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Home alone: when's the right time?

Our natural next question, after pondering leaving our child(ren) in the car alone, is: would you leave your child(ren) home alone?  Another mama had the same thought, and she emails:

Hot on the heels of the post about leaving your kid in the car alone... I'm wondering at what age people have left their kids at home alone, and under what circumstances.  I just found out that my partner left our 4 year old at home watching TV while he (literally) ran about 8 blocks to go pick up a Zipcar.  I strongly disagree with his decision to leave her in the house by herself, even just for 5-10 minutes.  He says that he weighed the options, feeling that she was firmly planted in front of the TV and was unlikely to go anywhere (true, it was highly unlikely), and wouldn't have left if he didn't feel it was safe. 

What age is too young to be at home alone when the parent is farther away than, say, the neighbor's front porch? 


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I found the previous post about the car very informative. I had no idea it was illegal to leave a child alone under 10 years old. So I guess the 'right age' is somewhere 10 or up.

a page about the law:

I will add tho, that I think my 8 year old son would be totally okay by himself in the house for short amounts of time. Now that I know the law tho, I guess that bridge won't be crossed for a couple of years.

I recently ran to the grocery store with my 2 year old, leaving my 5 and 6 year old sons similarly planted in front of the television and my husband soundly asleep upstairs. The entire 12 minutes I was gone, I was crazy with worry that they were going to gouge each others eyes out and my slumbering spouse wouldn't hear them. All we are really talking about here is saving ourselves some minor inconvenience (walking your kid 8 blocks, me getting everyone in shoes/coats and buckled in the car). I think I decided that it just wasn't worth saving myself 10 minutes given the worst-case scenario possibilities.

My opinion is that it comes down to protection, how could you protect them from fires etc. if you are even 5 minutes away? I think that the child should be old enough to understand a few things about emergencies and be comfortable with an emergency plan, and that age is up to the informed parent. The chances are slim to none that something like this would occur, but who would want to risk it?

My kids aren't there yet but I've been around a lot of kids and I think most are ready to be home alone around 8 years old, for short periods of time. I think the Red Cross offers a class for kids on how to handle being alone at home ("when I'm in charge"?). Kids need to know and be confident enough to follow though on basic rules like; don't answer the door, don't tell people who call you are home alone, who to call in different types of situations, what house to go to in case of fire. etc.

On another note, I would never leave a child under 12 in charge of younger children at home.

Last year I left my 9yo son home while I took his brother to school. He had a low grade fever and cold and he was comfortably in bed. School is three blocks away.

The alternative would have been to bundle up a sick kid and make him walk in the cold, or put everyone in the car to drive three blocks, then bring a sick kid into the crowded school.

I know my kid and I was confident that he would be fine. He wasn't seriously ill. I had no qualms about leaving him.

If it were just my older boy, I would be fine leaving him alone more often; he's extremely responsible and level-headed - traits that unfortunately go out the window in the company of his 6yo brother. So I don't.

I guess what I would worry about with a young child is what if something happens to ME while my 3 year old sits "safely" in front of the TV. What if you are hurt or can't get back as expected? Who would know that your child is home alone? I think 10 seems like a reasonable age-- and some younger 8-9 years might be mature enough. I think some of it is your best judgement, but for the under 8 set, definitely too young.

I highly recommend the Red Cross "When I'm In Charge" class; it's offered for 8-11 year olds. I believe the class is 2 1/2-3 hours and costs somewhere in the ballpark of $20. The Red Cross website will have information, and I know Portland Parks & Rec has offered the course as well.

The Red Cross babysitter's class is a great brush-up for older kids, too, even if they don't end up babysitting.

this past summer my daughter turned 10 and she was left home alone sometimes when i went for walks around the neighborhood. i would take my cell phone, and she understood the rules of being home alone (don't answer the phone, unless it's mom on the answering machine, don't answer the door, don't use oven or toaster oven, and don't go outside. if there is an emergency, go to the designated neighbor, then call 911.). i felt comfortable with this situation. 3 and 4 year olds, however, are not developmentally ready to be alone (even 5-7 year olds). i recently read about a grandma who left her 2.5 year old twin grandchildren in front of the tv while she was in the bathroom (not even out of the house)- they got outside and drowned in the pool. children this young can move quickly, get outside, or get into trouble. they are not capable of being by themselves for any length of time.

Ditto on what Heidi had to say....if something happened to you while you were out, who would know that your young children were home alone?

Imagine the scenario that could have played out when my sister's ex-husband left their two kids (6 and 4) alone in his apartment. It was a cold night, the kids were already in PJs, and he didn't want to pack them up to go pick up the Pull-Ups that got left behind at my sister's house. So he did the ten-minute drive on his own. My sister was out of town that weekend so there was no one around that would have known that there were two small children at his place if he had been injured, unconscious or even killed. On top of that, he was new to this apartment complex so the kids didn't know any of their neighbors or who to go to for help. Fortunately, he made it back safely.

Since this incident happened, the kids know that they aren't to be left alone under any circumstances and my sister's ex knows that he can't make bad decisions like that anymore. Both parents now carry info in their wallets about the kids with ages and contact info for each other in case something should happen to them - with or without the kids.

Whatever age you think you can allow your children to stay home alone, it's probably best if both parents discuss and make an agreement on what that age is before anyone gets left home alone.

For facts and figures about the scare-industry keeping our children cooped up, I suggest checking out the numbers from "Free-Range Kids".

Regarding the legality: "as may be likely to endanger the health or welfare of such child". If you left your kid alone is a fire *likely* to break out? Or if they're in the car reading, is it *likely* that they will be snatched up?

I wouldn't rely on a four year old to handle themselves in an emergency, but that's certainly old enough enough to be taught. An eight year old? A ten year old? Those kids should be more than capable.

Heidi and Jean, what if something happened while you were at home? The overall chances of dying from a cardiovascular problem or cancer is much greater at most "mom ages" than dying in a motor vehicle accident. Even among accidental deaths poisoning is not far behind motor vehicles. Just because we are at home doesn't mean an accident can't occur. Don't let fear get the best of you.

Boy, when I was nine I was answering the phone, taking reservations and generally "in charge" of our little family resort cabins while my mom worked in town. Really, we can't leave our kids in the car alone fora couple minutes? We can't leave a nine-year old at home alone for an hour or two? How are they ever to become responsible and independent?

Also I think the difference between folks raised in the country and folks raised in the city really come to the fore in these conversations. As a country girl I roamed the woods and the lakes and the streams alone for hours and hours from kindergarten. In third grade, it was my "thing" to take the dog and walk the two miles into town in Saturdays to spend my allowance....

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