The Role of Responsibility
Demanding work schedules, odd-hour jobs and longer commutes for parents can leave the brunt of the day-to-day household chores on their children. Rather than coming home from school to the scent of the evening meal simmering on the stove, some kids face homework, housework and dinner duty. While sharing family responsibilities can be beneficial, how do you set realistic expectations and determine how much your kids can handle?
According to Margaret Rohde Bongiorno, Ph.D., a psychologist in Wheaton, Ill., with expertise in child and parenting issues, striking an effective balance takes preparation, practice and parameters. "It depends on your child and your family and what seems to fit for your family," she says. "Some kids who are 11, 12 or 13 can handle a lot of responsibility and get dinner started and function as nanny or a housekeeper. They are not afraid to be home alone, and follow all the rules that the parents set. Then there are other children who might not live up to those expectations."
Parents need to judge for themselves how much a child can handle by starting with small tasks, Bongiorno says. Begin by practicing a task with a child to monitor his abilities and demonstrate the task properly.
"If a child needs to come home and make sure everything is prepared for dinner, the table is set, and food is defrosted, start teaching them at 7, 8 or 9 years old," she says. "If they are able to handle it with a parent then, they will be able to handle it later on alone. On the other hand, if you try to have them do it with never monitoring them, it is not going to get done right."
Bongiorno also recommends easing into leaving children home alone. "Start by leaving them alone for a half-hour and see how it goes," she says. "The next week try a little more, like leaving them with a younger sibling and see how that goes."
Assign responsibilities as a symbol of maturity rather than punishment to build a child's confidence and self-esteem. "If parents present chores as signs that a child is growing up, they will feel pride in doing [them] and learn the responsibility of taking a task from beginning to end on their own," Bongiorno says.
For Susan and Kerry Florian, purchasing their dream home along the Kankakee River in Illinois two years ago meant longer commutes to work and a shift in their children's at-home responsibilities. Now their three children travel to separate schools and arrive home at different times.
Prior to the move they enrolled their children, then ages 12, 10 and 8, in an American Red Cross safety program offered through their local park district. Their children practiced emergency procedures, role-playing in dangerous situations and telephone safety. "The nice part was that they each got a card saying they completed the program and had a real sense of pride in being certified to stay home alone," Susan Florian says.
While Kerry Florian, a construction superintendent, leaves home at 5 a.m. and his wife, a manager of decision support services, follows her husband at 5:30 a.m. to make their hour-plus commutes to work, the children engage in daily routines of caring for their menagerie of family pets, making breakfasts and lunches, loading the dishwasher and making their beds before school. For safety, they gather in a neighbor's driveway with other children to wait for their respective buses.
After school the children arrive home in 10-minute intervals. They eat, complete homework assignments and then consult the daily list of chores compiled the night before by their mother.
Don't Take Advantage
Be careful to meter out responsibility while letting your children experience being children. "Parents need to look at whether the children are feeling burdened [by the responsibility], because it's really too much or they haven't been taught to take responsibility before," Bongiorno says. "Kids can feel dumped on and used as a workhorse, so you have to show the benefit of doing [the chores], or they will resent it and do the work badly."
Allowing extracurricular activities where possible and providing an allowance for pitching in can quell frustration and show your appreciation.
Regardless of their age, children need limits and guidelines to make them feel safe and keep them out of trouble. Ask yourself: Are there bad influences in my neighborhood? What is our family's security plan? Do other people – good or bad – know my children will be home alone every day? Are these people I trust or people who might take advantage of my child?
Couple those questions with clear house rules on who is and is not allowed in the house when you're not there. "If the neighborhood has lots of kids home alone and they all congregate at one house, trouble can result," Bongiorno says. "You must have rules about friends in the house and friends in the yard and the use of the Internet, video games, TV and music."
The Florians keep their rules simple. "Our house rules are no kids in the house or yard," Susan Florian says. "And they have to call my cell phone the minute they get home."
"Your first child may have no trouble staying at home alone at 10 or 11, while a sibling at the same age cannot do it," Bongiorno says. "You need to tailor your plan by family and by family member."
When siblings are involved, decide whether or not they can stay alone together. "A 13-year-old may be quite capable of caring for other children and staying home alone, but if he doesn't get along with your 12-year-old, it's not a good idea for them to be home together without a parent if they are prone to fighting," Bongiorno says.
On a typical day in the Florian household, Dana, 14, gets the mail, starts the laundry and prepares dinner. Joe, 12, picks up after the dog in the yard and dusts. (Cutting the lawn is only allowed with parental supervision.) Carly, 10, sets the table and helps Dana with dinner by peeling vegetables.
All of the children pitch in with hauling out the weekly garbage and recycling and are responsible for folding and putting away their laundry and keeping their rooms clean.
"Our biggest cleaning day is Thursday – the day we have decided all the laundry will be done so our weekend is free," Susan Florian says. "Dana loves to go to football games on Friday nights, and all of the kids enjoy weekend boating, go-carting and wave-running, so Thursday is the day you'll see everybody whipping it into shape."
For the most part, Susan Florian feels the hectic weekday routine runs smoothly. Says Florian, "We have our occasional bickering, but that's to be expected."