He did pretty well on his own, too.

Boy, 6, Left to Care for His Younger Siblings While Mom Away for Days

As we contemplate the family being investigated, the kids being stripped, and the dad doing time in jail,  all because of a pre-school child being left to nap in the car for 20 minutes during a Christmas errand, let’s remember it was not always thus. Children were considered hardy. While I don’t advocate leaving them alone for days when they’re young, I do believe that the species is a lot more capable and resilient than we have come to believe.

Here, for proof, is a bit of a bio from Wikipedia entry sent in by a reader:

…One summer afternoon in 1895, his father came home with a fever and died later that day. Sanders’ mother obtained work in a tomato cannery, and the young Harland was required to look after and cook for his siblings. (He was 5 or 6 years old.)

By the age of seven, he was reportedly skilled with bread and vegetables, and improving with meat; the children foraged for food while their mother was away for days at a time for work. When he was 10, [he] began to work as a farmhand for local farmers Charlie Norris and Henry Monk…

Read the rest here. It happens to be the bio of Colonel Sanders, founder of KFC: Kentucky Fried Chicken.

His does not sound like an enviable childhood. But it reminds us that our culture breathtakingly underestimates the sturdiness of our kids, and seems delighted to wreak havoc on families that refuse to do the same. – L

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He did pretty well on his own, too.

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30 Responses to Boy, 6, Left to Care for His Younger Siblings While Mom Away for Days

  1. Dienne December 13, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    I worked in a residential treatment facility for traumatized kids back in the early nineties. One of our kids came to us when she was around ten. Some time before that she’d been left alone with her baby brother for days while her mother was on a drug trip (she’d been sent to an aunt’s house, but the aunt had sent her home after a few hours when she got too bothered). The baby cried a lot. The girl eventually did the only thing she knew to do to stop the baby from crying. She was too young to be convicted of murder under state law at the time.

    I have no problem with kids being left alone for a quick errand, but let’s please not romanticize children having to become adults far earlier than they are developmentally ready for. Sanders’ childhood sounds a lot worse than “unenviable”.

  2. Dienne December 13, 2016 at 11:15 am #

    But on a lighter note, I had to laugh at this: “Sanders’ mother was a devout Christian and strict parent, continuously warning her children of “the evils of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and whistling on Sundays.”

    Yeah, that whistling will send a body straight to hell!

  3. Qute December 13, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    I don’t think it romanticizing it. What happened to the girl in your facility was well different on a multitude of levels and absolutely tragic. There was no strong parental reference for this girl whereas there appears to be one in Colonel Sanders’ family. There was no preparation for the girl to care for the baby — back when Colonel Sanders was young it was expected and children were taught how to do various tasks, including child care. The girl in your situation was given no guidance, no tools, no support and thrown to the wolves. It’s well different than what is being discussed here.

    The point is that once upon a time children were ABLE to do these things not whether they SHOULD do these things. I don’t think his story sounds worse than “unenviable” because that is judging historical context against modern conventions which just leads to unfair and untrue conclusions. The takeaway here should be “He was full on cooking meals by age 7 with no supervision — maybe it’s not impossible for me to let my 7 year old walk to his friend’s house at the end of the street” or “I think I can trust my daughter to stay at home while I go grocery shopping”. These are not monumental tasks that kids are unable to do – these are tasks which modern society has disabled in children and have forgotten that they used to do.

  4. Dienne December 13, 2016 at 12:07 pm #

    Qute – I think you’re making an awful lot of assumptions both about Sanders and about the girl in my facility. How do you know that Sanders was taught child care? He was a six-year-old boy – boys were not typically taught to raise children especially in those days. In any case, young children simply don’t have the tools and the experience to raise other young children, even if they’re “taught”. Full grown adults barely know what to do with a tantruming toddler – what do you think a six-year-old can do about it? Other than beat ’em.

    And how do you know about the girl in my facility? Her mother was a drug addict and neglectful when she was on drug trips, but she wasn’t always tripping. When she was sober, she was a good mother.

  5. Cedric Satterfield December 13, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    I don’t agree. If she was a ‘good mother’ she wouldn’t be tripping on drugs for days at a time.

