School's almost out, and many of us are facing the annual summer dilemma of what to with do with our middle schoolers. They're too old for most summer recreation programs, too young to get a job, and exactly the right age for them to think we should just leave them home alone.
Studies on the tween brain suggest this may not be our best choice.
Until a few decades ago, researchers thought the brain was fully developed by age 3, and what followed was years of data input. They've since learned that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence. In fact, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, impulse control and understanding consequences — doesn't start developing until about age 12.
Combine the resulting willingness to take risks and lack of impulse control with a rather well-developed nucleus accumbens — the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward — and you've got the potential for summer mayhem.
The reality is that for many families, leaving a tween home for some period of time is a necessity. According to a 2008 report from the National Poll on Children's Health, 18 percent of parents allowed their tweens between the ages of 11 and 13 to stay home alone for more than three hours.
Summer camps remain an option, but a child may have outgrown a once-favored destination. And for many families, the cost is simply too great for an entire summer.
So what's a working parent to do? It's important to lay out ground rules and to provide essential information before leaving home. While we can't change our teens' brains, we can equip them with information and provide guidance they need to make the best possible decisions.
Among the information to provide:
- Where to go and what to do in case of severe weather
- Where to go and what to do in case of fire
- How to protect privacy when using the telephone and the Internet
- The safe use of kitchen appliances
- Prohibitions on use of firearms
- Not answering the door to anyone when home alone
- Knowing when to call 911 and being prepared to give the required information
- Knowing how to contact parents or another trusted adult
- Whether or not a friend can come over while parents are gone
- Whether or not the child can leave the house and, if necessary, under what circumstances.
Practice safety plans with their children and review and discuss common safety questions and situations.
By the way, that prefrontal cortex needs about eight to 10 years to develop — so by the time our children are in their 20s, it'll all be good. In the meantime, they need us to provide guidance and opportunities for practice in order to develop strong decision-making skills. By helping our children think through various situations, we can help them figure out how to make better decisions when they are home alone.
Some resources to help parents with their decision to leave a child home alone include:
Helpful information about summer and your middle schooler is available at Seattle's Child
More information on brain development: