I am frequently asked by parents “At what age is a child ready to ____________?” The blank may be “stay home alone” or “use the stove unsupervised” or “go to the mall with friends.” During one such conversation recently, a child client piped up and stated
You know, not all 11 year olds are created equal. (Ellie, age 11)
A truer statement has never been spoken! Ellie and her parents had been struggling to find limits and privileges that were comfortable to all. Ellie, at 11, definitely did not feel comfortable staying home alone after dark, something her parents were eager for her to do, but she wanted the freedom to walk around the mall or the downtown area of her suburban Philadelphia town with friends. She was baffled by her mother’s insistence that she not bake brownies unless a parent were in the kitchen with her.
There is no simple answer to the “When-is-a-child-old-enough-to-_______?” conundrum. If there were, families would not be sitting in my office asking the question. If it were simple, then parents would receive consistent answers from all those they go to for advice (as well as the folks who offer advice unsolicited). Fortunately, there are a couple of questions I ask to help parents and children come to an agreement about readiness, no matter what is in question.
First, I ask the child or adolescent how ready she feels to take on the new challenge. If she says, with confidence, that she is ready, then I move on to the parents. If there is any ambivalence in her response, we talk it through. Often, a lack of confidence simply reflects the uncertainty that comes with lack of experience. Other times, though, as we explore the uncertainty, it becomes clear that the youngster isn’t quite ready after all. With her parents sitting quietly and listening, here’s how the conversation with Ellie went:
E: Lots of my friends go to the mall without their parents but my parents think I’m too young. I’m practically twelve.
Me: You’d like for your parents to let you go with your friends. You would feel comfortable at the mall with a bunch of your sixth grade friends.
E: Yea, I think so.
Me: You think so? Sounds like you may not be entirely sure.
E: Well, I’ve seen some pretty rough kids hanging out there.
E: Yea. They kinda scare me.
Me: You would be uncomfortable if you were at the mall with your friends and you ran into these rough kids that hang out there?
Me: So what would you do?
E: I don’t know.
It became clear pretty quickly that Ellie is not quite ready for this particular freedom. I then invited her parents into the discussion. Mom was ready with an offer to take Ellie and some friends to the mall. She offered to stay at the mall, reachable if needed by cell phone, and to give the girls some time to shop without her. This would allow Ellie to determine, through experience, her readiness to take this step alone.
The conversation about baking brownies went very differently. Again, Mom and Dad sat quietly and listened.
E: They don’t think I’m responsible enough to cook by myself.
Me: You want to be allowed to cook without your parents around.
E: Yea. I know how to cook. Mom taught me. I don’t need help and I don’t need supervision.
Me: You are absolutely sure that you can handle the responsibility.
Me: Okay, Mom and Dad, Ellie sounds very confident that she is ready to cook on her own. What do you think?
M: I worry about her burning herself or forgetting to turn off the oven.
Me: Any ideas, anyone?
D: I say we let her try it, but when we’re in the house. If nothing goes wrong, and I don’t think it will, then Ellie, you can start baking when no one is at home.
All were able to agree to this plan. The harder part came during the discussion about staying home alone in the evening. Even though Ellie had no trouble being home alone during the day, she became anxious as soon as the sun went down. This was a problem for her parents because they wanted the freedom to go out on the weekends with friends. Ellie balked at babysitters. Mom and Dad had made a few unsuccessful attempts to leave Ellie alone while they went to dinner, but each time, she had ended up calling them in tears. Here’s how the conversation went, again with Ellie’s parents sitting quietly and listening:
E: I wish they would stop pressuring me. It freaks me out to be at home alone in the dark.
Me: You don’t feel ready to stay home alone at night and you feel like Mom and Dad are putting too much pressure on you.
E: Yea. I don’t see what the big deal is. A lot of my friends don’t stay home by themselves at all, even in the daytime.
Me: You think it’s pretty typical for someone your age to be uncomfortable staying home alone at night.
E: Yea, don’t you?
Me: Well, Ellie, you said yourself that not all 11 year olds are created equally. I think some are totally ready, some are getting there, and some are just not ready yet. You are just not ready yet.
E: Right, but Mom and Dad still insist on leaving me alone so they can go out to dinner.
Me: Mom and Dad, what are you thinking about this? Ellie is absolutely clear that she does not want to stay in the house alone at night.
D: We actually never said she had to stay alone. We are happy to continue to get a sitter to stay with her.
Me: Ellie, what do you think of that plan? Mom and Dad won’t leave you alone at night just yet as long as you will agree to staying with a sitter.
E: It’s embarrassing to have a babysitter when you are almost 12 years old.
Me: You feel embarrassed that you need a sitter.
Me: Which is better – to stay alone or to have a sitter – just until you do feel comfortable staying home alone after dark?
E: A sitter, I guess, but I would rather my parents just stay in for now.
M: But that’s not fair to your dad and me. We need to spend time with friends. I agree with Dad, though, I’m happy to stop pressuring you to stay alone when we go out as long as you won’t give us grief about hiring a stiiter.
E: Okay, whatever.
It is probably pretty obvious that Ellie and her parents have excellent communication and problem-solving skills. This wasn’t always the case. It took a lot of weeks of therapy to get them to this point. The family actually came to therapy because Mom and Dad were having trouble making the transition from parents of a little girl to parents of a preteen. Ellie had become sullen and sassy, and her parents were afraid this meant something was seriously wrong with their daughter, who had always been cheerful and eager to please. Therapy consisted of parent education about what is “normal” young adolescent behavior, the establishment of clear behavioral limits that made sense for a preteen, and communication skills training to help Mom and Dad shift from a somewhat authoritative parenting style to a more collaborative one. When this family left therapy, I was confident that they would go through this challenging developmental phase (for Ellie and for Mom and Dad) with relatively little pain and stronger parent-child relationships on the other side.
[NOTE: Names and all potentially identifying information has been changed.]