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Home Alone, the Milestone Not the Movie

Jul05

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I remember when my kids were babies, other new parents and I would talk endlessly about what age milestones were going to occur.  What age would they smile for the first time?  What age would they crawl? What age would they walk?  And of course the most important, what age would they sleep through the night?

As the kids have gotten older I have noticed that the milestones are more imposed than they are the result of their biological development. I have endless conversations with friends about what age is appropriate to allow children to do certain things.  What age is old enough to play outside without direct supervision? What age is old enough to walk down he street to a friend’s house alone? What age is old enough for a sleep-over?

What age is old enough to take your child to watch a movie at a quiet movie theater?  I can tell you that the answer to this one is definitely not the 12-15 month old range.  The precise age of the child brought to the movie theater last night by the parents sitting next me.

*****

In the past week I have had conversations with several people about what age is okay to leave your child home alone. To frame the context of the conversation we were talking about how much we hate grocery shopping with kids in tow, not about going out at night clubbing.  Or whatever the cool kids call that scene nowadays.  One mother said she does not leave her 12 year old son home alone.  Another mother said she will leave her 12 year old son home alone and in charge of babysitting his younger sibilings for a couple hours.

I probably am more like the second mother.  I have no problems leaving my 12 year old son home alone for an hour or two.  I also feel confident enough in his ability to babysit his younger siblings, though aside from his 10 year old brother, I do it rarely.  I would never leave my 12 year old home alone with or without siblings late at night or overnight.

I had a rather heated discussion with someone over whether or not it was advisable to leave a 16 year old home alone for a week, as in 24 hours a day for seven consecutive days.  I don’t doubt that a 16 year old can take care of their own basic needs, which was their side of the argument. My primary objection lies in the fact that teenagers are notorious for making poor decisions. Some of this is beyond their control.  Studies have shown that the teenage brain does not work like the adult brain.  The part which takes a step back and asks, “Is this a good idea?”  is not yet fully developed.

Why set them up for failure when the stakes can be so high?  Especially  if the reason is that you just want to go away on vacation for a week alone.  It can’t be just me who has said to their kids, “Aren’t you old enough to know better?”

*****

When I was 8 or 9 years old I came home from school everyday to an empty house.  It wasn’t unusual.  Most of my friends also were so called latch-key kids.  In fact, in fourth grade I distinctly remember most of us wearing our house keys on lanyards around our necks.  We were proud of those keys.  It was a rite of passage to have the house key and get to go home alone and eat all the junk food you possibly could, while simultaneously trying to ensure it would  not readily be detected by your parents.  It wasn’t any sort of secret, just an accepted part of the community in which I grew up, one which was dominated by single parent homes and dual working parents.

Nowadays, I know very few people who allow their kids that age to come home alone to an empty house and those that do are almost apologetic about it.  Not so much because they doubt their child’s ability to be alone for short periods of time, but rather fear of recrimination from their friends and neighbors.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are very few states that have laws which address this issue.  There are only four states which have laws on the books with minimum ages:

Maryland (age 8), Georgia (age 9), Oregon (age 10) and Illinois (age 14)

Then there are states with official guidelines:

Age 8: South Carolina

Age 9: North Dakota

Age 10: Tennessee and Washington

Age 11: Nebraska

Age 12:  Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Other states have suggested ages, but most are silent on the issue.  Most every parent I know worries when their child is left home alone, irrational fears of things that will thankfully never come to pass.

The key to leaving kids home alone, or in charge of babysitting younger siblings, seems to be less about an actual age and more about their own maturity level and development.  I have several questions that I have asked myself before I left my kids alone for the first time.

  • Are they generally responsible and trust worthy?
  • Do they know what to do in an emergency?
  • Can they distinguish between an actual emergency and something that can be dealt with upon my arrival home?
  • Are they comfortable with the idea of being home alone?

The age which I felt comfortable to the answers of these questions varied from child to child, but by age 12 they were all ready.  I think I’d feel like a failure as a parent if they weren’t!

What do you think?  What age have you felt comfortable leaving your kids alone?  Do you think that we as a society have overly coddled our children so that they are teenagers unable to make good decisions?  (I wonder this sometimes).

Photo Source: Sweden.se

About the author

Chris Jordan

http://notesfromthetrenches.com
Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.

Yes, they are all hers.

No she's not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.

Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That's why her youngest is almost 6.

Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.


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8 Responses to “Home Alone, the Milestone Not the Movie”

  1. Grammy Jul 05 at 1:45 pm Reply Reply

    In the mid 1970s, as a single working mother, I was fortunate to have a son who I could safely allow to come home to an empty house after school at the age of eight. He had to call me at work when he arrived home, and was required to do his homework before he could go outside to play. We lived in a nice apartment complex with a central lawn play area, so it was relatively safe for him to play there. I still worried all the time, but he did fine, with a couple of exceptions for getting into mischief with his friends (throwing mud comes to mind). He was that kind of kid.

    Fast forward a few years later and I had married a man with a daughter. There’s no way we could leave that child alone for ten minutes at the age of eight. She was immature and not too hot with the rule-following. By the time she was 12, she had matured enough and she was a good kid when she was home alone for a couple of hours. She still broke rules, but not any that jeopardized her safety.

    Every kid is different. You know when each of yours is ready. It still scares you to death. They tend to grow up to be confident adults however it works out. Both of mine did.

  2. suzie Jul 05 at 3:22 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with 12.  My older daughter felt ready at 10, but I would have disagreed.  My younger daughter seemed ready at 11, but she would have disagreed.  By 12, we were all on the same page in both instances.  