  6. Aimee December 13, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    I have to agree with Qute – there’s a big difference in the state of mind of a child who is left to care for a younger sibling(s) when the parent is absent (mentally and/or physically) due to substance abuse, and a parent being away with planning and intention to earn money to care for the family. The extreme stress, confusion, loneliness, and even despair that the girl must have felt when her mother was high is completely different than knowing your mother is away working. Harland would know when she was leaving, and more-or-less when she was coming back. The younger children would have a different measure of expectations for them too. The boy KNEW and trusted that his mother would return. Furthermore, if Mrs. Sanders was a churchgoer, they likely would have been “plugged in” to other families in their faith community who may have interacted with the Sanders kids when mom was away working.

    My grandmother had to leave school at age 14 to care for her sick mother and her six younger brothers and sisters. My grandfather was the baby of a family of migrant workers and stayed alone in a tenement apartment in New England for long periods of time when he was as young as 3. These are unenviable situations, to be sure, but my grandparents were AMAZING, loving, hardworking people, and I think their experiences gave them grit, rather than PTSD.

  7. Aimee December 13, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    To clarify – my grandfather was left alone EACH DAY at age 3, not for days and day at a time. His family would return from the factories in the evening.

  8. marie December 13, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    If she was a ‘good mother’ she wouldn’t be tripping on drugs for days at a time.

    Good (and bad) people can fight against addiction and lose the fight again and again. Bad (and good) people can win the fight against addiction.

  9. John B. December 13, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

    According to SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) who are privy to the plight of street children in the third world, homeless kids on the street are more resilient than we give them credit for. I’m certainly not advocating that we throw our kids out on the street to fend for themselves but people whose passion involves street children claim that these kids learn problem solving and conflict resolution out on the street as well as basic survival skills. This is not to mention their immune systems being strengthened by exposure to dirt and germs. Many adults who lived out on the street as children do quite well. Now if we Americans could somehow sprinkle in a bit of street environment for our kids along with the type of structured living they get in the home, I think Americans kids would do quite well.

  10. test December 13, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

    @Qute Criminal rates of children who had to live with siblings practically without parents and forage for food were much higher then those for children who were cared for by present adults. They were much more likely to get in trouble. The same goes for their unemployment rates and education levels. And education level matters now more then ever.

    Children like that who grew up to be super successful entrepreneurs are not the norm. There were many historical periods, especially around wars, when children had to fend for themselves a lot. However, lets not pretend that there were no bad effects on them in general. That is just romanticizing poverty and that one is never so nice in practice.

  11. test December 13, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

    @John B. “people whose passion involves street children claim that these kids learn problem solving and conflict resolution out on the street as well as basic survival skills. This is not to mention their immune systems being strengthened by exposure to dirt and germs. ”

    Those people also say that street children learn violence as viable and acceptable method of solving those conflicts and are much more likely to die young. They are also much more likely to die of ugly sickness. Street third world children are not better of then even most pampered American college freshman. Americans, especially middle class Americans actually do quite well. Yes, street children are tougher and needs to be tougher. It is not enough to get better results.

  12. Xena December 13, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    improving with meat – hahahaha

  13. Junion Pintal December 13, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

    I think a good part of what people forget is something free range kids tries to remind us.

    A good parent learns.

    That sounds odd…in this whole blog about children, how to raise them, how to help them grow, how to keep ourselves from over-encroaching and babying our children.

    But that’s because the learns is an open statement.

    A good parent learns what their children is capable of.
    A good parent learns where their child still need help.
    A good parent learns when they have made a mistake in their child care.
    A good parent learns when to trust their child.
    A good parent learns when to ask for help with their child.
    A good parent learns when their child needs to be uncomfortable.
    A good parent learns when their child needs to be protected.
    A good parent learns.

    There are more..I’m sure someone more savvy than I can come up with at least 100 ‘a good parent’ learns in these veins.

    Colonel Sanders mother learned that her child could cook, could be trusted to watch over he other children. She learned that when she needed help watching her children, one of her own children was up to the task.

    It was not a perfect situation. Losing your father, needing to step up, watch your younger siblings, and make food for them. But he obviously was mature enough to be trusted in the situation, and his siblings saw him as in charge enough for him to do it. And his mother, probably before any of the bad happened, learned that.

