I had a much shorter fuse back when Ian was deployed. The stress of the situation and all the responsibility for our children would drive me to yell too much. There were times I really needed the kids to step up and do more so that everything wasn't all completely on me every minute. But they were small. It seemed like such bright little people should be able to follow certain instructions, but often they just couldn't, and in my heart I knew that.
Still, there were days when I felt they were letting me down and they would get a loud lecture. The one I remember best was the lecture about Responsibility. They had responsibilities as members of our family! As residents of our house! They could not make extra work for me by dumping their dirty clothes all over! If they wanted to have toys they had to pick them up when they were done! There were rules! They had to be more responsible!
And my beautiful, sweet children looked up at me, patiently listening to my ranting and raving as I flailed my arms around and talked about responsibility. They looked sad and concerned and nodded in earnest agreement as I went on. And when I finished Aden asked carefully, "Mama? Um.... What does re-spon-si-bi-li-ty mean?"
I paused in disbelief and after a moment burst out laughing. I apologized for going on ad nauseam about something they didn't even understand.
What can small children understand about responsibility? You can explain that there is a job that must get done and the person responsible is the one to make sure it does, but for small children all the things just magically get done around them all the time. Lessons of responsibility only become important when they have important consequences. If you don't feed the pets they will die, if you don't clean up the broken glass someone will get cut, if you don't keep track of the toddler in the parking lot he could get hit by a car.... We can't risk trusting small children with important responsibilities, and the ones that are left don't make much impact. Because leaving some dirty clothes on the floor? Not actually earth shattering one way or the other.
But my oldest is ten, and will be eleven before the year is up. I'm still a safety net, but she's starting to take on real responsibilities. She likes earning my trust, and she likes knowing she can do things on her own and doesn't mind being in charge.
The moment I knew the second deployment was going to be easier than the first (mind you, this was before I decided to sell the house and buy another before Ian came home, because I apparently didn't have enough to do) was when the kids and I were all eating lunch at Target and Mona announced she had to use the bathroom. When they were littler and I was out with them we all had to drop everything and go into the bathroom as a group. I never knew what to do about leaving all our food unattended and it was frustrating trying to navigate a public restroom (and lord help us if there was a terrifying automatic flush system involved) with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. But on that day it hit me that Aden could accompany her sister to the bathroom. It was just around the corner and Quinn and I could stay put. Mona was only five and I wasn't comfortable sending her alone, but Aden was seven, and the two of them together would be fine. And they were. Aden seemed pleased to have been helpful and Mona liked being with her sister. To me it felt like the beginning of a new era.
Now we've reached a level where I can send Aden on errands like down the two blocks to Target to pick up milk if we run out at an inopportune time, and both girls are expected to take turns walking the dog on their own before and after school. All my kids can make simple meals without help and are pretty good about clearing their dishes.
A lot of being able to trust kids with certain responsibilities depends on the individual kid more than it does his or her age. In one sense, Mona is our most responsible child. She has kept her fish alive and healthy since she got it on her birthday last year with no assistance from anyone. She does what you ask when you ask. She finishes a week's worth of homework in one afternoon, brushes her hair and teeth without being reminded, and even makes her bed which is something I don't ask anyone to do and don't bother with myself most days. But Mona gets emotional and rattled when things go wrong, and she lives in her own world. She doesn't remember the names of the rooms so if I send her for something in the dining room she'll ask, "Is that the one with the couch in it or the big table?" She's enthusiastic and helpful, but not always clued in to the same things the rest of us are. She's the person you want if you need a lobster made out of duct tape in a hurry. She's not ready to make cookie dough unsupervised, even though Aden was doing that in kindergarten. I would not feel comfortable sending Mona on an errand to buy anything yet. But she'll get there, and probably sooner than I'm ready for.
The biggest life improving change for us of late is being able to leave the kids home alone. I've spent the past decade either being with them or arranging for someone else to be with them. Now Aden can watch everyone. To not have to drag reluctant children along on errands that don't interest them is liberating. I'm still kind of stunned by it, a little like the first time I left the house without my new baby and felt both free and incomplete.
We started off with small steps. Ian and I would take a walk or go off to the store for just a little while, and the house would still be there with everyone alive in it when we got back. We made sure the kids understood the rules for when they are home alone: Nobody is allowed into the house who doesn't already own a key (and that list is small indeed). No using the oven or the stove. No jumping on the trampoline or biking around the block. No telling people on the phone their parents aren't there. We reviewed how to reach us, how to dial 911, and where to go and what to do in an emergency. Most importantly we made sure they knew how to resolve conflicts. Aden knows being in charge does not mean bossing her siblings around, it means keeping things harmonious and safe. She tends to steer everyone toward watching movies or playing together on the computer, which is fine by me.
They aren't so much latch key kids as they are house arrest kids, but it seems to work.
It's going well enough that we have been able to trust them on their own for several hours at a stretch. This weekend while Ian was away doing Army stuff at Ft McCoy I put Aden in charge of everyone while I went to work on Saturday. The violin store is only a five minute drive away, they all know the number, we stocked up on food they didn't need to cook, and they liked being at home better than they liked the idea of having to spend all day at work with me. I called to check in and make sure they remembered to walk the dog. It went fine and everyone was happy.
I worry a little bit that I'm asking too much of Aden, because my
children are really my responsibility, not hers. But she's proud that I
trust her enough to watch out for her siblings. She likes living up to her responsibility. And she finally knows what it means.