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When is it Okay to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

alone kidsIf you’ve seen “Home Alone,” you know the trouble that a kid can get into when left to his own devices. Of course, that was a movie. In real life, many working parents often don’t have any choice but to leave kids home alone - especially during the summer months when school is out.

A 2005 report by the Florida-based William Gladden Foundation estimated that between 10 million and 15 million children nationwide take care of themselves when school is out-of-session.

More children today have less adult supervision than ever before in American history,” its authors concluded, according to The Chicago-Tribune. (Sort of amazing when you consider the perception that parents today are overly involved in their kids’ lives).

But some parents leave their kids at home for periods of time not out of necessity, but because they think it will be a good experience. Hoping to encourage independence in her kids, Babble writer Steph Thompson began leaving them alone for short periods at age 5 or 6.

“Kids need to be told they are responsible enough to handle things if we expect them to ever actually be responsible,” wrote Thompson. Of course, Thompson’s comfort level is boosted by the fact that lives in an unusually family-friendly building in a safe neighborhood (I live around the corner from her).

Other than the safety of the neighborhood, other factors to consider are the child’s maturity, the child’s comfort level with being left alone, and whether there are neighbors around to help if needed. State laws vary about when it’s legally okay to leave a child unattended, but for the most case, it’s generally left to the parents’ judgment.

Babble’s “Being Pregnant” bloggers Rebecca Odes and Ceridwen Morris point out that it’s largely about societal norms. “In many cultures, kids are left alone at a pretty young age, and even given the responsibility of caring for littler ones. The U.S. is less into this,” write Odes and Morris, who conclude that there is no one age that fits all scenarios when it comes to deciding when it’s okay to leave kids at home alone.

Reginald Richardson, vice president of The Family Institute at Northwestern University, told The Chicago-Tribune that parents should dole out independence gradually.

“The kids might stay home while you run to the grocery store for a 15- or 20-minute trip. That begins communicating to your child that you trust them,” said Richardson.

I recently left my 8-year-old daughter at home for about 15 minutes while I went around the corner to pick up her little sister at a playdate. We arrived home to find my daughter peering out the window waiting for us to return. I’m taking that as a sign that she’s not ready to be left alone for longer periods of time. And I’m certainly nowhere close to ready to leave her home with her 5-year-old sister. That won’t happen for at least another three years.

At what age would you feel comfortable leaving your kids at home alone?

credit: iStockphoto.com/GeorgePeters

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