A recent conversation with M during breakfast:
M: How old enough do you have to be to stay home alone?
Me: It’s up to every parent to decide.
M: How old do you have to be to stay home alone after school?
Me: There is no specific rule. Parents decide based on whether or not they thing their child is mature enough.
M: But isn’t there a law about when you can stay home by yourself, after a certain age?
Me: When a child is 10 or older, they can stay alone without a caregiver, but it is still up to the parents.
M was quiet for a couple of minutes.
Me: Are you thinking that you would like to stay home by yourself after school?
Me: How come?
M: I don’t like daycare anymore. It isn’t fun.
Me: I’m not sure that you are old enough to stay home by yourself for 3 hours every afternoon. Would you do anything but play on the computer and your iPod?
M (shrugging): Probably not.
Me: I’m not sure you are old enough to stay by yourself (and just in case he missed the point) – it’s something Mom and Dad, as your parents, would have to talk about.
At this point, M changed the subject. He hasn’t brought it up again, but I expect it is a matter of time.
A number of my friends with 10 year olds are dealing with the same question from their kids. Daycare is a bit too structured and perhaps just a bit babyish when you are almost 11 years old and nearly in grade 6. In M’s case, how much he wants to stay home may vary according to how he is getting along with other children at the daycare.
But I expect the real issue is independence. M and his friends all want to do more things on their own. For M, it started with walking to school by himself. We only live 3 minutes from the school and the route is well-travelled, so the risk factor is low. Nonetheless, it took me several weeks to be entirely comfortable with him going the entire way without a parent. His dad had no such qualms – he actively encourages M’s independence and often laments the fact that M doesn’t take more responsibility to do things for himself. But I struggled with letting M go off by himself. Part of this was probably the age-old maternal reticence to cut the apron cords. But M is also impulsive and doesn’t always make the best choices. The fact that his meds haven’t fully kicked in by the time he leaves for school just increases the potential for M to get into trouble before he reaches the school yard.
We eventually worked out a transition plan that worked for everyone: for a few days, one of us walked M as far as the school parking lot; for a few more days, just to the bottom of the cul-de-sac that leads to the school; and then just across the street. It took about 3 weeks, but eventually he went by himself.
That was last year. He walks (or runs, depending on the time) on his own most days. As much as I struggled with the need to keep him in view to ensure his safety, M also needed to be able to walk to school by himself. He needed to develop the confidence that he could do it. He also needed me to trust that he could get to school safely, on his own. We’ve never received a call from the school, so I know he makes it every morning.
But staying home alone after school is a much bigger responsibility. Even his father agrees that M may not be ready for this. I’m sure he could walk home by himself. I’m less sure he could always remember his house key but we could leave a key somewhere for him, just in case. I am definitely unconvinced that he would do anything but play games on the computer and/or his iPod. He doesn’t get a lot of homework, so that’s not an issue. But after three hours of straight electronics, his brain cells would be pretty fried, which wouldn’t be good for any of us. He would probably be surly and cranky by the time one of his parents got home – we’d be competing to see who could stay later at work. At daycare, M gets a fair amount of outdoor exercise at the daycare; much better for him than playing hours of electronic games. Plus, he is interacting with other children which is always a good thing, even if there are conflicts from time to time.
The home alone question is the tip of the iceberg. As he gets older, M’s increasingly going to want to assert his independence by doing things on his own. Regrettably, I don’t think this includes cleaning his room or helping out around the house. Intellectually, I know this need for greater independence is part of growing up. We all went through it. Emotionally, it is harder because the less he needs me, the less he is my little boy. The reality is that he does still need me – after all, I was the one he woke up the other night when he was up repeatedly with a stomach bug. But in addition to doing things for him, M also needs me to give him room to try things on his own.
Of course, he would like more freedom. But it is also up to me, as the parent, to decide when he is capable of handling additional responsibilities. I can’t discount the fact that he has ADHD which can make it harder for him to make good choices. Part of him may want to escape the organized chaos structure of the daycare, but what if being on his own everyday after school actually makes him more anxious?
For the moment, M seems content to stay where he is after school. I expect this will be the first of many similar discussions we’ll have going forward. Some of them will probably be more like arguments.
However, we’ll continue to inch slowly towards M’s emancipation from parental oversight. I fully expect that from time to time, he will chafe at our limits. Sometimes we will want him to take on more responsibility than he is willing to do at the time, such as homework and chores. I will undoubtably continue to wrestle with my own need to protect him versus letting his stand on his own two feet. But eventually we will get there. I just can’t put an exact age on when.