Leaving Kids Home Alone
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Encouraging your child’s independence—one step at a time
Solo Moms struggle with “Bad Mom Syndrome” a lot. We worry constantly that the moment we let our guard down, something terrible will happen and suddenly we will be the frantic mother being interviewed by Lieutenant Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU saying, “I just went downstairs to put the laundry in the dryer!”
At the same time, we know that we have to let our kids spread their wings and grow up—at least we say we do. But what does that mean? Remember all those movies from our own youth about kids left at home who get into trouble? These kids came from super-duper nuclear families with lovely, clueless parents who never suspected anything.
And here we Solo Moms are, struggling to balance on a ball while juggling our kids, our work, and our finances, second-guessing ourselves and facing possible disasters. How can we not worry? As Solo Moms we have expended so much time and energy making sure our kids are safe. How do we figure out when it’s time to let them stay home alone? I mean really alone, as in you are not at home and they are.
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: “When I was their age I walked home from school and then to the mall and got a job and . . .” That is a ridiculous argument. My parents also hitchhiked from Michigan to New York, but they would never agree that I would be allowed to do it. We have grown up aware of those latchkey-kid indictments—almost always directed at negligent mothers. There is no way as Solo Moms that we can easily relinquish our determination not to settle into that cliché.
So the real question is: When are you ready to let your kids stay home by themselves?
Double digits. Until your kid is older than nine, the idea of leaving him or her awake and alone for more than half an hour is probably not a good one. If you have to rush out somewhere, it’s always better to have an adult at least close by.
Maturity level. If you can drop them and a friend off at the movies together, you can probably leave them home alone. Also, if your kids are talking allowance money for chores well done, getting a job, or being recommended as babysitters, it’s definitely time to leave them by themselves. If other people are trusting them with their children . . . that should be a signal to you that it’s time.
Baby steps. Yes, it is very hard to play both the overprotective and the cool parent. On the other hand, as a Solo Mom, do you have any choice? All right. Admit you aren’t perfect! Ready? Let’s move on. The cool, relaxed parent waltzes out the door with a wave, and the anxious worrying parent checks her phone every 30 minutes. Baby steps. It’ll get easier.
Some points to keep in mind
We do have many new positive factors in our wired world:
Hyperconnectivity. The fact is that we have many ways to check in on our children these days. You can be reached pretty much anywhere at any time. Even, shh . . . when you are at the movies. You can put your phone on vibrate and grip it feverishly from the trailers to the end credits.
Home alarm systems. Yes, these can sometimes be more trouble than they are worth, but if they are your pacifier of choice, go for it.
How to start
Day trips. Make it a few hours—that don’t involve meals.
Nights out. Same.
Responsibilities. They never seem to be as responsible in their own home as they can be out of it. So even if they are babysitting for others or tutoring the neighbor’s kid, don’t expect them to complete any other chores. As my 12-year-old nephew explained to me recently: “You can leave me alone for hours, but I can’t guarantee I won’t burn down the house.”
The stove. Even if you trust them to cook when you are home, don’t start by asking them to make their own dinner with fire. That’s what microwaves are for.
Self-feeding. Either leave the food out, or order pizza. And even if they can manage mac and cheese, don’t imagine they will remember to clean up. If you’re lucky, dishes will be in the sink or maybe even the dishwasher—still dirty. Expect to come home and clean dishes, some of which may be found in unexpected places.
Bedtime. You can pretend that they will do their homework, so can they; but if you don’t want them to stay up late, I’m sorry to tell you, you can’t always monitor that, either.
Remind yourself that you have been a thoughtful, respectful, and careful parent—and trust that your kids have learned some of that from you.
Margot Kessler, a screen and television writer living in Los Angeles, is the sporadically witty Solo Mom of two lovely daughters.
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