If you work during the day while your spouse works at night -- something my husband and I did for years -- what do you do for childcare if the parent on the day shift has to go out of town?
A reader wrote to me a few weeks ago, facing just that dilemma. The kids are 14, 12, 7, and 5. The mom, who works days, had to travel for a family emergency. She wanted the kids to stay with her mom, so her husband wouldn't have to take off from work. Her husband, who works nights, wanted the kids to be at home and had no problem with them being alone at night, since they'd be asleep.
What would you do?
While Massachusetts has no official law for how old a child has to be in order to stay home alone, the bare minimum legal age for nonagricultural work, including daytime babysitting, is 14, according to the Federal Department of Labor. The National Safe Kids campaign recommends that children age 12 and younger NOT be left home alone for any length of time.
There's an online quiz you can take to help determine whether your child is ready to stay home alone. Each child is different, and each family is different, but when you add babysitting in to the equation, I think there are a few other key questions worth asking:
1.) Is there a family member or responsible adult nearby (within walking distance) who could help keep an eye on your kids?
2.) Would you hire a 14-year-old babysitter -- not your own child -- to stay overnight with your younger kids? Many parents want an overnight babysitter to be able to drive, in case of emergency.
3.) What would your oldest child do in a major emergency (fire, burglar, etc), and how would she handle a smaller emergency (5-year-old choking, 7-year-old spiking a fever, 12-year old-cutting herself badly enough to require stitches)?
4.) Do the younger kids respect your oldest's authority? (When I was 14, my 13 and 11 year old brothers certainly didn't.)
5.) How does your 14-year-old handle peer pressure?
I came home from work one night, at age 18, while my parents were out of town, to find 75 of my 15-year-old brother's closest friends swarming my parents house. Actual conversation:
Friend of my brother: Uh, I wouldn't poke around the kitchen if I were you. Lylah came home early, and she's pretty angry.
Me: Who are you again?
Friend: I'm D.
Me: Hi, D. I'm Lylah.
Friend: (Runs out of the house.)
I used to work nights, so I understand that the temptation to leave older kids alone while they're sleeping. The problem is, what happens if something wakes them up? To me, it's not worth the risk.
Parents, what would you do? Is there a compromise that can be reached in this situation?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat. April is Autism Awareness Month; you can read her posts about autism here.