Parents reach milestones just as much as their children do.
While kids take their first steps, start the first days of school and eventually strike out on their own, parents can mark their progress helping them get there.
One such moment is figuring out when adolescents are mature enough to stay home alone overnight when their parents are out of town. We faced this decision recently when we wanted to travel to Mexico for my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday celebration.
Our children are now 16 and 18 years old. Both have their driver's licenses, clean driving records, summer jobs and the ability to take care of themselves. Neither of them are the sort to throw wild parties or make irresponsible choices when they aren’t supervised. By 18, a teenager is considered a legal adult. You would think this would be a no-brainer.
Here’s why it was harder than I expected: It’s not the things you worry about that knock you off your feet. It’s almost always the things you don’t expect. I heard some version of this advice in a commencement speech decades ago, and life experience has proven its wisdom time and again. I wasn’t worried about whether they were responsible or mature enough to be on their own for a few days. I was worried about the things I hadn’t even considered.
“What if a tree falls in the backyard onto the house?” I said to my husband one morning while debating whether we should ask someone to check in with them each night.
“We don’t need a babysitter,” my daughter said to me indignantly. My husband said, "I’m sure they will be able to figure it out." He also showed them how to turn the water off in the basement and reset the power -- just in case.
The tumultuousness of the past year and a half made everything feel less stable. The massive disruptions and devastation caused by the pandemic also stoked fear of everything that isn’t in our control. But part of dealing with this constant state of alarm is being able to tame our fears, take reasonable risks and trust our ability to handle whatever comes up.
But had we given them enough practice in responding to the unexpected? I wasn’t sure.
I don’t recall my parents second-guessing themselves when I was first left in charge of my younger siblings. Of course, that was a different era of parenting, when we were given a lot more freedom and responsibility at far younger ages than kids get now. We had years of experience handling spontaneous crises and figuring stuff out without adults hovering around or swooping in to take care of things.
I was probably around 14 years old when my parents left me in charge of my younger siblings for a weekend. An older teen from the neighborhood came over at night so we weren’t completely alone, but she was just a few years older than me. And this was in an era before cellphones and GPS tracking apps.
Nowadays, we are comforted by the Life360 app on our family phones. It’s reassuring to be able to see where they are just in case they can’t respond to a text right away. We ended up taking the trip, although we checked the app nightly, along with sending an occasional text or making a FaceTime call. It was important for me to let them know that I considered them capable. Part of how children develop their self-confidence is by knowing their parents have confidence in them.
The trip was marvelous, and the kids handled themselves just fine at home. No trees toppled over. Everyone rose to the occasion.