My eldest child, who is 7, likes to be alone.
He is a homebody, as I was when I was his age. This past week, he asked if we could please plan a day of summer vacation to just stay home and not run any errands. In fact, he’s been asking me if I can let him stay by himself while I do little things around the neighborhood (laundry pick-up, library book return) for over a year now and I’ve been hard-pressed to find a reason why he can’t.
He’s responsible, he’s bookish, he’s a rule-abiding citizen of the family. I could leave and be gone an hour and he might never even notice, so deep does he go in his books.
But still, it made me nervous to let someone so young stay home by himself, even for a few minutes -- which is why I’ve been insisting that he accompany me (along with his younger brother and sister) to the laundromat around the corner and to the library a few blocks away.
I worried that someone might buzz our apartment and he might absent-mindedly let them in, or that there might be some sort of difficulty he didn’t know how to handle, or simply that he would let his mind wander to dark places (as mine often did when I was a kid) and I’d come home to him in tears from thinking of all the bad things that might have happened to his family between our apartment and the Wash’n’Dry.
If I’m being completely honest, I was worried the neighbors might think I was being neglectful and I’d get an unexpected visit from Child Protective Services.
On the other hand, I do think that being comfortable in solitude is an important ability to have. Learning how to simply be alone and content -- not anxious -- is, perhaps, a neglected skill. Which is why Phase 2 of our “Summer of Independence” focused on just that.
The goal was for him (and me) to be comfortable by himself in and around our apartment. We needed to cover things like knowing the rules for being home alone (no answering the door, no TV or video games), knowing who and how to call if necessary since we don’t have a house phone (a quick FaceTime lesson on our iPad took care of that), and being able to handle the responsibility of going to get the mail by himself.
My first step, of course, was to consult the rules. Legally speaking, was it OK to leave my 7-year-old by himself?
In my case, in New York state, the answer is yes. There is no law dictating how old a child has to be before you can leave him alone, although the CPS website does offer some helpful guidelines: “Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. ... Parents and guardians need to make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters.”
Knowing that legally I was in the clear (and would be able to say that to any nosy neighbors) lifted a huge burden, but almost as important was the conversation I had with Holly Schiffrin, psychology professor and researcher at the University of Mary Washington who specializes in helicopter parenting.
“Kids who aren’t given the chance to do things on their own feel less competent,” she told me.
We talked a lot about competency, and about how parents are often so involved in their kids lives that they, in essence, rob them of the opportunity to develop the confidence they need to do things on their own -- which can carry over into their adult lives.