    On the other hand.

    A bad parent does not learn.

    A bad parent ignores.

    Which brings us back to my main point. Leaving someone young in charge…can be both the best call and the worst call….however which it is actually depends on the child. And a parent? A parent learns which of those it is.

  14. hineata December 13, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

    Colonel Sanders wasn’t a successful entrepreneur until he was in his late 60s (good on him anyway, of course) so it’s not like this much-less-than-enviable childhood set him up for much. It does seem likely that he had a better support network around him (church-goer etc) than the poor 10 year old mentioned above.

    Thank goodness she wasn’t charged with anything.

  15. Donna December 13, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    Parentification – putting children in the roll of parent – has very negative psychological effects on the children. This is true whether the cause is drugs, poverty or neglect. If children were emotionally ready run a household and care for children at 6, the human species would not have evolved to have such as extended childhood, including an inability to reproduce for many years after that.

    Most parentified kids do not become entrepreneurs 60 years later. And being a success says absolutely nothing whatsoever about emotional health or more pertinent measures of life success. For example, Trump may be considered a career success, but absolutely nothing I’very seen of him in the many years that he has been in the public eye indicates that he is even remotely emotionally healthy.

    This is not to say that children are not capable of more than people give them credit for today. Or that children placed in very age-inappropriate situations can’take rise to the occasion and figure it out. It is to say that we should not be viewing them as positive or believe their positive outcome to be the norm in these situations.

  16. Kirsten December 13, 2016 at 3:59 pm #

    I would say that a six year old left alone to cope with young siblings is a worst case scenario. But at the same time when we look at how that worst case scenario played out in one (possibly exceptional) case in 1895 the six year old was capable of much more than we typically think a child that age is. That doesn’t mean this should be our model of how to treat six year olds, only that it should give us pause when we think about a six year old left for 20 minutes and panic because we believe s/he will be automatically in extreme danger.

    @Dienne I would say that a six year old can learn to change a diaper, give a bottle, burp a baby and lay that baby in a crib, none of which actions taken together constitute “parenting.” More like “keeping the baby alive while parents are gone.” I wouldn’t say I’d want a six year old to be doing those things ever. I just know that some have.

  17. donald December 13, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

    Remember when you were four? You probably wanted to be five. If you were five, you wanted to be six. Most kids want to grow up as soon as possible. I’m not trying to discuss which things they should or should not be allowed to do. I only want to point out the resentment they feel when they are treated as if they are pets. It’s a slap in the face when they don’t get acknowledgement as being smart enough to look after themselves.

    That resentment grows and sometimes becomes the underlying cause of why kids want to get away from their parents.

  18. Jennifer December 13, 2016 at 5:09 pm #

    There is also a huge cultural difference in how we see children and what we believe they can or should be able to manage.

    Every so often, I look back on this essay by Elizabeth Kolbert–especially when I have to struggle to get my 9 yr old to help bring in groceries!

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/02/spoiled-rotten

  19. theresa December 13, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

    I know that what you believe in a kid can help or hurt. My dad was not pushed to even try in school because teach thought less of a farm kid so no high school diploma for him.

  20. Momof8 December 13, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

    My then-5yo daughter potty-trained our 2yo. I was home all of the time, but this is something she decided to do. The point of the article is not to glorify “parentification” (is that the right word?) but what to acknowledge what they’re capable of.

