Sunday, January 9, 2011

Divided We Fall

I'm apprehensive writing this post.  

I made a parenting decision the other day.   It's something that has been brewing for a while.    It all started with a sick day and a trip to the post office.

Finn was at school (a friend was dropping him off later) and Greta was home resting, recovering from yet another bout of strep throat.  

I had to go to the post office to mail jewelry orders, and I needed to go right then, because my afternoon was booked with customers coming by the shop.   It was a blustery, cold, day; Greta was snuggled on the couch in her jammies watching TV.

She looked up at me from her warm cocoon of blankets and said, "I don't want to go, Momma.   Can I stay here?"

My heart skipped a beat.  

She's been asking to stay home alone for short bits of time for a year now.    Last year there was no way I was going to leave her alone, even for a couple of minutes.    Now she's almost eight and a half - a very responsible eight and a half - and I wasn't sure what to do.

Interestingly my first fear wasn't for her safety; I know she's capable of being by herself for the ten minutes it would take me to get to the post office and back.   But my first thought was:  what would people think? 

I have no idea if other Moms I know would let their eight and a half year old stay home unattended for ten minutes.   I have a sneaking suspicion if I asked them they wouldn't cop to it, even if they did.  It's not something I would feel comfortable even asking other Moms. 

I blame it on the parenting wars.   When did parenting decisions stop being about trusting your intuition and knowing your own kid's abilities, and become more about fear of being judged?

It happens over lots of issues, large and small:  breastfeeding, cloth diapers, home schooling and television watching have become issues that are intensely - even viciously - debated, instead of falling squarely in the camp of personal choice, which is where they belong.   If someone makes a parenting decision that differs from our own, somehow it becomes personal.   

"I don't think so, sweetie," I told Greta.   "I think you'd be nervous here all by yourself."

She rolled her eyes.   "I'm not nervous, Mom," she said.  "I'll be fine."   She went back to watching TV, and I stood there, frozen with indecision.    I realized she was totally ready for this.  It was me who wasn't.   

I don't want my kid to grow up fearful.  I want her to learn to trust herself, feel curious about trying new things - even things that are a little scary - and feel pride that she has taken a leap forward.   Isn't that what growing up is all about?

I lay down some ground rules.   "Don't answer the door to ANYONE.  Or the phone.   And DON'T EAT."

She rolled her eyes again.   I dialed my cell phone number with our home phone, and showed her how to hit redial to reach me.   Then I locked all the doors.   And the windows.   I pointed out the list of emergency phone numbers on the fridge.

"I'll be back in ten minutes," I said, my heart in my throat. 

She waved me off.  "Okay.  Bye."

The post office is exactly 1.64 miles away (I clocked it).   I drove the whole way with a stone in my stomach, wondering if I made the right call or not.   What if she panicked?  What if something happened to me, and she was there by herself?   What if someone stopped by?   What if, what if, what if.   I was near tears.

I got back in eight minutes.  "You okay?" I asked, as I rushed in the door.

"MOM.   I'm FINE."

And she was fine.  I, on the other hand, was a wreck.   I questioned my decision over and over all day, playing horrible scenarios through my head.   I couldn't let it go.   Then it occurred to me that she might actually tell a friend or a teacher that she stayed home alone, and I was gripped with fear.  

A few days later, my fear became a reality.   She had a good friend over for a play date and the two of them were playing a board game, chatting away about Webkinz and Littlest Pet Shops.  Suddenly Greta said,  "I stayed home by myself for eight minutes!  My Mom went to the post office, and I stayed home and watched TV.   I wasn't scared ONE BIT."

Her friend didn't miss a beat and replied, "Oh, my Mom lets me do that all the time when she has to run up the street real quick."

I know this kid's Mom really well, and this topic would never, ever come up between us in conversation.  If she had asked me last week whether I would ever leave Greta home alone I'm not sure I would have been honest, because I'd have been afraid my answer would differ from hers.

I decided to do a little experiment.   I told my husband I was thinking of doing a post about Greta's milestone of staying home alone.   He thought for a moment, and said, "I don't know if that's a good idea."

When I asked him why, he thought some more and then said, "Don't you think some people will disapprove?  People you know?  Aren't you worried about what they will think?"

