ONCE upon a more innocent time, public-service announcements asked a simple question: "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?" The assumption was that nighttime posed the primary danger, and that during the day children were supervised.
Today that assumption no longer holds. As neighborhoods have turned into ghost towns during working hours, the family has scattered, and the baby sitter has become an endangered species, concern about unsupervised children has grown. The question for the mid-90s would need to be: "It's 3 p.m. (or 3 a.m.). Do you know where your children are?"
Sadly, the answer too often is "No" or "Home alone." One study, the 1990 National Child Care Survey, found that 44 percent of school-age children with working parents had no after-school supervision. Public libraries, toy stores, and shopping malls are increasingly becoming de facto child-care centers as parents drop off children while they work, shop, or go out to eat.
The rarest and most extreme cases involve willful neglect, as when a suburban Chicago couple left two young daughters alone while they vacationed in Mexico for nine days in 1992. Public furor spawned an Illinois law requiring that children under 14 be adequately supervised. (Many communities already have laws allowing enforcement authorities to deal with neglected children.)
Last month a Massachusetts legislator introduced a similar measure that would make parents criminally liable if they leave children under 14 alone for an "unreasonable" period. Those convicted could be fined $2,000 and jailed for one year.
Democratic Rep. Evelyn Chesky insists that her bill "doesn't address latchkey children or baby sitters," unless their situation involves neglect and abandonment. But she concedes that for some parents the measure creates "a real fear that there would be some kind of criminal punishment if you left a child under 14 under the best of circumstances."
Bills like this may serve a useful purpose if they arouse public concern about children's well-being and spur constructive solutions. But in most cases those solutions do not lie in courts and jails.
Parents can never shirk responsibility for their children's safety and supervision. But it's impossible to craft laws that will cover all the contingencies that accompany daily life - and child rearing. The emphasis should be on finding ingenious ways to help rather than punish parents.