I will never forget the day my little boy asked me to let him stay home alone. He was barely 5 years old, emboldened by his “secret” Spider Man outfit that he wore under his regular clothes and the fact that Gramma might’ve shown him the movie “Home Alone” without my authorization.
Cultivating the ability for children to be home alone begins in steps from the time we feel comfortable leaving young children in other rooms, to when they first walk or bike to a friend’s house unattended. Being a preschool teacher for so long, I hail from an overall perspective of safety. Preschool children are predictably unpredictable, exhibiting impulsive behaviors that require informed supervision. I often hear of a great desire from parents to provide their often very young children with some of the freedoms that a lot of us might have grown up with.
But at what age to begin allowing children to be left alone? How to prepare them?
This subject was highlighted in a child welfare case in August 2017. A Stapleton-area mom felt comfortable allowing her 4-year-old to walk across the street alone, as the mom watched from the porch, to a park to join a group of children and parents. A nanny on the playground reported what seemed like neglect and the family was later charged.
The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) offers a suggestion of age 12 as an initial age to begin allowing children to endeavor being left alone. In 2018, the department received more calls than ever on its abuse hotline. We certainly do not want to bring up pasty, anti-social couch potato children, but I believe we need to give this issue some informed thought.
The home alone subject has become a hot topic recently as Utah passed a law allowing “free range parenting,” a style of child rearing in which parents allow their children to move about without constant adult supervision, aimed at instilling independence and self-reliance. The National Association of the Education of Young Children considers age 8 and younger as “early childhood,” where children’s brains grow more than ever in their lifetime, and where the range of development (cognitive, physical and emotional) varies the most and is less predictable. States with actual laws about leaving children home alone use age 8 as a developmental starting point. These laws have more specific wording like this: “Ages 7 and under: Cannot be left alone at home during any period of the time. This includes leaving them unattended in cars, backyards and playgrounds. This is a vulnerable age and there would be a high risk to their safety.”
Because of my knowledge of child development and years teaching, I agree with that wording and believe age 8 is a good time to begin these independent endeavors. Parents I interviewed had successful outcomes when leaving their child home alone at this age, beginning with short intervals of time, after assessing their child’s maturity and providing them with the necessary information and tools. As their kids aged and matured, they increased the amount of time being left alone.
With the laws in Colorado being vague, the Stapleton case providing a mirror into how CDHS might look at neglect and mixed messages about free range parenting, I encourage parents to think carefully about this issue and clearly assess where their individual child falls at various ages on the development/maturity continuum. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Human Services and several mom blogs and podcasts help bring to light many of the variables that can be involved and have wonderful and intentional checklists for preparing your child to be alone at various ages. Check out childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/homealone.pdf and kool1079.com/safe-legal-age-child-left-alone-colorado.
My advice regarding the Stapleton mom’s experience would be to develop a clear mutual understanding with the other parents to watch each other’s kids while experimenting with children learning to walk alone. It’s a great idea to create relationships with neighboring parents and adults so you can share information and work together to support each other and the children’s endeavors toward growing freedoms. When unsure, give CDHS a call and also know that if you need support with childcare, they have assistance programs.
I will conclude with a reminder that there are many other ways to offer kids experience with freedom and independence. How about allowing them to make more decisions (see my column last month)? Teach them to use the kitchen and make simple meals. Give them chores. Set limits and hold them accountable so they can demonstrate responsibility. Practice intentional problem solving and role-play how they would handle an emergency situation. Like any parenting challenge, developing these assets requires the steps and time to establish healthy norms that will build as they grow. CDHS has its hands full with cases that are so much more endangering to children. Perhaps we can lighten their load by creating thoughtful plans.
Jill Carstens is a proud Denver native, a passionate mom and a teacher her entire adult life! She picked North Denver as her home base in 1997, and has run Milestones Preschool since 2011. If you have ideas for an article or further questions for Miss Jill, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.