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Nov 19 2013

At What Age Can Kids be Left Home Alone?

By at 9:57 am

at what age do you leave your kids home alone?

It’s a big year at our house. This September, for the first time, my 14-year-old began taking the subway to school by himself, my 10-year-old began taking the city bus to school by himself, and I began leaving my 6-year-old at home alone for short stretches.

As with many of our previous milestones, all came about due to necessity. My oldest first started coming home by himself on the bus at the age of 9. His toddler sister had just transitioned from two naps to one, and the time she chose to do it in was exactly during his school pick up. Trying to put her down any earlier would have been too early, and any later would have been too late. So we armed our 4th grader with a Metro Card and a cell phone and assured him he was ready for this grand adventure. (Several parents in his class disagreed with our assessment and generously let us know how they felt.)

A year later, we decreed that not only was he experienced enough to also take the bus to school, but that he could bring along his kindergarten-aged brother. Now he was the one who disagreed with our assessment. Not because my oldest thought he couldn’t handle it, but because his brother was, to quote, annoying and obnoxious and refused to hold his hand while crossing the street, even though we’d mandated that he must. In that case, a stern talking-to with the younger made the older more amenable. That and my agreeing, despite being against allowances, to pay him for his pain and suffering. It was still less than what an adult babysitter would have cost.

For several years, we had a good thing going. Older son took younger son to school, I took daughter to preschool, older son came home on his own, I picked up younger son then raced across Central Park to pick up daughter. But, alas, all good things must come to an end.

Daughter moved on to kindergarten, and older son moved on to high school. Now, because of their near simultaneous drop off and pick up times, I would need to be two places at the same time, five days a week. (My younger son did promise to build me a time machine in order to facilitate this feat, but you know how unreliable 10-years-olds are.)

We informed my 4th grader that, from now on, he would be traveling to and from school by himself. But, despite being a full year older than his brother had been for the same transition, he insisted he didn’t want to do it.

We told him that we understood he didn’t want to, but we were sorry, he had no choice. He’s 10. His sister is 6. She gets priority for drop offs and pick ups. (My husband had just started a new job that required him being out of the house by 7:15 a.m., so he was no longer an option like he had been in previous years.) My son was still resistant.

Over the summer, we went over his route several times. We brainstormed scenarios of things that could go wrong and what he would do about it. We got him a cell phone. We sent him to school.

Everything went fine.

Until the day he forgot to call in to say he’d arrived safely.

That day, we called the school and had someone from the front office check on him. In front of his entire class.

He hasn’t forgotten to call in, since.

Meanwhile, a new school year also meant a new schedule for my son’s ballet class. Twice a week, I need to take him there mere minutes after I’ve gotten home with my daughter. I could schlep her back outside with me, tired and hungry after a full day of school. Or I could leave her alone for about 20 minutes while I zip there and back.

For the first time this year, I’ve started leaving her alone at home.

She knows the rules. No eating, no drinking (she proudly repeats, “This house has a very strict, No Choking Policy.”). No climbing on furniture. No rocking on chairs. No science experiments. If the fire alarm goes off (and she knows what that sounds like because without it my kids would have no idea dinner was ready most nights), she is to leave the apartment (we’ve practiced turning the top lock) and head to the neighbors’. If no neighbor is available (highly unlikely in a building with close to 40 units), she is to walk around the corner to her old preschool.

Most of the time, my daughter passes the time reading to her dolls, coloring, or playing games on the computer. I always give her a choice whether she wants to stay home or come with us, and, so far, she’s chosen to stay every time. She doesn’t seem scared or even phased to be on her own.

My family moved to the U.S. when I was 7 years old. In the former USSR, it was common to leave kids alone at home, have them walk to the store or play unsupervised in a community courtyard at much younger ages (4/5) than it is in America. That’s why I saw nothing odd about being left alone or even with my baby brother as a second grader. So I was pretty surprised to learn that The National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left at home alone. And that some states even have specific guidelines on the books, as low as 8 years old in many places, and as high as 14(!) in Illinois. (My 14-year-old doesn’t just stay home alone in New York State, he watches his siblings, too!)

Now, I’ve never been a fan of any kind of arbitrary, age-based guidelines, from who is ready for kindergarten to when a professional is forced to retire. But, it seems to me that something like staying home, babysitting, or traveling on your own has less to do with how many times your child has been around the sun, and more with their maturity level. Can you trust them not to space out and miss their bus stop? Can they be counted on not to break the rules you’ve set? Are they capable of dealing fairly with a younger sibling, or do you have a budding dictator on your hands? Conversely, will the younger charge listen to an older one or will they see it as an opportunity to get them into trouble? And, if the answer to any of the above is no, what do you need to do to turn it into yes? Those are the factors that really mattered to me.

Of course, the big question we personally faced was: Should you push a child to do something they may not feel comfortable with? We did, because we honestly felt, in the case of my middle child, that he was up to the challenge, and we wanted him to get the rush of self-confidence that comes with overcoming your fears and succeeding despite self-doubt. And because, like I said earlier, we had no choice in the matter. Kind of like Alexander the Great and Cortez burning their respective ships so their armies had no escape routes and no alternative but to keep fighting. Failure wasn’t an option.

How old were your kids when you first let them stay home alone? And were they enthusiastic or wary about your decision?

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