My husband stood at the kitchen window on Saturday. A warm spring breeze fluttered the curtains. He eyed the blue sky and watched joggers cruise by in short sleeves and shorts. His legs twitched to run intervals. “I think the kids are old enough to stay home alone,” he said. I stopped, fridge magnet in hand, about to pull the grocery list down and stuff it in my purse. My key ring jangled on my thumb.
“I don’t know, babe, what if something happened?” A tumble down the stairs. Smashed fingers. Shards of broken glass. A meteorite. I told him about last summer, when our daughter crushed her finger trying to fold up a wooden TV tray, and the kids couldn’t free her without my help. “She was screaming in pain,” I said. I nodded toward our son. “He was hopping from one foot to the other, wringing his hands, not knowing what to do to get her finger free. They were terrified,” I said.
“Well, we don’t have TV trays anymore,” our son volunteered. He was eager to be left unsupervised.
“But it could be something else,” I fretted. They’re only 9 and 7. And you were only 11 when you started babysitting, my mind meddled.
“I understand,” my husband said, and he hugged me. “But they will have to learn how to handle those kinds of things themselves eventually. If you are always there to rescue them, they won’t know what to do when they’re on their own.”
I wrinkled my brow, knowing he was right, but not able to accept it. I buried my face in his shoulder and hugged him for a while.
All week, I thought about what my husband said. I googled “when are kids old enough to leave alone at home,”¹ researched Virginia state laws² for guidance, tried to anticipate what the kids would need if something bad were to happen while they were alone. And then I took my first step.
“Kiddos, I need to run to the Food Lion. It’s right around the corner. I will only be gone 15 or 20 minutes. Are you okay with that?”
Okie dokie. Guess that answers the “are your children comfortable with being left alone?” question.
“Ok, first the rules.” I walked them over to the fridge and showed them the two index cards there.
“Don’t let anyone know you are here alone without a grown up. If someone knocks on the door, don’t answer it, don’t stand in front of the window. Pretend there’s nobody home.”
The kids nodded, eyes focused intently on me, absorbing every word.
“Same with the phone. If someone asks for me, say ‘I’m sorry, she’s not available right now. May I take a message?’”
“And don’t use the stove.” I recently taught them how to make their own oatmeal, following the directions on the giant canister of oats, so they’ve been using the stove lately. “I’ll only be gone a few minutes, so that shouldn’t be an issue anyway.”
I pulled the emergency information card off the refrigerator and pointed to our cell phone numbers. “If there’s an emergency, call me first. I will tell you if you need to call 911. Here’s our address and phone number in case you do have to dial 911 and you get nervous and forget them.”
I walked them into the living room, pointed out the phone to remind them where it was.
“I made you a first aid kit³.” I crouched down and showed them the shoebox. I looked at our daughter, “Do you think you could decorate this tomorrow with red construction paper and a white cross? Like what the lifeguards wear?”
“Yes,” she smiled, and her eyes glittered. She loves a craft project.
“In here we’ve got band aids, cotton balls, alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, bug bite cream, scissors, bandages, and another copy of the emergency phone numbers.” I rifled through the box. “I need to get us a first aid manual, but this will do for now.”
I stood up and took a deep breath. “Ok, are you okay with this?”
“Yes Mom,” they said.
Our daughter gave me a big hug around my hips. “Thank you for putting the first aid kit where we can reach it.”
I didn’t need to leave them alone. They could have easily come with me. But I wanted to take our first baby step. At the Food Lion, my cell phone read “no service.” I rushed in and out, hoping everything was okay. That they hadn’t tried to call.
I unlocked the door 15 minutes after I’d left and stuck my head inside, grocery bags rustling in my hands. “Is everyone alive?”
“Yes,” our son said around a mouthful of food. He was still where I left him. Sitting at the table, eating a snack, reading the back of the cereal box. Like I’d never been gone.
“Yes!” our daughter yelled from upstairs. She trotted down the carpeted steps, stuffing her turquoise beach towel into her workout bag. “I’m ready for swim practice,” she said. She had suited up and put her bag together while I was gone.
I dropped the grocery bags and hugged her, then held her hand and led her to her brother at the table. “I’m so proud of you both,” I beamed. She beamed back at me. I’m pretty sure our son rolled his eyes.
¹ From When is a Child Old Enough to Stay Home Alone? on the New York Times parenting blog, Motherlode: “The United States Department of Health and Human Services has some guidelines for evaluating both the children and the circumstances under which you’re leaving:
- Are your children physically and mentally able to care for themselves?
- Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
- Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?
- How long will your child be left home alone at one time? Will it be during the day, evening or night?
- Will the child need to fix a meal?
- How often will the children be expected to care for themselves?
- How many children are being left home alone? Children who seem ready to stay home alone may not necessarily be ready to care for younger siblings.
- Is your home safe and free of hazards?
- How safe is your neighborhood?”
² As far as I can tell, there are no minimum age restrictions in the state of Virginia regarding when a child can legally stay home alone. The Richmond Times Dispatch offers similar guidelines as above.
- Antiseptic spray
- Band Aids and *gauze pads
- Scissors, *tweezers, *fingernail clippers
- Cotton balls, alcohol wipes
- Rubbing Alcohol
- Hydrogen Peroxide
- Antibiotic ointment
- Hydrocortisone cream
- List of emergency phone numbers
- *First Aid Manual