Yesterday, Jane (9) had a play date with a little girl who came to our house. They were engaged in completing their homework so I left them alone for about 20 minutes while I ran to pick up my older daughter, Ana (12), from school.
While driving back from Ana's school, I got a call from the little girl's mom who was noticeably upset that her daughter was home alone with Jane at my house.
I felt a little blindsided by her reaction and, naturally, feel terrible. More because I feel like I was negligent in not telling this mother that I planned to leave her daughter alone for a few minutes than anything else. We've been letting Jane stay alone periodically for about nine months now--just during short trips while I run to get Ana or dog food. She's almost ten years old (Oct. 11), she knows all the rules about answering the door and what to do in an emergency. I didn't even think about speaking to the other parents about this. That's the chief thing I feel badly about.
I asked my friend Tiff about this. Tiff understands my Southern roots, but she's very much a Northerner so she explains things to me, especially when I have a blind side. She said, "I think this must be a regional thing. I remember a while back you saying something on your blog about unfounded worry about leaving Jane home alone and I was very surprised. I never left any of my kids home alone until they were ten, and then it wasn't for more than half an hour and only when I was going somewhere in the neighborhood and could be home within five minutes if anything came up. It wasn't until they got toward the outside end of eleven that I'd actually leave them home alone for a couple of hours, and if [my daughter] had a friend over and I went out I'd call the parents and make sure it was okay to leave them alone up through 7th grade. When she was in 3rd-5th grade, I had other parents call me a few times to ask whether it was okay to leave her with her friend's older sibling who was 12 or 13, too. I think maybe the norm is different from place to place based on...I don't know? General sense of danger that comes from your atmosphere? How sheltered kids in general are? I read this before I left work and I've been thinking about it on and off since and I haven't been able to think of a single person around here that I can ever remember having left a child under ten home alone for more than maybe a five minute emergency dash to the pharmacy or something like that. I've always gotten the impression from what you wrote that Texas is kind of a gentler, less aggressive environment where you can better count on your neighbor (or maybe even a stranger on the street) to be available if a child needs something and I wonder if that isn't the root of the difference."
I do think this might be another North meets South thing. (Maybe.) It might also be kid-specific. Jane is so smart and capable and we've drilled the protocol into her. Really, Jane is so trained that when I go get Ana, if she has chosen to stay home, I get at least one call from her asking for permission for something. (Yesterday, she called to ask if she and her friend could have some gummi bears.) Also, maybe it's location specific? Our house is on the top of the hill that no one, not even the delivery people, wants to come up. We're in a neighborhood that actually has less crime than our neighborhood in Austin, and no violent crime or kidnappings or anything at all.
I wonder if this is one of those things where our fears don't necessarily coincide with reality? As you know if you'd read this blog for any length of time, I try very hard not to be the over-protective mom. It's my natural tendency-- I still don't let Ana go to the mall by herself or with her friends even though I'm pretty sure when I was almost 13, *I* was allowed to go -- and I've worked to make sure Jane has the skills to handle this new independence. (Having said that, I would NEVER leave her if she was afraid or uncertain--she'd just come along. It's my experience that younger siblings grow up a little faster than the oldest and are ready for more independence sooner. ) (Although, I'm pretty sure I started leaving Ana alone for short periods at about the same age, so maybe not.)
(I'll just work all this out in parenthetical phrases for a while, shall I?) (Sheesh.)
I'd like to know where you, my readers, stand on this issue. If you are parents, when did you start leaving your kids at home for short periods? What do you think the chief risks are? Do you think this is a regional thing or a situational thing or a thing that should be decided on a child-by-child basis? Obviously, my biggest culpabilty of all was not letting the mom know my plans --I should have called her before I left the house. For that I am really, horribly sorry and will never make that mistake again. But I don't think I'm going to stop leaving Jane alone for short periods of time occasionally because she's shown she can handle it and it fosters a sense of independence/confidence in her.
I started Googling this issue and came up, as usual, with people who were very virulently on one side or the other about it. Nothing in parenting is every without strong, strong opinions and usually some nasty slings and arrows for people who make different choices. So, I'm very interested in what YOU think --just, you know, be nice about it.