As our kids grow older one of the things that we can do is leave the older ones home alone to care for the younger while we duck out. We may go to do the shopping, some chores, a quick visit with a friend, or a coffee date with our husband. It is a freedom for us and a responsibility for our older kids.*
Most families will give the authority to the older child expecting them to keep law and order in the parent’s absence. Though this works, and is appropriate – there are other things to consider before we automatically take this parenting decision.
One of the things I decided early on was that my freedom was not to come at the expense of my children’s relationship with each other. So often when parents leave their kids alone the siblings end up angry with each other. And I didn’t want this. So I decided that unless my kids could maintain a friendship (and a good heart) while I was away I did not leave them at home alone. This meant unless the younger ones could respect the authority I would give to the older ones I didn’t put the older ones in that position. And unless the older ones could handle the authority I was giving them with respect and grace, they were not given it. I wanted things to be harmonious while I was away. This mindset delayed leaving my kids alone at home for a few years.
Be Guided by Biblical Principles
The Bible tells us to submit one to another (Ephesians 5:21) so our children need to know that there are times they do need to follow the advice, encouragement, instruction of another person but this isn’t necessarily dictated to by age.
The Bible also tells us to encourage each other to good works (Hebrews 10:24) and this has been one verse that we have used to help our children in their relationship with each other. There is a very fine line between being bossy and encouraging each other so they have had to learn to check their heart before they open their mouth! But if we are told to encourage one another there is an implied instruction to receive encouragement from our brother/sister as well. This is equally challenging.
Of course we can’t leave the house and just hope for the best. We have to expect our kids to relate to each other like this even when we are in the house. We need to teach our kids to encourage each other, to accept the encouragement, to be humble enough to change their path when someone says something to them, to be brave enough to say something when they see someone do something wrong. If this is normal practice (without your prompting) when you are around, then you can expect that to continue when you are out.
Finally, They are Old Enough to be Home Alone
So there finally came a time where I saw this level of relationship in my kids and so I started thinking once more about leaving them home alone. But the idea of giving the oldest ones complete authority over the younger ones still didn’t sit well with me.
Another principle that we have taught as we helped our kids grow in their relationships with each other was – every person is responsible for their own choices, actions and attitudes. If this was truly the case, then maybe they could be responsible for themselves when I left the house for a short time.
So instead of saying “Josh and Jess are the boss – and you younger two need to do what they say” I started to say:
You are all old enough to make the right decisions yourself while I am away. And yet, God has made us a family where we are to encourage each other to do the right thing. So I want each of you (youngest and oldest) to listen to each other should someone encourage you to think about what you are doing. You are all the boss of yourself. Be responsible.
This left the sense of responsibility on everyone’s shoulders not just the oldest. The oldest is no longer the boss of everyone, instead they are all working together as individuals who are committed to doing the right thing.
Of course as parents we have to make this shift in our instruction and expectation. Our ultimate goal for each of our children is for them to know what is right and to have the inner strength to make decisions in keeping with that. The first way we can test this is by leaving them at home without our presence as this is smaller testing ground than setting them out in public to test their moral conviction.
When things go Wrong (and they will!)
One of the things that has enabled my heart to be comfortable leaving them at home is having a mobile phone. There are times when I left my kids with this encouragement and expectation only to get a phone call because things had gone pear-shaped!
At this point it is easy to simply get them to do the right thing with quick instructions – afterall I’m out ‘enjoying’ myself – but this isn’t the important thing to address. Instead I need to ask them questions to help them see that somewhere along the line their response to their sibling hasn’t been right. When a child phoned me, or would come and talk to me – we always limited our discussion to what they did, not what their siblings did. This consolidated the principle that you are responsible for your own choices, actions and attitudes.
When they called me to talk about something that had gone wrong my go to question was: “Have you done the right thing?” followed by “How have you encouraged your sibling to do the right thing?”
More often than not, the answers to those questions meant the phone call came to an end pretty quick. But generally I would follow up the situation once I got home to make sure that everyone was dealing with their heart issues, and everyone was taking responsibility for not only their actions but also their relationships.
Other questions I could ask:
- Did you listen to the encouragement from your brother/sister?
- Were you willing to be corrected?
- Were you willing to change?
- Was there (or is there) something you need to put something right with your sibling?
These questions deal with the relationship not the issues that made things tense. Most often or not dealing with their heart towards each other fixes the other issue as well.
Be Intentional in Every Family Situation
I remember the day that I decided to leave my kids at home alone for the first time. There was a sense of ‘a deep sigh’ – not because I struggled to be with my kids, but to be in the car with no one talking, to have that thinking time, to be able to get in and out of the shops fairly quickly, and to have a complete conversation with my friend was truly something to be enjoyed! But I am glad I didn’t rush for that pleasure, but instead waited until my kids were old enough – not just old enough according to the law – but old enough in the relational habits, and in the moral habit of personal responsibility and accountability so that this became a positive experience rather than creating even more tension in our family.
But like any behavior you want your child to master – you need to teach, practice, and then give them the responsibility to choose that way. You cannot just leave your child at home with their siblings and expect them to get along and do well – you need to teach and practice for a long while before hand.
Before we leave our children at home alone – we need to make sure they have the skills to do it well.
*Leaving our kids at home by themselves is a individual family decision, and it is shaped by many factors: the law, the neighbourhood and each individual child. Sharing this blog post doesn’t remove your responsibility to be appropriate within the context of your family. I’m sharing principles that are applicable regardless of what age you decide it is appropriate to leave your children at home alone.