In the late 19th century, child abandonment was such a common problem in American cities that many of the country’s noteworthy orphanages were constructed and opened, including the New York Foundling Hospital and the Holy Family Institute. About a hundred years later, the abandoning of children was much less common, and many of these institutions had closed or retooled with a greater focus on adoption and fostering. As public awareness of youth homelessness and child welfare changed, so did standards for parenting. Practices that may have been largely accepted became more controversial, and public criticism about parenting style permeated daytime television, magazines and popular culture. A microcosm of this phenomenon plays out in the “Home Alone” series of family films, starting with the 1990 hit that created an enduring character named Kevin McAllister.
In the first “Home Alone”, Kevin gets left behind in his posh suburban Chicago home when his family takes a Christmas vacation to Paris. While the mother, father and siblings don’t abandon Kevin on purpose, it’s clear the family’s general neglect and disregard for the boy help cause the situation. Kevin’s mother, played by Katherine O’Hara, beats herself up throughout the film for her mistake, but her motivation to return to her son, along with some clever character interactions, make us sympathetic to her plight by the end. “Parents make serious mistakes, but their love and effort make things okay in the long run” seems to be a popular sentiment of the era.
Maintaining sympathy for the Mcallister parents becomes a bit more difficult in a second incident of abandonment in just one year. “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” attempts to alleviate this problem by making the circumstances a bit more understandable; at least they brought him to the airport this time. Otherwise, the themes here are nearly identical to the first film. After 1992, however, there are a lot of changes in Americans’ perceptions of children and parenting, which will take a few years to appear in the series.
Starting in 1993, several high-profile child murders, allegations of abuse by celebrities, and an upward crime trend heightened the perceived danger children experienced in everyday life. To leave a child alone during this time, many parenting experts would argue, is the same thing as subjecting them to the horrific intents of criminals lurking in every shadow. Locking up every offender for as long as possible was seen as one solution to this problem, but making sure parents understood that their children needed to be watched at all times also gained popularity.
A greater emphasis on protection and supervision as absolute qualities of parenting started to show itself in “Home Alone 3”. Rather than being a direct representation of cultural values, the 1997 film removes an element of parental neglect to highlight an omnipresent criminal danger and reinforce the importance of supervision. Yes, Kevin is left somewhat alone, but only for short periods of time and with the knowledge of a neighbor who can respond to problems. We’re not meant to see the parents as explicitly neglectful but in unfortunate circumstances that force them to temporarily leave their son alone.
Five years after the release of the third home alone film, made for television”Home Alone 4″ airs on ABC and abandons the concept of Kevin being alone altogether. “Home Alone: The Holiday Heist”, which was released nearly a decade later, plays out similarly with just a few changes to the characters and circumstances. In both films, Kevin is always left with a caretaker in some form or another and the criminals come regardless. There’s one scene in “The Holiday Heist” that shows the creators are aware of the children in constant danger dynamic of the culture. Throughout the film, Kevin plays an online video game with a college student living across the country. When the student finds out Kevin is in danger, he makes contact with the mom to warn her. She hysterically misinterprets this action as a threat and calls the police on the student, perhaps a commentary on our collectively blindness to forces actually endangering children.
Apart from this one scene, the Home Alone franchise transitions from protraying neglectful but sympathetic parents who make a mistake to essentially perfect parents unable to control the environment threatening their children. This avoids the pitfalls of condoning unperfect parenting and puts the full antagonistic focus on the criminals. This risk-averse approach to storytelling, which has been dominant in the industry for some time, rob the sequels of a strong emotional core. The first Home Alone is a hit because it tackles complicated themes about childhood feelings of isolation, fear, and abandonment as well as parental inadequacy, confusion and desperation. The sequels feel like cartoonish imitations racing to the criminal traps and violence.