Home alone. Two words that for the longest time made me think of the 1990 comedy starring Macaulay Caulkin as an 8-year-old boy accidentally left behind while his family flies to France for Christmas.
Now those words make me cringe as Ian, my 10-year-old son, often asks if he can stay at home by himself. My self-proclaimed tween cringes at the word “babysitter” now. Unless it is a trip to retail establishments where one finds toys, sporting goods or video games, Ian has a serious aversion to shopping. On occasion, I have given in — if my time away will be short and I know my husband, Murvin, will arrive home shortly. So that means Ian has been home alone for about a half-hour.
Yes, I know a lot can happen in a half-hour. In fact, I’ve reported on things that happened to other parents who left their children home alone. So you know this is an issue my husband and I wrestled with quite a bit over the summer. I remember staying at home — I was a true latchkey kid — when I was 10. But then things were different then, weren’t they?
One of my favorite go-to experts on these issues is Dr. Daniel Coury, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Confirmation of how complicated this issue is came in his response: “Short answer — there is no ‘right age.’ It depends on several factors.”
Coury says children should know what to do in an emergency, like deal with a minor injury or a fire, clean up broken glass, etc. (of course, if you’re like me and read that list, it is a sure ‘no’ to staying home alone). It is also important, according to Dr. Coury and the parenting website kidshealth.org, that your child be comfortable staying home alone. They remind parents the child should be able to reach you promptly if necessary, which reassures them. Be clear about what’s allowed, what’s not allowed (are friends welcome during your absence, for example) and make sure your child knows what to do if someone knocks at the door.
“Developmentally, children usually are able to meet these criteria by age 11 or 12; some may be ready at age 10,” said Coury. Communications Director Deborrha Armstrong of Franklin County Children Services confirmed there is no law regarding the age when a child is old enough to stay at home alone. Armstrong told me there is no simple answer but parents do have the legal responsibility to supervise and control their child and to provide the basic necessities of life for their child. This includes food, shelter, clothing, medical care and legal help when required.
I will make no judgments but suggest parents take note of the resources available and have some serious conversations about what it means to be ready to be home alone. We’ve talked at my house and agreed to prepare for this major step (with a babysitting course and first-aid training, for example) because as much as Ian will always be my “baby,” he is growing up and I want him to be ready for the challenge.
—Tracy Townsend is a news reporter and anchor with 10TV News HD.