Marguerite Kelly is on vacation. This column originally ran on July 13, 1995.
Q. When is a child old enough to baby-sit for other children, and when is she old enough to care for herself?
My daughter is 11, in junior high, has taken a Red Cross baby-sitting course and been in charge of her 7-year-old brother for as long as an hour at a time.
I think she is mature enough to baby-sit other children as well as herself, but I wonder if I am fooling myself. Can I trust her to do her homework on her own? Am I giving her too much freedom and time? Will she succumb to peer pressures?
A. As much as your daughter begs for more freedom, she needs more protection than ever in the next few years.
Eleven-year-olds face a long year of temptation, just as they do at 13 and 15, and they don't find 12 and 14 so easy either.
It's mighty tough to resist friends and hormones at the same time, especially if there is no grown-up around to help them say no. As mature as preteens and young teens might seem, and as worldly wise, they're usually about 16 before they have internalized their conscience--a jump they can only make after they've been thinking well in abstractions for a year or so. Until then they are sure that nothing bad can ever really happen to them, which leaves parents to do what parents have always done: supervise their children well and pray for good luck.
Your luck is bound to be good if you let your daughter grow up slowly, and yet respect her need to grow.
Although an 11-year-old is too young to baby-sit at night she is at an ideal age to stroll a baby around the park or play with a toddler while his mother takes a nap or a bath.
If your daughter can't find those jobs, she can still get experience if you enlist a high school senior to take her along on a few nighttime sits. A good sitter will teach her to play with the children and read to them, rather than talk on the phone or watch TV.
In a couple of years your daughter will be experienced enough to sit by herself on Friday and Saturday nights; old enough to handle a fussy baby with patience, and mature enough to deal with a fire or an intruder. She will probably never have to cope with these crises, but she shouldn't be tested yet.
And yes, your daughter is too young to stay by herself after school next year, because it would be too hard for her to do her homework all alone, especially if some good friends were banging on the door, begging to come in.
She could be on her own once a week, however, if she has a job to do--like fixing supper for the family or washing the car--and she can be alone at home at 13 if she has a daily schedule of activities to follow every day. It isn't a question of what she can't do, but what she must do.
Besides a weekly dinner to fix, she could have band or lacrosse practice; an extra class; a regular sitting job or a weekly trip to the library to research the week's big assignments. She might even be able to take the bus alone to your office--if you live and work near public transportation--and then the two of you could go out for pizza together and catch up on her life. One-on-one time is often ignored in a family, but your daughter needs to be with you sometimes, and with her dad at other times. Every relationship must be bolstered in special ways.
These adventures will keep her too busy to do homework after school, which is not a bad idea. After six hours in class, most children need a break from the books. She has time to do her homework after dinner, since she shouldn't be watching TV on school nights anyway.
It's better for your daughter to make many small choices, than to be faced with the big ones before she's ready.
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