Home alone?

When time is right for kids, it’s a turn­ing point, not a calamity

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FAMILY - By Al­li­son Klein

Your kids are grow­ing up so fast. They are get­ting smarter and more re­spon­si­ble, and they want more in­de­pen­dence. It might be time to let them stay home on their own for a bit.

Wait — what? Home alone? With­out an adult?

A lot can go wrong with­out grown-up su­per­vi­sion. But if it’s done cor­rectly, ex­perts say, this mile marker can give you and your kids some much-needed free­dom and feel­ings of ac­com­plish­ment. It can also go a long way in es­tab­lish­ing trust in your re­la­tion­ship.

“It’s a big step in in­de­pen­dence and should be rec­og­nized as a mile­stone,” said Patti Can­cel­lier, ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor at the Par­ent En­cour­age­ment Pro­gram in Kens­ing­ton, Md. “Our job as par­ents is to make our chil­dren com­pletely in­de­pen­dent people.”

A few states spec­ify a min­i­mum age it’s le­gal to leave kids on their own. For ex­am­ple, in Mary­land, it’s 8 as long as there are not younger sib­lings at home. But most places, in­clud­ing Vir­ginia and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., of­fer guide­lines, not laws.

That’s be­cause kids de­velop emo­tion­ally at dif­fer­ent rates, mak­ing it a highly sub­jec­tive mat­ter. A ma­ture 10-year-old might be ready for some free­dom that an im­ma­ture 14-yearold couldn’t han­dle.

Par­ent­ing ex­perts say that once kids start ask­ing whether they can stay home on their own, that’s a sign they might be ready.

“It de­pends on their per­son­al­ity and on what other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties they have at home,” said Michelle Visser, a psy­chother­a­pist and par­ent­ing con­sul­tant in the Bos­ton area. “Are they anx­ious? Do they still want to hold your hand if it’s re­ally crowded some­where? Are they wait­ing for you to leave the house so they can go to the computer and go to that web­site you said they couldn’t go to?”

A grad­ual process

Fig­ur­ing out whether your child is ready to be home alone is a grad­ual process. Ruthie Ar­bit, a ther­a­pist and li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker who prac­tices in the District, has come up with a four­point check­list for par­ents who are con­sid­er­ing leav­ing their kids on their own for the first time.

Safety: If your child needed to leave the house for an emer­gency, would they be safe? Is there a friend or neigh­bor nearby who can of­fer help in an emer­gency?

Re­spon­si­bil­ity: Can your child watch younger sib­lings, un­pack gro­ceries, do his own laun­dry? “Some kids might need hand-hold­ing for ba­sic tasks,” Ar­bit says. “It’s win­ter­time; do they need re­minders to put on a hat? Are they able to do day-to­day ac­tiv­i­ties with­out con­stant re­minders? Will they walk out­side and get locked out of the house?” If kids aren’t re­spon­si­ble with you around, they prob­a­bly won’t be re­spon­si­ble with­out you.

Cog­ni­tive readi­ness: Would they keep a level head if things didn’t go as planned? Ar­bit gives the ex­am­ple of a child slip­ping and fall­ing. Would they stay on the floor and wait for you to come home, or would they as­sess their in­juries and, if needed, grab a phone and call some­one? “Are they able to, in mo­ments of dis­tress, ac­cess re­sources avail­able to them?” Ar­bit asks. “When they get up­set, do they get re­ally flus­tered? When you tell your 10-year-old they can’t have some­thing in a store, do they run off up­set?”

Emo­tional readi­ness: Will they spend the en­tire 40 min­utes you’re gone in bed cry­ing, or will they watch some agreed-upon tele­vi­sion? “Par­ents need to know their child well enough to know whether they will han­dle the sit­u­a­tion,” Ar­bit says.


If you think your kids might be ready, talk with them about it and ask whether they’d like to try it, Ar­bit says. If they’re game and you’re com­fort­able, start small by pop­ping over to a neigh­bor’s house for 10 min­utes, then progress to a 30-minute gro­cery run.

“You start to know when kids are com­fort­able when you run next door for a minute,” said Tina Fei­gal, a par­ent­ing coach and trainer based in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s a grad­ual, step-bystep readi­ness.”

There are var­i­ous child su­per­vi­sion guide­lines, such as those from Fair­fax County, Va., that sug­gest at age 8 to 10 par­ents might be able to ex­plore leav­ing kids alone for no more than an hour and a half, and only dur­ing the day and early evening.

If that goes well, start­ing around age 11 or 12, par­ents might con­sider leav­ing them for up to three hours, but not late at night. This is the range of time they may be able to han­dle be­ing alone after school.

Chil­dren ages 13 to 15 should be able to be home alone for a time. With 16- and 17-year-olds, par­ents can as­sess whether they feel com­fort­able leav­ing their kids overnight, the guide­lines state.

In that sce­nario, ex­perts say, kids should be care­ful not to tell too many friends or post on so­cial media, be­cause they may end up in an un­com­fort­able and po­ten­tially pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion with groups of kids show­ing up looking for a house party.

Ground rules

Be­fore that process of build­ing trust can start, par­ents need to set ground rules. Can­cel­lier sug­gests agree­ments about whether home­work needs to get done, whether it’s OK to have friends over and how much screen time is al­lowed. She also said to be sure parental con­trols are set on all de­vices.

Some ques­tions she sug­gests go­ing over with your child in­clude: What would you do if the door­bell rang? Do you plan to cook? What would you do if you smelled some­thing funny? Do you know whom to call if you feel re­ally scared?

Can­cel­lier also sug­gests that par­ents and kids agree about when and how to check in. Par­ents should be sure there is a phone in the house. The de­vice needs to be charged, and the ringer needs to be on. Chil­dren should know where to find emer­gency num­bers.

She said it is crit­i­cal to go over sce­nar­ios so kids feel con­fi­dent they can han­dle sit­u­a­tions that may arise.

“You work to­gether so your child will be com­pletely equipped to han­dle this re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Can­cel­lier said. “It’s an at­ti­tude, an op­por­tu­nity for kids to grow and feel bet­ter about them­selves and feel con­fi­dent.”

Ar­bit adds that kids love get­ting ex­tra priv­i­leges.

“It can be help­ful if kids find it to be fun when their par­ents are away,” Ar­bit says. “They could think, ‘Oh, when Mom is away, I can watch ex­tra TV, and I can sneak a lit­tle ice cream,’ in­stead of, ‘Oh, when Mom is away the house is very quiet.’ ”

A pact for both sides

Ar­bit em­pha­sized that it is im­por­tant to do what you say you’ll do, in the same way you ex­pect your kids to do what they say. “You’re not just leav­ing, you’re leav­ing with a time you’ll be back,” Ar­bit said. “Try to be back at that time. You’re en­ter­ing into this con­tract. The par­ent is ex­pect­ing the child to be re­spon­si­ble, and the child is ex­pect­ing the par­ent to be re­spon­si­ble.”

Ul­ti­mately, Fei­gal said, par­ents need to pick up on cues from their kids to fig­ure out when — and how quickly — to start loos­en­ing the parental reins.

“It’s al­ways go­ing to be an in­di­vid­ual fam­ily call. Par­ents have to use their in­tu­ition and in­stincts,” Fei­gal said. “In­cre­men­tal trust is good for not only par­ents trust­ing kids, but kids trust­ing them­selves, too. They need to learn from their par­ents that they are trust­wor­thy.”


A lot can go wrong with­out grown-up su­per­vi­sion. But if it’s done cor­rectly, ex­perts say, this mile marker can give you and your kids some much-needed free­dom and feel­ings of ac­com­plish­ment.

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