Home alone? Probably not for an 11-year-old

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 24, 2009 06:00 AM

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Once again, budget cuts leave families -- and children -- high and dry.

Question: I know all children mature differently, but at what age can a child be left home alone? Our local school has 11- to 14-year-olds dismissed very early in the afternoon. There are no after-school programs for supervision. I question if an 11-year-old can really come home by himself after school. What do you think?

From: Puggle, Woburn

Hi Puggle,

The child development experts are on your side: 11 tends to be the youngest age at which professionals say it's OK to leave a child home alone, but there are many factors to consider before you do, and the decision for each individual child depends on maturity, not chronology, as you note.

Here's why: Research shows that in emergencies, no matter how well they are coached, children younger than 11 (and many 11- and, indeed, 12-year-olds) are too frightened to remember what they've learned.

And guess what? Most parents are too chicken to test out whether a child will be too frightened in the event of an emergency. One way to test it out is to pose "what-if" questions. You know, "What would you do if you smelled smoke?" Unfortunately, we tend to avoid that kind of conversation because we don't want to frighten them.

Hello!? If your child is frightened in the abstract, isn't that something you need to know?

If you can coach him on what to do in emergencies, and he's not frightened in the abstract, that's a sign of readiness. Any discussion you have with him will be empowering, not scary. (If he is frightened by the abstract, drop the question. You have your answer -- he can't be home alone -- and you can come back to it in six months.)

Part of the problem is that it's around age 11 when kids begin to say, "I can stay home by myself!" Usually, they are talking about 15 or 20 minutes of being alone: when you want to drag them along on a quick run to the grocery for milk, or to drop off a younger sib at a bday party.

Just the fact that she tells you, "I can be home alone," is a developmental milestone. Here's my advice: Consider her statement your starting point for a discussion, not the deciding factor. Also consider:

* What's her track record for demonstrating responsible behavior? One psychologist who studies latch-key kids once told me a story of a child home alone who called 9-1-1 because he couldn't find his shoes. You need to know that a child will not be too timid to call the police, but also be able to identify a real emergency. Play a game with him: Throw out a bunch of "is this a real emergency?" questions.

* Is she physically strong and well-coordinated? This same psychologist was sure her own 10-year-old daughter was until she asked her to open a storm window and she couldn't. It prompted her to change her mind. "It made me realize how much you need to think about what skills might get called upon in an emergency," the psychologist told me.

* Try these what-if questions out on your child: What would you do if you heard a strange noise? If you came home and the front door was ajar? If someone you don't know rings the doorbell? If you smell smoke? If you need to reach me and can't?

Without after-school programs, your options are tricky; presumably you will have to pay for an after-school activity, perhaps at the Y, Boys or Girls Club, or something similar. But this will likely be a one-, or at most two-year, expense, and there are other options to consider -- for instance, grouping up with one or two other working moms/dads and trading off days when you can work at home for the afternoon. Also don't dismiss the possibility of pressuring the school to provide some programming.

Two other thoughts:

1) if you child flunks your "what-if" test and you scrub the idea of leaving her alone, re-evaluate every few months. By 12, most children are ready to take care of themselves for limited periods of time and will feel babied if you don't give them the opportunity. Start off in small doses, though; 15-minute periods, then 30-mins, etc.

2) If your child does seem mature enough to be alone, the rule of thumb is for no more than two hours in one stretch, and no more than five hours per week. More than that and a child can feel lonely and sad.

P.S. There's a whole section on "Home Alone" in my book.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
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13 comments so far...
  1. We are running into the same situation as my daughter moves to middle school. She will be almost 12 when the school year starts. Most days her older brother will be coming home, too, but I hate to make him responsible for her. If he wants to do something after school he should be able to. We will spend the summer giving her lots of opportunities to spend small amounts of time alone. My biggest concern is she has to walk about 1/4 mile. It is not a busy street and it has sidewalks but I'm still nervous about her walking home alone on occasion. It's sad that my child walking alone for such a short period of time makes me so nervous.

    I think it is definately child specific. I did not let my son come home alone until 7th grade (12.5 years old) but my daughter (child #2) is more mature and most days will have someone with her.

