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Challenge: Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

Teen freedom: How we decided when it was OK to leave our kids home alone

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When is old enough? What is the right age? Is this okay?

These are the most commonly asked questions in our house when it comes to the kids and the things. Typically, the answer doesn’t really matter as we rarely come across events that are truly life and death. Or at least we haven’t in the past. When we threw ‘drive a car’ into the hat, those questions were governed by the government. Any mishaps and the onus was on the DMV, right? Full disclosure: At the exact time of this writing, I’m planning how hard to smack our driving child for the peel out performed at the end of our driveway this morning (not a real smack, hang that phone up...child services will again be disappointed by the lack of real meat here). Of course, then I think about my free range childhood and note the many moments in which my siblings and I were given too much rope by today’s standards. We survived with minimal scarring. Why am I so leery of giving my own children the same rope? Is it because I was raised to figure it out while they live in more of an every answer is at our fingertips time? Probably, our confidence in them actually figuring it out is not very high on most days. Or when they do figure it out, we then become the pushers of follow through.

Anyway.

Ask either of my children what our home’s benchmark is with regards to parental decision making and they will likely answer: How will it read in the newspaper? I take extra pride in this because I’m not sure they’ve ever experienced the black smudges left on their hands as a result of having to physically manipulate the news. Still, this is our standard. If something goes sideways in our home, exactly how will it be portrayed in the newspaper (and on websites and news channels and in games of gossip-down-the-lane in the following days)? Why did we blow off the career goals of a five year old budding chef? “Home burns to the ground after parents force children to scramble their own eggs.” Why are we annoyingly insistent on status checks when the kids are not within sight? “Teenager declared a vagrant three days after leaving home as parents show no interest in her whereabouts.” Why did we ask (demand?) they not brag about doing their own laundry at a young age? “All blood found rushed to tweens head after a fall into the washer while parents had cocktails on the porch.” Why have we pushed off and pushed off and pushed off extended home-without-supervision time? “Big Foot gobbles up terrified siblings during an overnight alone...parents likely alerted Sasquatch Squad when cheering their way down the driveway and onto an adults only night out.”

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It is terrifying to finally be emptied of reasons not to leave a child home-without-supervision for the very first time. Not the I just ran to Target type. Not even the We had date night type. The We’re going to a sleepover and we’re the only two people going type.

With our eldest, the magic number was sixteen.

If you are thinking my child will never be left overnight alone thank you very much, I know….right? Same. This question first popped up when our eldest was thirteen and became a regular conversational insertion in the three years that followed. My advice? Plan your strategy now. But remember, as you are planning, your child will remember your first response verbatim for the rest of time. Our initial response was When you can drive. Genius. High parenting five. When you can drive was years away, right? Said child would forget that statement long before it got here. Right?

Wrong.

In our parent logic heads, sixteen worked because the kids would have an ability to drive to the hospital, if needed. For instance, if zombies attacked. It would also give them a method to collect food (this was before the glory days of grocery delivery). They would be able to go to school. Or the Minute Clinic. Or search for their long lost parents who they likely would not even realize were well overdue for return. When that plastic piece of freedom was finally handed to our child, we had little choice but to follow through on our well-remembered word. We opted for a quick overnight at a very local hotel (which was perfect) and spent most of that overnight wondering if things were fine at home (which was not perfect).

As it turned out, no parents meant no real change to the low level of nighttime activity in our home. One child stayed planted on the couch watching YouTube videos on the big television. The other child stayed planted on his gaming chair, exceeding his normal allotted online time but still without an all-nighter as his friends all logged off at their bedtimes. It went well enough that we became less nervous about a night or two away without the kids a few times a year.

Except then that child went off to college and ruined it. How dare she? That came out wrong. That worked very well when we had that third driver’s license under our roof. When she went off to college, we found ourselves left with a fourteen year old and no third driver’s license. The departure of the first child coincided with a lessening desire in the second to spend weekends at his biomom’s. What the heck? How were we supposed to escape? Wait, was this how normal, non-blended families did it? Were we becoming regular parents with no off weekends? All the time? Forever? We’ll be fine...

