Is our culture too overprotective of children?

Grandparents in West El Paso, Texas left their five grandchildren home alone while they ran into town to “take care of some business.”  The eldest was thirteen, the youngest four.  They never expected to receive a call there at the IRS from the fire department telling them they had to come home.

They never expected their house to catch on fire.  Fortunately, all five children were rescued, with the eldest being taken to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.  She was upstairs, where the fire began, but is expected to recover fully.

Hopefully we can all agree that the fact that this couple was homeschooling these children is fully irrelevant, but it does bring up the question of supervision.  At least to the local news channel reporting on the story.

But some may say that 13 years old is too young to be a babysitter for four other kids.

According to Texas law, there is no specific age said to be too young to be left home, and each child and situation should be taken into consideration.There is a law, however, that defines something called neglectful supervision. A law that states a child should not be put in a situation that a reasonable person would realize requires better judgment and maturity than the child has. KFOX14 (link no longer available)

I’ll play that “reasonable person,” but there are too many other questions in my mind that would need to be answered before I could definitively say that this thirteen year old lacked the judgment and maturity to be put into this situation.

  1. How long were the adults intending on being away? An hour or two?  Most of the day?
  2. How old were the other children? We know the youngest was four, but a twelve year old could help and a ten year old could be responsible more or less for him or herself.  Just knowing the age of the eldest and the youngest leaves me a tad suspicious that the reporter is trying to stir controversy where perhaps none need be.  But I’m just suspicious that way.
  3. How mature is the thirteen year old? I’ve known thirteen year olds who were quite capable and responsible and full grown adults I wouldn’t trust with my puppy.  I would hope that the grandparents would be better judges of her maturity level than any arbitrary age level.
  4. What are the relationships between the children like? I wouldn’t leave my ten year old with any of them just yet, but I’d sooner leave her alone with her two sisters and baby brother than with just her six year old brother.  He is “active” and they do not get along very well.
  5. What about the neighbors? If you know your neighbors and your children have some place to go in an emergency, the situation looks a lot different.  Especially if those neighbors know the children are home alone and are keeping an eye out on the house.

Here in Nebraska, you can send your eleven year old to the Y or to the American Red Cross to earn their babysitter’s certificate, even though I have a hard time imagining leaving my daughter responsible for another child at that age.  But just because I wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean it constitutes neglect.  It reminds me a bit of the discussion last spring surrounding the columnist who allowed her nine year old son to navigate the Subway system to get home.  Alone.  In New York City!  My first reaction to that story was a resounding “She did what?!”  But I was born and raised in the Midwest and I would be uncomfortable navigating the NYC Subway system alone.  This child, on the other hand, has grown up with it.

There was a time when a thirteen year old girl could expect to marry soon, have children and raise her own family.  This, in fact, still happens in parts of the world.  And young Sarah Noble was but eight when she left with her father to explore the wilderness and cook for him.  Granted, these children had/have a far different upbringing than most of our suburban youth.  Today, they would probably be placed in protective custody.

But I still wonder.  Was this couple neglectful in leaving their grandchildren home alone?  Or has our culture artificially extended childhood by becoming too overprotective of children?

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33 thoughts on “Is our culture too overprotective of children?

  1. Just to add a danger I didn’t know until it happened to a dear homeschooling friend’s family. Their house caught fire because of dryer lint, while they were all in another room watching a television special.

    Her recommendation to us all, after talking with fire fighters in the tragic aftermath, was: don’t ever run your clothes dryer when a responsible adult isn’t alert and nearby. This includes leaving one or more youngsters home during the day with laundry in process, and everyone going to bed at night while it’s still running (with or without adults home.)

  2. Oh, Lord, this is my nightmare. I leave my very responsible 12-year-old home with his 8, 6, and almost 4-year-old siblings while I run quick errands. But, being phobic, the last thing I say as I walk out the door is, “In case of fire, get everyone out. First.” If I’ll be gone longer than half an hour or so, I take the youngest – everyone else is old enough to know to get out. Oh, and no one is allowed to eat anything while I’m gone (even though the 12-year-old knows the Heimlich maneuver).

    Also, we have very close neighbors (townhouse community) – that makes a difference. Once, the year we were away, my husband had to accompany me to the ER for a D&C; and we left a 12-year-old in charge of his 4 younger siblings, all asleep. No close neighbors around to go to for help, and the situation made me very nervous.

