A "working mom in Kansas" asked Dear Abby this morning how old her child needs to be before she can leave them alone at all. Abby's response can be found here:
Essentially, her answer is never, because something could happen.
Here is my response...
On 8 December, you responded to a working mom that wanted to know at what age a child can be left in the house alone. You responded “I don’t think children should be left alone if there is any alternative…” because “Too many things can go wrong…” This is a classic example of what Lenore Skenazy (www.freerangekids.com) refers to as “worst-first” thinking. Because of rare tragic things that could happen, we will handicap our children’s ability to gain from the many positives associated with this kind of independence. Further, we will handicap this parent’s finances and their ability to shop alone for brief periods of time.
Can you really not imagine any age where a child is capable of being left alone in their home? Not at 8? Or 11? Or 14? Or 17? How is it that these children will learn to be capable adults if they don’t get to practice gaining increments of independence under the (sometimes remote) supervision of their parents or guardians? Is this why, as a professor, I see college students today that are incapable of facing the regular bumps and glitches of daily life without calling on their parents to fix their problems for them?
Perhaps instead of “never”, we can look for indicators that a child is capable of short time periods home alone. In that each child develops differently, the right age for gaining responsibility and freedom will be different. Here is one article highlighting the signs of readiness: http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/home/home_alone.html. After experimenting with leaving them home during short errands, children can gain confidence and earn additional freedoms. Practice can help children gain confidence in solving their own problems on the road to becoming capable adults.
Instead of infantilizing our children due to remote risks, we need to empower them. If you will recall, just a few decades ago, we did that very thing. I was a latch-key kid at nine and babysitting at 11. In the 70’s, this was regular practice. Before you argue that the world was safer then, note that the crime statistics show that life is safer today than it has been since 1970 or earlier. In that time on my own, I learned how to feed myself when I was hungry, how to clean up after myself, how to take care of others, who to call when you need help, and I developed the confidence that I could take care of myself. That experience was invaluable.