Let’s Get Real: Leaving Kids Home Alone

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leaving kids home aloneIt’s important that we let our guards down and have an honest conversation about the more controversial parts of parenting—things like leaving kids home alone. It always benefits us to consider other perspectives. Even better is the opportunity to find out that you’re surrounded by like-minded parents and you didn’t know it.
 
I’ve found in both motherhood and adulthood that honesty, self-disclosure and vulnerability are key to connection. I love this quote by Frank Warren, the founder of an all-time favorite website of mine, Post Secret: “Secrets are the currency of intimacy.”

Home Alone

In that spirit, I want to start a conversation about something moms rarely self-disclose: leaving kids home alone. It’s remarkable that this is one of the only areas of parenting that we have such a hard time owning. If we’re talking breastfeeding, bonding, bedtime, screen-time, diet, education and whatever else, we have no trouble shouting from the rooftop, “This is the decision I have made that is right for me and my family and that’s final!”
 
When it’s appropriate to leave children home alone, and for how long, is an eventual decision we all have to make. I’ll share my experience so far with this topic. Bear in mind, though, I’m not a child development expert and I’m not recommending anyone do exactly what I did. Each child, each family is different and need different things.
 
For me, thinking about if I could leave my daughter, now 11 ½, home alone began out of necessity. As a single mom, I don’t have the luxury of another parent around when I need to run to the grocery store. So, when I felt like my kiddo was mature enough (more on this later), I started by researching the law.

The Law

Currently, 5 states have laws about the age at which a child can be home alone: Illinois, 14 years old; Maryland, 8 years old; New Mexico, 10 years old; North Carolina, 8 years old and Oregon, 10 years old. Some states provide minimum age guidelines and some do not, stating that they rely on general neglect laws.
 
In Colorado, the recommended age for leaving a child home alone is 12. This is based on the Colorado Child Labor Law, which makes 12 the minimum age for employment as a babysitter, for example. However, Colorado acknowledges more than age determines if a child is capable of being home alone.
 
The other things to consider are:
  • Maturity – Children mature at different ages. Think about whether your child is generally obedient, makes good decisions, or is fearful about being alone. Some children may be mature enough at 8 or 10, others may need up until they’re 15 to reach this level of maturity.
  • The Situation – Your decision may differ according to the circumstances you’re dealing with. It’s completely understandable to feel different about leaving for an hour or two during the day vs. leaving for the same amount of time late at night. Some other things you might take into account here are the safety of the neighborhood you live in, the number of children left alone, access to trusted adults in an emergency and the number of hazards in your home.
  • Safety Skills – Children who are staying home alone must understand how to keep themselves safe. They should know how to get a hold of you at all times, other important phone numbers and addresses, and understand when it’s appropriate to dial 9-1-1.
  • Your Comfort Level – I’m throwing this one on the list because it’s crucial. Trust your intuition! You will know if your child is not ready.

In My House

Here’s how it’s worked in my house: When my daughter was about 8, she was mature enough to stay home alone for an hour or two during the day or early evening. My daughter is very mature for her age. I attribute this to being an only child and spending more time around adults than the average child.
 
Before I ever left her alone, we established several rules and safety precautions. She had to recite the rules before I would leave, “Stay inside and don’t answer the door. Don’t turn on the oven, stove or microwave. Answer the phone if mom calls. If there’s a fire, leave the house, find a neighbor and call 9-1-1.” We discussed the appropriate times to call emergency services. We have a safe-word. My daughter knows that if someone is at the door saying, “It’s mommy, let me in,” she must ask for the password.
 
At first, we did very short trials and I checked in all the time. I never left my kiddo during a time when she would need a meal. We talked about how she felt about being home alone. I made it clear that if she was uncomfortable at all, I wouldn’t leave.
 
Now I’m comfortable leaving her home alone later in the evening and for longer periods. At this point, I wouldn’t even consider leaving her alone overnight. I don’t imagine being comfortable with that until she’s at least 16. I do let her make herself lunch, get snacks and go outside as long as she calls me to let me know where she is.
 
This past summer is the first summer she stayed home rather than being in day camps. I went home most days during lunch to check on her, and I always felt confident in her ability to make good choices. That’s the kid she is.
 
Being able to give my daughter a little more independence has been liberating for me! I can come home to finished chores and homework. I can catch up with a friend over brunch on a Sunday and not have to drag her along—bored senseless. This transition and new phase of motherhood is a celebration, not a shame!
 
I’ll leave you with this disclaimer: When it comes to leaving kids home alone, do whatever is right for you, your child and your family. Respect that others will do the same and that their children may mature faster than yours–that’s okay. Let’s celebrate the joys that come with kids getting older. Let’s remember that, at the end of the day, we’re not raising kids, we’re raising adults.
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Emily
Emily is a Colorado Springs native who is passionate about volunteering and community engagement. She currently serves on the board of Teen Court and works for the Rocky Mountain ADA Center. Her pre-teen daughter, Amelia, keeps her busy, challenged and entertained. Emily is a self-proclaimed nerd and spends time reading, going to shows, playing games and exploring Colorado. She is obsessed with otters and soft pretzels and is a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. She hopes to inspire and inform other young, single mothers and to be a resource for any parent in a non-traditional family. Emily is a brand new aunt and you better believe she’s going by “Auntie Em.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with your post so much!
    My kids were doing small barn chores like gathering eggs (alone) by about 5 years old. With that in mind, absolutely I leave my 11 year old alone for several hours at a time. We’ve become a society afraid of so much where our kids are concerned and I happen to think it’s not doing them any favors. They need to experience some things without helicopter parents- for their own future success.

  2. Thanks for getting real with us! This post is great and I love hearing how you figured out the right time for you and your daughter.

  3. I agree that this is an important topic to discuss, just like everything else. However, I feel the silence is less about fear of judgement, and more about fear of being accused of child neglect.

    I know you did touch on the laws a little bit, but even in states without specific age limits, people fear being prosecuted under child neglect laws. It doesn’t help that there were several horror stories floating around Facebook a couple years ago about nosy neighbors, etc… turning people in for even letting children play outside by themselves…. while the parents were home and inside! Imagine if those same people heard about a child completely home alone, who was too young in their opinion?

    It definitely needs to be discussed more, but first parents need to feel safe to air their opinions on the matter, especially if their children are on the younger end where there’s more gray area.

    • Great job of keeping this about your specific situation, your child’s maturity and your comfort level! Encouraging parents to think about this topic and reassuring them (without making them feel judged) that they need to make the best decision for their family based on their comfort level may make it easier for them to reach out for information as they try to decide at what age and in what situations to leave their child(ren) home alone.

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