When is it okay to leave your child alone at home?
If we have learned anything from the film classic “Home Alone,” it is that leaving a child by himself (accidentally or on purpose) for any period of time can result in all manner of shenanigans. Also, Joe Pesci will show up. However, at some point, the parent must make the leap and let her child (who should be at least a little older than HA-era Macauley Culkin) stay at home without a sitter.
But when, exactly, does that point arrive? I asked my mom, as she is wise in all matters. “Never,” she said. “Now go to your room, your sitter will be here in fifteen minutes.”
Let’s try that again. “Thirteen,” she replied, without hesitation.”Liar,” I responded. “You left me alone well before the age of thirteen.”
Turns out she doesn’t take kindly to being called a liar. Lesson learned. Eventually she copped to 12, and then 11, but she insisted that I was an incredibly mature young child, a fact I happen to know is also a (sorry, Mom) lie. I was a big baby. If the oven had suddenly caught fire I would have hid under my bed.
I suspect my mom crossed her fingers and hoped for the best. And luckily nothing did go terribly wrong at our house. Of course, don’t want to depend on luck, when it comes to their child’s safety. But at some point you have to make the leap, and too often it can feel like a leap of faith. An article in the Times this week highlighted the many variables that underlie this seemingly simple decision. How comfortable are your kids with the idea of being alone? Is there an older or younger sibling? Do you have a doorman, or do you live in a close-knit community?
Very few states specify what age a child can legally be left alone. Given that maturity and anxiety levels vary wildly by child, leaving it up to the parent seems, at first glance, reasonable. The states that do provide guidelines offer numbers as low as eight (Maryland and South Carolina) to as high as thirteen (Illinois). But what do they even mean by “alone”? After all, there’s “alone” in the sense of “I’m just going to run out for some milk while you watch cartoons” and “alone” in the sense of “Honey, we’re going to Antigua for a few weeks! Don’t forget to feed the fish, and also yourselves!” (The latter scenario has occurred more than once; in one infamous case, the vacationing parents lost custody of their children, who were 9 and 4 when they were left to fend for themselves for nine days. )
Most parents, of course, have their child’s best interests at heart—but even they too often leave their kids alone despite their own misgivings. According to a recent poll, many parents who leave their tweens home alone don’t feel certain that their kids are knowledgeable or skilled enough to stay safe. Which suggests that some parent/child conversations are in order—and maybe some training. Experts recommend that kids take the Red Cross babysitter course, even if the only child they’re babysitting is themselves.
The absence of state law on this topic ignores a growing problem: parents who have no choice but to leave their kids alone, even well before the children are ready. Too many parents can’t afford afterschool care and are forced to make an impossible choice: leave the children by themselves, or lose their jobs. According to Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, if states were to institute laws governing minimum ages for being left alone, “it would bring a hidden problem out in the open, which is all of the parents who leave children home alone not because they want to, but because they have to.” If there were laws in place, there would also need to be affordable afterschool programs to meet the needs of working parents. Without a law, no one has to make sure latch-key kids are safe—but of course states can and will hold the parents responsible if something goes wrong.
But even if you have a choice, dear readers, how do you decide when your child is ready to stay alone? What factors influence your decision?Published August 15, 2008. Last updated September 20, 2012.