"That's my whole point!" I said.   "Do you think Greta was ready to do that?" 

"Absolutely," he said, without hesitation.

"So why are you concerned about what other people will think?  Why does it matter?"

"I don't know," he replied.   "I just know that people will have strong opinions about it, one way or the other.   Why open up that can of worms?"

I want to open this can of worms because it's sad to me how isolating parenting is when we live in fear of being judged.    I know my kid.  I know what she can and can't do, but when I view decisions like this through the lens of Other People's Opinions, I lose faith in myself.

I understand why people feel so strongly about other peoples' parenting.    We want to feel assured that we're getting it right; so if we feel someone else is getting it wrong, it strengthens our own self-esteem.   We've all felt that little superior rush when we witness something we'd never do.

One of the ways to feel good about our own decisions is to feel judgy about others' choices.  That's the wrong way to go about it, though.   We could all learn so much from each other, if only we could share freely without getting a faceful of unsolicited advice, or preachy sermons about the right way to do things.

I guess I'm going to find out what other people think, because I'm about to hit 'publish'.  

I'm curious to see if the comments prove my point.   Or not.


  1. I'm glad you hit publish because I've been wondering what the age is. There's the age where you know everything will be fine (Greta now) but also the socially acceptable age. I'm super interested to see what your responses are. My kid is only 3 so I have a while, but still I'm curious! But I'm pretty sure I would have done the same thing you did, if that makes you feel any better!

  2. I don't remember how old I was when my mom would leave me alone, but I was amazed to hear a story my dad told me. When he was 9 or 10, he would get up before the rest of the family (so it MUST have been dark), grab a gun, go out and hunt up birds or small animals for the family meal. It just kills me. A kid, with a gun, in the dark, by himself, out roaming the countryside.

  3. You know your daughter and her maturity and readiness and your home's safetyness and that's what matters. Not what "people" think. I applaud your decision.

    I'm not sure when I stayed on my own- or home with my younger brother, but I know I was babysitting other people's babies when I was 11, so pretty sure my parents left me home young. I think kids (within reason) live up to the level of responsibility that is expected of them.

    You are a great mom and I vote for "good choice" on this one.

  4. I don't think there is a set age anyone can tell another but in some states there are laws that set it. I like the website freerangekids as that is how I grew up. Heck my sister at 9 was watching her 4 younger siblings alone -8,6,5 and newborn- till the parents walked in and saw us "stepping" on the baby's belly and jumping over her (she would not stoP crying before that, this made her laugh!) but when it's MY child, I don't know. He's 3 now and just got a bike and have let him stay outside with it in the driveway while I've run in the house. Freaks me out but like you I don't want him raised to be fearful. I see kids 6 or so walking to school and I think they're parents are crazy but I did it as a child! So... We'll see when he's older. I think you know your kid, you know the situation and you are the best judge of what is right for your family.

  5. I think different areas change the protocol, I grew up on mean streets when I was a teen but lived closer to the country when I was your daughters age, my parents would let me stay home alone there and nothing ever happened. But they absolutely wouldn't when we moved to the rougher part of town. What I think im saying is you know better than anyone else your daughter and your surroundings. I dont believe it was a wrong decision and I am really interested to see what others say too. It took courage to post this honey, good for you.

  6. I totally agree with you and your husband....your gut feeling rules. My oldest daughter (now 18) was ready to stay alone far sooner than my youngest (now 14). Each child is different and you have to trust your feelings and them. Lay down te ground rules when they're ready and trust them (that's the hard part). The greatest part is when they surprise you!

  7. you know what I think? I think you are correct. What is good for the goose isn't always good for the gander, i know that is not the real saying but it's my comment so fuck it.

    my point is it might work for you but not me, and vice versa. Quite frankly, I am tired of so many ppl telling me what to do as if they own the damn handbook on parenting.

    Follow your heart. When i do, all turns out right for me.

  8. Our post office is five minutes away, and at 9 years old, our daughter stayed home while I went to mail bills. She knows our neighbor's number, my mom lives two miles away, and I have a cell phone I keep on. By 6th grade, she was allowed to stay home alone from school as long as she wasn't so sick she needed assistance. She knew how to use the phone, the microwave, make a simple meal, and our neighbors across the driveway home-school...she knows them well. I call during my morning and lunch breaks, and before I head for home. She's confident and prefers solitude to grocery shopping, so she's allowed to stay home alone then as well. When I get anxious, I use it as practice time to have more faith in the universe. It's my childhood that wasn't safe, not hers. Thanks for having the courage to listen to Greta, not your fears.