    So, yes, the situation varies with presence (or not) of neighbors, responsibility level of oldest, sibling relationships, and time of day. My only worry usually is the emotional trauma on the oldest if something untoward happens to his younger siblings while I am gone. Can you imagine the guilt? Thank goodness all those kids were all right!

    And, yes, considering what kids that age used to be entrusted with, I think we are all fairly hyper about this subject.

  3. In this case, I would want to know why the fire started before I passed judgement.

    I leave my younger two alone from time to time(twelve and ten)while I run to the local grocery. We have good neighbors who are retired and are usually home. I have to admit I call them so often (“Are you alive?” “Don’t answer the door!” “Be nice to your brother.”) that they are in contact with me most of the time.

    The majority of the time my fifteen year old is home. He is a trusted sibling sitter.

  4. I realize it was 20 years ago, but I used to watch my 3-4 younger siblings for a couple hours when I was 11. It wasn’t long after that other people had me babysit for their children.

    Last I checked, fires and injury from fires happened when parents and grandparents were home too, so I’m not sure the children would have been better off in this case with adult supervision.

  5. Yes, well, if she was upstairs smoking and that is how the fire started, perhaps she isn’t quite the one to be in charge. Hopefully that isn’t the case.

    I had heard that, JJ Ross. Actually, I read about it while number three was in her car seat enjoying a dryer induced nap. Needless to say, we stopped doing that.

  6. Overall, I agree with suburbancorrespondent. Yes, and yes!

    And that the best we can do is to prepare even children to watch out for each other, and to know the ways out, and to get help.

    I am an older mom with bad knees. I worry about slipping in the shower, or having a stroke/heart attack and needing help myself but being home alone. And vice versa, about 13-year-old Young Son being home alone and slipping in the shower or getting bitten by the dog next door, or a fire starting or a tornado or lightning strike or snake in the house (we’ve had all of the above.) OTOH he fell in the backyard pool when he was a toddler and still nearly drowned although I was RIGHT THERE and my usual paranoid self. . .

  7. I think #3 question is the most important in regards to not only the 13 year but also the 10 year old. I have seen 10, 11, and 12 year olds that are mature enough to be fully trusted and than in another light I have seen a 13 year old I wouldn’t leave alone without my supervision.

    I do believe in a light that our society is too protective over children. So protective in a manner that it has put up several barriers to what is considered “proper” parenting. This is for sure a debateable topic because somethings our society needs to push on and other things our society just needs to look at from another POV. Nice post!

  8. It’s interesting that we try to protect our children from physical harm in an almost paranoid way (myself included, I still don’t like to leave my 11-year-old home when going two blocks away to the neighbors). Yet so many allow children to be subject to all kinds of blatant messages about sexuality, violence, etc. That does not extend childhood, but robs it of its innocence.

  9. I’m quick to say no, it’s not too young – but I also need more answers.

    Totally think the reporter is stirring things up though.

    (the law is a little weird here. You can babysit at 12, but not be alone with a sibling at 12…)

    For my own kids – if the oldest was 13, I wouldn’t leave then with anyone younger than maybe 6. 4 is pushing it, and then I’m just running down the street, maybe to get the mail.

    I can see a grandma and grandpa thinking it was perfectly reasonable.

    When I was a youngun’ ;P we were allowed to roam all around the inside of our city block pretty much all day. just don’t go trying to cross the main road or God Forbid go down to the railroad tracks because if we got killed then don’t come cryin’ on home to tell her about.

  10. I’m always conflicted about this. I had a good babysitting business going by the time I was ten years old, but the times were different then. I don’t know if I would be willing to leave my kids with a ten year old now.

    I don’t know if we were just more responsible then or if something else has happened.

  11. We are all affected by the cultural norms. If everyone left their ten year olds alone, none of us would think about it, even when something bad happened.

    And I think in general, we baby children more so perhaps a lot of kids aren’t ready for such responsibility like maybe they could be if it were expected of them.

  12. To Renae’s point, yes and then too, there are endless mitigating circumstances and so many questions to consider — some people feel that way about the Bible! 😉

    For example, from the BrickTestament site (books of the bible rendered in Legos)
    The Bible contains material some may consider morally objectionable and/or inappropriate for children. These labels identify stories containing:

    N = nudity S = sexual content V = violence C = cursing

  13. Yes, well, you see Lego and think kids. And then you have a graphic depiction of circumcision. But yes, there is an awful lot of sinning going on in the Bible.

