Photo credit: Jamie Grill/ Getty Images
Every mom is faced with this big question: When should I leave my child home alone? Just thinking about it makes my own heart beat a little bit faster and, if I'm truly honest, I'd rather have someone else decide when the time is right. But not every state has hard and fast rules and laws to help me — or you — make this big decision, which means that your mama judgment counts for a lot in this realm.
You can find the legal age limits for kids staying home alone listed by state right here. When you click over, you'll notice that more states than not are listed as "None," meaning that, legally, you're not bound by an age. It's important to know where your state stands here, so bookmark this page as a reference.
Beth Meleski is a co-founder of Betwixt Girls, a lifestyle website for tween girls. She assures moms facing this tricky issue that they're 100 percent in the right to feel a bit unsure of how to handle it. She says, "Staying home alone is a grown-up thing to do. This is one of the first times we as parents will be able to partner with our tweens to accomplish a mutual goal. It's up to us to first ascertain they want to stay alone, then to teach them how to stay alone and, finally, to give them the tools with which to succeed. After that, we just have to step back (cross our fingers) and let them try."
Teach, try, repeat
Meleski hones in on the teaching part saying, "It's important to remember that tweens are still more like the children they were than the adults they will become. Staying at home alone is not instinctive or intuitive. It's also not a right. It's a learned skill and a privilege."
Oftentimes, when staying home alone fails, feeling frustrated on the mom or the tween side, it's because not enough time was spent on teaching this skill. Like most of what goes with this topic, exactly how much teaching time is needed depends on you and your tween. Meleski explains, "We can use the same strategies we used when we taught them new skills as preschoolers, such as the use of clear, concise instructions, repetition, consistency and praise or rewards. We can have a conversation about how long we'll be gone, our expectations for behavior and tasks to be completed in our absence and the safety rules of the house before we head out the door. Once gone, we can call or text to check in, even if we've only gone to the neighbor's for a cup of sugar. And we can talk about what worked and what didn't when we return and make adjustments for the next time we leave. We can also temporarily withhold the privilege of staying alone if, after a few attempts, it seems that our kids just aren't ready for it."
When in doubt, ask
Meleski's best advice is to not try to follow a one-size-fits-all policy here. Like all of the milestones of babyhood, your tween will meet this one when she's ready. Meleski says, "Kids in their tween years have a wide range of experience and varying levels of abilities. Some of them will beg to be left home alone, some will appear ambivalent and some will become wild-eyed and skittish when the subject of staying home alone is mentioned. Asking them specific questions about what they think they can handle allows them to express their fears and limits within the context of a more "grown-up" conversation. Questions like, "Can I leave you to run to the grocery store?" "How would you feel if I was gone for over an hour?" and "Would you be OK if you were alone in the house at night?" give great parameters for determining how to start your home alone experiment."
Your tween, home alone (Yes, she can.)
Meleski reminds mamas that these conversations will leave both of you feeling prepared to take this exciting step. She says, "Tweens gain confidence when they're able to face their fears with the knowledge that they have a safety net should they need it." Being prepared becomes that safety net. Passing the net from one mama to another, six mamas share how they knew their tween was ready to stay home alone and what they did to prepare her to try.
Linda Wolff writes the blog Carpool Goddess as proof that midlife, motherhood and the empty nest aren't so scary.
About the home alone debate, Wolff says, "I remember agonizing about when it would be OK to leave my kids home alone and relied on parents of older kids to guide me through this process. When my son and daughter were 11 and 8, respectively, I began with taking short errands during the day (all less than a half hour) without my kids, such as a quick trip to mail a letter or buy milk from our local grocery store. Before I left our house I made sure they understood not to touch the stove, open the door for anyone, how to properly take a phone message and not to tell anyone their parents weren't home and, most importantly, how to call me, my husband, their grandparents and 911. We also gave them instructions to go to our neighbor's house should they set the house on fire — thankfully that never happened. We took baby steps, eventually leaving them for longer periods of time and our kids are good about following rules, so we felt comfortable leaving. We waited until they were 12 and 9 before allowing them to be home alone at night for us to grab a quick dinner. It's important to discuss their fears, if any, as our youngest wasn't always keen on being left at home with only her older brother and golden retriever to babysit."
