This summer, my 9-year-old son lets himself into our apartment after getting off the camp bus. He goes upstairs and plops his stuff down and calls me at work. I get home within an hour, so he’s not home alone for very long. He says he’s fine. He says he can handle it. His friends ask their parents why they aren’t being left home alone. He’s only cried twice.
Don’t ask how many times I’ve cried. How many times I’ve questioned the wisdom of this decision (which, honestly, has been based on monetary concerns but also factored in that he’s a very responsible boy who has handled being home longer than this—it’s the letting himself in part that makes me somewhat concerned). My son is self-reliant for his age. And he handles this responsibility with bravado. He has his own cell phone now—so he can call me when he gets home or I can call him while he’s on the bus. He empties his backpack daily and puts his wet towel and swimsuits in the dryer. He lies on the couch and watches television. It all sounds so innocuous.
Yet I feel torn. Am I growing him up too fast? Am I giving him responsibility that’s too old for his years? I know other 9-year-olds who are as independent, yet I know many more who are never left home alone—EVER!!!! And I don’t feel that’s right either. Kids need to start learning some form of independence, of being separated from mom and able to do stuff on their own. I’ve started this process slowly—leaving the house for 5-minute intervals, then lengthening those, then going to an evening meeting at my local synagogue.
But it was the two times that he cried, that he got scared because he couldn’t get in touch with me (once I didn’t hear the phone and once I was on the subway) that did me in. That raked me over the mommy coals and made me question my—our?—decision. This isn’t something I imposed on him. This is something we talked about and talked about and talked about—and still talk about. We considered various scenarios and he—we?—decided that he was able to handle this. So long as he could get in touch with me. He has the phone numbers of numerous friends and neighbors programmed into his phone, but there’s the embarrassment factor. He couldn’t call Dylan’s mom—he’d be too embarrassed, even though Dylan is never left home alone and when his mom drops Marshall off after picking him up from the bus of camp #2 (which doesn’t do door-to-door drop-off and pick-up as camp #1 does), she makes him talk to her on the cell phone while he goes up to the apartment in the elevator and locks the door.
Add into the mix that we’ve talked about afterschool in the Fall. He goes to the local Y, but we’ve—I’ve?—agreed that he can come home on Fridays by himself and left himself into the apartment. He still says he wants to do it, that he’s not afraid. But maybe I’m a little afraid. Afraid that he’s growing up too fast, that he’s 9 years old but taking on the responsibility of someone much older. Then, just to cap things off, I talk about getting a babysitter for the six nights a year I go to theater. And he looks at me and says, “Why do I need a babysitter? I can put myself to bed.” I calmly explain why that isn’t an option.
Am I growing him up too fast? I think back to my own childhood and realize I was walking to and from school by myself from first grade on. Were times all that different? I’m not sure. But my mom didn’t work when I was in grade school. When I got home, she was there. I’m newly re-employed after 13 months of unemployment. So much happened—so many transitions occurred for a boy who doesn’t like transitions—at the same time: I got a job, he started camp and started letting himself in, then my brother and his family came to visit from Israel and my nieces were staying in our apartment—in Marshall’s room, which meant he was displaced and had no place to call his own for two weeks—and then he started a new camp for two weeks. All events that make a person’s head spin.
I think he’ll be okay. I know he’ll be okay. But I want him to be able to say, “This isn’t working.” And at one point he did. When he cried the second time, I asked him if he wanted to go to Laura’s house after coming home from camp for the rest of the week. And he did. But now he’s back at camp #1 and letting himself him. And I have to be ready at 4:35 to answer his call. I wear my cell phone and make sure the volume is turned up.
Would I be going through this, I wonder, if I weren’t single? Maybe. If I made more money? Maybe. Am I growing him up too fast? Maybe. Is this working? Maybe. But for now, this is the way it is in our family. And for the most part, it’s working. Maybe we’re both growing up a little too fast. Maybe he’s evolving at exactly the right pace for him and I’m reacting like a typical mother—worrying that he’s growing up too fast. We’ll have to see how it all pans out and realize that no decision is ever irrevocable.