Leaving Siblings Home Alone

Dear Sharon,

My son is 11 and he is pretty certain that he is old enough to chaperone his 9-year-old brother when we go out for an evening. He thinks he’s ready to handle personal responsibility and we’re not agreeing. Many of his friends are in fact being left alone for some reasons, and he complains that we treat him like a baby. What do you think? How does a parent determine these things? He’s ticked off at having a “baby sitter”

Dear Parent,

Requests to be left home alone can be very common at this age as many pre-teens are eager to “spread their wings” and begin to experience the independent spirit of adolescence.

As you mentioned in your question, some parents leave an 11 year old home alone, but leaving two siblings home without adult supervision can be a more complicated decision. Leaving two children means that the older child is taking on “parental roles” for two people instead of just one. The extra responsibility can be a lot to juggle (even if the children disagree) and can exacerbate problems that occur in many sibling relationships (teasing, bossiness, belittling, fighting, etc.)

On the other hand if parents feel their children might be ready to
“baby sit each other” the added trust and respect from adults can in some cases build confidence, increase maturity and end up strengthening sibling relationships.

Your question is obviously not an easy one to answer.

Some parents with more than one child decide to wait until their children are older before leaving them home alone. Parents who decide to do this often think of ways to give the older sibling some personal responsibilities, freedoms or special attention that are not given to the younger one. Others tell their children that they are asking the baby sitter to watch the younger child and to leave the older child “alone”; letting the pre-teen behave like they are in the house by themselves. Recognizing the importance of pre-teen requests even if they are not met can help make a big brother or sister feel a bit more respected and understood

Other parents begin the process of letting their children be home by themselves by trying out a short amount of unsupervised time. These parents often set very clear guidelines for behavior before leaving and make sure there is plenty of food and at least one fun thing to do (one or more activities that will not cause friction of any kind). The parents then phone while they are out to see how things are going. Children’s tone of voice is often a good indicator of what is really going on. It is also important to gauge if their children’s relationship has improved or gotten worse by the time they arrive home.

If all rules are kept, the children seem to have enjoyed each other’s company, and the house is still in one piece many parents feel comfortable trying again for a longer period of time. If any of those conditions are not present they usually decide to keep hiring the baby sitter and wait quite a while before trying again.

If a parent feels their children are doing well without supervision, I often suggest that they only sporadically rely on an older sibling for childcare. The novelty of watching a younger sister or brother can wear off and begin to feel annoying or burdensome if it happens too often. Sibling relationships are usually challenging enough without adding any extra troubles.

The closer parents get to having a teenager the more they are likely to hear the “everyone else is doing it” phrase. In spite of what your teen is saying and what other parents might be doing there are many factors involved in parental decisions. Every family has their own individual personalities and rhythms that no else can fully understand. and most parents know their children better than anyone else possibly could.

You sound like you have a hunch that your sons are not ready to be alone yet. I generally trust parental hunches; good luck as you take your time to figure this out.