The free range parenting movement -- a backlash of the helicopter parenting style that's become typical of the way many in our generation raise their kids -- is abuzz in the media lately. Proponents of free range parenting encourage kids to take on more personal responsibility and to be self-reliant without being under the constant, watchful eye of their parents and caregivers. Opponents disagree with leaving kids unsupervised, insisting that the world is much too dangerous of a place to be letting young kids out of sight. No matter where you stand in the debate, there comes a time when you face the decision to leave your child alone at home for the first time, either because you need to a run a quick errand or because you feel the time is right to create an opportunity for your child to become more independent.
Leaving a child on his own for the first time can make any parent feel a bit anxious. As with many areas of parenting, it requires balancing factors to come to a decision you feel comfortable making. "We want to keep our children safe, avoid potential dangers, and try to protect them from exposure to unwanted influences, but we also want to provide the opportunity for the development of independence, self-confidence, and freedom," says Christine Ramich, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who works with families and young children.
Here are a few tips for addressing and balancing your concerns so you can leave your child home alone, confident and prepared:
• Evaluate and build your child's readiness.
When deciding whether to leave your child home alone, many parents and experts believe it's more about a child's readiness than his age, though most agree that it isn't wise to leave a child under the age of 10 home for an extended period of time. Consider maturity, level of responsibility, and problem-solving and decision-making skills, as well as his comfort and willingness to be alone.
According to Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshman students at Stanford University and the author of a soon-to-be-released book entitled "How to Raise an Adult," it's our obligation to teach our kids how to be alone. "We can start small -- leaving the room for short periods of time when they are toddlers, teaching them to play by themselves -- and continue to be on the lookout for building their competency of being alone by creating 'proactive moments' of opportunity until they feel it's normal and fine to be alone."
• Consider your community and circumstances.
Parents often look at state laws and policies regarding leaving a child unsupervised to help them decide when to leave their child unattended. Many states have no legal age restrictions and others vary considerably -- from age 8 to 14. Just as important as age and your child's maturity, is your environment. Consider how safe your home and community are, whether your child has access to help from emergency services and from neighbors or friends, and also the time of day and length of time you'll be gone.
• Set expectations and establish rules.
Create a set of rules to define your expectations of your child's time alone. These should include guidelines about having friends over, preparing food, computer and television use, and opening the door or answering the phone. Also outline areas or items in the house that are off limits while you are gone. Many parents find that it's helpful to leave a schedule or suggested activity for kids first learning to stay home alone. Just as importantly, be sure that your child knows you feel confident, not fearful, of his ability to be on his own.
• Clearly define what to do in case of an emergency.
Part of determining whether or not your child is ready to be left alone is considering his ability to understand safety and to handle an emergency. Your child should know how to reach you and other emergency contacts, and should know when and how to call 911. Your family's emergency contacts and emergency plan should be printed and stored in an easily accessible place. Discuss and practice what to do in various emergency scenarios so your child can respond with confidence.
• Continue to offer opportunities for building confidence and responsibility.
After doing a few trial runs -- giving your child a chance to be alone for 30 minutes while you are nearby and easily reachable -- gradually work up to longer periods for your child to be on his own. Continue to talk about his time alone, decisions he may have faced, fears or insecurities, and plans for reaching new milestones and gaining more independence.
"Childhood is a training ground meant to offer opportunities for development," says Lythcott-Haims. "From the time they are babies in our arms until we are waving goodbye to them as they leave for college, it's our job to be teaching our kids the skills they need to be on their own," she says. Staying home alone can be a very rewarding, confidence-boosting experience, and an important milestone for your child. With time and practice, the experience will begin to feel more like second nature to both of you.