Leave a child home alone overnight?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 25, 2010 06:00 AM

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Question: At what age can you leave children alone overnight?

From: Dunia Mars, Central Isli



Hi Dunia Mars,

This is not a decision to base on age: Maturity is what matters. Not to mention peer groups.

Let's say for a minute that this is just about your child. Does she or he refuse to go to the basement at night? (Full disclosure: that's the first thing that comes to my mind because I was a teenager who was scared to go to the basement at night.) Flinch at unusual noises? Panic in the face of the unexpected? Hate to be by herself? Show poor judgment in general? If you give her a list of what-if scenarios (What if you smell smoke? What if the electricity goes out?), does she answer thoughtfully or insist the exercise is stupid?

You get my point: if this is a person who is mature, she'd be able to handle these potential pitfalls. Here's the other critical point: Does she want to stay alone or is it that you want her to want to stay alone?  There's a huge difference. I would never leave a child unless she or he is more than willing to be left, not just OK with it, but really insisting.

If you want to talk ages here. we're probably talking 16. But here's the other problem:

The typical child 16 or older has friends. Don't insist on making your teen promise that no friends will be there. It's an impossible promise. Instead, talk through the possibilities. He gets bored/lonely/uncomfortable and wants his best friend to come. His BF texts his girlfriend. Yadayada.

Which brings me to this question: Why put your child in this position? The risk just isn't worth it.

If you have to go away overnight, surely there is some friend he can stay with. And once you talk it out with your child, that will be his preference, too.

I'm anxious to hear what parents have done in this situation. 

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.


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20 comments so far...
  1. The trouble here is that at the exact same time the teen becomes mature enough to handle being left alone overnight (in the sense of not being scared; able to handle emergencies), he or she becomes old enough to capitalize on the opportunity - i.e., raise heck.

    I recall "finally" being left alone for a weekend when I was 17 and my sister was 16. We did not get arrested, pregnant, or burn the house down - but we did have a house full of friends and a whole lot of beer. I had a terrific time, but looking back, there was an obvious potential for disaster. I took advantage of my parents' naivete and misplaced trust. I don't think I'd do the same with my own kids.

    Posted by Q March 25, 10 11:05 AM
  1. I think it's probably a good idea to do it a few times junior and senior year...they need to learn how to be responsible in that kind of scenario before they go to college.

    Posted by C March 25, 10 11:27 AM
  1. After reading the story on boston.com about the mom coming back to $45,000 in damages from her son's "friends" partying at her house, I would say they can stay home alone over night when they have their own apartment! :-)

    Editor's Note: Here is the story "am" mentions

    Posted by am March 25, 10 11:59 AM
  1. I would not recommend leaving any child -even a 20 year old adult child (!) at home overnight without a neighbor, friend or relative doing a spot check. I know it sounds extreme, but I know of many episodes where parents left and their house became party central (I confess I attended a few of those parties as a kid!). A few years ago my sister and B-I-L left their 21 year old college student son home alone so they could spend the weekend on the Cape -only 50 miles away. 24 hours into the weekend, they received a call from their hometown police department regarding a case 'disturbing the peace'. In my nephew's defense, he only a had a few friends over for a beer and BBQ. The problems started when other young 20-somethings in town heard my nephew was home alone and crashed the small cookout. My nephew and his friends were overwhelmed and could not get the 'crashers' (who were quite liquored-up before arriving) to leave. The crashers were causing property damage and getting boisterous. My nephew actually called the police himself! Needless to say-now when my sister goes away, she locks up the house and hires a pet sitter to come by and feed the cat. After that episode, my nephew spent weekend my sister was away with friends or with his 30-year old married brother and his wife!

    Posted by Bambinosmom March 25, 10 01:46 PM
  1. I was thinking the exact same thing that "am" posted. I would have thought that before the story as well, based on my own experience. I was a "good" kid in high school - the kind of kid you would trust with an empty house - and all of my friends were too but you can bet that when someone's parents were out of town, the temptation to play grown up was very strong. For some kids it's the temptation to have a party or even have a few friends over, who then bring more friends, etc. and for others, it's the first chance to be alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend without worrying about cops knocking on a steamy car window. In any case, the parents in my crowd were smart enough to have a relative stay over if they were out of town so anything that looked like a possible opportunity was squelched.

    I will NEVER let my kids be home alone overnight until they're college age and even then it will depend on their maturity.

