Along with pre-adolescence comes many questions and decisions - both from the pre-adolescent and the parent. One of those questions is: At what age is it appropriate to leave a child home alone for an extended length of time (more than an hour)?
We've been experimenting with this for a couple of years with varying degrees of success. Starting with walking around the neighborhood and leaving my boy behind to making trips to the grocery store. The doors are always locked, the dogs are always in with him and I always have my cell phone at the ready in case he needs me. Sometimes it goes smoothly and other times I find myself listening to him prattle on about nothing while I'm trying to pick a good head of lettuce because he's feeling nervous at home.
My later brothers were like that.
Matt was always very adventurous and would take himself for walkabouts as soon as he learned how to walk. He was a master escape artist and sometimes we wouldn't even know he was gone until a neighbor showed up with him under his arm asking snidely if we'd lost something. On his first night home alone, he had the great misfortune of having a black bear hanging out in the backyard. He got Dad's rifle out in case he needed to shoot it, but it moved on peacefully. It was, however, some time before he stayed home alone again.
Mom thought that James had a better handle on this. Later she found out that as soon as her taillights disappeared around the bend, James was on the phone with "Warm Friends" - a phone service that was available to children home alone and scared. He wouldn't hang up until Mom was pulling back into the driveway.
Matt and James, though in my "generation", had a different childhood than I did. The world was already changing then.
I don't remember this being a big issue when I was a kid. When I was ZBoy's age, I was babysitting my brothers regularly (3 of them at the time) and just beginning to babysit other people's kids at night - some of those kids being new babies. It wasn't scary - it was an adventure. And if I needed help, I could call someone or just go next door.
I guess it's not really like that anymore. Stranger-Danger has been drummed into the heads of kids so hard that they're afraid to play in their front yards anymore for fear of being snatched or killed in a driveby shooting. People don't always know their neighbors, though we've been here long enough to have a passing acquaintence with ours. When we first started leaving ZBoy home alone, he was greatly comforted by the sheriff's deputy who lived across the street at the time. Now he's gone and we don't really know the people across. But the other four houses around us have people he can ask for help if he needs it. Still, Z is very nervous about being left alone.
I don't really worry about him too much. His sense of self-preservation is acute. He won't be doing anything stupid and he's had enough self-defense classes to put a serious hurt on anyone who would try to harm him. The problem is in his head, and I've been trying to empower him in this area. He takes the dogs for walks around the neighborhood on his own. Every thing he does successfully on his own re-enforces the idea that he can take care of himself.
Yesterday, I was at a friend's house taking care of her dog. Z was home with his dad, but Darling Man needed to get to work, so he left the boy home alone when he knew I was about to head that way. Z would be home alone for about 45 minutes. I talked to him on the phone and he was feeling quite cheery and confident.
When I got home, there were three teenaged girls standing on my front porch. They were from a "community house" in the neighborhood and as a fundraiser, were selling dinners door to door. They'd take the order, go back to the house, cook it up and deliver it back to you. At $7.50 a pop for a dinner that consisted of chicken parmesean, broccoli and corn, garlic bread, a piece of pie and a drink, that sounded like a deal to me. I ordered three. There were choices to be made, and since I knew Z was inside, I unlocked the door to ask him what kind of drink and what kind of pie he wanted.
The dog noses came out first. Revan and Kida had been standing silently behind the front door waiting to see what was going to happen and ready to attack if the wrong person came through that door. I reassured them it was me, then looked up the stairway to yell for the boy. Before a sound came out of my mouth, I saw him standing a third of the way up, baseball bat clutched tightly in his still boy-ish hands. By then, he'd had a chance to realize it was me and non-chalantly said, "Oh... it's you. Hi, Mom!"
He was a little pale under his freckles, but otherwise okay. It made me wonder - are we pushing this too fast? Or did he just demonstrate that he was quite capable of taking care of himself?
I have a feeling this won't be the last time I question things like this.