  9. Can't believe this - I did exactly the same thing last week with my eight year old - who looked after his four year old brother! I too was gone for 8 minutes. They LOVED it and it gave my 8 year old such a tremendous feeling of responsiblity - he was buzzing all day. Not going to make a habit of it - but don't regret if for a minute xx

  10. I did the same thing - the first time I left my 2 together alone for more than 10 minutes was when they were 11 and 8 and my father was in hospital for 8 weeks - it was drag them to hospital every time I went, or leave them at home for an hour - and I did it and they were fine. I'd done an awful lot of little post office trips before that, too. I think you know your child and your circumstances, and you know yourself if it's ok or not. The problem doesn't go away - my older daughter is 16, so will be going to university in less than 2 years, and she and I both think she's old enough to go up to London shopping in broad daylight with a friend (we live on a great train line into London, and she knows the main department stores very well: what's going to happen in crowded touristland, other than a bag snatch, which can happen to anyone?) But none of her friends are allowed to go without their mothers, so she hasn't done it yet. We are meant to be preparing them for independence, and surely that means giving them age-appropriate chances to be independent? Sounds like Greta has a very sensible take on this!

  11. I blogged about this exact same thing a little while ago
    I thought about chasing a car down the street to explain why I was allowing my son to play relatively close to the road. Unable to trust my own judgement I was (am) wracked with fear when I make parenting decisions.
    Loved this post - thank you!!

  12. I completely understand both your nervousness about leaving her home alone and what people might think. Cooper has been home alone for short bits of time for a while now. Even lets himself in to the house if I am not back on time from picking Xander up from Jazz Band. I say the same thing: Don't answer the door and don't eat anything!" I think you'll find most moms here in town do the same thing. It is funny, though, how we are more worried about how we will be perceived by others than just trusting our instincts about what our kids are or are not ready to do. You made the right choice. Now excuse me while I go call DSS (kidding!)

  13. This one really hits home for me. I think you absolutely did the right thing for you. You probably always do the right thing for you and your family and it is no one else's business. I never imagined when I became a mom that I would feel as much judgement and worry as much as I do about what "other people think" as I do. It's like being in High School all over again, but honestly worse, I don't think it was ever that bad when I was 16. It kills me that moms can not just reach out and support each other and know that we are just trying to do our best everyday and that yes sometimes we make mistakes but criticizing each other and judging each other is petty and hurtful. I am had enough on myself as a parent, I do not need anyone else making it worse. Thank you for posting.

  14. My son is only 22 months, but I find myself doing things in for other people all the time. Like putting a coat on him even though he doesn't need it but others might think it's cold and "that baby needs a coat"! It's not all the time, but I notice myself doing it. I generally have confidence in my parenting choices, I just do those thing so as not to invite comments or attention. Oh, and I totally would leave him at 8 if I felt he could handle it. No problem. My mom did and I usually just watched tv.

  15. My son started coming home alone at 8 years old because of football practice. I had to have him fed and in full pads on the field by 5:30 three nights a week. I know that I battled with this, but he is a great kid with a good head on his shoulders and I knew that he REALLY wanted this so he had choices to make and he did the right things.
    I know the angst you feel about it, but if the child is mature and knows how to reach you or someone else in an emergency you will find that they will appreciate the freedom and trust that you are giving them.
    Good for you Ellie!!!

  16. My 8 year old has stayed home alone for as long as a half hour...and several hours with his 11 year old brother. I like to think I'm a little more "free-range" but I don't know, I worry about what people think too. I fight with the ex about it a lot. The 11 year old wants to do things like ride his bike to the store which FREAKS the ex out. Everytime I make a decision to expand their freedoms he spends three days telling me about the one kid who dissapeared from our area 20 years ago and was never seen again. I always say "and how many kids have gone to the grocery store alone without incident since then?" He thinks I'm an uncaring ass. I guess my ex is training me the hard way to cringe at what other people think and follow my own heart anyway.