  14. Okay, I will give on my age – I am 41. Almost 30 years ago (has it really been that long?), when I was 12, I babysat 3 boys on a regular basis. Yes, it was a relatively closeknit subdivision in rural IN. And my mom was only a couple of streets over. But, I tell you what, those boys made my annoying brother look like an angel, lol!

    Shortly thereafter, we relocated to OK. Mom regularly left me in charge of annoying brother (no biggie – I was was bigger than him and he knew if I had to give a bad report, he was in deep trouble!). Yes, there was an older couple next door, but we were in tornado country, lol! I babysat very, very regularly for 2-3 different families at the age of 12/13. My mom said that I was the responsible one and my brother did not use the sense that God gave him.

    That said, I am guessing that the grandparents thought the situation would be just fine leaving the 12 year old in charge. My 10 year old is extremely responsible and I would not think twice about leaving her on her own for a quick errand (close, good neighbors at home of course), but because of people willing to call CPS at the drop of a hat, we make the obvious choice not to.

    Yes, society is over protective of children today (if I hear one more time that it is all “for the children”, I will puke). However, there is SOME justification in SOME situations. Our society’s lax morals have created more and more weirdo’s out there than there ever were when I was a child. Yes, there have always been weirdo’s and in the small towns, everyone knew who they were and we were told to avoid so-and-so’s house and that person. However, in today’s transient society, a person can swoop in and be gone in a moment and out of state in a relatively short time period.

    So, what to do? We let the children think they are on their own or in charge while being covertly supervised (isn’t that why the window over the kitchen window is there?). No, I do not feel like I could allow my children to have the run of the town like we would have been able to when we were children (and if we acted up, everyone knew who we were, lol). I wish I could. But, I hope to have my children mature into responsible young adults at an earlier time period than their same aged cousins… There is no need to encourage the “teenager” mentality.

    I am rambling now, so I will cut this off and go play with the baby while the children do their lessons.

  15. Personally I feel that we not only over-protect children and extend childhood, but we place them on a pedestal… with things like birthday parties in the $200 and $300 range, at Chuck E. Cheese or some other children’s facility; with denying jobs to teens until specific ages even when they truly want a job; weddings that cost almost as much as a mortgage; etc.

    I read about the mother in New York and at first was shocked–I have been on the NY subway a few times LOL But when I read her credentials and her statistical research and began to contemplate my own childhood, my older sons’ childhoods and the desires and frustrations of my own youngest child my shock subsided.

    So much of what we fear as parents has been hyped up to make us afraid, to sell news stories, to make headlines and draw attention. I know it is a different world today than when we grew up, but have you ever thought that maybe some of that difference is the advancement of technology. Stories of children home alone and tragedy striking have always been around; but usually the story stayed fairly close within the community. Now with news media relishing the sensational publicizes it over and over and over again, and instant news sharing thru the internet and social networking–the whole state, the whole nation, even the whole world will be made aware of incidents… and we become afraid because it seems so much closer to home, SEEMS so much more prevalent. But looking at the statistics… it’s not any more prevalent now than many decades past. What is more prevalent is our fear… and the news media sensationalizing such stories.

    I decide to put my fear in check after reading about the NY mom and her son’s subway ride. I did some research of my own and then let my son ride our local city bus ALONE. What an amazing experience… I have since deleted my blog, but I saved the documentation of that wonderfully liberating experience for any who care to read it.

    And can I once again recommend Last Child In The Woods… runs along similar lines as this topic.

  16. Note on the weirdo’s:

    In Last Child in the Woods, the author points to some studies which indicate that there are no more kidnappings etc. now than there were in the fifty’s. Maybe that is because vigilance has increased proportional to the danger. But it could also be because you see news reports every time a stranger talks to a child.

    We have amber alerts on the radio, our cell phones and in the sidebars of blogs. That isn’t bad, but does it make us more paranoid than we need to be?

  17. Hey, Shawna! We’re having the same thoughts and the same source it appears. 🙂 And I’m sorry you deleted your blog, but glad you chose to save at least part of it for yourself. 🙂

  18. JJ Ross,
    Point taken. We do read the Bible in our home. 😉

    I was thinking about all the visual messages in our society when I left my comment. So many things bombarding subconscious, at the mall, on television, in the movies. Ideas grown-ups wrestle with and pass onto our kids before they even know who they are. I was thinking of little girls who think they are fat wearing clothes to look like grown women.

