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Whoa, Momma!

Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Tracey Henry and Suzannah DiMarzio

What are the rules and age for leaving a kid home alone?

2

March

When I read this shocking story of a Tampa teen texting to his dad that burglars were ransacking his Mom_homealone home as the kid hid behind a potted plant, I rethought one of our rules for being home alone. I had always said to simply not answer the door, but in this case, that led the burglars to think the house was empty.

I'm really surprised by the wide variety of ages people think it's okay to leave a kid home alone, from as young as 7 to as old as 16 before they let their kids out of their sight. Considering that I was babysitting my little sister after school for a few hours at age 11, I've used that as my guideline for short trips leading up to full-on home alone status. It really is a nice thing to see the confidence that little taste of freedom gives a kid.

In case you are wondering, few states have laws about what age is advisable. Here's a roundup of them nationally. You'll notice most of them, including Florida, have no age limit or their recommendation is only a guideline, not the law. That's actually a good thing, legal experts say, because parents should be free to judge when a child is mature enough to handle the responsibility. One family's 10 year old may be perfectly fine during a one-hour trip to the grocery, while their neighbor's 13 year old is a basket case.

"A general rule of thumb is that kids under age 7 aren't capable of thinking logically and putting cause and effect together," California child welfare spokeswoman Lynn Yaney told LatchKey-Kids.com. But as they approach their 10th birthday, they are generally ready for short periods and by 12 or 13, depending on the kid of course, can handle longer stays at home alone.

One place to get started on this is the babysitting classes offered by numerous local organizations and hospitals and the Red Cross, for ages 11 and up. Many of the kids I know who have taken these courses said they brought up issues they hadn't even thought to talk to their parents about, such as posting a list of phone numbers of nearby neighbors or relatives and knowing where the first aid kit is kept.

Here's our rules:

  • If the phone rings, look at caller ID and only answer the phone if it's a relative. Let it go to voice mail if you don't recognize the name.
  • Don't answer the door had been our rule. We are now thinking of changing it to "Don't open the door. Ask who it is and tell them your father is home but asleep, can they come back later" (It's a good idea to test them on this, parking around the corner and asking a neighbor to knock on the door and see if they answer.)
  • No using the stove, toaster oven or lighting candles.
  • Don't hesitate to call Mom or Dad if you have a question.
I had a great suggestion from a friend when I was first considering this: Use some role playing to help us both feel better. Think of what your worst fear is and ask your kid what she would do if a boy came over or a stranger was trying to get in the house or she smelled smoke, or whatever it is that most has you worried. Talk about her answers and what you want her to do. And then know that it's about a 99.9 percent chance of none of that actually happening.

Do you think our parents were terribly inattentive slackers because they let us have the run of the neighborhood? Don't say it's because that was a different age because by all measures society is now far safer than it was when we were kids (we just didn't have the 24-hour scary news channels back then).

I think we underestimate our kids, and we aren't doing them any favors by showing this lack of confidence in them and in our ability to teach them how to navigate the world safely. Here's a quiz you can take to see if your child is ready.

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne

[Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone]

[Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 11:05am]

    

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