I am living the most exciting parenting milestone: sitting at my hair salon, enjoying a bubbly beverage and relaxing scalp massage, all while confident in the knowledge that my 12-year old is at home reveling in her new official role of “paid babysitter” of her seven-year-old brother.
Okay, maybe reveling is too optimistic.
Let’s just say she’s gaining acceptance of the idea that paid babysitters don’t get to watch Parks and Rec on their laptops the entire time they’re on duty, and that it’s now her job to keep her brother entertained and safe for the next two hours.
We have all been training for this milestone for years.
As with most parenting milestones, the process started more out of necessity than an actual conscious plan to prepare our children to be more independent.
My kids are notorious for getting sick on the days when I have an important appointment scheduled. I think I canceled almost every hair appointment in 2016 thanks to my son’s predicable ailment schedule. It’s as if my Google calendar alerts somehow trigger a crash of his immune systems.
Because of this, I’ve spent the past decade of my life in limbo, never quite in control of my schedule.
Hair appointment = Mysterious “can’t go to school, but can eat a Costco-sized bin of Goldfish while watching the Disney Channel all day” stomach-aches.
Lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in ages = A call from the school nurse before I can even Google directions to the restaurant.
I finally made the decision to take back some control on November 4, 2014. I remember the date because it was a big election day here in Texas and I needed to go vote.
As with most days when I have plans to leave the house, one of my children was home sick.
That day’s patient: my 9-year-old daughter. Symptoms: General elementary school malaise.
I went back and forth in my head:
“The polling place is just down the street, I could be there and back in a flash! But what if there was a fire?….a sinkhole swallowed the house?….a popsicle related emergency?”
Voting is my duty as a good citizen.
My brain: “Not abandoning my sick daughter is a duty as a good parent.”
The reality: she’s NINE! At her age, I was spending entire summers at home alone!
It’s not the 70s anymore and I don’t want to become the subject of an online rant by some sanctimommy who finds my 10-minute child-abandonment worthy of a, “You Won’t Believe What This Mom Did!” headline.
So, I sucked it up and just did it.
I knew my kid. She was comfortable with me leaving. Even with her pseudo-sickness, I knew she would be fine. I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck that first time.
We did lay down some ground rules for my voting excursion.
Over the years, the frequency and the length of her being allowed to stay home alone have gradually increased, but the rules have remained pretty much the same as that first day.
1. No eating:
No matter how responsible my kids are, I have seen grown adults panic and freeze when their kids were choking and I do not trust my kids to a) calmly follow the proper steps of the Heimlich maneuver, or b) even notice if the other is choking.
2. Pick a floor:
My typical outing is a 30-60-minute trip to grab something at the store; the kids can live with whatever Lego they left up in their room until I get back.
And if they do have to get something, they make a solemn vow to hold the handrail and at least look in the general direction of where they’re going on the stairs, which is a 75% improvement on what they do when I am home.
My kids’ favorite part of being left alone is that I actually encourage electronic use during the time I’m gone. It guarantees that they’ll be like little potted plants until I return, and potted plants don’t typically catch the house on fire or break things while you’re out of the house.
All the same usage rules apply as when we’re at home, and they know that their father is a hacker-level tech pro and can tell if they’ve tried bending the rules.
4. No showers or baths:
(Like we even need to worry about them ever doing this by choice.)
5. List of Contacts:
In addition to having us on text and Facetime, we also have at least two of our neighbors on emergency duty for the kids and set up a text string with all of them before we leave.
6. Rehearse Responses:
If any stranger comes to the door, we’ve instructed the kids to tell the person that their dad is on a conference call and to leave a note under the mat. They then notify us and the emergency contacts.
7. No one in. No one out:
We’ve tested this one by having their friends go over as human bait- they’ve passed (I’m aware that this will get trickier as they get older and their parental-obedience shifts to friend-persuasion).
8. Set the house alarm:
This is an extra measure of security. In case there was a true emergency, the kids could trigger the alarm system simply by exiting our house.
9. Not doing anything you can’t do when we are at home:
No matches, no unsupervised cooking, no climbing on the roof. You know, the basics.
10. No punishment for admitting to innocent mistakes:
This one is more for the parents, but also a reassurance for the kids. As they’re stretching their boundaries, they will make mistakes.
As long as they admit them, that will help us know they’re ready for even more responsibility. Hiding or lying about mistakes will result in the opposite.
There will be people that consider these rules total overkill, and there will also be people who think I’m an awful parent for leaving my kids at home alone.
Like any parenting decision, you know what’s best for your own kids, but I hope you have as much success as we have and that these rules help transform your errands into an oasis of calm.
You may even finally be able to keep that cut and color appointment you’ve had to cancel three times!