    Posted by Jen March 25, 10 01:51 PM
  1. If you don't TEACH your children how to take care of themselves and handle peer pressure (i.e., that there are consequences to their actions), you're doing them a disservice. Then paying $$$ to send them off to college when they're truly going to be on their own for the first time and have absolutely no idea how to handle themselves. Those are the kids that go completely hog wild and end up in scarily bad situations.

    Responsibility and accountability go hand in hand. Sadly, it's sorely lacking in both teens and their parents.

    Posted by Anon March 25, 10 04:11 PM
  1. A 21 year old is NOT a child. They are an adult, and should act like one.

    I was not left alone overnight as a teen, although I did have many other responsibilities. I would not have held a party (my dad was a cop - great way to reduce teen hijinx), but my parents would not have left me anyway. They had no reason. If we went away, we went as a family, or I went to resident camp or something. They didn't have any particular needs to travel without us. They did however make me get a job, pay for expenses such as commuting to my distant high school and my prom dress, and allow me to have a lot of leadership opportunities through scouting. There are lots of ways to teach kids responsibility, without tempting them by leaving them home alone.

    Posted by BMS March 25, 10 05:28 PM
  1. You go away, they will have friends and alcohol, pot (and maybe more) over. No question, no exceptions.

    If you're cool with that, go for it.

    Posted by Jimmy March 25, 10 07:17 PM
  1. Bambinosmom--are you KIDDING ME????? At 20 I had my own apartment, and no one was assigning a babysitter to look after me there.

    Why do we infantilize teenagers? Yes, there are bound to be mistakes, but cases like the 45k in damages are the EXCEPTION, and why it's a news story in the first place.

    No wonder there are so many young adults who are incapable of doing anything for themselves---I often think I trust my 16 month old to do things on her own more than some people trust their 5 year olds.

    Posted by c March 25, 10 08:15 PM
  1. Are you people serious?
    At age 18, my grandmother had been married for several years and was running her own household, which included caring for a toddler and an infant, while my grandfather (in his early twenties) worked in a coal mine as the sole breadwinner for his family.
    At age 15, my father had to quit school to care for his ailing grandparents (his parents were out of the picture). He ran an entire farm all by himself and had zero financial assistance from anyone.
    Don't get me started on my great-grandfathers, both of whom started earning serious money working as coal miners when they were 9--year 9!!!---years old.
    I'm not advocating child labor here, but honestly, if young people from previous generations managed to handle adult responsibilities from such an early age, is it really so much to expect that a 16- or 17-year-old--not to mention a twenty-something who is legally an adult!--should be able to handle a night or two alone? When did we turn into a nation that coddles the maturity right out of our children?
    16-year-olds have fought and died for this country.
    18-year-olds can vote in elections.
    Let's stop treating them like babies.

    Posted by Robin March 25, 10 08:33 PM
  1. Sorry, Jimmy, but there are plenty of kids out there who did not ever have friends, alcohol, or pot in the house when our parents left us for a night.

    For me and my siblings, we knew our cop neighbor would be over in a second if he saw unusual activity in the house and no parents' cars in the driveway. Our parents instilled in us that there were severe consequences for our actions. If we broke that trust, we wouldn't get it again. Believe it or not, we RESPECTED our parents enough not to do it. And our friends' parents were involved enough to know where their kids were going and whether or not they would be supervised. It's not rocket science. It's common sense.

    I'm with Robin. This is ridiculous.

    Posted by Eliza March 26, 10 08:51 AM
  1. I am 24 years old, graduated from college, I have a full time job but still living at home with my parents to save enough money so I can move out on my own and not worry about money. But anyways my parents didnt leave me home alone until I was 21. Probably because they assumed that if I was going to have friends over at least I would drink legally. In fact, whenever they go away I tend to not party as much and just stay in and relax with a couple of friends have a BBQ and drink beers and enjoy no parents being home. Bambinosmom, your nephew did the responsible thing have friends over for a relaxing night have BBQ and beer but it got out of hand and he handled it properly by calling the police. You and his parents should be applauding him for that.

    Posted by Mike March 26, 10 09:00 AM
  1. Every teen is different. I never had friends over if my mother was away but my brother took advantage of that opportunity at every turn. Same parent, different children.

    If you have to ask if your kid is ready you probably already know he or she is not. You know your child best, go with your gut.

