Dear Dr. Fournier:
My 13-year-old daughter is out of school for the summer and after a week, I’m worried about the remainder of her summer break. I work and cannot take vacation now. At her age, there isn’t much for children to do unsupervised. Camps want this age child to work and not play but I want her to have a break from school and not start working so I’m not going to send her to camp and I’m not going to let her baby-sit.
I’ve looked only to come up with an occasional activity but nothing constant. And because I am a single parent with no family here to help me, I have no choice but to let her stay home alone, yet I’m afraid of everything I hear in the news. How do I keep my child a good child when there is no one to look after her?
Parents today are being steadily pulled and pushed toward parenting with fear. Fear for our child’s safety and wellbeing is a strong pull.
We constantly hear about the failures of other families with their children in a number of areas. Here are just a few of those failures you and other parents are all too familiar with: Teen pregnancy, smoking cigarettes, drinking, drugs, gang activity, bullying and school failure.
It is natural as a parent to want to protect our children from these threats to their future. In addition, we are pushed by the fear of warning signs to watch for in our children’s behavior:
e Is your child moody or unhappy?
e Does he or she avoid you?
e Are your child’s grades slipping?
Implicit in this type of checklist is the fear that unless we act now, our children may some day be added to the list of failures. Of course, society has given us some good reasons to be cautious, if not outright fearful.
Children today have an early exposure to knowledge of things and activities from the adult realm and this forces us to be watchful. But in doing so, we risk falling into the trap of parenting with fear rather than parenting with trust.
Parenting with fear means holding on to past methods rather than transitioning to new ways as the child transitions to increased independence with responsible actions. Parenting with trust – not blind trust – means that we must exhibit and teach mutual trust and responsibility. This gives our children the chance to make decisions without being under our watchful eye.
Having to leave a child at home alone does create a feeling of sadness when we have spent so many years watching and knowing all that the child does. But as the child enters “middle-aged” childhood, we must also move into a middle stage of parenting, not holding on quite as much and yet not letting go completely.
WHAT TO DO
There are very few states in the U.S. with legal minimum ages for children home alone, but many state agencies have published guidelines. Georgia, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon are a few of the states with specific ages specified in their laws. Twelve years of age appears to be the most common recommendation.
Malinda, you can begin by visiting your state’s Department of Human Services website for any state mandated ages or guidelines it may have on leaving children home alone. (http://www.tn.gov/humanserv/)
Latchkey Kids is another good reference site for this type of information.
(http://www.latchkey-kids.com/latchkey-kids-age-limits.htm) This site also provides a state-by-state comparison with references. As you will see from this site, Tennessee has only a guideline – age 10 – for how young a child can be to stay home alone. The Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (http://www.tennessee.gov/tcjfcj/faq.html) states the following: “There is no legal age for children to stay at home alone. Parents are advised to use their best judgment, keeping the child’s maturity level and safety issues in mind. Younger children have a greater need for supervision and care than older children. Obviously, young children under age 10 should not be left without supervision at any time. In most cases, older teenage children may be left alone for short periods of time.”
Once you are sure you are within legal guidelines, you are now ready to parent with trust.
Sit with your child and together make a list of all the things you fear would produce pain in her life. Then let her know that rather than fear these and treat her with mistrust, together you will make sure she learns the rules that develop trust.
Make a list of the characteristics you will focus on in this first summer of learning about independence with responsibility. Also let her know that these will be the same skills that may help her avoid future pain.
Some of the characteristics could be honesty, trust, perseverance and constancy. Talk about these terms and find examples from the past when she has demonstrated these qualities under your supervision. Help her see that she has already been successful.
Then help her set up explicit tasks that she will carry out to demonstrate that she is capable of continuing her success without your watchful eye. For example:
e Honesty: I will only go someplace with permission.
e Trust: When I ask permission to do something, I will present both the pros and cons of the situation and my reasoning. I will trust that my parent will make a sound decision, and will help me understand the reason.
e Perseverance: I will finish all chores in spite of how hard they seem or how tired I feel or how much I don’t want to do them.
e Constancy: I’ll do all of these and not have to fear surprises.
In the evening when you come home from work, reinforce your child’s successes by using these words in your conversation with her. For example, you can say, “You finished vacuuming the house. That’s perseverance.”
Parenting with fear combined with parenting from a distance is not the type of guidance our children need. Parenting for trust puts you back where you’ve always been and where your child needs you – in charge!
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER