Monday, February 4, 2013

On Weaning My Ten-Year-Old

Good. I got your attention. I knew I'd get this title-writing-thang down.

No, I'm not talking about Game-of-Thrones-style breastfeeding until the kid is in middle school. My two oldest were weaned from the breast at a relatively normal age (depending on whom you ask, of course), while still toddlers. And as I mentioned yesterday, my 22-month-old is on the verge of being done.

I'm thinking about a different kind of weaning, but one that is arguably more important: weaning a child from needing his/her parents to do everything for and with him/her. Weaning her from needing to be watched while she's walking down the street, or riding the subway, or using a public bathroom. I'm talking about giving kids freedom and trust, and teaching them independence and self-reliance.

Starting from when Bella and Ruby were about 7 and 5, I would sometimes leave them in front of the television while I popped across the road for some ingredients for dinner. We were living in London at the time, and directly across the street from our terraced house (that's Brit-speak for townhouse, see photo), there was a small grocery shop and a vegetable shop. I told them that their tushies were glued to the couch. Don't move, I said. I'll be right back. I was never gone for more than 5-8 minutes.

Did I assess the risks involved in leaving such young kids alone for a few minutes? I certainly didn't spreadsheet it. I used my gut, as I do every day as a parent. I just felt it would be infinitely easier to go pick up the needed broccoli myself, than to coat, shoe, and shlep the kids across the street to the shops with me (where they would undoubtedly beg for biscuits or lollies).

When we moved back to New York, a friend told me that it is illegal to leave a child at home alone until they are 10. I was not able to find evidence that it is illegal, but the New York State Office of Children and Family Services has this to say on the topic: Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. 

What?! Starting in middle school, the NYC Board of Education expects my kids to take the subway or public bus to school--they age out of eligibility for yellow bus service. Kids are expected to be able to move around the city on their own at the exact same age when they can be first left in their own homes? This doesn't make sense to me.

It's true that all kids and situations are different, but I would posit that weaning any child from their parents' constant supervision is akin to weaning a child from breastfeeding. It should be done slowly, and with sensitivity to the child's needs. Louisa started weaning from breastfeeding the day she started eating food, when she was six months old. A year and a half later, she is almost ready to give up the breast altogether. Similarly, kids need to gain independence gradually. At first my girls only stayed alone for a few minutes, and by now this has progressed to an hour or two, in the daytime only. It is always the girls' choice to stay or come with me. They know not to cook or bathe while I'm out. And they're pretty smart.

Bella also has been going out on her own, very locally, for the past few months. We send her on errands to the coffee shop across the street (how nice to have a young eager soul who's willing to go buy her parents coffee when we're out of beans!), and to the deli around the corner. On the latter errand, I followed her a half block behind the first time she went, mainly because I wanted to make sure she knew where to go, not because I was worried for her safety. She's also gone a block away (across Third Avenue!), to meet a friend.

Bella has plenty of intelligence and awareness, and I'm hoping that by taking small steps now, her increasing independence, when it comes, will be natural and pain-free.

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