    Posted by sandra March 26, 10 09:58 AM
  1. Myself and two younger siblings were left home alone every Saturday night while my father worked the overnight shift att he Boston Globe (worked two jobs - single parent). I was a sophomore in high school when he started. We never had an issue because I was disciplined by my parents and knew what would happen if I ever tried anything.
    Maybe if parents started disciplining their kids, instilling a little fear, and teaching them how to be independent we wouldn't have these issues

    Posted by nesie2447 March 26, 10 12:41 PM
  1. I thought this story on NPR was interesting regarding the actual development of teenagers' brains.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124119468

    Posted by poppy609 March 29, 10 02:15 PM
  1. omg, are you kidding? A 16-year-old who has exhibited good decision-making and trustworthiness should be able to stay alone with a BFF for the night. The parent needs to make it clear that if the teen messes up, then there will be very serious consequences.

    If the teen is a good kid (and you have a good neighbor), then trust him/her.

    If you don't trust your child to stay alone before going off to college, then you should not be trusting your child to go off to college.

    STOP HOVERING!!!!

    Posted by Cosmogirl April 2, 10 11:37 AM
  1. Oh no! Oh my gosh it is so irresponsible to leave a kid alone overnight even at 16. What if by some odd chance, say, the kid cut himself while making dinner or fell and sprained an ankle or lost a filling or something. He couldn't even go to the doctor without a guardian. Can't do that, no. They need someone around till they're 18.

    Now I don't mean hover -- by all means make them independent and don't interfere with that. But you gotta still be there in the background to pick up the pieces if --- no, I mean when they fall.

    Posted by lydia August 5, 10 08:06 PM
  1. I am contemplating this very thing. Leaving my 17 yr old son home to take care of house and dogs overnight. Honestly, I don't think he's going to do anything he and his buddies don't already do in someones basement. I'm not worried about a party-that's not his style. He does not have a girlfirend so no worries there. He's pretty mature and I know he does not drink. Pot? Probably, but if he's going to do that I whould rather it be at home where he's not going to get arrested (NOT condoning, just realistic). I am just torn. I want to foster his sense of independence but am just a little hesitant. If this was his (now 23) yr old sister? Would not have given it a 2nd thought-she was so mature and level headed. Ugggg

    Posted by donna December 28, 11 04:38 PM
  1. Parents need to get over it. I am 17, straight edge, a serious (possibly collegiate) athlete and I would never pull anything like this thought my clOsest neighbor is roughly .5mi away. I get great grades, ranked 14th in my class and yet my parents won't even let me stay home alone for 2 nights so I can go to my sports practice instead of going to some stupid cottage up north on a lake, even though we live on a lake here. Seriously? We kids are capable of more than you think. I can survive two days without crying for my mommy or catching the house on fire.

    Posted by MackieV June 18, 12 11:16 PM
  1. The first time we left our 17 year old alone overnight he had a big party got caught and we sent a friend over to break it up, my son hated it he didn't like the responsibility of all his friends coming over and drinking and jumping into the pool he learned a valuable lesson and keeps it quiet with just one or two friends we have since left both our boys age 16 and 18 for up to a week and things have been fine ever sinc,axpctuallyhas made them more responsible!

    Posted by Marge Hoffman January 9, 13 06:48 PM
 
20 comments so far...
  1. The trouble here is that at the exact same time the teen becomes mature enough to handle being left alone overnight (in the sense of not being scared; able to handle emergencies), he or she becomes old enough to capitalize on the opportunity - i.e., raise heck.

    I recall "finally" being left alone for a weekend when I was 17 and my sister was 16. We did not get arrested, pregnant, or burn the house down - but we did have a house full of friends and a whole lot of beer. I had a terrific time, but looking back, there was an obvious potential for disaster. I took advantage of my parents' naivete and misplaced trust. I don't think I'd do the same with my own kids.

    Posted by Q March 25, 10 11:05 AM
  1. I think it's probably a good idea to do it a few times junior and senior year...they need to learn how to be responsible in that kind of scenario before they go to college.

    Posted by C March 25, 10 11:27 AM
  1. After reading the story on boston.com about the mom coming back to $45,000 in damages from her son's "friends" partying at her house, I would say they can stay home alone over night when they have their own apartment! :-)

    Editor's Note: Here is the story "am" mentions

    Posted by am March 25, 10 11:59 AM
  1. I would not recommend leaving any child -even a 20 year old adult child (!) at home overnight without a neighbor, friend or relative doing a spot check. I know it sounds extreme, but I know of many episodes where parents left and their house became party central (I confess I attended a few of those parties as a kid!). A few years ago my sister and B-I-L left their 21 year old college student son home alone so they could spend the weekend on the Cape -only 50 miles away. 24 hours into the weekend, they received a call from their hometown police department regarding a case 'disturbing the peace'. In my nephew's defense, he only a had a few friends over for a beer and BBQ. The problems started when other young 20-somethings in town heard my nephew was home alone and crashed the small cookout. My nephew and his friends were overwhelmed and could not get the 'crashers' (who were quite liquored-up before arriving) to leave. The crashers were causing property damage and getting boisterous. My nephew actually called the police himself! Needless to say-now when my sister goes away, she locks up the house and hires a pet sitter to come by and feed the cat. After that episode, my nephew spent weekend my sister was away with friends or with his 30-year old married brother and his wife!

