Home Alone? Don’t Tell the Neighborsby KJ DELL'ANTONIA, parenting.blogs.nytimes.com
June 28th 2012
Every Friday, we pose a question to the Motherlode community. The next week, we pull together the best responses. Got a quandary? E-mail KJ ».
If I did let my children stay home alone — and given some of the comments on this quandary I think I will preserve a discreet silence on the subject — I think I’d be mighty careful who I told about it, and not just out of concern for their safety. Last week I asked, apropos of a number of questions and comments on the topic, “When Is a Child Old Enough to Stay Home Alone?”
I noted an available guideline: the National SafeKids Campaign recommends that no child be left at home alone before the age of 12 — and added that I was a latchkey child at 6 or 7, and loved it.
My kids are 8 and 10, will be 9 and and 11 in the fall. I plan for them to stay home by themselves after school once a week next year. They did it couple of times this spring, and are very happy about it. … I believe the biggest danger to kids if they are hovered over and then suddenly dropped on their own. It’s an issue whether they are 7 or 17 and going to college. So I teach independence step by step, starting by my husband and me taking a walk on our block with kids at home. Literally 5 min with our house in sight. Then 15 min walk around the block. You got the picture.
I have 3 kids – 11, 8 and 6. I leave the three of them at home for up to an hour during the day while I run errands nearby. They have a phone and know how to reach me/neighbors/911. I call them periodically to check in. I will leave the 8 and 6 year old home alone while I run my oldest to school (10 mins roundtrip). I never leave the 6 year old home alone. When I leave them, I let them watch TV. We are not big TV watchers so this is a big treat. I am quite sure they don’t even blink, no less move, while I am away. They know and are regularly quizzed about the safety rules. I am entirely comfortable with this.
In fact, as I read over the comments, most readers expressed something similar: an 8-year-old for a few minutes, maybe, depending on the 8-year-old; a 10-year-old, probably; a 12-year-old, yes, but leaving them at night or in charge of siblings varied from child to child, neighborhood to neighborhood and parent to parent. (I’m kind of intrigued by the sibling question: at one point is a sibling an added burden, and at what point additional support?) Many of us remembered the standards being much more relaxed when we were young, and Abbi says the norms in Israel, at least, are also looser:
Here in Israel it’s perfectly normal to leave 7 year olds alone for at least 20 minutes, to pick up other kids from school/day care. I leave my 8 year old alone for at least an hour to shop or do other errands. She knows how to call me if she needs help, she knows not to touch anything dangerous in the kitchen and stays put. … It works for us, and 12 and 13 sounds a bit ridiculous.
But the tone of the comments, and the resulting mini-debates, was defensive—because those who disagreed disagreed vehemently. Possibly my favorite comment came from OR, who really captured one element of the problem:
We had an explosive argument about this at my house, when my husband left my 8 year old home alone for 10 minutes during a rainstorm to walk the dog around the block. He was never more than an 1/4 mile away at any point, but techinically my son was “home alone”. I realized that I didn’t feel unease at the thought of my son in the house alone, but rather what others would think if they found out.
What others would think if they found out. Among all the measured responses were those few that sounded the alarm: Todd Fox, who wondered what would happen if the child who was dependent on the cell phone to get help was “incapacitated and unable to call,” and shamed another parent for leaving a child with a fever to run another child to school, and Sheri Noga, who outraged many with a flat-out declaration that “a child’s mind is simply not developed or mature enough [before age 12] to cope with possible emergencies. An emergency can occur in any period of time – even a 10 min. trip to the store. Leaving a 10-year-old in charge of a 7-year-old is not only unwise, it is unsafe and irresponsible.”
She added, in response to those who said they’d worked with their children on what to do in an emergency: “Children often do not exercise rehearsed behaviors when in an actual situation.”
It’s those hard and fast proclamations (“unsafe and irresponsible”) that leave parents who do give their children responsibility, which of necessity entails taking some risks, hesitating to talk about their choices. As others pointed out, an emergency could arise with you at home, too—in fact, you could be the emergency: witness the 9-year-old boy who called 911 when his mother had a heart attack last December.
But on some level, we’re all afraid of becoming the “home alone” version of the Bozeman, Mont., mother who was prosecuted for child endangerment for dropping her children off at the local mall with her 12-year-old daughter in charge. No tragedy ensued, but many were as convinced of her bad judgment as some readers are that no child of 7, — or 8, 9, 10 or 11 —can safely be left unattended at any time.
You can probably tell from the tone of this wrap-up that I disagree with drawing a black age line between capable and not. I remain with those who consider the circumstance and the child before making a call regarding how and when children should be left alone. And I note that, if we’re going to panic about all the statistically unlikely tragedies that could befall a child at home without adult supervision, the number one killer of children in the United States is indeed accidents — but the most likely accident to snatch your child away from you will happen while he or she is in the back seat of your car. Think they’re really safer there than at home, watching “Good Luck Charlie?” Think again.
As hard as it to face as a parent, we can’t keep our children “safe” from everything. We can give them the opportunities we think are appropriate to learn to take care of themselves — and the least we can do for one another is to assume we’re giving it our best, even if our idea of “safe” differs from yours.