When Ordinary Parenting Practices Can Land You in Court

Law professor David Pimentel has an interesting article detailing the ways in which law and social norms have evolved to the point where perfectly ordinary parenting practices can land you in prison or at least subject you to an expensive lawsuit or prolonged official harrasment [HT: Bryan Caplan and Katherine Mangu-Ward]. As Pimentel points out, this is often a result of vague statutes and regulations that are interpreted by courts and administrative agencies to require extremely overprotective parenting. Pimentel notes that many such overprotective practices are influenced by media sensationalism and have little or no support in the actual data on child safety and some might even harm children more than they benefit them.

I will leave the specific legal issues to those more expert in these matters than I am, such as co-blogger Eugene Volokh. But one example from the text was particularly striking to me, based on personal experience:

Even one generation ago, the norms were different for determining the age at which a child no longer needed a babysitter. The expected minimum age for babysitters has gone up as well, although in the few states that have legislated specific ages, the thresholds vary widely. In Illinois, it is illegal to leave a child under 14 unsupervised for an “unreasonable period of time”; in Maryland, in contrast, a 13-year-old is considered old enough not only to care for himself, but to babysit infants. The days when 11- and 12-year-old neighborhood kids were considered competent babysitters appear to be long gone. This development is all the more marked considering that mobile phones have created a virtually instant line of communication between the sitter and the parents, something unheard of in earlier eras, when younger sitters were considered acceptable.

I worked as a babysitter when I was twelve, back in the barbaric Dark Ages of the mid-1980s. And this was not considered unusual at the time. When I was 14, I was once hired to babysit a neighborhood family’s three kids for several days in a row (the parents came home in the evening, but I was the only one with the kids from about 9 to 5). You can argue about whether my neighbors should have hired an adult instead. But it certainly should not be against the law to hire a sitter in their early teens, nor is there any evidence that this is unusually dangerous or somehow causes permanent harm to the kids.

On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that the growing legal and social bias against younger babysitters has helped drive babysitter pay to levels unheard of in my time. I am almost tempted to get back into the babysitting business myself to take advantage of it!

As Pimentel describes in the article, only a few states have laws that specifically ban early-teen sitters. But the practice might potentially lead to charges under the sorts of vaguely worded general child welfare statutes that he discusses at length in his article. The article describe a variety of dubious prosecutions on other issues that have resulted from such laws.