    Posted by Bambinosmom March 25, 10 01:46 PM
  1. I was thinking the exact same thing that "am" posted. I would have thought that before the story as well, based on my own experience. I was a "good" kid in high school - the kind of kid you would trust with an empty house - and all of my friends were too but you can bet that when someone's parents were out of town, the temptation to play grown up was very strong. For some kids it's the temptation to have a party or even have a few friends over, who then bring more friends, etc. and for others, it's the first chance to be alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend without worrying about cops knocking on a steamy car window. In any case, the parents in my crowd were smart enough to have a relative stay over if they were out of town so anything that looked like a possible opportunity was squelched.

    I will NEVER let my kids be home alone overnight until they're college age and even then it will depend on their maturity.

    Posted by Jen March 25, 10 01:51 PM
  1. If you don't TEACH your children how to take care of themselves and handle peer pressure (i.e., that there are consequences to their actions), you're doing them a disservice. Then paying $$$ to send them off to college when they're truly going to be on their own for the first time and have absolutely no idea how to handle themselves. Those are the kids that go completely hog wild and end up in scarily bad situations.

    Responsibility and accountability go hand in hand. Sadly, it's sorely lacking in both teens and their parents.

    Posted by Anon March 25, 10 04:11 PM
  1. A 21 year old is NOT a child. They are an adult, and should act like one.

    I was not left alone overnight as a teen, although I did have many other responsibilities. I would not have held a party (my dad was a cop - great way to reduce teen hijinx), but my parents would not have left me anyway. They had no reason. If we went away, we went as a family, or I went to resident camp or something. They didn't have any particular needs to travel without us. They did however make me get a job, pay for expenses such as commuting to my distant high school and my prom dress, and allow me to have a lot of leadership opportunities through scouting. There are lots of ways to teach kids responsibility, without tempting them by leaving them home alone.

    Posted by BMS March 25, 10 05:28 PM
  1. You go away, they will have friends and alcohol, pot (and maybe more) over. No question, no exceptions.

    If you're cool with that, go for it.

    Posted by Jimmy March 25, 10 07:17 PM
  1. Bambinosmom--are you KIDDING ME????? At 20 I had my own apartment, and no one was assigning a babysitter to look after me there.

    Why do we infantilize teenagers? Yes, there are bound to be mistakes, but cases like the 45k in damages are the EXCEPTION, and why it's a news story in the first place.

    No wonder there are so many young adults who are incapable of doing anything for themselves---I often think I trust my 16 month old to do things on her own more than some people trust their 5 year olds.

    Posted by c March 25, 10 08:15 PM
  1. Are you people serious?
    At age 18, my grandmother had been married for several years and was running her own household, which included caring for a toddler and an infant, while my grandfather (in his early twenties) worked in a coal mine as the sole breadwinner for his family.
    At age 15, my father had to quit school to care for his ailing grandparents (his parents were out of the picture). He ran an entire farm all by himself and had zero financial assistance from anyone.
    Don't get me started on my great-grandfathers, both of whom started earning serious money working as coal miners when they were 9--year 9!!!---years old.
    I'm not advocating child labor here, but honestly, if young people from previous generations managed to handle adult responsibilities from such an early age, is it really so much to expect that a 16- or 17-year-old--not to mention a twenty-something who is legally an adult!--should be able to handle a night or two alone? When did we turn into a nation that coddles the maturity right out of our children?
    16-year-olds have fought and died for this country.
    18-year-olds can vote in elections.
    Let's stop treating them like babies.

    Posted by Robin March 25, 10 08:33 PM
  1. Sorry, Jimmy, but there are plenty of kids out there who did not ever have friends, alcohol, or pot in the house when our parents left us for a night.