    I realize all that is a bit off topic, but I’m questioning our view of children as a whole, I guess. Shawna has some good points.

    If we give our children everything, they miss the purpose and sense of accomplishment that comes from work. It seems they are growing up to fast in some areas and not fast enough in others, like personal responsibility.

  19. That is what bothers me, too, Amanda. The assumption of wrongdoing.

    Renae, I agree. I think our view of children is becoming skewed. Even our whole notion of “accident” is skewed. Dump your coffee in your lap and sue. Slip on a wet floor and sue. Someone has to be responsible and someone has to be sued, jailed or fined if anything bad happens.

    Here in Nebraska, we may lose public playgrounds because municipalities can not afford the potential lawsuits if a kid falls and breaks and arm.

  20. I knew what you meant, Renae, and I wasn’t arguing. Just extending the perspectives from which we can see the same cause for concern. 🙂

    Again, what you legitimately worry about in secular culture is seen (also legisltimately?) from an opposing POV in children homeschooled through Biblical literalism, their every academic and life lesson wrapped tight in sexual, violent and very adult stories: “So many things bombarding subconscious . . . Ideas grown-ups wrestle with and pass onto our kids before they even know who they are.”

  21. It really bothers me that the first assumption by the news media was that the grandparents were somehow negligent. That seems to be the theme in all stories involving injury or death of a child. The question is, “who can we blame and throw the book at for this happening.” There’s almost no allowance for something to be a complete accident. Those grandparents know the kids better than anyone. I have a very responsible 9yo that I have let stay home alone and even with her 2yo brother while I run to the store (literally)a mile away. Her younger 7yo sister, though, is another story. She probably won’t be ready until she is much older.

  22. As much as I would love to let my child ride the city bus on their own, right now, I do not dare – and yet, I have no problem with the lady who let her child ride the subway or the commenter who let her child ride the city bus. We have had numerous attacks on the bus drivers and fights amongst the passengers on the city buses here. I have no desire to put my children (or myself even) in that kind of harms way.

    I believe parental caution has risen in response to the potential threat in regards to kidnappings by strangers. I think the spiked area of kidnapping is due to divorce, custody issues and other domestic disputes. And yes, the local news covers every blessed bad thing that happens (I rarely watch the local news anymore – it disgusts me).

    However, in regard to stranger abductions: Think of the availability of porn these days. It has become normalized and thus, for those people to get their jollies, they must see/experience more and more aberrant s**ual behavior. Thus, the bigger threat to the children and the increase of child porn. Oh – and the guy who has been teaching swimming lessons in one of the metro area school districts – yeah, he has been molesting children for 30 years. My children were in his class for 2 sessions last year. From the sounds of it, he preyed on the children who had uninvolved parents…sad, but true. But, we were ALWAYS there and our children were not allowed into the locker rooms without one of us. A little over-protective sounding – perhaps…but, my children were not one of his victims, so we were successful in protecting them. But, we have never just dropped the children off at stuff like that for that very reason (my little sister was molest at a very large church….my parents were in another building, so I am protective in that regard {shrug}).

    Out here in the burbs? Yes, I am more relaxed, but I know my children are in one of 3 back yards. I do check on them – and yes they are fine, and no, they have no idea that they check on them. Am I afraid? No, but we are careful and cautious (the children just do not know about it, lol!). But, we are the same way with television and books – areas that they do not need to be exposed to icky stuff in either.

  23. “We have amber alerts on the radio, our cell phones and in the sidebars of blogs. That isn’t bad, but does it make us more paranoid than we need to be?”

    Yes, yes it does. Especially when it is driven home over and over again. ONE child goes missing, which is bad enough, but EVERYONE in the whole of North America knows about it within 24 hours.

    I get the odd person lecturing me about strangers & Emma, when here in Canada out of 33 million people, aroudn 2 thousand go missing a year (low percentage) and 91% of those kids are taken by a non-custodial relative.

  24. Well… My 11 yo babysits for me at LEAST twice a week for two hours at a time, while I am 20 miles away. He takes care of an 8yo and 5yo. I was concerned about them getting along while I was gone. We solved that issue by taking away the “I’m in charge” aspect. His ONLY job is to make sure they are safe. Anything else is to be left to me. Also, it’s the only time they’re allowed to play video games or watch T.V. It makes it a lot easier on him. 😉

    But, really, he’s a responsible kid. He always has been. I would have been willing to leave him when he was 7 (without brothers to watch). But, our culture does not allow for that. Children are not supposed to have that responsibility.

