Happily Even After
A New, Amazing Phase in Family Life
by Josh Noem
We’ve crossed an amazing new threshold in the world of parenting—one of our children is able to babysit the others!
I remember the last big phase like this—when all of our children were potty trained. It was like our family had taken a big step together, and this phase feels the same way. As great as our sitters have been (and we’re in great debt to some amazing people who have watched our children), it is a great luxury to be able to leave the house without paying someone an hourly rate for it.
Oscar is now 12, and this spring, we had him take a sitter certification class at our local public health institution. He is now trained in CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and fire safety, among other things. Over this summer, we started to leave him in charge of Simon (7) and Lucy (6) for small trial periods of time — a quick run to the grocery store, for example. We have even been able expand on that as the children react positively and earn more of our trust.
We are a little reluctant to leave Oscar in charge alone in the evenings, just because getting through the dinner and bedtime routine can be difficult, especially at the danger points when kids are hungry or tired. But he is getting there. Last week, Stacey and I went out to an evening movie. It felt like we were newlyweds again.
We’ve made it clear that Oscar is in charge when we are gone, but that it is the responsibility of all three of them to behave well and to get along. They seem to be doing well with it. Or at least they are getting good at corroborating their stories. Either way, it is cooperation, so that’s a positive step in my book.
Oscar earns special privileges for this added responsibility, which is appropriate. Truth be told, though, I think he is simply enjoying the responsibility in and of itself. He is entering the world of adolescence, and he seems to appreciate the fact that we trust him enough to take care of things on his own. It is a sign that he is growing up, and that we recognize that he is maturing.
It makes me think about how to more deliberately help our children grow into roles of increased leadership. We’ve always had them take on chores at home, but the independence and personal responsibility and initiative are important factors in Oscar’s development this summer. There must be more ways to encourage that kind of thing.
Lucy, for example, has been enjoying the ability to make toast for herself. We showed her the steps, and she loves making herself buttered toast with cinnamon-sugar sprinkled on top. At least once a day, she will make herself toast, and I think she is being driven by equal parts hunger and the satisfaction of knowing a grown-up thing to do that she can do on her own. It is fun to watch her take such pride in this new skill.
It is important for Stacey and me to remember to grow with the family. It is easy to continue on in the roles we have taken on to keep the family moving through our day, but little by little, the kids are capable of taking on those roles by themselves.
It is easier to keep the routine as it is—from force of habit, and from pure efficiency. I spend just as much time cleaning up spilled cinnamon sugar from the counter as I did making toast for Lucy in the past, but it is good for her to be learning how to take care of herself. It would be a lot simpler to pay a grown-up sitter come to watch the kids, but there are great benefits to the kids taking on responsibility for themselves.
We invest just as much time and effort in parenting the kids in these new roles—it just takes a different form. Instead of doing these jobs ourselves, we spend our energy and time setting them up for success, communicating expectations, observing their execution, and praising a job well done.
Essentially, we are trying to train our children to use their freedom to grow towards goodness. When we are away, we want Oscar to be loving and caring, generous and patient. It would be counterproductive for our aspirations for him if he acted like a tyrant while we were gone.
This project—using our freedom to become good—captures the human condition, doesn’t it? What more important lesson in life can we teach our children? If we can help them learn to use their freedom well, they will carry that understanding with them wherever they go in life.
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