As a parent you never forget those tremulous moments leading up to your first child’s first steps. The wobbling, unsure steps move both you and your child into an unsure future. Regardless of the fear or excitement of what lies ahead, both of you revel in the moment, usually so much so that the excitement drops your child back down onto his or her diapered bottom.
Next comes talking, feeding one’s self, and eventually, school. Amazingly the first steps scenario plays out in all of these situations and others, again and again. The diaper goes away but the distance to the ground grows greater and greater: mostly metaphorically, but some times literally.
Our most recent first step came today: I left Tanner, our oldest son, who is nine years-old, home alone for more than four minutes. I have to admit that a few times in the past couple of years, while my wife was traveling, I left the boys at home alone while I ran around the corner to the 7-Eleven to get eggs, or milk, or something else that we needed in the house.
This time, however, Ethan, our youngest, was over at a friend’s house and Tanner been home all day, missing school, with a bad head cold. I told Tanner to bundle up, that we were going to go to the grocery store to get food for dinner, when he said “You could leave me at home while you go, dad.”
The response I’ve developed to everything that I instinctively know I shouldn’t answer right away is “I’ll think about it.” I answered, “I’ll think about it.”
I sure did think about it. Tanner is a very responsible boy. He’s compassionate, and caring, and too quick to take responsibility for actions or events for which he had little or no cause.
At the end of last week Tanner was outside with his best friend. We have two little bicycles left over from when the boys were first learning how to ride bikes and the older boys (Tanner and his buddies) have quickly figured out that these bikes are great for jumping over obstacles and make-shift ramps. Ethan ran outside to play with the two older boys; this happens all of the time. I didn’t think anything of it.
Fifteen minutes later a howling cry erupted outside. At first I thought it was Tanner, so I took my time getting outside; he has a tendency to over-react to some accidents. Just as I started to move outside Tanner appeared at the door wailing, “Dad, Ethan’s really hurt!”
The little guy was trying to keep up with the big kids, took his own bike over one of the jumps, and crashed. It was a good crash. He scraped each elbow and each knee pretty well. With the way he was crying I was expecting to find a compound fracture, so I quickly relaxed when I saw that he was basically OK: banged up but OK.
As I was cleaning up Ethan’s scrapes, Tanner came into the bathroom where we were stationed. He saw the blood and scrapes and started fretting terribly, “This is all my fault. This is all my fault.” And he wasn’t just being dramatic because his little brother was getting attention. Tanner truly felt he had failed in his responsibility to look out for his little brother.
When given a responsibility Tanner takes it very seriously. I thought about this and thought I was ready to leave him at home while I ran errands. Exactly. It wasn’t a question of whether or not he was ready, it was whether or not I was ready.
I left him alone for 45 minutes, took care of a lot of errands, and yes, everything was just fine.
Interestingly, however, I would not do this yet if he was home with his little brother. I am not ready to foist that kind of responsibility onto Tanner, not when his little brother is far too prone to scraping knees, and cutting thumbs on pocket knives: not ones left around in the open, but ones he actively seeks and finds. The younger brother is far too curious and impulsive to be left under-supervised just yet.
That time will come soon enough, and then, just as today, I’ll be watching in wonder as my two sons and I take our first tentative steps into their collective, and individual independence. For now, however, watching one son take those steps is more than enough.