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Trusting a Child is Not Neglect

Lenore Skenazy on

"My son isn't allowed to stay home alone till he's 12, even if I just have to run to the corner store for five minutes," my neighbor was explaining to me. "That's why I always take him with me, or I just don't go. That is the law."

But, in fact, that is not the law. What's disheartening is that my neighbor is just one of many people -- perhaps the majority -- getting the wrong information.

This is so upsetting because the nonprofit I run, Let Grow, recently published the first comprehensive look at every state's rules about when you are allowed to let your child stay home alone or engage in other normal childhood activities unsupervised. (You can click here to look your state's laws up.

It's easy to see how parents are confused because it turns out there are two different sets of neglect laws in each state:

One is the criminal law. If you commit a crime against a child, law enforcement steps in. The other set comes from child protective services. If you are suspected of abuse or neglect, the child protection folks step in.

The problem arises from the fact that the majority of states' neglect laws are so open-ended that parents don't have a clear idea of what is allowed and what is not. That's how my neighbor ended up thinking that she couldn't leave her child, age 7, alone for even a minute until he turns 12.


The actual criminal law in New York state says child endangerment is a "lack of reasonable diligence as to a child under 18." Great. But what is "reasonable diligence?" The law leaves it wiiiiiide open...

For 18 years.

Likewise, the child protective law in New York says neglect occurs when the parent fails to "exercise a minimum degree of care," or leaves the child "without proper supervision or guardianship." Once again, the problem in New York, as elsewhere, is that no one has defined "proper." And so parents are left hamstrung: "What if I think it's proper to run to the store, but the state thinks otherwise?"

We need neglect laws that are narrower. Instead of, "Parents must provide proper care!" the law should state that parents who let their kids to do something on their own are only guilty of neglect if they put the child in immediate, obvious and probable danger.


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