  21. Christine December 13, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    The word “resilient” can be interpreted in many ways. I was considered to be resilient when my childhood was disrupted by my father’s death that which forced my mother to work the 7p.m. 7am shift. I was left alone 6 days a week and when my mother was home she was mostly sleeping. Who could blame her, she was providing for us the best that she could in that time.
    Sure , I knew how to cook, do laundry, clean house, as well as do homework, get myself up for school, and at twelve I made my own appointments and arranged with a friend’s parent, neighbor, someone for transportation to get there.
    In earlier times, kids walked home from schools in blizzards. A few wouldn’t make it home.Not every time but it did happen. How many kids in earlier times, were left home alone with wood stoves and there was a fire? I know of two incidents of the latter that actually happened. In the one family, the three children suvived, in the other,two children died.
    But folks, this is not having a childhood. This is kids that have too much responsibility and are forced to leave their childhoods before they are completed. There may not be physical scars for the majority but I promise you there are emotional ones.
    The family ,stated in the original article made some really poor choices. Two parents both decided to go in the store at the same time. With all of the hype in recent years about leaving kids in cars alone, this was a choice and chance they decided was worth taking. Now they are paying for that choice. You can protest how the authorities handled it, but this is what can happen, legally, if you decide to leave your kids alone in a vehicle.
    If you decide to let your child take on responsibilities that could put them in harm’s way, then there are consequences. No, kidnappings of children are not the norm…….but to the parents who have had their child taken, regardless of circumstances,………….well I think telling them that statistic would be meaningless.
    I saw that the picture of Macaulay Culkin in ” Home Alone” accompanied this article with the caption “he did pretty well on his own.” If the script is written out for you by screenwriters, you have a predetermined outcome and you are acting in a comedy then this would be apropos . Since that isn’t the case here or anywhere, poor choice for article accompaniment.
    Parenting isn’t easy, but common sense goes a long way.

  22. Abigail December 13, 2016 at 9:50 pm #

    I really love looking at historical accounts of child rearing. There are so many facets to human development and sometimes looking back is the different perspective that is otherwise elusive. I know my 6 year old is ready to try more independence and the structural helicopter expectations really stalls us. I fear CPS as much as any anxiety based death/injury imagining for my kids… although CPS might be a reasonable fear!!

  23. CrazyCatLady December 14, 2016 at 12:12 am #

    Tonight I got the pleasure of watching my son’s teacher’s family. The children number 11, and a number are adopted from various countries around the world. Tonight was the school concert and about 9 of the kids were there, with their parents.

    Before the concert, the 12 year old took two boys of about 4 and 6 to the bathroom and to run around. One of the older daughters came in late, kissed her younger brother on the head, then moved in to sit down. When the about 2 year old needed to leave for the bathroom….this daughter of about 16, took him. Afterwards, he sat on her lap during the rest of the show. Mom and Dad were able to sit and watch the whole show.

    No, the 6 year olds do not necessarily watch the even younger kids….but sometimes, I expect they do. The family all works TOGETHER to get done what needs to be done. Dad teaches full time, Mom is home…but she has stuff that she does outside the family, with church and her extended family. She homeschools some of the kids (some of the kids were adoptable because they had special needs) but she, and Dad do what they can for each of the kids. And the older kids help out with the younger ones. Even before they can drive a car in what is the typical American way of an older sibling helping out by driving the younger ones around.

  24. sexhysteria December 14, 2016 at 2:14 am #

    Kids are amazingly competent and resilient.

  25. Dr Simon Knight December 14, 2016 at 5:14 am #

    I have very similar but more contemporary stories in my PhD data- extended interviews with old people about the freedoms and licences they had as children (1907 – 1965).

  26. Bridget December 14, 2016 at 9:27 am #

    I watched a video about this and it was really touching and amazing. My mother was 13 when she was left alone with her 2-week old baby sister for a month. It was 1926. No one thought anything of it at all. The kicker of the story is that my uncle was 3-years older than my mother. However, he was a hellion. He could not be trusted. My grandparents banned him from the house while they were gone. No one has any idea where he was or what he did during that time.

  27. John B. December 14, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    @test:

    I think you missed the whole point of what I was saying. Allow me to repeat part of what I wrote and that is “I’m certainly not advocating that we throw our kids out on the street to fend for themselves….” I’m merely stressing the silver linings of kids being out on the streets and those are basic survival skills and conflict resolution. You also say “Yes, street children are tougher and needs to be tougher.” And then you claim “It is not enough to get better results.” Apparently you also missed my last sentence where I wrote “Now if we Americans could somehow sprinkle in a bit of street environment for our kids along with the type of structured living they get in the home, I think Americans kids would do quite well.”

    American children raised like this would be much better off than pampered American college freshman.

