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When is it Okay to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

By paulabernstein |

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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About paulabernstein

paulabernstein

paulabernstein

Paula Bernstein is a freelance writer and social media manager with a background in entertainment journalism. She is also the co-author of Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited.

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0 thoughts on “When is it Okay to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

  1. Rosana says:

    15 years old

  2. Marilyn says:

    What makes me uncomfortable is that your 10 to 15 minute “errand” could turn into a 30 to 60 minute “errand” out of no fault of your own. Things do happen when least expected. I would think that by 11 or 12 they’d be able to handle a situation if it arose – or call a neighbor or 911. I was baby sitting at that age, but that was a long time ago when a lot of things didn’t happen!

  3. PlumbLucky says:

    Hmmmm…I remember being left home alone, sick, out of sheer necessity one time when I was ten. Probably too young, in hindsight.
    I was babysitting at 13. I’d go with that. (Actually, I think the state in which I live has something to say about this…)

  4. Andrea says:

    I was at home for an hour, hour and a half a day with my 7 year old brother when I was 10 or 11 years old. It was just fine. Out of curiosity Marilyn, what are the “things that didn’t happen” then that do happen now? I really think that if a child is competent enough to know how and when to dial 911, they’re perfectly safe in their own home, and a parent knows to what degree they trust the kid not to Sharpie the couch or raid the cupcakes. If they’re comfortable (and the only way to find out is by trying it for a few minutes like the author did), then they’ll be just fine with preparation.
    I’d also remind the author that it’s a novel situation that takes some adjusting to and relaxing in, so it may not be a bad idea to try it occasionally for a few minutes at a time as long as your kid isn’t actually terrified by it. I remember doing things like that at first not so much because I was scared as because I didn’t quite know what to do with myself.

  5. terry says:

    one of my pre-k students was once left in his apartment alone while mommy had to run downstairs and help daddy carry a tv up. he was given instructions- don’t open the door, stay out of the kitchen, etc… and they live in a small family friendly building. well needless to say mommy had some explaining to do when the police showed up- the child answered the phone and then told mommy’s friend she wasn’t at home, and that friend then called the police. (he wasn’t told to not answer the phone.) this mother also had her child walk right past her out of the lunchroom while on a school trip and security brought him back in so…

    i started babysitting at 12 and was left alone by i think 10. i was walking to school alone by 10 too i think, maybe younger. i grew up in nyc so… i think bad things happen all over to all ages and what’s going to be will be.

  6. Sara says:

    Why have we decided that kids deserve no independence or responsibility till they hit eighth grade, then we suddenly give them all the freedom in the world.

    Third grade is about the right age for the thirty minute – one hour errand and late fourth and fifth grade is about the right age to stop paying a sitter (provided there are no younger kids) for an evening alone.

    I’ve got a problem with kids being left alone for so long that they get in trouble (spending all summer alone and hanging out with the wrong kids) and people that refuse to give their kids responsibility in steps and so the same time they’re staying alone they’re also old enough to babysit.

  7. Linda says:

    I’ll leave my boys (10 & 5) if I’m just running to the store and it’s daytime. My daughter started baby-sitting them when she was 12. She’s 13 now. DH and I go on evening dates and leave all three at home now. DD is 13 and baby-sits for other people now, as well. 5 (in the article) seems young to me. My 5 year old would not know how to handle an emergency. The other thing is that I wouldn’t leave them alone for like 10 hours, every day while I went to work. That just doesn’t seem to me like a fair situation for anyone. And to the person who said “15″, I really hope you’re kidding. How stunting.

  8. Laure68 says:

    I don’t think we can say that a particular age is appropriate across-the-board. Some kids are ready at an earlier age than others.

  9. Alicia says:

    I was left home alone from the age of 9, but I was more mature than other kids my age. Plus, from ages 9 to 11 we lived in a very good neighborhood where we knew almost everyone, and was living in a townhouse situated in a quadplex. There were very definite rules about me not answering the door or leaving the house. So I think it very much depends on the level of maturity your child has, and your own personal preferences.

  10. deebee says:

    I grew up in the age of latchkey kids… I distinctly remember my best friend had the run of his house for about two hours after school til his mom and dad came home from work. I think we were about six or seven then? The most troublesome thing we got up to was watching Terminator 2 (we weren’t allowed, ha). My parents had to leave me home alone after school starting at about age 9 or so, but felt fine running out to do errands before that.
    I live in a very tiny town, about 86 people, and we run to the corner store and leave our six year old to fend for himself for all of 15 minutes. He does fine. He has his action figures and legos, he knows about stove danger and how to lock the doors if he feels weirded out, and our neighbor is a sheriff. He’s not the kind of kid to get into things – we call him Mr. Safety – but I don’t think we’ll be leaving him completely on his own until 5th or 6th grade, but who knows.

