because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Can You Leave Your Kids Alone?

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Muppet Feet by irreverentwidow @ flickr.com

My mother left me alone in our house when I was in 4th grade. She would sometimes make a quick run to the grocery store and I would watch (torture?) my younger brother for about an hour before she came back home with the goods. By 6th grade, I was making pretty good money as a regular babysitter to several neighborhood families. (When I say “good money,” I mean I was making $1/hour to watch up to 3 children – and sometimes even a dog with a bladder problem.) I would typically arrive at 6 pm, make the kids dinner, entertain them, feed the dog, help them get into pajamas and brush their teeth, get everyone into bed and have them sound asleep by the time the parents came home around 11 pm or so! Pretty responsible for an 11-12 year old, right?

Last year, my husband and I started leaving our (then) 9-year old son alone in the house for little chunks of time. We didn’t leave him for very long. Maybe hubby and I wanted to take a walk around the block after dinner or stop and chat with some neighbors. That kind of thing.

Since things went so well, we gave our li’l monkey greater independence this year. Sometimes he comes home from school, and I’m not home. He knows how to get in, how to make his own snack, knows to get his homework done. He might (or might not) practice his piano. He knows not to let strangers in the house. He knows what to say if someone calls on the phone. I’ve been feeling mighty good about m’boy who has morphed into a pretty confident and competent little person.

That said, I’ve been catching a little grief from people who seem to think that age 10 is simply too young to leave a person “unattended” for any length of time.

Most people have heard of Lenore Skenazy. The author of Free Range Kids, she’s the chick who let her 9-year old son Izzy ride the train from Bloomingdales in the middle of Manhattan to their home in Queens without a cell phone (and she wasn’t even secretly following him or anything. She simply believed he could do it.) Was Izzy too young to take the Subway? Hell, he did it!

I’m not even putting my kid on a train or a bus! He’s happy to have a bit of time alone in the house. And I’m seriously wondering, what could happen to my kid in our home? Why is everyone so worried about him? About me? About my parenting skills? After all, my mother trusted me to stay at home and watch my 6-year old brother when I was 9 years old. Think about the first time you stayed home alone? How old were you? Chances are, if you are over 40, you were about the same age.

So I’m curious: When is it okay for a child to stay home alone for the first time? And would you hire a 6th grade babysitter these days?

Toni Flores: A Woman Who Opened Minds

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I first met Professor Toni Flores as a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I was told by an upper-class student, “You have to take Toni,” and so I found myself in Professor Flores’ Introduction to Women Studies class which was filled with many first-year William Smith students. (The class might have even been called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as that was our major textbook.) In her class we discussed things I’d never thought about before: sex and gender, the history of motherhood, feminism and the abortion debate, date rape. She challenged nearly every assumption I’d brought to college and turned it on its head.

Professor Flores in 1980s

As the weeks passed, I had the opportunity to get to know Professor Flores and she asked if I had any interest in babysitting for her, then, two young sons. I remember feeling terribly flattered that this woman, this icon, this goddess with long black hair, could have chosen anyone to watch her children – but she chose me. I felt this responsibility, this honor, as I arrived at Toni’s house. Her house was a little dark inside, but it was immediately obvious to me that her house epitomized her. Everything felt casual. Comfortable. There were no areas that were “off-limits” to the kids. There were artifacts – treasures – from her numerous trips to Mexico scattered about, blankets and lots of throw pillows. And books and books and books.

Professor Flores, late 1990s

At some point, during one of my visits with her children, I remember being in her kitchen (probably getting somebody a snack) and noticing a long line of ants marching directly from Toni’s sugar bowl in the cupboard, down the wall, across the floor and out a wee crack in the far wall.

When she arrived home after her meeting, I thought she might want to know about the bug situation, so I showed her the ants. Unfazed, and – true to her spirit – she crouched down over the little guys and watched them intensely for more than a few minutes. I remember looking at her, studying her, and seeing her smile. I remember the creases around her mouth, the joy she found in watching those little ants. She was able to find so much happiness in the little things. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

During my four years at college, she helped me with many things – personal things – but it is that little moment in her kitchen that I cling to.  Toni Flores, Professor of Women’s Studies and American Studies, died on November 3, 1997, after battling a long illness. Toni wasn’t horrified by life, any of it. She was amused by it, mostly. And I have tried to take that lesson from her.

Who was your favorite teacher, and what do you remember about him/her?