  17. Well done, Ellie :) I'm glad you hit publish!
    I especially love this bit:
    "I want to open this can of worms because it's sad to me how isolating parenting is when we live in fear of being judged. I know my kid. I know what she can and can't do, but when I view decisions like this through the lens of Other People's Opinions, I lose faith in myself."
    Because it's so true, and something I wish we could all get over.

  18. My kid is three. Today I left him playing on the ride-on car in the shopping centre while I looked at a market stall. I was in ear-shot, in sight, and in darn quick running distance. What was the worst I thought might happen? Possibly, just maybe, he might try something random and fall off - but unlikely for my climbing monkey.

    Also, I know the area, the people, and it was quiet. Definitely not allowed in other areas - area specific as one commenter said.

    Guess what I'm saying is that just because your kid is 'only' 3 doesn't mean there aren't 'freedom' questions around.

  19. I'd have written more but the comments box played up! Was also going to say that I completely recognise that anxious feeling inside when I am questionning what I am doing based on what I think others might say. Child went to church yesterday dressed as a skeleton - his choice of clothes. Sometimes he wears sandals in cold weather - with odd socks. And sometimes he chooses what we are having for dinner - and I get comments in the shop about "Ooh, I can guess who rules the roost in *your* house." No, you can't. *I* do - and child knows it. But he also knows about freedom and choice.

    Oh, and at 2 1/2 he cycled across the (open field and in eyesight all the time) campsite to the shop and bought himself a small bar of chocolate.

  20. I stayed home alone from about 7 on. My parents didn't really have a choice. My step-grandmother hated me so staying at her house after school made me miserable. They lived less than a mile away from us, so I got off the bus and went inside and I'd be home for up to an hour and a half after school before my parents got home from work. My little brother? This never would've been okay with him. He was a different child and scared of his own shadow.

    I think the bottom line is that you did the right thing because YOU know your daughter. Any parent who wants to judge that has no room to do so. I think that far too often we forget that every child is different and we lump them all together under the categories of what milestone they should be hitting for their ages, forgetting that they all hit those milestones in their own time. So when one parent says "Oh, I'd NEVER let my child do X, Y, Z" they should remember that they're saying that about THEIR child and not someone else's. (Did that make sense, or did I just go all stream-of-consciousness on you?)

  21. I think it depends on your child, where you live and the time that you are gone. You made the right decision for your family and that is the important thing. I don't know that I am comfortable leaving my 8 1/2 year old home alone yet, but for me to get to town and back is more would be close to an hour.

  22. No judgment here, at all. I've left the 5 year old in the house to go to the neighbor's. For a good 15-20 minutes. It's YOUR instincts that matter, not anyone else's.

  23. I am standing with you. I will admit it: when my older son was 9 (a very mature 9) I started letting him walk home from school (a block) and stay at home by himself until I got home from work (about an hour and a half). I really had no choice. He had a basic cell phone which had four numbers programmed in, and he called me when he got home every day. There were multiple houses in the neighborhood where he could go if there was a problem. I expected to be judged, but I never was. He handled it fine. I know allow him (at 13) to watch his 7 year old brother for an hour or two at a time. I can expect to come home to a mess, but we've never had anything bad happen. I know it's because my children are responsible, and our expectations are very clear.

  24. I've been letting my 10 year old son stay alone for up to an hour or so by himself (his 7 year old sister comes with me) and I think it has helped him mature. He knows the rules and apparently follows them (because he didn't even answer the phone when I tested him by calling!). Honestly, I'm going to be more wary of letting him stay home when he's in his teens.

  25. I love it when you guys prove me wrong.

    Thanks for the support and the thoughtful insights. It just goes to show how much of my fear is in my own head. And if anyone out there is feeling judgy but keeping quiet about it ... thank you. That's a big step in the right direction.

    We're all entitled to our own opinions .. it's what with do with them that counts.