  11. g8grl says:

    My parents left me alone at home all the time when I was 5. Nothing bad ever happened. They just were much older parents and probably didn’t know better (or they were negligent). Anyway, I turned out really well. But because of my history I struggle with this question. Once when the kids were taking a nap I left the house for 5 minutes to drop something off at the corner mailbox. They are 3 and 5. Because of my history I thin 12 is really late, 10 is pretty late. I’m probably thinking 7 or 8 for quick errands with the TV on.

  12. Marilyn says:

    To answer Andrea, the things that happen now are kids being abducted right outside their homes. Can you be sure that a 6, 7 or 8 year old would not go outside the home to wait for Mom to return???

  13. Sarah says:

    @Marilyn – I’m pretty sure that the rate of child abductions has actually gone down – the difference is that there is more media coverage of it so people have the impression it has gone up.

    Give kids a little responsibility.

    I was babysitting other people’s kids at age 11. We used to walk home from elementary school (about a mile walk) by ourselves. (granted, i was walking with my two siblings, so no one was walking home alone). We used to go to the park by ourselves – it was a block away. The kids in my neighborhood are always outside playing. Why would that be different than them being inside?

  14. Kate says:

    In MN, a report of a child under the age of 8, left alone for ANY period of time (including in the car), is accepted as a Child Protection assessment. Any reports of children younger than 11 providing care to younger children are accepted. We provide parents with guidelines of things a child should be able to do when left alone to gauge when they are ready because sometimes even a 14 year old is not yet ready to be left alone if they do not have the right capabilities. And even if your six year old can safely answer the guidelines, we would still accept the report and gauge the situation from a Child Protection stand point.

  15. Linda says:

    Child abduction? You know that’s 1.5 million to one chance, right? They’d be more likely to be struck by lightning. In fact, if you WANTED someone to take your child, statistically, you’d have to leave him outside, unsupervized for 750,000 years. I think we have enough REAL things to be concerned about. Bringing up the risk of child abduction is just ignorant.

  16. Linda says:

    Also, 8 years old is a 3rd grader. If you have a third grader who is unable to follow simple directions, then you probably need to have that child professionally evaluated. That’s not typical for the age.

  17. Lisa says:

    I say it depends on the kid, some kids you can at 12, some older.

  18. Sharon says:

    There are approximately 47 million children in the US. Out of those 47 million, approximately 115 children are abducted each year. Yet, about 700 children are injured DAILY in car accidents and nearly 2,000 per year die of their injuries. The funny thing is I’ve seen mothers appalled that I let my 3 boys play in our own yard without me or my husband out there with them and these same mothers talk on cell phones while driving with their kids in the back seats.

  19. BabyView says:

    This reminds me of staying home after school waiting for my father, who worked 1st shift (home around 3:15). We weren’t allowed to use the microwave and Mom told us tap water was just fine for our hot chocolate! The documentary “Where do the children play” touches on this topic. People have called 911 to report a child walking to soccer practice alone. Silly!

  20. Becca says:

    I was 7 when my parents started leaving me alone. I knew not to answer the door and not to say I was home alone. I knew I could go next door for a something small and how to call 911 in an emergency. Not that I ever needed to do any of those things. Typically I sat at home and read or watched tv.

  21. Kim (GA) says:

    Comments:
    I’m freaked out. My son (turned 12 Jul,1) spent 4 weeks with his father. ALONE for the first time in his life. He came back home to me Sat. we found he has been going to bed at 3am and sleeping until after Noon. He has been online and texting with a boy much older than him, using HORRIBLE language never spoken in our home before and his father knows NOTHING of him sneaking at 2:30am to play online games and texting this kid (or whoever he really is).
    I’m a stay-at-home mom so I’m totally freaked out. His dad has also allowed him to watch rated R movies with him all summer. This is no ordinary day, I’m a very involved parent/Christian and my kids have been home-schooled or Christian schooled their whole lives. I feel my son’s world has just been turned upside down with NO boundaries. Is there laws against leaving a 12 year old alone for 7 hours a day or legal action I can show that his dad is not an appropriate single parent to handle this kind of “babysitting”.?????

  22. [...] Strollerderby. Photo by Daniel Y. [...]

  23. Jack says:

    Well thanks to my parents leaving me at home with my sister at 12 and 11 respectively, that’s how I discovered the joys of sex.

  24. Julianna Smith says:

    I believe children aged 12-13-year-old nowadays are mature enough to take things on their ways. And they can also manage things, even if parents aren’t supervising them. However, we should not always take the risk, especially if it concerns the safety of our kids. So, I guess this article that I’ve found by anationofmoms about a service that can protect your family via your cell phone. I’m positive that it will help us parents, monitor our kids even if were not around. Moreover, at the bottom, there is an opportunity to enter a drawing for 6 months of that service just by liking them on Facebook. You might find it interesting: http://anationofmoms.com/2011/08/protect-your-family-giveaway.html

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