In my last column, I wrote about leaving children “home alone” and how to determine when your son or daughter is ready to experience unsupervised time. Our own kids, however, are older teens and have been able to fend for themselves for many years. They can cook, take care of the dogs, and – when reminded – will even clean up after themselves.
In general, our boys are responsible, and recently, we trusted them to be home alone overnight. After some discussion, my wife and I decided our sons were mature enough to go to bed on their own and make it to school without parental oversight.
Although it is an important consideration, deciding when to leave children for 24 hours or more is not a verdict to be made solely based on age. Most municipalities don’t have a minimum requirement for overnights, but check your local laws to make sure you are not violating any statues. Professionally, however, I would recommend that a teen should, at least, be old enough to drive. Everyone will be more relaxed knowing a child can transport himself or herself in case of an emergency.
More important than age, however, is maturity level. If your children are confident being home alone in the evening, can take care of themselves and, in general, make good decisions, then they are, most likely, responsible enough to spend the night at home when mom and dad are away.
If, on the other hand, your teenager is susceptible to peer pressure and struggles to resist the influence of others, I strongly encourage you as parents to find proper supervision. And no matter how self-assured your child is, designated check-in times are the best way to ensure your teenager is safe and in control.
Once this major life-changing decision has been made, talk to your teen about acceptable behaviors. Stress the importance of getting to school on time, attending scheduled practices or school events, and observing the times your teen should be at home. Also, let your kids know that only “approved” visitors are allowed.
Most important, discuss house rules such as curfews and have predetermined consequences for bad decision-making. If a child knows the cost of making a poor choice, he or she is less likely to travel down the wrong path. And make sure your teen knows that he or she is not to announce on social media or tell anyone you are away.
Last, prepare the house. Of course, a well-stocked fridge is essential. It is also, however, important to make sure the house is “safe” by checking smoke detectors, posting emergency numbers for trusted adults in an easily accessible place, and removing inappropriate temptations such a liquor and prescriptions pills.
No parents can anticipate all problems that might occur while they are away. If, however, you trust that you have raised a reasonable, thinking child, then you should trust that your teen is capable of making good decisions. After all, an adolescent who has never been without adult supervision may struggle with managing newfound freedoms when going to college. It is our job as parents to prepare our children to live independently; leaving them home alone is a good first step.
Prior to going into private practice as a psychotherapist and learning-disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator.