How well would 'home alone' play at your house?


May 15, 1994|By Niki Scott | Niki Scott,Universal Press Syndicate

Winter's over; spring is here; summer's around the corner. It's a glorious time of year -- unless you're a working parent with a child who thinks she's ready to stay home alone this summer, while you're just sure she won't be ready for at least another five years.

If you're in this predicament, you probably wander off in the middle of your own sentences and mumble a lot to yourself.

"She says she's old enough to be home alone . . . Maybe I should trust her . . . What if something goes wrong -- I'd never forgive myself! . . . Leave her home all summer? With that boy next door? Is she crazy? . . . I have to trust her sometime . . ."

What we all want is a guarantee that our children will take care of themselves this summer without (a) getting hurt; (b) getting into trouble; (c) being bored or lonely; (d) turning into TV and/or junk food addicts; (e) calling us at work every 14 seconds; or (f) making us feel even more conflicted about leaving them than usual.

The trouble is, if we wait until none of these unhappy circumstances can possibly occur, we'll be looking for summer child care for the next -- oh, 15 or 20 years.

The truth is, most children suffer from periodic, temporary bouts of being bored or lonely, turning into TV and/or junk food addicts, needing someone to talk to every 14 seconds, and encouraging their parents to feel guilty about something.

The truth is, children whose mothers are home full-time also get hurt sometimes, and get into trouble sometimes -- as do children who are watched over by caring, conscientious, competent care givers.

And the truth is, there's no one year of a child's life when it will suddenly become clear that he or she is ready to be on his or her own for the first time.

Yet every spring I receive dozens of letters that begin, "My child is 11 [12, 13, 14] years old. She [he] wants to stay home this summer, but I'm not sure if she [he] is ready. Am I being overly protective [worried, neurotic, careful]? When are children old enough to be left on their own?"

There's no mathematical formula that guarantees a child is ready for this step. There's no one moment when we suddenly know -- absolutely and beyond the shadow of a doubt -- that not only is our child ready, but that we are, too.

And to complicate the matter further, our children's readiness to be on their own doesn't run in a straight line. They might be fine at home when they're 12, then hit puberty a year later and not be reliable enough to be out of our sight.

With this in mind, here are a few factors besides your child's age to consider as you decide whether to leave him or her home alone:

* Is your neighborhood safe? Are police patrols visible in the area? Does it seem safe for your child to play outside (or mow the lawn) during the day?

* Are there neighbor kids around who run as a pack -- and is this the kind of pack you'd want your child to run with? There's safety in numbers, as well as danger.

* Are there people nearby who could help your child in an emergency? One single mother I know made a child-watching arrangement with a retired couple living next door and traded labor (the child's) and errand-running for this service.

* Does your child cope well in a crisis? Can he make a reasonable decision about when to call for help and when to work problems out for himself? Can he judge between a critical situation and one that's merely troublesome?

* Does your child have a record of personal integrity and good judgment? Is she generally reliable and honest? Is she used to working out problems for herself? Does she think she's ready to take care of herself?

If you've answered yes to these questions, your child may be ready to stay home alone. If you're still extremely uneasy with the idea, on the other hand, perhaps you can compromise: three or four days per week of child care and one or two with your child on his or her own.

When it comes to your child's basic safety and well-being, the buck stops with you, and your word is the one that counts.

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