Are we together too much?

happy child girl with a kite running on meadow in summer

Tips for Creating Space in a Family

“I feel like I am disciplining my children way more often than my mother had to discipline me.” I hear this often. It may be that we, as families, are just together too much. Or, at least together way more than we were with our families growing up.

Aging myself here, I was a child in the 1970s. Summers and weekends we were outside, playing in the neighborhood, and riding bikes to the park at six years old with lots of other neighborhood kids. There were long days when my mom would say, just after breakfast, “go find someone to play with,” which meant, “go knock on neighbors doors until you find something to do.” We’d be out until lunch and then often out again until dinner. When I was inside, my mother was often busy with cleaning house, cooking or grad school. She was rarely playing with me.

I am not saying to put your kids outside for the day after breakfast, and let them fend for themselves at 6 years old. I get it doesn’t work that way anymore. If your kid were out there, they’d be out there alone and likely CPS would take issue. And, it’s good to play with your kids.

I am saying our kids are underfoot, they are indoors and often stuck with siblings for much longer stretches. They have constant supervision until much later ages. This shift means more discipline and more sibling conflicts. It means more pressure to provide structured activities and classes. It means arranging more playdates.

  • Encourage independent play – By three years old, a child should be able to occupy their own time for about 20 minutes. By five years old maybe 45 minutes to an hour. If your child isn’t able to do this, they may need more practice. During the summers in preschool and elementary school, my girls had 30 minutes each day to go to any room in the house to play alone. Some days one was the playroom the other in the living room, other days each others’ bedrooms. It wasn’t that they were in trouble, it was a time for everyone to have a bit of space. For older children, this might be having an independent reading time each day in the summer. Here is a blog post with lots of helpful ideas to encourage independent play.
  • Think downtime daily – Downtime is truly unstructured and relaxed time. This can be when they are busy with independent play. It can be time playing with siblings or time to just look out the window or hang out with the dog. It’s not time on screens and it’s not time directed by you. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would like children to have at least an hour of downtime a day at three through ten years old.
  • Have more long term projects – To encourage downtime and independent play as children are a little older, it may be helpful to have a few long term projects available. This might be a large jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, model kits, building sets they are allowed to leave out, latch hook rugs or big fuzzy posters to color.
  • Get them outside often – There is so much more space outside. The playground, the park, a walk in the neighborhood, the field behind your house, county parks, the woods. I get you are going to trail along at least for a while. There is so much benefit to spending time outside and in nature. A good parenting book is Last Child in the Woods by Louv.
  • Take them to the playground and plan to sit on a bench for some of the time – Once they are able to manage the playground equipment, it is fine to take stretches to sit on a bench and watch from a distance rather than follow them around the playground. Yes, it’s good to play with them, but it’s also good to give them some space.
  • The backyard – When they are young, this might be sitting out in the backyard with a good book while they play nearby. As they are older and you feel comfortable, this is letting them outside on their own.
  • Plan playdates then strive for less supervision – So this one may backfire. Invite a friend over and you may need to supervise more. The hope is you find a few friends who get along very well with your child for one-on-one playdates and schedule them more often. Here is a blog post all about playdates.
  • Give them a chance to work things out on their own – When children have conflicts with friends at any age, it is good to let them try to work it out. Even toddlers might surprise you with their ability to give a turn or help another child. It’s helpful to keep an eye on things, and if it starts to go south, you can intervene. Under three years old you are likely making the decisions and walking them through ways to solve. As they get older, it’s helpful to gradually do less. This might be helping them brainstorm solutions or giving a few suggestions. The goal is to support them learning to work it out on their own and they can’t do that if you continue to solve things for them. Give them some room.
  • Give siblings a break from each other – This might be the daily play times listed above. You could have each invite a playdate over and then play with their friends on separate levels of the house. It might be having individual outings with each parent regularly. You might have them work on homework in separate rooms.
  • Give privacy when they ask – At some point, most children close the door when they use the bathroom or sleep, and ask that they bathe separate from siblings. The idea is to plan to give them privacy when they ask for it. As long as you feel they are safe and old enough, step out.
  • Their bedroom is their space in the house – This includes letting them pick the paint and the decoration as young as you can tolerate. As they are in middle school or high school, this might be letting them keep their room how they’d like to keep it. You can insist on a deep clean once a month, and in between maybe just close the door.
  • Good to have some boundaries for your own privacy – When they are little, privacy is often unheard of, they follow you in the bathroom and basically sit on top of you on the couch. It is fine to teach them about personal space and request it as needed.
  • Still set smart limits on screen time – I get that handing them a screen, your phone or a tablet is an easy way to buy you some time, but it comes at a cost. If you do this often or for long stretches, their time on screens may skyrocket. Here is a link to four articles that outline the current screen time limits offered by the AAP.
  • Have hobbies and other interests – It’s healthy for everyone in the family to have outside interests. If you’ve lost your time for that, finding it again will give everyone a bit of space.

