Research shows that more and more children under the age of 13 are being left at home alone.
Research shows that more and more children under the age of 13 are being left at home alone. iStockphoto.com
Experts say there's no one-size-fits-all recommendation on the appropriate age to begin leaving adolescents home alone. "There's terrific variation in maturity among kids," says William L. Coleman, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
If you look to the law for guidance, there are only a few states that set a minimum age for leaving children home alone. In Maryland, "a person has to be 8 years old or older to be left alone," says Lt. Paul Starks of the Montgomery County Police Department. Illinois has a similar law.
Yet social norms suggest most parents are not comfortable leaving second- or third-graders home without an adult. In a University of Michigan survey, most parents said it was appropriate to leave children aged 11-12 home alone.
Brian Ott, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., commutes to high school by himself using public transportation. He's accustomed to the independence now, he says, but when he first began staying home alone in the afternoons two years ago, it was for short periods of time.
"My mom came home by about 5:30 or so," he says. And he had clear ground rules:
— A mandatory phone call to his mom when he arrived home.
— No friends in the house when his parents were not there.
— No video games until his homework was finished.
His mother says that when he continued to make good grades, it gave her comfort that he could handle the freedom. "If his grades were going down," says Margie Ott, "I would have to take some of that away."
She recalls lots of conversations with parents of Brian's peers, and many discussions with friends and neighbors on the topic.
"My mom was a stay-at-home mom until I was 13," Ott says. "And there were lots of other moms home. So the neighborhood homes were a little more tightknit back then." So, she says, she was a little more anxious when it came time to leave her kids home alone.
There are also the threats within the home, such as access to the Internet. But passwords on the home computer helped limit her son's Internet access.
"I did catch him changing the password," says Ott. "So I changed it back and limited access." Experts say devices to track screen time or set allowances can be useful, too.
Child development experts say Ott is doing many of the right things. She's keeping lines of communication with her son open, clearly articulating her expectations, and also realizing that part of an adolescent's job is to push.
The conundrum for many parents is that they want to trust their kids to be home alone, yet many recall from their own teen years that inevitable tug toward the forbidden.
"They're looking for trouble, and exploring and pushing boundaries" says pediatrician Coleman. "That's normal."
It's important for parents to recognize that there's a lot of variability among kids.
Some will push the boundaries in reckless, dangerous ways, like experimenting with sex and drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System says that more than 75 percent of high school students have experimented with alcohol, 38 percent report that they've tried marijuana, and 48 percent have had sex.
Coleman says the developing brain tends to get a little reward for risky business.
"Getting that rush of adrenaline, and then talking about it to your friends," says Coleman, "that's huge."
Coleman says one thing that's helpful for parents in trying to decide whether their kid is ready to be home alone is to figure out where on that scale of risk-taking and responsibility their child might fall.
30 Minutes To Start
Some experts recommend that parents start with some 30-minute trial runs. "Then come back and debrief," and talk about any safety concerns, says Matt Davis, a University of Michigan pediatrician.
Simple steps such as knowing neighbors' phone numbers and reviewing emergency procedures are important. And experts say it's also a good idea for parents to establish logical consequences for good and bad behavior in their absence.
Ninth-grader Brian Ott says the more he shows his mom he can handle being on his own, the more space she gives him.
"When I first started staying home alone, I wasn't allowed to leave the house until my mom got home," says Brian. "Now I can, if I tell her."
Margie Ott says she routinely finds herself saying to Brian, "I want to be part of your life. I don't want to control your life, but I want to know what's going on."
And increasingly, as trust builds, she says she feels more confident about the freedom that comes with being home alone.
It's hard to let go, says Ott. "But it's nice to see that maturity."