My eldest child, who is 7, likes to be alone.
He is a homebody, as I was when I was his age. This past week, he asked if we could please plan a day of summer vacation to just stay home and not run any errands. In fact, he’s been asking me if I can let him stay by himself while I do little things around the neighborhood (laundry pick-up, library book return) for over a year now and I’ve been hard-pressed to find a reason why he can’t.
He’s responsible, he’s bookish, he’s a rule-abiding citizen of the family. I could leave and be gone an hour and he might never even notice, so deep does he go in his books.
Still, it made me nervous to let someone so young stay home by himself, even for a few minutes — which is why I’ve been insisting that he accompany me (along with his younger brother and sister) to the laundromat around the corner and to the library a few blocks away.
I worried that someone might buzz our apartment and he might absentmindedly let them in, or that there might be some sort of difficulty he didn’t know how to handle, or simply that he would let his mind wander to dark places (as mine often did when I was a kid) and I’d come home to him in tears from thinking of all the bad things that might have happened to his family between our apartment and the Wash’n’Dry.
If I’m being completely honest, I was worried the neighbors might think I was being neglectful and I’d get an unexpected visit from CPS.
On the other hand, I do think that being comfortable in solitude is an important ability to have. Learning how to simply be alone and content — not anxious — is, perhaps, a neglected skill.
Our Phase 2 of our “Summer of Independence” focused on just that. The goal was both of us to be comfortable with his spending time alone in and around our apartment. We needed to cover things like knowing the rules for being home alone (no answering the door, no TV, and no video games), knowing who and how to call if necessary since we don’t have a house phone (a quick FaceTime lesson on our iPad took care of that), and being able to handle the responsibility of going to get the mail by himself.
My first step, of course, was to consult the law. Legally speaking, was it okay to leave my 7-year-old by himself?
In my case, in New York state, the answer is yes. There is no law dictating how old a child has to be before you can leave him alone, although the Child Protective Services website does offer some helpful guidelines: “Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age … Parents and guardians need to make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters.”
Knowing that legally I was in the clear (and would be able to say that to any nosy neighbors) lifted a huge burden, but almost as important was the conversation I had with Holly Schiffrin, psychology professor and researcher at the University of Mary Washington who specializes in helicopter parenting.
“Kids who aren’t give the chance to do things on their own feel less competent,” she told me.
We talked a lot about competency, and about how parents are often so involved in their kids’ lives that they, in essence, rob them of the opportunity to develop the confidence they need to do things on their own — which can carry over into their adult lives.
Even though my son is only 7, I have seen his frustration and disappointment at not being trusted to do things that he thinks he is capable of. When he was nearly 5 and I was teaching him to ride a bike, he called me out a couple of times for not giving him the chance to do it on his own. So even though it made me nervous, one afternoon last week I gave him the key to our mailbox and told him to go down to the mailroom six floors below to get our mail.
I talked with him about what to expect, how he should handle people’s questions if he ran into anyone, and that I would come find him if he wasn’t back in a couple of minutes. The task itself is one he’d done with me many times, so I wasn’t worried that he couldn’t handle it.
The result: He handled it beautifully. In fact, he made friends with another family in the elevator and was responsible enough to come back and tell me about it before asking to go out and play on the front steps with them — which we did.
Emboldened by that experience — and trying to negotiate the needs of three children, two of whom wanted to take the elevator back up to our apartment after hanging out on the steps while the third wanted to take the stairs — I decided to see how my son would do supervising his almost-2-year-old sister for three minutes in our apartment while I took my 4-year-old down the stairs and back up. He was settling in on the couch with a book when we left.
“Watch out for her,” I said as I closed the door.
“Okay,” he said without looking up.
However, when we emerged from the stairwell a couple of minutes later, our apartment door was open and my daughter was standing by the elevators, waiting, I assumed, for me. My son hadn’t noticed that she had opened the door or that she was not in the apartment.
I knew that he was too young to be expected to watch another child — especially a toddler, and even more especially, that particular precocious toddler. Yet it was eye-opening to see what could happen even in the space of a few minutes. I was grateful that she hadn’t actually gotten onto one of the elevators (which she can do), and also glad to see so clearly where the lines of responsibility and trust lay for now.
Yes, he can handle himself at home alone for short periods of time. Yes, he can be trusted to run errands inside our building. But for now, that’s it.
He’s a homebody. He’s bookish. He’s responsible — but, for now, only for himself.