And we were. Nary a complaint. Just kidding. We complained. Quietly. To ourselves. In a joking manner. But also not. We then went through a span where our eldest, college-ing locally, was given house duty and it did not go as well as we’d have liked. It went as well as when we (the parents) were teenagers, slipping in our friends through the side door and brushing off our promises to be responsible. No real judgement, kid, we’ve been there. But it did leave us (the parents) with the need for another option which typically meant praying to St. Jackson of Tired Parents that the stars would align and both kids would have out of house invites on the same weekend. Again, I get it, this is parenting. Having at least one child home at all times is on the sign up sheet. Kids breaking the rules is parenting. But when you add in that How will this read in the newspaper in today’s culture? We were less enthused. Mishaps had the potential of blastings from other parents, shaming from neighbors, and articles about how an innocent night out was the biggest mistake ever made by any parent anywhere for all of time.

We stayed put for months.

But then we (Rich and I) had a span of bad weeks. Not bad in the fighty, grumpy, not getting along as a couple sense (at first). Bad in the we have got to go decompress sense. After a few weeks of struggling, we landed with a bang at the fighty, grumpy stage of needing a break. On a random Wednesday, we snapped back and forth at each other throughout the day - sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, sometimes justly, most times not. We went to bed pissed. We woke up pissed. Then we both looked at each other and opted to pull the plug - we booked a hotel for the following night knowing that it would mean leaving our fifteen year old home alone.

We immediately started second guessing our decision while simultaneously preparing a long talk for our youngest. We really should have just bailed on our lives right then for all the work we missed in going back and forth to each other’s home offices for assurance that this was the right thing to do. When the boy came home from school, we laid out the plan - which was met with excited eyes (odd, it was almost like he wasn’t going to miss me). We would be gone when he returned from school the following day, would that be okay? Eye roll (fair, it’s a normal event). Did he want me to make him something for dinner to reheat? Eye roll (kids today...they love their Door Dash...especially when somebody else is paying). He’d have no one to tell him when to go to bed. Okay, no eye roll there...it was more of an eye skip and leap for joy.

And with that, it happened.

Don’t call social services on us. We wrote an extensive guide. And we came back much better people than we were when we left. Sometimes, you really do have to pull the parenting plug to find your parenting zest again. We took the night to not talk about the kids at all - even engaging our Conversation Cards to drive us to unique topics. And the kid survived.

Probably as a result of the laid our rules:

Freedom Friday Agenda:

  • Bring up the garbage cans. Otherwise local vagrants may think that no one was home to bring them up and, therefore, that there are free beds to try out. Oftentimes these vagrants call themselves “Goldilocks” and claim they were lost and hungry.

  • Chores. If the litter box isn’t perfect, the cat will likely call in cat bandits to lay on your face while you sleep. I will have reminded Dad to fill the cat food, but check it anyway.

  • Dog food. Theoretically nothing. Except that whole private dining experience that the older dog prefers.

  • Boy food. Looks like you have big plans for those mashed potatoes (these were labeled as his prior to the weekend).

    • There is also shredded chicken, ramen and a vat of pho that is nearing the end of its shelf life.

    • Yes, yes you can order a reasonable Door Dash and we will reimburse you. Please do not let the delivery person know that you are a bachelor for the weekend. Please do not invite the delivery person in. Please do not let the dogs eat the delivery person. Or the food.

  • Video games. Just kidding. What we don’t know and all that mumbo-jumbo.

  • If the house catches on fire, please make sure you leave. If you have time, also make sure the animals leave. I’ve always wondered if they wouldn’t just head out the doggy door, but based on their smarts…I’m not sure.

  • If Zombies come, please show them to the Zombie food area. Once they are full, show them to the Zombie lotions and soaps area.

  • We will let the neighbors know that you are home alone – if you need anything at all, feel free to reach out to them.

  • We will also let Jenny know that you are home alone – same deal.

  • And Bobbie.

  • Do not reach out to grandma lest you want her to remember this moment of parental abandonment for the rest of your life.

  • Unless you really need her - it’s really okay.

  • As we will be gone for less than 24 hours, I feel like this list is maybe excessive.

  • But… you know.

  • Think of how it will be read in the newspaper.

  • Love

  • You

  • If you get freaked out, just ring us up. Totally not a big deal.

  • Really. It’s fine.

  • I’ll be fine. Everything’s fine.

  • I’m not even going to miss you or be sad or know who to look at to see if they are laughing at my jokes.

  • Much.

  • Burn this paper.

  • But not really – house fires, am I right?

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