    Posted by Jayne June 24, 09 09:44 AM
  1. I would add that a Red Cross or other first aid course is an excellent way to help a kid feel they have some skills to take care of themselves. I took a first aid course at age 10 or so, and updated my skills every couple of years or so after that. It made me a more attractive babysitter (I started sitting for pay at age 12) and gave me the confidence that I could handle minor issues.

    Posted by BMS June 24, 09 10:18 AM
  1. I think that the other missing part of the equation is whether or not there are neighbors home. I feel very comfortable leaving my 9 year old home for an hour or so, but we always have at least two or three different neighbors at home, who he knows and is comfortable with, so he can call if he needs them. My son has passed all of the tests with flying colors - including 'what would you do if someone knocked at the door and said they were the police?' (answer: call 911 and ask if the department had sent someone to the house). I will not leave him home with his younger sister for several more years, however.

    Posted by akmom June 24, 09 11:31 AM
  1. Question: is there a "legal" age for kids to be home alone? If DSS drops by on my home-alone eleven-year-old, am I in trouble? Thanks.

    Posted by Jen-X June 24, 09 11:59 AM
  1. Unfortunately, there are plenty of 9 and 10 year old, "latch key" kids who let themselves in after school every day and stay alone for a few hours until mom, dad or older sibling gets home. That's just the way the world is. DSS (now the Dept. of Children and Families) would evaluate any situation individually. When I was 11 (in the 80's) I was home, alone, after school all the time. I also babysat for infants at that age. Parents really need to make a good decision as to whether their child can handle it and check in regularly, by phone, to make sure everything is ok.

    Posted by wg67 June 24, 09 03:20 PM
  1. I think this all depends on the child. I was 11 years old and babysat for a 2 year old an infant. I was mature for my age and did not panic in situations. There are some kids I see these days that are 14 that I would not trust with my preschoolers. My parents often left my older brother and I at home around the time he was 10 and I was 8. Of course, we were also raised with strict rules and respected authority. We knew when we were told not to touch to stove, that we wouldn't touch the stove. This generation of kids, in my experience, are not necessarily that compliant. If your child is, then give them a chance.

    Posted by Mumsy June 24, 09 04:21 PM
  1. wg67....

    Agreed. When I was 11 (late 80s), I would be home after school, and also babysat THREE younger girls down the street from me. I was to call as soon as I got home, and my mother or father would also call again when they were leaving the office. We had very clear outlines of what we could and could not do (no stovetop, no going OUT, no answering the door, no telling people who call that you are home alone), etc. As long as there are rules and the kid and parents are responsible, what is the issue?

    Posted by bornandbredinboston June 24, 09 07:18 PM
  1. My kids are 13 and 11. They have been at home on their own starting with short stretches a couple of years ago. They take the T to visit their favorite gaming shop or meet us in the city for dinner, or walk to the library. It does help that they are together, but sometimes the 13 year old heads to the library alone. We have rules about checking in, and rules about what they can and can't do (such as cook on the stove), and there are also neighbors who are at home nearby.

    I don't see why there is such a painful trend of infantalizing tween and teen children like we do in the US. Teach them some skills and give them some leash and they will grow into competent and independent adults. Check out the free range kids website, too.

    Posted by infoferret June 24, 09 08:02 PM
  1. I think the key here is the maturity of the child. Many children under 11 have performed admirably in emergencies. I also babysat younger children in my neighborhood (for pay) starting at age 10, although it is possible I was more mature than the average 10 year old. I was over 5 feet tall and had a younger sibling. By age 9 I was capable of riding my bike back and forth from my house to school a couple miles away without supervision.

    Also the advice that a child can feel lonely and sad if left alone for more than 2 hours at a time or 5 hours a week is just absurd. I had much more alone time than that from age 8 and on after school and, quite frankly, always managed to find things to do (whether playing games with my sibling, exploring our back yard, reading comic books, painting, or other creative endeavors) and never felt lonely or sad. Where does this author pull this supposion from? This advice sounds like how to lead some to be neurotic overbearing parents who don't really evaluate the capabilities of their own child (after all, why ask someone else unless you can't figure it out on your own, which is a little weird).

