The ultimate goal of childhood is to become independent, self-sufficient adults. Deciding when it’s time to let our children spread their wings is often a challenge. Over this past year my family has confronted a great many of these decisions as my daughter approached her 10th birthday and started asking to stay home alone for short spurts while we carpooled younger siblings. It is in these moments when we realize our kids are growing up – or at least trying to.
The early part of a child’s second decade of life is a unique phase –not little children anymore but not true teenagers. This group, the 9-12 year olds, are aptly called “tweens” for this very reason. Like most transition phases, these kids exhibit characteristics of their younger selves but strive to go beyond that. This is a time of transition for all kids and heralds a new sense of self and growing independence. Their minds and attitudes are not the only parts of them that start to change – their bodies do as well. This is the phase that we see the first glimpses of budding teenagers – in body, mind and spirit.
When deciding if your child is ready for more responsibility and independence, it’s important to know what your child can handle already. There is great variability in when tweens are ready for more responsibility. Some tweens will start asking at 9 and 10 years of age for more independence including spending some time home alone; but others may not be ready until later in the tween years – or even later. Your child’s readiness is largely determined by your child and what you’ve experienced to that point with your child’s judgement. Your child is likely ready to be left home alone if:
* He knows how to properly answer the telephone. Kids should never disclose to an unfamiliar voice that they are alone. An appropriate response would be “My mom’s not able to come to the phone right now, can I take your number and have her get back to you?”
* She knows what to do and who to call in the event of a fire, a medical crisis, a suspicious stranger at the door, or other emergency. Coach your tween on how to respond to these situations. Post emergency and contact numbers prominently.
* He knows how to contact you in an emergency.
* She knows the names of her pediatrician, preferred hospital and family medical-insurance plan.
* He is not fearful of being home alone.
* She knows the household rules
* You feel confident your child won’t get into something that could puts him in harm’s way.
If you do decide to let your teen or tween stay home alone, start with short periods of time as a test. Make sure there are clearly defined rules and write them down as a reminder. Make sure one of the household rules is a clear “you abuse it you lose it” rule that applies to any new freedom or privilege. Some typical household rules include:
1. Is she allowed to have friends over? How many? Same-sex friends only?
2. Under what circumstances is he allowed to answer the door? Or should he not open the door at all?
3. Which activities are off-limits? If your home has cable or a dish television system, consider placing a parental-control device on the TV to limit access to objectionable programming.
4. Is she expected to complete homework and/or chores before you arrive home?
5. Do you have a plan staying in touch with her during the day? Daily contact is invaluable in reinforcing to your tween that you are nearby and helps them feel confident and safe.
Sometimes older tweens, and certainly many true teens, will need to come home to an empty house and be alone for a few hours before you come home. These kids, typically referred to as latchkey kids, are a unique group unto themselves. As important as it is to be sure your child is ready to be alone for a few hours, it’s equally important to help them structure that time. Help them prioritize what they need to do while you are gone. Help them create a list of appropriate activities to occupy the time they are alone. And, be sure you are in constant touch with them and that they know how to reach you for any question that may arise. Programmable phones can be wonderful for this purpose. You can find some excellent information for your teen on staying home alone on www.kidshealth.org.
Deciding if your tween is ready to stay home alone is a big step and one you both may be ready to take. Give them carefully structured opportunities to express their growing independence and be ready to guide, support and nurture this independence.
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