Photo credit: Linda Wolff
Hallie Sawyer is a writer and blogger based in the Kansas City area and a mom of three kids aged 14, 11 and 8. She has been published in SIMPLYkc, HerLife and KC Parent magazines as well as in the forthcoming anthology, My Other Ex.
About the home alone debate, Sawyer says, "When it comes to allowing my kids to stay home alone, I like to take it in baby steps. I start with small increments of time, gradually increasing their time alone as they consistently prove their trustworthiness. That may mean one child is ready when they're 10 and it may mean another has to wait until he or she starts middle school. Every child is different and I have to handle each one according to their individual capabilities, not as a blanket decision for all."
Photo credit: Hallie Sawyer
Photo credit: Ciaran Blumenfeld
Ciaran Blumenfeld is an entrepreneur, mom of four and the publisher of Momfluential Media.
About the home alone debate, Blumenfeld says, "There's a point at which I've just known my kids were ready to stay home alone for short periods. I knew they understood basic house rules and took their own safety seriously. We've started slowly with all of them, leaving them for short periods and not venturing far. When my daughters were first staying home for very short periods of time (around age 10) we'd keep a phone line open while we dashed around the corner for milk, or took a walk around the neighborhood."
Photo credit: Melanie Beasley
Melanie Beasley is a mother of two girls who are now 18 and 21 and the owner of Plenty2Eat, a site dedicated to providing practical help for living with food allergies and celiac disease.
About the home alone debate, Beasley says, "When your children can teach their friends the details of how to stay home alone safely, they are ready to stay home alone themselves."
Kerstin Auer is living her dream as a freelance writer and consultant and shares stories about life with her German family in Canada on her blog Auer Life.
About the home alone debate, Auer says, "When I grew up my parents left us home alone overnight for the first time when I was 12 and my sister was 8. Sure those were different times back then, but I have done the same thing with my children (albeit not overnight). When my kids were 12 and 8 we were relatively new to Canada and in order to build a life here, my husband and I were both working. My daughter — 12 at the time — had taken a babysitter course at the local civic centre and once the kids walked home from school (together, alone) they would entertain themselves with TV and computer time until I got home from work two hours later. To prepare them for this, my husband and I made sure that they had all the important phone numbers — obviously 911 as well as our cell phones and work phone numbers and we were confident that they wouldn't set the house on fire."
Photo credit: Kerstin Auer
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel is the co-creator of the illustrated humor blog Science of Parenthood, which uses faux math and snarky science to "explain" baffling parenting situations.
About the home alone debate, Dworkin-McDaniel says, "My 8-year-old has been begging to stay home alone for a while now, largely because he doesn't always want to drop what he's doing and jump in the car with me when I need to run errands and my husband's not around to hold down the proverbial fort. There are always protracted negotiations, with my boy trying to bargain his way out of going to the supermarket or to pick up dry cleaning. I don't blame him for trying — and applaud his efforts and negotiating skills — but I'm not ready for him to stay home by himself yet. Even though I'm quite certain that he would be in the same place I left him if I did leave him at home by himself — on the couch, watching TV and playing Knights & Dragons on the iPad — on the off chance that something were to happen, say if the house lost power in a storm or if I got delayed, I don't think he's old enough yet or experienced enough yet to troubleshoot the problem. Depending on his mood, he sometimes still makes me promise that I'm coming home at night when I leave him with a babysitter he knows or even his father. So I plan to wait until he's at least 10 before I'm comfortable leaving him alone at home for short periods during the day. And we're a loooong way from letting him stay home by himself at night. Perhaps I'm being overly cautious, but as independent a child as my son is, he still needs to be asked/reminded/yelled at several times to do his chores, clear his place at the table, put away his clothes, bring home his thermos/sweater/jacket from school, etc. When I see him consistently demonstrate responsibility in these areas, then I'll feel more comfortable with leaving him home alone."