    And yes, I ended up perfectly normal. Attended an ivy league college, got a graduate degree, married, etc. I little more of laissez faire attitude might benefit bright or developmentally advanced children while others may need a little more hand holding. In either case, this advice simply does not seem to apply to all (especially the bit about maximums one can leave alone someone under the age of 12).

    Posted by squid June 24, 09 09:30 PM
  1. It really depends on the kid. I was a latchkey kid at 7 (in the 1980s), and I had 2 younger sisters. I also lived in a densely populated area, so help was nearby if something happened.

    Posted by Liz June 25, 09 02:34 AM
  1. I remember being home alone for hours at a time when I was eight! I loved it... actually I still love being home alone. When I started babysitting at age 15, I remember watching a girl who was 12. It's completely individual.

    Funny thing is when my mom went out and my father was home, I would be put in charge of cooking. It was my father who was at risk of burning down the house, not me!

    Posted by Joanna B. June 25, 09 08:54 AM
  1. I stayed at home alone for extended periods of time from the age of 8. I was home alone for shorter periods of time earlier than that. I also walked home from school, alone or with friends, from the age of 6, about 10 blocks. This was in the mid-80s in a small town in the midwest, even after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped from another small midwestern town when I was 8. I'm glad my mom didn't freak out and restrict me.

    I expect to raise my children to be mature enough to stay alone as early as I did.

    Posted by Steph June 25, 09 08:28 PM
  1. What do you do when a child wants to stay home alone and play violent x-box games and do nothing else all day? This concerns me greatly because he is only eleven and is allowed to play games that have a much more mature rating, and I don't know how it may be affecting him. I am not allowed to state my opinion with his Mom, sinse I am only his Grandmother.

    Posted by Margaret February 15, 13 09:24 AM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. We are running into the same situation as my daughter moves to middle school. She will be almost 12 when the school year starts. Most days her older brother will be coming home, too, but I hate to make him responsible for her. If he wants to do something after school he should be able to. We will spend the summer giving her lots of opportunities to spend small amounts of time alone. My biggest concern is she has to walk about 1/4 mile. It is not a busy street and it has sidewalks but I'm still nervous about her walking home alone on occasion. It's sad that my child walking alone for such a short period of time makes me so nervous.

    I think it is definately child specific. I did not let my son come home alone until 7th grade (12.5 years old) but my daughter (child #2) is more mature and most days will have someone with her.

    Posted by Jayne June 24, 09 09:44 AM
  1. I would add that a Red Cross or other first aid course is an excellent way to help a kid feel they have some skills to take care of themselves. I took a first aid course at age 10 or so, and updated my skills every couple of years or so after that. It made me a more attractive babysitter (I started sitting for pay at age 12) and gave me the confidence that I could handle minor issues.

    Posted by BMS June 24, 09 10:18 AM
  1. I think that the other missing part of the equation is whether or not there are neighbors home. I feel very comfortable leaving my 9 year old home for an hour or so, but we always have at least two or three different neighbors at home, who he knows and is comfortable with, so he can call if he needs them. My son has passed all of the tests with flying colors - including 'what would you do if someone knocked at the door and said they were the police?' (answer: call 911 and ask if the department had sent someone to the house). I will not leave him home with his younger sister for several more years, however.

    Posted by akmom June 24, 09 11:31 AM
  1. Question: is there a "legal" age for kids to be home alone? If DSS drops by on my home-alone eleven-year-old, am I in trouble? Thanks.

    Posted by Jen-X June 24, 09 11:59 AM
  1. Unfortunately, there are plenty of 9 and 10 year old, "latch key" kids who let themselves in after school every day and stay alone for a few hours until mom, dad or older sibling gets home. That's just the way the world is. DSS (now the Dept. of Children and Families) would evaluate any situation individually. When I was 11 (in the 80's) I was home, alone, after school all the time. I also babysat for infants at that age. Parents really need to make a good decision as to whether their child can handle it and check in regularly, by phone, to make sure everything is ok.