    For me and my siblings, we knew our cop neighbor would be over in a second if he saw unusual activity in the house and no parents' cars in the driveway. Our parents instilled in us that there were severe consequences for our actions. If we broke that trust, we wouldn't get it again. Believe it or not, we RESPECTED our parents enough not to do it. And our friends' parents were involved enough to know where their kids were going and whether or not they would be supervised. It's not rocket science. It's common sense.

    I'm with Robin. This is ridiculous.

    Posted by Eliza March 26, 10 08:51 AM
  1. I am 24 years old, graduated from college, I have a full time job but still living at home with my parents to save enough money so I can move out on my own and not worry about money. But anyways my parents didnt leave me home alone until I was 21. Probably because they assumed that if I was going to have friends over at least I would drink legally. In fact, whenever they go away I tend to not party as much and just stay in and relax with a couple of friends have a BBQ and drink beers and enjoy no parents being home. Bambinosmom, your nephew did the responsible thing have friends over for a relaxing night have BBQ and beer but it got out of hand and he handled it properly by calling the police. You and his parents should be applauding him for that.

    Posted by Mike March 26, 10 09:00 AM
  1. Every teen is different. I never had friends over if my mother was away but my brother took advantage of that opportunity at every turn. Same parent, different children.

    If you have to ask if your kid is ready you probably already know he or she is not. You know your child best, go with your gut.

    Posted by sandra March 26, 10 09:58 AM
  1. Myself and two younger siblings were left home alone every Saturday night while my father worked the overnight shift att he Boston Globe (worked two jobs - single parent). I was a sophomore in high school when he started. We never had an issue because I was disciplined by my parents and knew what would happen if I ever tried anything.
    Maybe if parents started disciplining their kids, instilling a little fear, and teaching them how to be independent we wouldn't have these issues

    Posted by nesie2447 March 26, 10 12:41 PM
  1. I thought this story on NPR was interesting regarding the actual development of teenagers' brains.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124119468

    Posted by poppy609 March 29, 10 02:15 PM
  1. omg, are you kidding? A 16-year-old who has exhibited good decision-making and trustworthiness should be able to stay alone with a BFF for the night. The parent needs to make it clear that if the teen messes up, then there will be very serious consequences.

    If the teen is a good kid (and you have a good neighbor), then trust him/her.

    If you don't trust your child to stay alone before going off to college, then you should not be trusting your child to go off to college.

    STOP HOVERING!!!!

    Posted by Cosmogirl April 2, 10 11:37 AM
  1. Oh no! Oh my gosh it is so irresponsible to leave a kid alone overnight even at 16. What if by some odd chance, say, the kid cut himself while making dinner or fell and sprained an ankle or lost a filling or something. He couldn't even go to the doctor without a guardian. Can't do that, no. They need someone around till they're 18.

    Now I don't mean hover -- by all means make them independent and don't interfere with that. But you gotta still be there in the background to pick up the pieces if --- no, I mean when they fall.

    Posted by lydia August 5, 10 08:06 PM
  1. I am contemplating this very thing. Leaving my 17 yr old son home to take care of house and dogs overnight. Honestly, I don't think he's going to do anything he and his buddies don't already do in someones basement. I'm not worried about a party-that's not his style. He does not have a girlfirend so no worries there. He's pretty mature and I know he does not drink. Pot? Probably, but if he's going to do that I whould rather it be at home where he's not going to get arrested (NOT condoning, just realistic). I am just torn. I want to foster his sense of independence but am just a little hesitant. If this was his (now 23) yr old sister? Would not have given it a 2nd thought-she was so mature and level headed. Ugggg

    Posted by donna December 28, 11 04:38 PM
  1. Parents need to get over it. I am 17, straight edge, a serious (possibly collegiate) athlete and I would never pull anything like this thought my clOsest neighbor is roughly .5mi away. I get great grades, ranked 14th in my class and yet my parents won't even let me stay home alone for 2 nights so I can go to my sports practice instead of going to some stupid cottage up north on a lake, even though we live on a lake here. Seriously? We kids are capable of more than you think. I can survive two days without crying for my mommy or catching the house on fire.

    Posted by MackieV June 18, 12 11:16 PM
  1. The first time we left our 17 year old alone overnight he had a big party got caught and we sent a friend over to break it up, my son hated it he didn't like the responsibility of all his friends coming over and drinking and jumping into the pool he learned a valuable lesson and keeps it quiet with just one or two friends we have since left both our boys age 16 and 18 for up to a week and things have been fine ever sinc,axpctuallyhas made them more responsible!

    Posted by Marge Hoffman January 9, 13 06:48 PM
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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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