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How Do I Know If My Kids Are Old Enough to Leave Home Alone?

Little girl and her brother drawing on the floor. Kids are having a lot of fun, laughing. Sunlight from the window is backlighting the scene.

A mom on vacation in Delaware was recently arrested for leaving her 9-year-old and 8-year-old alone for less than an hour while she went to pick up dinner.

Arrested!?!

As it turns out, while there is an age recommendation of 12 years old in the state of Delaware, it is not law. In fact, only a handful of states have a legal minimum for the age of a child left home alone. Many other states have guidelines, but even then, parents are encouraged to make decisions based on the ability and maturity of their children.

I am a product of the ‘70s and ‘80s. My dad went to work while my mom stayed home. In between school, piano lessons, Hebrew school, Girl Scouts, and chorus, I was roaming the neighborhood with my posse.

(OK—we weren’t really a posse. Just a trio of girls with a few others who occasionally orbited in and out.)

Anyway, we didn’t have phones. Or pagers. Or even walkie talkies. From a fairly young age, we were roller skating and biking all over the place and, occasionally, pushing one another down the street in a poorly constructed Colonial Viper (Battlestar Galactica) or X-Wing Fighter (Star Wars). And when our mothers needed to run an errand or schlep a sibling to an activity, they left us on our own or even in charge of the younger siblings.

My approach as a mother now is a similar one. When we moved to the cornfields of Pennsylvania, I was overjoyed to learn that my taxes paid for a daily round-trip school delivery service in the form of a school bus. How fantastic. Not only would I not have to spend time in the carpool line, but my kids would have an educational experience because I was not going to walk them to the bus stop. Yes, my kids walk alone to the bus stop. It is five houses down from us and I can’t even see it from my window.

I’m not a complete monster; if it’s a torrential downpour or near-blizzard conditions, of course I will drive them. Otherwise, it offers them some freedom.

With three kids, and three different school schedules, there have been times that I simply could not be at home when one of the others returned from the bus stop. When the kids were really young, I would rely on neighbor moms to take a kid home until I got back. At a certain point, though, I had to ask the question:

At what point can I leave my kid home alone?

The answer?

There is no one clear answer.

(Not helpful, I know.)

I started leaving my two younger kids home at age 8 for short amounts of time. (Our oldest child is autistic and there are many factors that go into the choice to leave him at home for any length of time and that decision is on a case-by-case basis.) By the time our son Jacob, for example, was 9, we could leave him home for a couple of hours during the day.

Because I’m home full-time with the kids, I know their limitations and strengths just a little bit better than my husband does. As a result, I am far more comfortable leaving the kids on their own than he is. Looking at my upcoming speaking schedule, my husband mentioned to me that he doesn’t have many vacation days left to be home with the kids while I’m away. I reminded him that Lilly, who is 13 and babysits other kids, is perfectly capable to watch Jacob for a few hours after school and even get dinner started so that he can go to work.

He just stared at me as though he hadn’t noticed how capable these kids have become.

I’m not going to say that making them walk to the bus stop is what did it. Because maturation isn’t dependent on just one thing. It’s a combination of the multitude of experiences and opportunities we give our kids to stand on their own that helps them become independent and helps us to let them go.

I just hope it doesn’t help us get arrested, too.


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