Hey South Carolina: I Was a 7-Year-Old Latchkey Kid

Posted on July 21, 2014


Thank God it was the 1970s, so my Dad didn’t end up in jail, and I didn’t end up in foster care.


In the news we hear of a South Carolina mother who was jailed and lost custody of her 9-year-old daughter for allowing her to play unsupervised at a local park (with a cell phone in case of emergency). The headlines blare that the child was “alone,” but that was not precisely true. The park is a popular spot for parents and children, and indeed it was another mother who asked the child where her mother was; upon hearing “at work,” the horrified woman called police.

Thanks for nothing. Now the mom has been arrested for “abandoning” her child, and the child has been taken by Child Protective Services and put in foster care (which, by the way, brings its own risks: abuse, neglect, stress, psychological after-effects and more). But hey, this is so much better and safer than playing in the park with a few dozen other kids and parents around.

So here’s my question for the do-gooder who called the cops: Is there some reason you couldn’t have, oh, I don’t know, maybe gotten acquainted with the single working mom? Maybe gotten some other moms together and taken the child under a collective community wing, so she would have that adult supervision? But no, in our selfish, judgmental, isolationist society today we would rather just call the cops and traumatize a child as well as a parent, while patting ourselves on the back and thinking we “did the right thing.”

I guess it would be too much to ask for the cops or CPS to just take the kid to the mom’s workplace and say, “Hey, other parents are concerned, maybe you should just have your energetic 9-year-old sit at a McDonald’s booth all day so she’s ‘supervised.'” I mean – as stupid as that sounds (and it is), at least it would have avoided the trauma of separating the child from her mother, and incarcerating the mother (I wonder if she still has her job).

And… oh, hey, look at this: South Carolina has no minimum legal age for latchkey children, so you know what? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say no law was even broken in the first place.

I’m a little sensitive to this kind of busybody-enabled, state-sponsored abuse of struggling families, thanks to my own background. You have all heard Lila’s story: lost her mother at age 6, Dad was a working parent, no other relatives to look out for us, and there wasn’t much child-care help in those days for single parents… so… Lila and Brother became latchkey kids at ages 7 and 9 in the early 1970s. We were the real thing, completely unsupervised after school and all summer long. We played outside with other kids, biked everywhere, built forts and go-carts with real tools. For two years when I was 10-11 years old, I attended a school where we went home for lunch… and I walked home and cooked lunch on the stove, then walked back to school. After school, I ran home, got my swimsuit, and ran to the pool (year-round… we were in the tropics).

Oh, the horror! Anything could have happened!… but didn’t. Well, there were the occasional cuts and scrapes, but we managed to take care of those things ourselves, and in reality my friends’ parents were available in case of some real emergency… but even the stay-at-home moms did not hover around the playground in those days.  Kids went outside and figured things out for themselves.

The benefit we gleaned from all this was a self-reliance that seems sorely lacking in today’s victims of helicopter parenting. It outrages me to think that if we were somehow transplanted into today’s child-rearing morass, my Dad would have gone to jail, and we would have ended up in foster care.

You may think, “Oh, but the 1970s was a different time… things are so much more dangerous now!” Not so! Child abductions, abuse, and murders have gone on since time immemorial, but here are just a few of the more famous cases of my youth: the Lyon sisters, disappeared in 1975 at ages 10 and 12 as they walked home from the shopping mall; Steven Stayner, abducted in 1972 at age 7 on his way home from school, and sexually abused until he escaped in 1980; Vernon, Connecticut was a dangerous place for young girls in the 1970s, with six girls ages 7 through 20 disappeared or murdered between 1968 and 1977; but that was nothing compared to Atlanta, where serial killer Wayne Williams killed twenty-three children between 1979 and 1981.

Then there was the case that started the whole missing-child movement, to include pictures on milk cartons: Etan Patz, who disappeared in 1979 at age 6 as he walked two blocks to the school bus stop. After that came the case that brought about a slew of new child protection laws and tougher penalties and restrictions on convicted pedophiles: Adam Walsh, murdered in 1981 at age 6.

So no, today is not more dangerous than the time of my youth.   You know what today is? STUPIDER. Yes, it is stupid and harmful to rip a perfectly normal, secure 9-year-old out of her home and her mother’s care just because she was playing in a park with other kids and adults around. We are more selfish, more afraid, more judgmental; less helpful, less self-confident, less sensible, less observant, less willing to get to know our neighbors, less willing to get involved.

The South Carolina mom is exactly like my Dad: single, working, trying to parent her child with little help. What’s different is that her community doesn’t look out for her and her child; they wait to pounce.



Lenore Skenazy, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone”

Lenore Skenazy, Free Range Kids (blog)