  28. Qute December 14, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

    @ Test
    [i]@Qute Criminal rates of children who had to live with siblings practically without parents and forage for food were much higher then those for children who were cared for by present adults.[/i]
    Foraging for food: I interpreted this to mean they used local and available resources to obtain food as was quite common in that era. Picking berries, fruits and vegetables, catching fish, hunting small animals, etc. This is not what we consider foraging for food nowadays when we hear about someone checking dumpsters for leftovers.
    NOW — if you’re talking about food insecurity (not being certain of adequate food being available) that’s a different scenario. Whether or not there are parents in the picture, whether or not they are good or bad parents, food insecurity can cause lots of issues. It does not sound like, from the excerpt above, that Sanders and his siblings suffered from food insecurity. Sanders prepared the food they ate which his siblings helped him gather. Which again, doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are siblings without a parent all of the time nor that they didn’t have enough to eat on a consistent basis. Additionally, due to a family hardship, the death of the head of the household, the mother was working which is psychologically a different separation than one due to death, illness or lack of desire.

    [i]The same goes for their unemployment rates and education levels. And education level matters now more then ever.[/i]
    Education levels at the turn of the century were inconsistent across the country depending on where and how you lived. And what you did with or without that education was far different than what you can and cannot do with or without education today. [b]Be careful not to judge historical events against modern standards.[/b] You will not get a reliable result.
    [i] However, lets not pretend that there were no bad effects on them in general. That is just romanticizing poverty and that one is never so nice in practice.[/i]
    We don’t know from this if there were any ill effects on the children. Fundamentally it sounds like these children were raised in a way that was consistent with many of their peers. It does not sound like the family was living in poverty by historical standards. And there is NO romanticizing poverty. I have never met anyone who romanticized poverty and anyone who has can come talk to me as I have walked that walk in my lifetime and I have no qualms about discussing it.
    No one is suggesting that we raise all of our own kids the same way that Colonel Sanders grew up. We are suggesting that maybe we give our kids the benefit of the doubt and encourage them to see how much they can actually do instead of keeping them stunted by assuming they cannot. There is a difference.

    And how awful for you that you took away an idea of food insecurity, poverty and parental neglect from all of this instead of self-reliance, a family rallying together after a tragedy and building blocks of strong character.

  29. test December 14, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

    @Qute I got what you meant with foraging.

    “Which again, doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are siblings without a parent all of the time nor that they didn’t have enough to eat on a consistent basis. Additionally, due to a family hardship, the death of the head of the household, the mother was working which is psychologically a different separation than one due to death, illness or lack of desire.”

    They were still raised without present parent. The separation because of them being poor does not change the fact. The kids are still raising themselves. You wrote that mother was away for days at time.

    “We don’t know from this if there were any ill effects on the children. Fundamentally it sounds like these children were raised in a way that was consistent with many of their peers.”

    We do know a thing or two about criminality rates in the past including child criminality. We also know about difference between groups – like upper class children versus street children versus children of workers that are at the job 12 hours a day. All those versus children now. The kid being raised the same way as other kids in the same socioeconomic group does not change criminality rates and other troubles of the whole group.

    “It does not sound like the family was living in poverty by historical standards.”

    Mother had to be away to work for days at a time while small children were cared for by 6 years old sibling and responsible for getting their own food. That was being poor. Middle class children were cared for differently. That would count as poor in even sooner time.

    “And how awful for you that you took away an idea of food insecurity, poverty and parental neglect from all of this instead of self-reliance, a family rallying together after a tragedy and building blocks of strong character.”

    I took it from there, because all that is in the story. The life back then was hard for many people and their results in life were worst because of that. Awful is trying to pretend that average kid was better of in such conditions. It was not. Some individuals took it far despite all odds, but that says very little about those conditions “building strong character”. It is story about exceptional family and success despite odds, not a story about norm. An average kid of that socioeconomic group had a lot more troubles in life.

    I dont take issue with six years old doing a meal or whatever. But when we praise superior “conflict resolution skills” and health of street children while ignoring violence they commit and sick kids dying, then I do take issue. Same with praising situation of six years old who is responsible for siblings food as “character building” while ignoring all the kids that did not made it and turned to nearest troublemakers group for guidance.

  30. Peter December 15, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    He did pretty well on his own, too.

    Yeah, but in later years… [NSFW video]

    (Of course, I like to think this was how he turned out.)