  26. as a latch-key kid from the age of 6+, i can definitely say that if she's a mature 8+, there are no harsh judgements from me. :) my son is nearly the same age as Greta, and i can honestly say that he isn't ready for that step yet. i have a hard time getting him to play by himself in our fenced in back yard while i watch him from a window.

    a mommy-group of mine actually just had a similar discussion, and while there were definitely a wide range of comments and opinions, it was a surprisingly tame discussion. overall, it appears that 8 years old is definitely the cusp of the "being ready" age... some kids are mature enough (like Greta) and some aren't but will be soon. (like my son)

    i totally understand the fear, though... i don't think i'm quite ready to surrender that part of my son's childhood yet.

  27. Great post, and a topic I deal with all the time in my work with children and families. In MA, there is no law regarding specific age, but there are guidelines that recommend "no child under the age of 12 be left home alone." And the guidelines seem to only address the child staying home, not whether or not a younger child can be in his/her care (eg is it legal for a 9 yr old to babysit?~ I get asked that all the time and there's no clear answer because I know some 9 yr olds who would be great, and I know some 15 year olds I wouldn't ask to care for a stuffed animal).

    I suspect the guidelines exist in the event there's ongoing neglect DCFS has something to investigate. The occasional 10-20 mins alone is by no means neglect, but in some situations I think it could be argued that 4-5 hours a day for a 7 yr old to be alone would be neglect, for example. Therefore, while it is not illegal to leave a child under the age of 12 home alone in MA, all the state agencies (DCFS, etc), tend to use age 12 as the guideline for when kids are allowed to be on their own.

    I also think the short bouts of being trusted home alone are so important for building self esteem, sense of mastery and accomplishment, responsibility, trust, and showing a child you recognize his/her growing independence and maturity Like with so many parenting decisions, it's all about the "it depends."

    When I was 9 I used to walk about a half mile on my own to go buy candy, and my parents had no idea I'd left the neighborhood. ;-)

  28. feel better, ellie!! you did fine!! i was the saaaaame way....and finally left my 10 yr old home alone for a few mins when he was 8...with the SAME instructions! and i did make sure a trusted neighbor was home whom he could run to if he needed. (or if I needed her to sneak over and look through the window!;) relax! greta sounds ready for a few minutes alone!!

  29. I am not going to read the comments now, just respond for myself: I let my 9 year old stay alone for up to 30 minutes. And I am afraid to hit publish too.

  30. While my daughter isn't old enough to stay home by herself by any standard, she did play in our fenced-in yard by herself over this past summer for up to 10-15 min at a time. She's currently 20 mos old, by the way. I plan on letting her stay home alone for short times as soon as she shows the maturity to do so. I don't really remember when my mom first started letting me stay home alone for short times, but I think it was pretty young, Greta's age or so. My grandmother lived 3 houses away, and we were very close with the older couples living on either side of the house, so it wasn't much of a safety concern in our very crime free rural neighborhood.

    Through my own personal experience, the anonymity of the internet allows us as parents to enter into discussions and insult matches that we wouldn't dare engage in with a person who was actually standing there. While you have personal friends who will read this article and discuss it with you face to face, most people who comment on the article or post on forums or other blogs will never see you, have no idea where you are, and have no direct contact with you. In the right group of people, as there seems to be on this blog, it can be amazingly supportive to have total strangers tell you that you made the right decision. With the wrong group of people, as seem to be on a lot of the parenting websites out there, it turns into a serious mud-slinging, insult-throwing down-and-out "you're a horrible parent because..." fest. That can be so disheartening, as it makes you doubt yourself even more, and makes you even more concerned about asking questions or for advice.

    Another thing that I think makes us leery as parents to ask about these issues is the news media. All you see on the news are stories about how this parent has been arrested for neglect because he left his kid at home alone for 15 minutes, or that parent has been arrested because she allowed her child to walk to the park alone. It's terrifying, and it makes us suspect everyone of being unsafe. Unsafe to leave our children with, unsafe to confide in, unsafe to ask advice from. After all, you never know who is going to call child services on you because your kid might have gotten hurt while you were gone. While the reality is that most other parents are also wondering the same things you are, and doing the same things you're doing, the worry that you might talk to that one parent who will turn you in even though you're a great parent is so pervasive.

  31. LOVE this post (and your blog ... I'm kind of a lurker), especially the last two paragraphs. Have been debating the same with my 9 yo daughter. As others have said, I think it depends on the kid, the maturity level, and other factors. I think you definitely made the right decision ... and I thank you for opening up this can of worms.

