08/27/2014 11:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Most Americans Think 9-Year-Olds Shouldn't Play At Parks Alone. But, Why?


This summer, there have been multiple reports of parents being charged as criminals for leaving kids at parks, in cars or around in the neighborhood. Since most states do not have clear laws about when you are allowed to leave a child unsupervised, conducted a survey to find out what most adults think the answer is.

According to their survey, public perception is that it is highly dangerous for children to be unsupervised in public at all. Of the 1,000 adults polled, 68 percent believe 9-year-olds should not be allowed to play at parks without adult supervision. Of those respondents, 63 percent believe age 12 is still too young.

Most recently, Ashley Richardson was arrested in Florida because her kids were playing at a park while she was at a food bank. In June, Debra Harrell was jailed and charged with “unlawful conduct toward a child” for leaving her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park while she worked her shift at McDonald's. At the time, many argued that society should be working to support parents like her and Richardson, not arresting them. New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote:

America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.

And if the child's safety is really the concern, then how does arresting their mothers help anyone, asks Brooklyn Magazine's Kristin Iversen, who wrote:

The real question to ask here is who benefits from the criminalization of these women’s choices? Are the decisions they make imperfect? At times, yes. But so are the options available to them. The children definitely don’t benefit from having their mothers arrested and from potentially being placed in foster care.

Reason points out that, though physical threats to kids have actually declined, a majority of those polled assumed the opposite. Kidnapping, for example, rarely takes place in broad daylight. Warwick Cairns, author of "How to Live Dangerously," estimates that for a child to be snatched off the street, he or she would have to stand alone for 750,000 years. But despite the facts, parents still believe kids these days are prone to more danger than they were decades ago.

Lenore Skenazy, who lectures around the country about "how we got so afraid for our kids" and also writes for, says the age 9, or 12, was just "pulled out of our collective hats," with no rhyme or reason. Most states offer guidelines for parents about when they should let their kids stay home alone, she told The Huffington Post, but only Illinois and Maryland actually have laws that cite specific ages.

Around the world -- and once upon a time in the U.S. -- 7-year-olds are/were expected to get themselves to school, Skenazy said. And as she preaches often on her site,, the only reason American parents keep raising that age is because of a false perception of what kids are capable of. "When social norms start treating 9-year-olds like 5-year-olds, it gets enforced by society," she said.

Part of the problem, she explains, is how the media, society and parents phrase what's really going on. If we say, "Debra Harrell left her child alone at a park," we're putting a negative spin on that action. If headlines read, "Debra Harrell allowed her child to play," attitudes might be different.

"Any parent who is letting their kid do something, we should err on the side of believing that they’ve done this out of love, not negligence," she said.

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