When is it officially okay to leave your child alone in the apartment (for a short time)? Am I supposed to be dragging my four-year-old up and down the elevator to do laundry in the basement, or is he old enough to be on his own for five minutes? I’ve actually already left him a couple of times while he was napping. Am I horrible? And while we’re at it, my husband wants to know how long it will be before he can run to the corner bodega and buy himself a beer while the kid’s home glued to the TV set. – solo admission
The urban lifestyle has its conveniences. Unfortunately, laundry usually isn’t one of them. Unless you’re one of the lucky few with in-apartment appliances, laundry does become a quandary: with kids, you’ve got more of it. But how do you actually get down to DO it when there are naps to work around, tantrums to dodge, and little time to spare. Getting a four-year-old to put on crocs for the journey down the elevator can turn into a five-act opera if your phrasing isn’t just so. And we won’t oppress you with the “Laundry As Fun Family Activity” suggestion. While this may in fact be true (sometimes), most of the time you just need to get the damn sheets clean.
In the suburbs, the washer seems to be running in the background all day long, emptied and filled without a thought. Some say going down to the basement to do laundry is no different in an apartment building than in a suburban house with several stories. Then there are those who are outraged by the idea that a child would be left behind a locked (or lockable) door even for the few moments it takes to change a load.
In many cultures, kids are left alone at a pretty young age, and even given the responsibility of caring for littler ones. The U.S. is less into this. It’s largely illegal to leave a child alone in a car for even a moment, for example. But when it comes to a home situation, the law is fairly murky and the question of when home alone = child endangerment is decided on a case-by-case basis. Age, circumstances, even intent can come into play. Would a five-minute trip to the laundry room during a nap qualify? It seems unlikely, but you never know. The headlines about the mother arrested for leaving her kid in an apartment alone always seem to include other factors: the crystal meth on the coffee table, the burners on full flame . . .
In the absence of these over-the-top abusive scenarios, there are still always going to be risks. The defense says: “I’m just downstairs, it’s just for a minute . . . what could happen?” The prosecution says: “ANYTHING. The door could get locked accidentally. (This happens. Trust us.) The elevator could get stuck. There could be a fire! A break in! A terrorist attack!” Of course, all these things are possible at any time. Like so many other things, this question is about assessing how much risk you’re willing to live with. Here are a few factors to consider:
Access: Going downstairs in a six-unit brownstone is different than a 200-unit apartment building (especially if there’s limited staircase access . . . some buildings lock stairs from basement and lobby levels for security reasons). How easy is it to get back up? Are you dependent on the elevator? Do you need a key for it? Is that key something you have forgotten in the past?
Security: How safe is it in your apartment? And how easy is it to break out (or in)?
Neighbors: Do you know your neighbors? Does your child know them? Having a familiar face next door could make a big difference, especially if you’re able to give them a heads-up. Conversely, you’d want to take scary neighbors into consideration.
Your Kid: Some kids are relatively likely to stay put while you’re gone. Others are more likely to use your absence as an opportunity to try out some new moves involving scissors, closed cupboards and the forbidden rickety fold-out chair.
The issues are obviously amplified if you’re actually going to leave the building. Which brings us to another suggestion. Perhaps it’s worth considering exploiting the (possibly pricey) urban convenience of delivery? If not for the laundry, hell, at least for the beer.
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