  32. I'm with Carrie. I was babysitting a few weeks before I turned 11 (afternoon, next-door to my parents!) and the first time I remember being left home alone was when I was 10 and my mom went to pick up my dad at work ... maybe 30 min ... so I stayed home with my three brothers (8, 6, 3). Ironically, I was never left ALONE at home until I was at least 16 and I remember my mom being nervous about that. I could see her point - even a 5 year old can call 911 or run to the neighbour if the baby sitter falls down the stairs.

    I was never worried about being left to babysit - starting at about age 12 - but MY parents would have been the first emergency number dialed, especially in the days before cell phones.

    I also agree that some kids are ready for this much younger than others. However my "wildest" brother would always be 100% responsible if he was in charge of someone else but didn't make the best choices for himself alone.

  33. Hi Ellie, de-lurking to comment, should've done so a long time ago! I love your writing, your courage and the gifts you bring to the community.

    I totally agree with everything you wrote. But I can't do it. I am now stuck in fear because a year ago, our home was broken into when I was gone for 16 mins. I came home with my litle girl to a ransacked house. 16 mins.

    Now I am paranoid. If I leave my almost 9 yo alone for a few moments, the doorbell rings, he doesn't answer, maybe they will think no one is home and crash in.

    I know I will have to leave him alone at some point, and he is very responsible too. It is my own fears I need to get over. Not what he or anyone else thinks or feels.

    Just adding another perspective... No idea what the answer is though..

  34. True, true, true - we are so "judgy" - I can't believe how many times I thought or even said, "I would NEVER do that..." and then, lo and behold, I did it. We don't walk in anyone's shoes but our own. As far as staying home alone..I babysat other people's children at age 9. It's all relative. There is no one right answer to anything. You are an amazing brave woman. We all need to speak our truth so that no one is scared to.

  35. P.S. I was a school social worker and some of the teachers I worked with would get all upset about 3rd, 4th and 5th graders going home to an empty house after school. Many of their parents worked and were home within an hour of their children. I had to talk the teachers through this - that this is NOT neglect. If you tried to call this into to social services they would laugh you off the phone.

  36. Wonderful post! Good for you.

  37. Michelle -

    I'm sorry about your break-in. I can't imagine how terrifying and violating that would feel. And this example speaks to the heart of the dilemma - how little we can actually control, and where the line is between being owned by fear and being cautiously cautious (if that makes sense).

    What happened to you could happen to anyone; and it's this sort of thing that keeps parents everywhere guessing about the "right" thing. I think with situations like this, time is the biggest healer of all. You'll know in you heart, I believe, if/when you're ready.


  38. Thank you, everyone, for your support and your thoughtful comments. I appreciate each of them so very much.

    What is beautiful about this, to me, is how it illustrates how we CAN support each other, even if we're not in total agreement about the issue.

    Parenting is a blind learning curve, for me. There is no way I'm going to get it all right, and I try to trust my instinct, not live in fear (of danger or judgment) and err on the side of practical caution... when we come together to lend our hears and voices to each other, we ALL grow, and learn.

    The freedom of being able to talk about vulnerability, talk about fear, allows me to stay open and teachable, intead of closed and defensive. Thank you for helping me remember that support and goodness are everywhere.


  39. That was lend our "hearts" and voices, not our "hears and voices". Type slower, El.

  40. Great post! What a fun, universal topic. Check out this website if you haven't already, and check out the "why free range?" section:

    We all have cell phones, and if a child is mature enough to call Mom on her cell or answer the house phone when caller ID says Mom, the child is probably old enough to stay home alone for 8 minutes (or longer). Our kids are never really out of touch from us, even when they're home alone.

    My son reads a lot of Calvin and Hobbes, and the first time I left him home alone (also 8 1/2 yrs old) he called my cell phone and said, "Mom, where do you keep the matches?" I'm so glad I'm raising him with a sense of humor!

  41. I love this. I have agonized over similar things. I hate the feeling when I realize that more than being worried about my kids' safety, I'm worrying about what other people think about my parenting.

  42. Leaving them home alone seems hard and it is. Harder still is watching them drive down the driveway alone the first time... this is why we do all of this parenting stuff in stages... If we had to do it all at once, we'd simple croak!