Here it comes: Another week-long vacation for the kids; another week of stress for working parents. Yes, I know. There are good reasons for school vacations. Those weeks off tend to break the cycle of contagion of colds and flu in the classrooms. Teachers get a week to regroup from one of the world’s most stressful jobs. Some kids really do need a break from academics. There’s a vacation industry that counts on family dollars to maintain historic and entertainment sites and the jobs that go with them. All true.

But for many working parents, any day or week off from school for their kids, whether a snow day, a teacher conference day, a Monday holiday or those periodic week-long vacations is something to dread. With no parallel adult vacation from work, there is nothing at all vacation-y about it. The planning involved for keeping kids safe and occupied is yet another task and another stress.

The only bright side is that most of the days off (minus those that are weather or illness-related) are scheduled way in advance. We know they are coming. It’s up to us to plan ahead so we’re not crunched or in a panic when we know that the next school vacation is a week away.

When can kids be left alone?

To be safely left alone, kids need to be older than you might think. The part of kids’ brains that governs making good decisions doesn’t mature until well into the teens. The same kid whose judgment, planning and decision-making may seem fine, even advanced, on a day-to-day basis may not respond well in an emergency, no matter how well you think you’ve prepared him.

A friend of mine shared this story as an example of too much responsibility too soon:

“As the oldest,” said Sherry, “I was my mother’s right-hand helper from the time my youngest sister was born. She relied on me to watch the baby while she did other chores or to entertain the younger kids when she was sewing. By the age of 8, she would leave me in charge if she had to run out for a few minutes to do some short errand. By 10, I was babysitting for real; especially if my folks wanted to go out after the younger kids were already asleep.

“I’m told I was responsible, capable and smart. But I was still only 10. One Saturday night when my folks were playing cards at a neighbor’s house, I noticed smoke coming from under the door that led to our basement. I panicked. I called my mom instead of just getting everyone out of the house. She snapped me into action by yelling instructions and then called the fire department. When my folks got home, fire trucks were in the driveway and we kids were all huddled together in tears in the front yard.”

Fortunately, there was smoke, not fire, coming from the furnace. Fortunately, Sherry was able to reach her mother and get direction. But to this day she thinks with horror about the “what-ifs.” What if it had been a fast-moving fire? What if she hadn’t been able to reach her mother? What if she hadn’t been able to get the younger kids to wake up and go with her? What if, what if, what if.

The story is not intended to frighten parents but to remind us that even very mature children are still children. Most psychologists advise that children not be left home alone until they are at least 12 and not be left entirely in charge of other children until they reach high school age. Parents can provide good training for babysitting prior to then by enlisting kids as parent-helpers; entrusting them to watch younger children while the adult is busy but still within yelling distance if there is a problem.

Options for kid coverage during vacation week

The secret to peace of mind is to plan ahead. Here are some of the options available to you if you are a working parent of kids who need supervision when school is not in session:

  • Be aware that in some states, leaving young children alone is grounds for protective services to get involved.

    Make sure you understand your state’s laws regarding how old a child needs to be to be legally left alone.

    If your children (even teens) are old enough to be alone but are not really mature enough to handle extended time without guidance, provide structure and indirect supervision. Hold a meeting with the kids each evening and set up expectations for the next day. Create a schedule together that includes chores, activities and down time. Check in on them hourly (by phone or Skype) to see that they are following the schedule. If they finish their list, there will be time to do something fun when you get home. If they don’t, then everyone will have to do the chores before dinner.

  • Share supervision responsibilities with family members.

    In families with two adults, arrange for one adult to go to work late and the other to come home early. Most or all of the day is then covered. In some families, the adults each take two-and-a-half days vacation or personal time off. Others swap off vacation weeks; one taking responsibility for February, the other taking off the spring vacation. Sometimes relatives who live nearby and who are close to the children are willing to provide supervision for a day or two as well.

  • If you’re a single parent, remember there are other single parents in the same boat.

    Arrange to swap supervision time with one or more other parents you know. If you can get four or five parents to commit to it, each of you only needs to take a day or two off work. This does mean being willing to entertain and manage four or five kids on your day.

  • In recognition of the dilemma for working parents, many schools, youth organizations and local recreation departments offer vacation “camps.”

    Your child may not want to go. But if the choice is being at an organized program or being alone, it is only good parenting to make it a non-choice. Often reluctant kids find they like it once they are there. Even if they don’t, you know your kids are safe.

  • High school kids are on vacation too.

    Many would like to pick up a little cash. Call the guidance office to ask if there are kids they’d recommend for a child care job. Be sure you do your own interview and check references. If you do hire a sitter, be clear about your expectations. Taking care of children for a week is very different from watching them for a few hours.

Maybe future parents will live in more enlightened times. Our school schedule needs to undergo major adjustment to match the reality that more parents than not work outside the home. In the meantime, anxious parents are left to do their best to keep kids safe and happy when school is in recess. These days, school vacation is no vacation for most working parents. We get to relax when school vacation is over.

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