    Because my younger daughter (by only 20 months) is probably also my more responsible daughter – caring for siblings has really never been an issue for us.

    I still am not thrilled about leaving either one of them home alone during the evening hours – if my husband and I have a party or some other social event.  If they are together, though, I feel better. We will help them get a movie they agree on and ply them with sweets.  If one of them already has plans, we’ll facilitate plans for the other (although this is less true if it’s my almost-15 yo who will be left alone – she welcomes the quiet “facebook without nagging” time, and it happens rare enough that I can’t protest).  If one of them plans to have a friend over, we will intercede and lay down some ground rules for inclusion of the other in our absence.

    (And, 9 times out of 10, my husband will get a gleam in his eye:  “heh heh, an excuse to duck out of that party early!”  To which I respond with, “Phew, he took care of that, now I can stay and have FUN!”)

  3. z Jul 05 at 7:16 pm Reply Reply

    My parents left me alone for a week when I was 16, and I think it was a really maturing experience.  Something about the quiet time to think and grow into oneself, I guess, plus it really showed their trust in me and I took some pride in that.

  4. Ann Jul 06 at 8:53 am Reply Reply

    My 9 and 7 year old just started walking to and from school by themselves at the end of the last school year (less than half a mile, a few times a week.) Without guidelines, it’s difficult for parents to make these decisions. As you said, not because of my confidence in the kids’ abilities, but because of what other people might think. They weren’t ready at the beginning of the school year, but were definitely ready by the end, and I feel comfortable with the decision.

  5. Andrea Jul 06 at 1:23 pm Reply Reply

    It depends on so many factors… the maturity level of the child, the circumstances, the behavior and age of the siblings. Right now, my 16yo is in charge of my 11yo and 7yo for the summer. The 11yo and 7yo are mature enough for the 16yo to head off with his friends once or twice a week, but no more than that. During the school year, the two younger children walked home from the bus stop and supervised themselves for two hours until I got home from work. (The 16yo had late practices every day.) It helps that I work less than five minutes away, and we have a large, very protective German shepherd. Still I worry, and check in with them often. My work is flexible enough for the occasional surprise visit home, and I give them chores and summer reading to make sure they never get bored enough to get into trouble.

  6. Mags Jul 07 at 3:45 pm Reply Reply

    I had the interesting experience of still going to a babysitter after school, then babysitting my sitter’s grandkids in the evenings.

    It went like this: My sisters left for college just before I turned 10 and my parents were by then used to going out to the grocery store or wherever in the evenings without kids. My mom figured I was safe at night when all the neighbors were home, but she didn’t want me coming home to an empty house at 2:30pm when there might not be anyone else home should anything bad happen, so I continued to go to sitter after school until the end of 6th grade.

    She was right – the one time something did happen while they were out, I ran over to the neighbor’s house and they helped me.

    Around that same time, I took a babysitting class at the local YWCA and got my first clients in my sitter’s grandkids, because they’d known and trusted me for years. So I would still be looked after in the daytime but could be left to look after others as long as there was someone in the neighborhood to call upon.

    I still had to check in with my mom by phone – every day, as soon as I got home from school, right the way through high school – and if I forgot or didn’t come home in time I’d be in trouble.

    My eldest niece has just completed her own babysitting class – she’s almost 13 – so my sister will pay her to watch her 5-yr-old sister – but after an instance of not watching her closely and walls getting damaged, they were BOTH put on probation from being home alone.

  7. Mags Jul 07 at 3:53 pm Reply Reply

    As for any overnights, NO NO NO NO NO!

    Teens having parents out of town for a weekend or more always made for great parties, but it also involved property damage, alcohol abuse, and situations that could be quite dangerous. And if parents were gone during the week, the kids would inevitably skip school.

    If my folks needed to be out of town for any length of time without us, we had to stay with our grandparents. We could be at home during the day, but we had to be at Grandma’s house by sundown and stay overnight and behave.

    On reflection, I’m really glad that my mom enforced that rule with us, given the experiences I had at friends’ houses.

  8. Nicky Jul 13 at 3:15 am Reply Reply

    I remember being left home alone everyday after school and then again during
    summer breaks. I admit I was resilient because I had many of the same fear other parents are facing. However I was a latch key kid and it made me grow up and learn consequences at a young age.
    Now I’m facing a much bigger dillemma. I Finally got the job I have worked so long and hard to get to but it requires me to leave my 8 and 10 year log girls home alone over the summer.
    I weighed all the Orion’s analyzed our finances and analyzed my daughters capability to handle being home for the summer. That big thing that showed this idea I have could work…they are already latchkey kids so they have the experience just not for longer times.
    My daughter is more mature and responsible that my 18 year old adult son!
    Both girls call us at random times and vice versa just to check in, they know so much about stranger danger that my girls should write the next book on the subject. Their father works only minutes away too.
    Anyway, until I find a trustwortyhy person to supervise over the summer(I’m trying) my girls a rulers of the house. We have strict rules to follow how to reach 911, who to call and regency shelter precaution just to name a few
    It’s not we are gone for 8 hours straight with no supervision or contact with the girls. My husband comes home every day for lunch and is there for an hour where he can ‘check up” on the girls. This is also in addition to us doing random calls to the girls, etc. I think they are ready to be mature independent girls temporarily until I can find someone to be their caregiver…. Who knows another week of being on their own this much then why the need anymore?
    All I can say is here’s a good rule of thumb,,,,if your children still need naps and booster seats you are asking way too early if your child is ready,

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