    Take the child labor laws, for example. My 11 year old desperately wants a job. However, it would be very difficult for him to get one. As a result, he is trying to find alternative ways of making money (like growing and selling vegetables). He has a reason- he wants to be a history professor, but knows he won’t make much. So, he wants to earn the money now, so that he can do what he dreams of without worrying about money. He’s already been on the phone with a finacial advisor. LOL

    Anyway, my point is this, the child labor laws have a good intent. But, what about when a child WANTS to work? Why shouldn’t they be able to? Because we have to coddle them, protect them from the reality of life.

  25. Anyway, my point is this, the child labor laws have a good intent.

    It was a whole different world when the child labor laws were enacted. Too many children had to work just to put food on the table, the working conditions were often horrific even for children, and school was necessarily neglected when children worked full-time. Perhaps it might be time to review the laws?

    On the other hand, would we want to let an 11- or 12-year-old work the hours of a 15- or 16-year-old? I don’t know for sure, but if we didn’t, would somebody hire a younger kid for only 10 to 15 hours a week?

  26. My used-to-be 8 yr old has wanted a job desperately for over a year now and cannot understand why he cannot work! Local businesses that would be willing to permit him to come in a sweep their store fronts or sweep the hair after a cut are too afraid to allow it–we are talking a couple of hours a week so that he can feel relevant on his terms… the frustration for him is amazing.

    Now when I was 8/9/10 I had no desire to work LOL But I did babysit when called and washed neighbors cars when I wanted some spending money… and nobody worried like they do today; but you also did not have “over” concerned citizens sticking their noses in other people’s business (still having my 1st cup of coffee, sorry for the curtness LOL)

  27. I never thought of this before, but at least girls do have that ability to babysit. Boys can’t/don’t really, outside of family.

  28. I started babysitting my own brothers when I was 9 and other families’ kids when I was 11. I was working full-time as a nanny during the summer by the time I was 16.

    Are kids really that much less responsible today then they were two decades ago?

  29. I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. I started to drive tractors at age 8, and driving a car at around age 12. I don’t remember when my parents didn’t leave me alone with my sister, who was 4 years younger than me. Most the time, my dad was in a field nearby working, but still.
    At age 15 I got paid for the farm work and was paying for my car insurance, gas, and most of my clothing.
    I also remember riding 4-wheelers in the pasture at about 11 without supervision.
    You were used to it because it was expected of you to be responsible. (we weren’t always “good”, but we knew when it was too much)

    I don’t think I would be as mature as I am today (26) if I was never trusted to be responsible as a kid.

  30. This is an issue I have worried about a great deal. There are occasional times when we have had to go out of town and leave the kids at home. I worry because we are not close enough to come home easily. What if something were to go wrong? We have tight rules, but are they being followed? They aren’t supposed to go outside (or at least out of our own back yard) or answer the phone, but what if?! At least it is legal to leave them alone so at least that isn’t a problem.

    My husband remembers riding all over town on his bike as a kid, and his mother had no idea where he was. I played in the woods whenever I could, and often alone. My mother knew where I was, but she couldn’t see or hear me. I babysat when I was in my early teens, and I’ve hired 10-year-olds to babysit. Today, I don’t think I’ll ever allow my kids to do the same; what if something happened and the parents accused my children of negligence? That happens too. Frightening.

    I think we coddle our children too much, and I think we have allowed fear too large a role in our hearts. We have to let them grow up, and we need to take the responsibility to teach them how to do it. Maybe our generation, the latch-key generation, was left on our own too much and so we are protecting our children as much as we (spoken generally and not specifically) were not.

  31. I’m a 17 year old and I would like to put my two sense worth. I have been baby-sitting since I was 13. Nothig bad has ever happen (discountig me tying up my brothers…Just kidding!!!). I recently housed sat and the worst thing that happened there was the messes that the dogs made. I walked a block to to get the mail, and I took every precaution from having my keys in my knuckle to constant vigilance…and surprise! I’m here typing this and I’m just fine! My mother was way over procective over my brothers and I growing up. As long as you are careful, but not to the point of being afraid to live life, then everything should be alright. Kids and teens need space, so let us grow up!!!! If we can survive until adulthood, then that means that ya’ll as parents/guardiens did right raising us.

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