Where can I leave my child unsupervised?

What makes lonely playgrounds look so terrifying? |   jraisleger  for pixabay

What makes lonely playgrounds look so terrifying? | jraisleger for pixabay

We’re in the children’s section of our local library branch. I take a seat at the tables clearly designed for children but where parents tend to congregate, and my son wanders 15 feet away to play while I open my book.

I’m only a few pages in when I hear the parent shouting questions into the puppet theater: “Where’s your grown-up?”

We’re vacationing and our hotel has a bank of elevators to take us to the lobby and a beautiful marble staircase to take us to the exit. At the bottom of that staircase are three of my son’s aunties, so when he asks if he can travel in his own elevator, I say okay and review which buttons to push.

When we meet downstairs, he’s been joined by a couple who thinks he should not have been allowed this thirty second adventure, because “This is Baltimore.”

It’s wonderful that these well-intentioned adults were concerned for my child’s safety, although I’m unconvinced that either the library or the hotel elevator posed mortal peril. I am convinced that these adults saw an unsupervised five year old as a problem.

I want to live in a world where kids are assumed capable of traveling from one part of a building to another and are trusted to play by themselves in public libraries, where parents feel comfortable letting their kids do both. And where people don’t use a single television show to draw conclusions about a city of 600,000 people.

We tend to think the solution is for everyone else to stop being so crazy, to stop calling the police when a mom leaves her son in a car on a temperate day or lets her daughter walk the dog. To see a young child walking down the stairs and maybe just watch him and wait to see what happens, especially when there’s plenty of space between him and the exits.

It’s important to look outward at the culture of fear that appears to be overtaking our culture and robbing our kids of even a scrap of independence. But if we’re willing to look inward, we’d see there’s plenty of our own crazy to deal with first.

We’ve gathered with a bunch of other parents and kids to watch a short film, when the screen transforms into a door that the kids are told to walk through. Although he’s only walking a room away, I am nervous, because I know I’m not supposed to leave my child alone, not for a second, not ever, especially not when I’m a parenting blogger writing about things like why it’s okay to let kids take risks, which is just begging to become a local news tragedy. But he and the other kids seem totally fine skipping away from us, as you would be too if you were about to meet a Disney princess.

I’m not the only panicked parent at Enchanted Tales with Belle, because as soon as we are allowed entrance to the next room, we trample each other in order to stand directly behind our own kids.

That I couldn’t relax and let my son be alone in the Magic Kingdom, which has to be one of the safest places on the planet, suggests that I have a little work to do too. To combat my own tethering tendency, I’ve issued myself a set of dares. Can I let my son drop off a package by himself? Check out his own library books? Buy a cake pop?

Okay, maybe they’re not dares so much as completely reasonable growth opportunities for five-year-olds. But by framing these questions as personal challenges—challenges I want to win—I’m more likely to follow through. That my son gets the benefit of talking to people and trying new things is just bonus.

Interested in making your own list of dares? I’ve made a handy list of places to practice leaving your child unsupervised. Your list may vary, depending on age, height, and other adults’ ability to understand what your child is saying. This list assumes you’e already succeeded with the basics—backyard, basement, bathtub—but if you’re still working up to those you might just start with a playroom or bedroom.

Places to consider leaving your child unsupervised

The big slide at the playground
A mailbox
A tricycle
A carousel horse
Fifty feet ahead of you on a nature trail
Your office
Your office, with unfettered access to Sharpies
The sidewalk between the parking lot and school building
On the grass at a shopping plaza-sponsored Easter egg hunt
A bouncy house
A barber chair
A dentist chair
A waiting room chair
Soccer practice
The library circulation desk
The prepaid package counter at UPS
One aisle ahead of you at the grocery store
One seat ahead of you on public transportation
A movie ticket booth
A restaurant table, while you are in the bathroom
A restaurant bathroom, while you are at the table
In line at Starbucks
An ice cream counter
A Gap Kids checkout, to buy a self-selected T-shirt
A garden shop, to pick out a plant and learn how to take care of it
A hotel concierge desk, to ask for donut shop recommendations
A toy store, to pick out a birthday present for a friend
A friend’s birthday party

I’m not suggesting you be cavalier with your young child’s safety. You needn’t toss your child into the ocean or the sample line at Costco. Nothing dangerous. Just some chances to let go of that invisible tether.