    Posted by wg67 June 24, 09 03:20 PM
  1. I think this all depends on the child. I was 11 years old and babysat for a 2 year old an infant. I was mature for my age and did not panic in situations. There are some kids I see these days that are 14 that I would not trust with my preschoolers. My parents often left my older brother and I at home around the time he was 10 and I was 8. Of course, we were also raised with strict rules and respected authority. We knew when we were told not to touch to stove, that we wouldn't touch the stove. This generation of kids, in my experience, are not necessarily that compliant. If your child is, then give them a chance.

    Posted by Mumsy June 24, 09 04:21 PM
  1. wg67....

    Agreed. When I was 11 (late 80s), I would be home after school, and also babysat THREE younger girls down the street from me. I was to call as soon as I got home, and my mother or father would also call again when they were leaving the office. We had very clear outlines of what we could and could not do (no stovetop, no going OUT, no answering the door, no telling people who call that you are home alone), etc. As long as there are rules and the kid and parents are responsible, what is the issue?

    Posted by bornandbredinboston June 24, 09 07:18 PM
  1. My kids are 13 and 11. They have been at home on their own starting with short stretches a couple of years ago. They take the T to visit their favorite gaming shop or meet us in the city for dinner, or walk to the library. It does help that they are together, but sometimes the 13 year old heads to the library alone. We have rules about checking in, and rules about what they can and can't do (such as cook on the stove), and there are also neighbors who are at home nearby.

    I don't see why there is such a painful trend of infantalizing tween and teen children like we do in the US. Teach them some skills and give them some leash and they will grow into competent and independent adults. Check out the free range kids website, too.

    Posted by infoferret June 24, 09 08:02 PM
  1. I think the key here is the maturity of the child. Many children under 11 have performed admirably in emergencies. I also babysat younger children in my neighborhood (for pay) starting at age 10, although it is possible I was more mature than the average 10 year old. I was over 5 feet tall and had a younger sibling. By age 9 I was capable of riding my bike back and forth from my house to school a couple miles away without supervision.

    Also the advice that a child can feel lonely and sad if left alone for more than 2 hours at a time or 5 hours a week is just absurd. I had much more alone time than that from age 8 and on after school and, quite frankly, always managed to find things to do (whether playing games with my sibling, exploring our back yard, reading comic books, painting, or other creative endeavors) and never felt lonely or sad. Where does this author pull this supposion from? This advice sounds like how to lead some to be neurotic overbearing parents who don't really evaluate the capabilities of their own child (after all, why ask someone else unless you can't figure it out on your own, which is a little weird).

    And yes, I ended up perfectly normal. Attended an ivy league college, got a graduate degree, married, etc. I little more of laissez faire attitude might benefit bright or developmentally advanced children while others may need a little more hand holding. In either case, this advice simply does not seem to apply to all (especially the bit about maximums one can leave alone someone under the age of 12).

    Posted by squid June 24, 09 09:30 PM
  1. It really depends on the kid. I was a latchkey kid at 7 (in the 1980s), and I had 2 younger sisters. I also lived in a densely populated area, so help was nearby if something happened.

    Posted by Liz June 25, 09 02:34 AM
  1. I remember being home alone for hours at a time when I was eight! I loved it... actually I still love being home alone. When I started babysitting at age 15, I remember watching a girl who was 12. It's completely individual.

    Funny thing is when my mom went out and my father was home, I would be put in charge of cooking. It was my father who was at risk of burning down the house, not me!

    Posted by Joanna B. June 25, 09 08:54 AM
  1. I stayed at home alone for extended periods of time from the age of 8. I was home alone for shorter periods of time earlier than that. I also walked home from school, alone or with friends, from the age of 6, about 10 blocks. This was in the mid-80s in a small town in the midwest, even after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped from another small midwestern town when I was 8. I'm glad my mom didn't freak out and restrict me.

    I expect to raise my children to be mature enough to stay alone as early as I did.

    Posted by Steph June 25, 09 08:28 PM
  1. What do you do when a child wants to stay home alone and play violent x-box games and do nothing else all day? This concerns me greatly because he is only eleven and is allowed to play games that have a much more mature rating, and I don't know how it may be affecting him. I am not allowed to state my opinion with his Mom, sinse I am only his Grandmother.

    Posted by Margaret February 15, 13 09:24 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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