When Is It Okay To Leave Your Kids Home Alone?
Last Saturday morning, I did something I’ve never done before. Something that made me really, really nervous. Something that, in my mind, had the potential to be a complete disaster.
I left my two sons home alone for an hour while I went to the gym.
Okay, half of you are probably rolling your eyes at that sentence right now, but the other half of you are applauding my bravery. Because what I’ve learned from talking to various friends and acquaintances about leaving kids home alone is that every parent has a completely different comfort zone on when/how/why to do it.
For example, my friend Suzanne told me she and her husband have no problem leaving their kids (ages 7 and 10) unsupervised for a short time while they sneak off to a nearby wine bar. “They’re pretty much catatonic when the TV’s on anyway,” she said. “I don’t think they even notice we’re not there.”
And my Pilates teacher Luanne leaves her sons, who are slightly younger than mine, alone out of necessity when she needs to teach a class and her husband’s not home. She knows her oldest son, a fifth-grader, is completely responsible, but she admits to worrying a little about his younger brother who tends to run around and crash into things. Therefore, she’s drummed it into the boys’ heads to call 911 if there’s an emergency, but if it’s not that urgent to just call her or a neighbor. (And yes, they’ve called her a few times during class with a video game dispute.)
But on the flip side, there’s also the mom at school who left her kids alone for the first time to run to the grocery store, only to see an ambulance idling in front of her building when she returned home. After a few moments of sheer panic, she realized the EMTs were at another apartment. However, it put such a scare into her that her kids will probably be well in their 20’s before they’re left home alone again.
And up until last Saturday, I was pretty much right there with her. I’ve always described myself as “paranoid with a good imagination,” so I can easily come up with 10 disastrous scenarios that could befall my kids while I’m standing in line at Starbucks. Logically, I know that they’re almost 9 and 11 and very well-behaved kids, that we live in a safe, gated neighborhood and I’ll be less than a mile away, but still. I’m always plagued by the eternal question of us worriers: what if?
Marinka, who writes at Motherhood In NYC, is also a paranoid like me, but it actually worked in her favor when she went over various safety scenarios with her tween daughter and found herself having to explain why it was important to just get yourself out in the case of a fire and not try to save the family cat. I hadn’t even thought to be that specific with my kids; I just told them to not answer the door under any circumstances and to stay away from all major appliances (which is pretty much the same thing my relaxed parents told me when they sent me off to college), but now I’m going to make sure they know how to handle most unforeseen events that might come up. (Sidenote: One of the oddest things I’ve seen recently is parents announcing on social media that they’re out doing something while their kids are home alone. That just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.)
All that said, the decision to leave your kids alone is obviously a very personal one and depends on factors such as their maturity, their environment and your basic comfort level. As well as other issues like whether you should put the oldest kid in charge and your kids’ ability to follow safety rules to the letter. (This article from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services goes over it all very well.) But despite all of my concerns, I have to say that my two boys felt really happy and proud of themselves last Saturday when I came home from the gym and they’d successfully manged to keep themselves and the house intact during my absence. Which I guess is both good and bad news.
Because now I no longer have an excuse to skip the gym on Saturday mornings.
How about you? At what age did you start leaving your children unsupervised and how did it work out?
More from our archives about leaving your children home alone, including a list of states with laws or guidelines.
Published September 20, 2012.
Last updated September 20, 2012.
Photo Source: Brand X/Thinkstock