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When Can a Child Stay Home (or Go Out) Alone?

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Ever since the Maryland couple was investigated for neglect after letting their 10-year-old and 6-year-old walk to the park, I've been hearing a lot of discussion about the really tough question of when kids should be left alone--or be allowed to go out alone.

It really is a tough question, one that I think every parent has struggled with. It's not always convenient, or possible, to take children with you or get them places or find someone to care for them. For many single-parent families, especially ones without a lot of financial resources, it's even less convenient or possible.

Plus, at some point we need to let kids be or go places alone, right? Otherwise, they'll never learn how to manage on their own. Which they do need to learn.

I was very much a free-range kid growing up (that's actually how the Maryland couple describe their children--they even have them carry a laminated card saying just that). I was outside by myself and walking to the beach and stores when I was in elementary school--sometimes with my younger sister in tow. Nothing happened, and I learned how to be independent and careful. But when I look back on it all, I realize that I was pretty darn lucky that nothing happened, because lots of things could have.

It's not so much kidnapping that happens: It's accidents. I knew to be careful around streets and hold my sister's hand--but If I had fallen out of one the trees I climbed alone, or if my sister had gotten hurt, or wandered away from me into the water at the beach...would I have known what to do? Without a cell phone, would I have been able to get help quickly? I don't know.

So when can a child go it alone? What makes this one especially hard is that there really isn't a right answer. I mean, there are some clearly wrong answers (babies and toddlers shouldn't be left alone, for example), but the exact right answer is a bit more elusive, because it depends on the kid and the situation.

I had thought that in Massachusetts the magic age was 10, but although 10 gets mentioned in some laws related to neglect, it turns out that there is no magic age--it's decided on a case-by-case basis, as is true in most states. Safe Kids Worldwide says that age 12-13 is a good age to start leaving kids alone--and then immediately qualifies it by saying that it depends on the child, that a 13-year-old who is known to take risks probably shouldn't be left alone, but a responsible 11-year-old might be fine.

Here are a few things to think about as you try to make this decision for your own child and family:

Child factors
-Is the child responsible? (This should be something that's been demonstrated, not just something you assume)
-Does the child feel comfortable with being alone or going somewhere alone?
-Are they level-headed enough not to panic in an emergency?
-Are they truthful?
-Do they have the physical skills they need to be alone? (Like being able to climb out a window if there is a fire, run away from danger, etc.)

Situation factors
-How long will they be left alone/How far will they go alone? Shorter times and distances are obviously less risky.
-Is the area safe?
-Are there neighbors or others who can help keep an eye out for them and help in an emergency?
-What time of day will they be alone? Some times are safer than others.
-How reachable will the parent or caregiver be? How quickly could they get to the child if needed?
-Will the child be left in charge of younger siblings? Have they demonstrated the ability to care for said younger siblings (and get along with them--many siblings fight like crazy if left alone). In general, it's best to wait a bit longer before leaving children with siblings. It adds a whole layer of responsibility, which is a lot to ask and can be risky.

If you are thinking about leaving your children alone, here are some things you might want to do:

-Make a list of emergency phone numbers, and post them in an obvious place (if your child has a cell phone, put them in the phone).
-Teach or review basic safety procedures, like fire escape routes, what to do if approached by a stranger, or first aid. Make sure that your child can repeat things back to you or demonstrate or somehow make it clear that the information has been learned.
-If your child is going out alone, be very clear on the route, and if the child has a phone, consider having them contact you on arrival and before leaving.
-Come up with some clear ground rules. What they are will depend on your child and the situation, but things like no friends over if no grownups there, no cooking, no answering the door or phone except for previously agreed-upon people, no detours from the route or other plans if being allowed to go somewhere are the kinds of things I'm talking about.
-Do some short practice sessions, like leaving them alone while you run to the grocery store, or a short walk without you, so that they can get their sea legs.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has some more information on what to ask and do, all of which is very helpful.

Ultimately, every family will handle this differently--and may handle it differently with different children and different situations within the same family. Which is why we need to be careful before we jump to judge others.

And, before judging, we might just want to offer to help.


Photo credit: The Boston Globe

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