Leaving Children Home Alone

Cute girl with long hair sitting alone near window

My girls were 7 and 10 years old when I decided to leave them home alone for the first time. They were excited and slightly concerned, so we spent about 40 minutes talking through the details about where I’d be, how long I’d be gone, what they could and couldn’t do, how to contact me and emergency phone numbers. I was going to the store about a mile away to pick up one thing and would be gone for about 15 minutes. After all of the rules and ways to be in touch, they decided they were going to sit on the couch, watch tv and not move. While they did just sit together and not move, they were thrilled with themselves when I got home.

The decision to start leaving your child home alone is a big one. There are several things to consider. The first would be your child’s own comfort level. It makes no sense to leave a scared child home alone. The next would be their age and maturity level. Here are the current age guidelines for being left home alone in Fairfax County, Virginia:

Fairfax County’s Child Supervision Guidelines by Age

7 years and under:
Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.

8 to 10 years:
Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.

11 to 12 years:
May be left alone for up to 3 hours, but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.

13 to 15 years:
May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.

16 to 17 years:
May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).

Fairfax County adds that given the age guidelines, it is up to the parent to make a judgement about the child’s emotional and behavioral readiness and ability to manage medical or other issues. They reiterate the child should feel comfortable alone, have a way to contact parents or another trusted adult, an awareness of what to do in emergencies, and guidelines for acceptable behavior.

I would add that you consider rules about eating, food prep, the phone, answering the door, cooperating with each other and staying indoors.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides additional guidelines: .

You might also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker. It is a parenting book about teaching children personal safety, and it has a valuable chapter on leaving children home alone.

It is also important to know that local and state age guidelines for being left alone vary in the United States, from an 8 year old minimum to a 14 year old minimum.

So all that said, I look at these guidelines, not just as minimums, but as goals. If you have an 8 to 10 year old and haven’t left them home alone, good to at least start preparing them. If you haven’t, consider why not and work on those things. Start having conversations about it, practice being in different areas of the house for longer stretches, encourage your child to make their own lunch or get themselves completely ready for bed on their own occasionally. You might encourage your child to make more daily decisions for themselves.

Many children are still getting car keys at 16 years old, and leaving home for college at 18. To be really ready for these things they need practice at being home alone, at handling situations, making decisions and at caring for themselves. At some point they need practice at being independent in public places as well. Car keys at 16 is free run of the east coast (sorry dad), and it makes no sense going completely supervised at 14 years old to being free run two years later.

As a reminder, in 1979 first grade readiness guidelines included your child being able to navigate 4 to 8 blocks of their neighborhood. I get it was a different time. If your first grader were out roaming the neighborhood now, they’d be the only kid out there which isn’t safe.

The idea now is to start when they are young and make slow and steady progress towards them being fully independent. Staying home alone is an important piece of that process.

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