respecting their intuition. When I was in preschool, I suddenly developed a strong dislike and uneasiness around the director. I told my mom, and fortunately, she listened to me and took me out of there. Years later, he was indicted for sexual assault of kids at the preschool. Here's the creepy part: My mom says that at the beginning of the year he did this whole very charming "kids say the darnedest things" bit and told parents "we won't believe everything they tell us about you if you won't believe everything they tell you about us." Talk about playing perfectly off our fears of being bad parents - what parent hasn't worried about their kid telling something out of context and making you look like a "bad parent"? I wonder how many kids' parents didn't listen to them based on that little spiel.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 5:45 PM

Whoops, that should have said, "here's the creepIEST part", obviously the whole siutation was creepy and awful.

Posted by: Megan | October 13, 2006 5:49 PM

I don't think JKR was laissez faire at all. She is just saying that there is no guaranteed security in life. That as much as we may try to protect our kids, they are still at risk for accidents and terrible freak things. Such is life. Parents often think that the protective measures they take will guarantee that their kids are always safe. Some things make sense, such as car seats and helmets for bicycling. But nothing is a guarantee. And yes, despite the fact that the crime statistics have gone down, we worry more now, and take more protective measures now, than in years past. Part of this is because these kind of news events get a lot more attention now than they used to years ago. We are running scared. And sometimes we don't realize that no matter what we do or how careful we are, awful, tragic things will happen that are completely beyond our control.

Posted by: Rockville | October 13, 2006 5:51 PM

Another suggestion for a blog might be how to balance kids extracurricular (sports, boy scouts, music, etc) activities vs. having a sane family life.

Posted by: rockville | October 13, 2006 6:02 PM

I have to agree with Megan about listening to your child. Also, if you listen with respect and investigate, etc even if you think it may be over blown, your child will learn to trust you and the next time when it might be serious they are more likely to tell you.

Posted by: Divorced mom of 1 | October 13, 2006 6:05 PM

Lucky for me, nothing like Megan's horrible experience ever happened to me--my mom was a teacher, and tended to always listen to their side of things. And okay, sometimes, even often, the teacher was in the right, but it made me so angry that she didn't listen to my side of things!

Posted by: niner | October 13, 2006 7:07 PM

I knew people would take my post as being overprotective. I am not an overprotective parent by any means - what I am is someone who believes in preventing as many tragedies as I can in life. Accidents do happen, and there isn't anything we can do about them. But we can practice common sense safety and examine why we do the things we do.

"It was a mothers worst, worst nightmare. It was a horrible, horrible accident. But you know what? She couldn't have done anything about it. It was a random, awful unlikely event that just so happened to land on her family. And ultimately, she did live with herself; amazingly, life did go on, unimaginable though it may be to parents who haven't lost a child. "

I'm so sorry this happened to your husband's family. :o(

There is a difference, however, between a preventable tragedy and one that you could have done nothing to prevent.

A parent who decides to let their 6 year old walk to school by themselves because they either a) could walk them to school but don't feel like it or b) they think the only way to build independence in a child is to let them walk to school by themselves at age 6 isn't making a wise decision, imo. It's this kind of situation that would eat away at me if something bad happened....because I could have prevented it simply by getting off my butt and being the parent. There will be plenty of time for a 6 year old to walk alone places - it's not like she's going to be a burden on society in the future because I didn't let her walk to school by herself in the first grade.

My kids are independent for their ages and know how to make smart decisions. They do not live with a lot of rules, nor do they resent the ones they do have. We are not religious or socially conservative in any way. My middle and high schoolers both stay home alone at times and/or babysit their younger siblings.

But they also have parents who are involved in their lives and know what they're doing and who they're doing it with even if they're not with us. They don't spend 3 hours every day after school and all day all summer hanging out at home or roaming the town by themselves - rather, they stay busy with after school and summer activities, volunteer work, and time with their family.

Posted by: momof4 | October 14, 2006 4:19 PM

Megan - "Teaching your kids how to make good decisions and rely on themselves is hard work, not laziness."

I agree completely that teaching your children to make good decisions is hard work as opposed to laziness. It's similar to the idea that it's easier to just do something yourself rather than teach/help your child to do it - i.e. getting a 2 year old to pick up his toys or making cookies with a 5 year old.

But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about making choices based on what's easier for me, even if it isn't the wisest or safest thing to do. Believe me, it would be a lot less work for me if I just shooed my 6 yo daughter out the door in the morning and had her walk the 5 blocks to school by herself rather than walk with them. It would also be a lot less trouble if I stayed home in the afternoon at 2:30 and waited for her to walk in the door instead of walking back to the school to make sure she gets safely home. It would have *definitely* been a lot easier when I had an infant or an infant *and* a toddler in the house to not pack up the little ones to walk or drive my older kids to and from school.

If I worked outside the home and couldn't pick my middle schooler and high schooler up after school, it would be a lot easier to just tell them to ride the bus home and walk home from the bus stop and watch TV until I got home than it would be to schedule and pay for and arrange transportation to after school activities. And by the same token, in the summer it would be a lot easier to let them stay home and play on the Internet or ride their bikes around town all day than to find enriching & fun activites to fill their time.

That's what I'm talking about when I say that it can be laziness to opt out of supervising your children. Not that you want to "sit on them" and stifle their independence or not teach them anything, but that by making a choice based on what's easy for you instead of the safety and well being of your children, you are making the lazy choice.

