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When can you leave your kid home alone?

Categories: Bad Parenting, Mommy Angst


We’ve all faced this dilemma: it’s bedtime for your only child, age 10, when he says, “Mom! I need [fill in the blank] for school tomorrow.” You don’t have any [fill in the blank] in the house, your spouse isn’t home, it’s past 9 pm, so what do you do?

Maybe this is a bad example. Some of us would say, “too bad, so sad” and be done with it. Some of us are never alone with our kids in the evening, being blessed with partners who are actually home and who actually help with parenting stuff. And what stores open past 9?

Having spent years married to an airline pilot who was regularly away for days at a time, and then years after that as a single mom of three kids (plus years before that as a single mom of one), this kind of thing happened to me a lot.  Not so much the last-minute Mom-I-need-it requests, but the dilemma of needing to leave kids at home came up a LOT. And mostly, I didn’t. It was pretty much out of the question.

What worked (or didn’t) for me is probably different than what works for you. But here are my general rule(s) of thumb:

One kid alone can be left at a younger age than multiple kids at once Kids in groups seem to get in trouble easier than one kid home alone. Plus it seems unfair (not to mention unsafe) to leave a kid alone in charge of other younger kids until he’s really old enough to handle whatever might happen.

Always do a dry run Before this becomes a regular thing for you, try it out. Then ask lots of questions. If you were gone an hour (maybe too long for the first time), did she play video games for 10 minutes and then get right to her homework? Or did she call your cell phone 20 times after you had been gone 5 minutes to “make sure you were okay”?

Inform, don’t scare Every kid-left-alone should know basic things about what to do in case of emergency or unusual situations. Fire? Smell gas? A stranger calls for mom? Also, every kid-left-alone should have a list of go-to’s (trusted neighbors, family, etc) in case they can’t get hold of you.

I left my older daughter home to walk to a neighbor’s and get on the school bus every morning from about age 9. It was earlier than I wanted it to be (don’t we all want to protect our kids?), but it was circumstance of necessity and she mostly left when I did and hung out with the neighborhood kids (watched by a mom) at the bus stop.

When she got home again was another matter; she was alone for 2 hours before I got there. But she called my office the minute she got home and if I wasn’t there she talked to my secretary, who always knew where I was. Back then (I can’t believe I’m saying this; did we really have a cell phone free world once?) there weren’t really any cell phones but I did install a “car phone” and it mostly worked for her 3:15 daily call to check in.

It turned out well. There was only one incident when I found burnt matches left around after I got home (are you kidding? is this a cliche or what??), but we nipped that one in the bud pretty quick.

My younger three were a different story. Leaving Oldest Boy home with two sibs, one with Down syndrome, well, that never happened except for a couple of times running to the corner drug store to get some emergency item or another. And this after he turned 12.

My question to you: do you leave your kids home alone? And what are your rules of thumb? How has it gone for you? Or would you never, never do it?

Photo: christgr, SXC

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5 comments so far...

  • I have two little ones who definitely can’t be left alone yet (2y/o and 4months) but when i was growing up my mother didn’t leave me alone til i was probably 17. She was very wary of leaving me home by myself not because eshe wasn’t trusting but because she just didnt like the idea of kids home by themselves. On the contrary, but husband was 7 and left home by himself with his two little brothers to take care of(feed, change and put to bed). I think that it would depend on how responsible my kids are to be left by themself, do they try to act out when i’m in the basement and they are alone upstairs, etc…

    KRISTEN  |  May 14th, 2009 at 12:45 pm

  • My Mom was adamant, we were not allowed to stay home alone until we were 12. Period. But, we lived with her and my grandparents until after I was 12, so she never had to worry about it.
    I agree along the same lines, but really it depends on the kid. As soon as I turned 12, I babysat a new born child for an entire summer, by myself. I was home alone a lot when I was 15ish, and that was a bad mistake. I did way too many naughty things and TOTALLY got away with it. : - )

    Erica  |  May 14th, 2009 at 4:22 pm

  • My oldest is 8 and has ADD. At this point I don’t see leaving him at home alone a possibility and certainly not with the other two boys, 4 and 2. Perhaps if/when he learns to control his impulsive behavior it would be something to consider.

    Surviving  |  May 18th, 2009 at 7:38 am

  • In my state we have laws, which I believe say one child can be left alone at 13, and a child can babysit younger kids at 14. Personally I think that’s on the “old” side. As my kids get bigger, I will be looking into whether there are any exceptions to the rule.

    I think it should depend on the child’s maturity. I can see leaving a “mature” 6- or 7-year-old alone for a very short time, i.e., to run to a neighbor’s house for a quick stop. To actually drive away with my kids home alone, they would probably have to be about 9 or so, and have proven their responsibility through various “safe” tests.

    My parents regularly left 4 kids home “alone” beginning when the oldest was 10. We did get into some stuff, but no more than the average kid gets into. If anything, we learned some lessons that made us more responsible in the long run.

    SKL  |  May 20th, 2009 at 7:59 am

  • I have 9 and 11 year olds. Their dad left them at home to attend a school event for an hour at night. I was out of town on business and was very concerned that this was not appropriate to leave kids at this age (and more immature ones) by themselves at night. Do you agree or am I being a paranoid mom>

    J&J's Mom  |  August 31st, 2010 at 10:19 pm