Last year syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy got into hot water when she wrote about letting her nine-year old son ride a New York City subway home from Bloomingdale’s all by himself. It took him about 45 minutes, but he arrived safely, feeling independent and proud of his accomplishment. Skenazy, however, didn’t fare as well. She ended making the rounds of talk show, defending her actions after the national media dubbed her “America’s Worse Mom”. Skenazy now advocates for the “free-range kid movement”. Her approach opposes the currently fashionable “helicopter parenting” style, in which parents are constantly hovering over the child, ready to swoop down to the rescue at the first sign of trouble. The only problem with “free-range parenting” is that it’s hard to distinguish from what might otherwise be called neglect. The National Effective Parenting Initiative suggests that no child under 15 years, should be left alone for extended periods, particularly overnight.
As a kid I remember my mother throwing me out of the house after cleaning it. She would tell me to go blow the stink off myself and wouldn’t let me back in all day. I would ride my bike all over the place, without any supervision whatsoever. As soon as I was tall enough to reach the coin slot, I was riding the bus alone across the Mississippi River to downtown St. Louis to go to movies. Always independent, self–reliant, and more than a little rebellious, my wife Diane was even worse. As a teen she twice took her bike went on overnight camping trips, by herself, while her parents were out town (This involved a tiny bit of prevarication). She was also infamous for exhausting her seven-year old sister by taking her on an unauthorized 30 mile bicycle trip to go swimming at a lake. Diane really likes to swim. Under Indiana law, a parent is responsible for the supervision of their children until they reach age 18. Parents, however, frequently leave younger kids unattended or in the care of older siblings. State law gives parents a lot of discretion in these situations, considering factors such as the child’s maturity, possible dangers, and access to help.
My parents would often go out on Friday nights and leave me home with my older brother, Norman. I suppose there were some hazards in the house, such as the circuit box that had hot electrical wires sticking out in all directions (my father was an electrician), an old shotgun that was cleverly hidden in the attic (where we all knew exactly where it was), and the gas burners on the stove (which my mother used to light her Lucky Strikes). Before mandatory flame retardants, this stove once set my pajamas on fire when I tried to make some cocoa. But the biggest danger in the house was unquestionably Norman, himself. If he was not giving me the “Indian burn”, pounding my shoulder, or subjecting me to the Chinese water torture, he was watching “Spook Spectacular” on television. I was scared to death of this show, which featured old horror movies. Norman would turn the volume way up so I couldn’t escape it, even if I locked myself in the bathroom, which I frequently did on Friday nights. Leaving any living thing in Norman’s care should have automatically been an indictable offense.
Norman owned a little egg-shaped car called a Renault Dauphine. This car was renown for its poor performance, bad handling, and lack of reliability. Car Talk named it the “9th Worst Car Of The Millennium” and Time Magazine said “it could actually be heard rusting”. When I was 14, Norman sold me the car for a hundred dollars. It did not run, but made a great conversation piece. I naively planned to fix it up and drive it when I got my license. This car figures in a chain of events that began one weekend when I was left home alone. My parent were out of town and Norman, who was supposed to be watching me, immediately took off with his hoodlum friends to do God knows what. A friend my mine came over with some new kid named Donny. Donny was nicknamed “Football” because of the unusual oblong shape of his head. Kids are always so sensitive. Anyway, we opened the garage door and stood around the Renault, hoping to attract some girls. No girls came, but several carloads of teenage boys, cruising for girls, stopped by to offer their expert automotive opinion on what has been called the worse feat of French engineering since the Maginot Line. Donny vanished only to reappear later, evidently a bit liquored up. With six or seven guys standing around the car, Donny said, “You know this car would really be a chick magnet, if it only were a convertible.” Everyone nodded agreement and suddenly the situation spun irrevocably out of control. The next thing I knew Donny , and two other guys I had never seen before, were hacksawing the top off my car, cheered on by the small mob that had assembled. In the ensuing frenzy even I warmed up to the notion of possessing a Renault convertible with a cool “chopped top”. The boys managed to cut through the front of the car’s roof and then worked on the sides. All was going well until the back window fell out and shattered. When they lifted off the roof, the entire car fell in upon itself and imploded. Donnysuddenly remembered some previous engagement. Within a few minutes I was alone in the garage with the remains of the Renault. I locked the door and prepared the story I would tell my parents. My only consolation was that Norman would also get into big trouble, since he was suppose to be home to prevent things like this. I told my parents a day or so later, just before my father went out to the garage. He called a tow truck and they had to tie together the car together with a rope to keep the sides from dragging on the road when they towed it away.
I was grounded indefinitely, as my master plan to attract girls faded away along with the Renault. Norman, who referred to me and my associates as a band of yard apes, thought the whole thing was hilarious, until my parents asked him what he was doing during this fiasco. Thinking back I nominate Norman for “America’s worse teenage babysitter”, with Diane perhaps coming in a close second.