"If my son burned himself using the stove when he was 12 I would feel terrible too, because by that age he should know how to use a stove safely; if my 14 year old was huffing inhalants I would feel horrible that I hadn't taught him to make better decisions. Assuming that the only way either of those accidents would happen is because they are alone in the house after school is a fallacy - unless you really intend to keep your child in your physical presence 24/7, either of those things could happen while you are in the other room if you haven't taught them better life skills. "

Agreed. However, a child burning themselves when you're in the house is different than a child burning themselves when you're not home. You would be there to administer first aid and hugs, for one - as opposed to a hurt child having to do it themselves.

And as far as the inhalant use - yes, teaching your child to make good choices is the best prevention against drug use. But it is a fact that children who "don't have anything better to do" are going to be more likely to turn to things like drugs to fill their time than children who are provided the opportunity to play sports, do volunteer work, sing in the choir, etc. to fill their time. I was talking not about a kid who is home alone occasionally for an hour or two, but one who is home *every* day for hours at a time.

I've suggested this book before - but I'll do it again - "Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes" by Mary Eberstadt. There's a section on teenagers and the dangers of the lack of supervision.

There's often talk here about the child-centric society we live in. I think it's kind of funny, because often the opinion of this blog is the exact opposite. People are far more worried about what's in it for them - can it make my life easier? It can? OK, then I'm going to do it. Even if it's not the best thing for my child's safety.

Posted by: momof4 | October 15, 2006 9:08 AM

mom of 4 someone always has to be the scapegoat, so brush it off and come back on Monday.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 15, 2006 5:32 PM

Mom of 4, thanks for your response. I guess I don't tend to see the "opinion of the blog" as being as tilted as you do, but I appreciate and understand what you've written about putting your children's interest first.

Posted by: Megan | October 16, 2006 10:26 AM

DM, the next door neighbors are breaking the law in Md. A previous poster had it right -- a 13 years old is the age for babysitting younger kids -- of 8 and up. I'd tell the neighbors what you see, even if it's only an anonymous note. If you really sense danger, you can always call Child Protective Services, but expect things to get ugly if you do. Even if your call is anonymous, defensive neighbors will suspect you.

Posted by: theoriginalmomof2 | October 16, 2006 1:19 PM

Wow, I just read through all the posts and it makes me happy that my child (now 13) has spent her middle school years in Switzerland. From age 10 she has taken the public bus to and from school (here the kids start walking to school by themselves in kindergarten). She goes into town to the conservatory by herself. She has lunch in town with her friends on Fridays. If I'm not home when she comes home for lunch, she prepares it herself (knives, hot stove and everything). She meets up with her friends at the ice skating rink or for movies. When it's warm, she swims in the river with her friends. This summer she flew to the States by herself (not as an accompanied minor), and then flew across the country (with a change in Chicago) to go to camp. She wasn't the least bit afraid -- she said she loved going by herself.

She's rather disorganized (her backpack is a nightmare), but somehow has managed to never lose her key. When she forgets it, she sits outside doing her homework. She's expected to always have her phone with her (charged).

She's responsible and independent, but she still likes me to read to her when she goes to bed.

My big fear is that we may have to reign her in a bit if we move back to the States. I suspect that would not be easy . . .

Posted by: Bernerin | October 16, 2006 2:01 PM

I think everyone's saying some wise things. But consider this...my mom stayed home with us. Gave us a good amount of freedom with a lot of supervision. Kept a close eye on us when we were outside, but let us babysit around 12-14 years old. Stayed home alone overnight when we were 16-17 once or twice. Pretty much followed all the rules and guidelines.

The moral of the story...I grew up to be a lawyer with two advanced degrees, and my brother freaked out with any freedom he got, huffed inhalants in his few alone hours after school when he had the time, and still lives at home in his mid-20s because he can't deal with freedom or responsibility.

Is it nature, or nurture? I don't know. I don't know if letting your 8 year old ride her bike around the neighborhood, or letting your 10 year old stay home after school for an hour each day ultimately decides what your child becomes as an adult. I don't know if it's the supervision, or lack of supervision that made my brother and me turn out so very different. (We're 3 years apart...I'm older).

I think, when you acknowledge your child's maturity, dole out responsibility with consequences for breaking trust, and teach your kid that you trust her to do the right thing but that it's the rest of the world you're afraid of, it suddenly becomes easier to justify that incremental loosening of the parental leash with each passing year/milestone of maturity.

Posted by: MSL | October 16, 2006 4:54 PM

My 11 year old couldn't stand going to her younger sister's many soccer practices, so starting at age 10 she stayed home alone during them. So up to two hours by herself but I check in by phone every half hour or so. I've let the younger one (age 9) stay home alone while I ran out to Target - no more than 30 minutes is my comfort zone there. Both must stay inside and doublebolt the door. No stove use. No answering phone or door (they use the machine to screen the calls from me). Personally I stayed home alone from about age 9 on (after dark from age 12 on). I babysat at age 11 during the day and at night at age 13. I really think this is an individualized decision based on your kid, their maturity, their willingness to follow the rules. We've also gone over what to do in an emergency (which neighbor to contact if you can't get me), etc until I was satisfied they got it.

Posted by: Fairfax | October 25, 2006 11:01 AM

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