Last week, standing at the bus stop to pick up my kids, I could feel a nervous energy pulsing from the woman next to me. She must have checked her watch 5 times as she waited for her child to emerge from the bus. Noticing me noticing her, she leaned over and whispered, “I’ve got to get home! I left my other daughter alone at the house.”
“How old is your daughter?” I asked.
It’s funny how much has changed since I was ten. Like many of my friends, by age ten I was being paid to babysit neighborhood children. I was in fifth grade, decent at getting kids down to bed on time, and had a basic understanding of what to do in emergencies. As an adult, I don’t know many friends who’d hire a 10 year old to babysit for the evening. Frankly, I wouldn’t. I wasn’t surprised at the Mom’s urgency to get home to her daughter. I could easily imagine feeling the same way.
So what age is old enough to be left alone at home?
It’s become a hot-button question that elicits a wide range of responses. The law seems like a good place to start, but the law varies widely between states. In New York state, for example, there is no law dictating how old a child has to be before you can leave him alone. New York’s Child Protective Services website does offer some helpful guidelines: “Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left along at 12 or 13 years of age… Parents and guardians need to make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters.”
In fact, only three States currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone. Illinois law requires children to be 14 years old before being left alone; in Maryland, the minimum age is 8, while in Oregon, children must be 10 before being left home alone. For most of the country, this question remains a judgment call for parents.
Being too restrictive robs kids of critical independence. But how can we determine when our child is responsible enough to handle being alone?
In my family, at least, the best answer lies in taking baby steps. Our oldest daughter, who is now 8, can handle being at home for short periods of time, and I’ve noticed that she’s very reliable when asked to keep an eye on her youngest sister. I let her “babysit” when I’m home but need my hands free. It’s genuinely helpful and it’s made me optimistic that she’ll be ready for real babysitting duty in the not-so-distant future. She’s also allowed to walk to a friend’s house in our neighborhood. It involves crossing a pretty busy street. I helped her cross at first, then watched as she crossed—and now she just heads out the door.
These decisions are anything but one-size-fits-all. Another parent might think we’re being too laissez faire (but compared to my own childhood, I often feel my kids are in lockdown). And I’m not sure these milestones will be the same for her younger siblings. For us, this question of independence – to stay home unsupervised, to get places solo, even to babysit younger siblings and eventually neighborhood kids – will follow a watch-as-we-go, earn-our-trust-in-stages approach.
What kind of freedom do you give your kids? Have they stayed home alone, and starting at what age? We’d love to hear from you – send us your thoughts at [email protected].
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