Children grow from pants-pooping, mashed peas-loving, dependent little goobers to opinion-having, self-aware mini-adults seemingly overnight. Meanwhile, parents go from imagining all the accidents that might befall our babies when we look away to longing for them to be more independent.
It's not just that we want them to become healthy, functioning adults; their independence is a matter of necessity. We have jobs, meetings, appointments and errands. We also need time away from our kids to care for ourselves. And, let's be honest, it's also about saving money. Who couldn't put those reclaimed babysitter dollars to good use?
My brother and I had a series of sitters until my parents decided we were old enough — at 10 and 14 — to be latchkey kids. Once my brother left for college and I was truly alone, my after-school routine consisted of me watching "Guiding Light" while eating boxes of Ho Hos. It was theoretical independence, poorly executed. I don't recommend it.
So, how do we know when it's okay to leave our kids home alone? The Child Welfare Information Gateway, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers general guidelines to consider: Is your child physically and mentally able to care for herself? Does your child feel comfortable with the idea? Does he usually follow the rules?
Another essential question: How do we leave them alone? The blog Thirty Handmade Days has a great post called "Guidelines for Leaving Kids Home Alone," which provides basic age-based guidelines for how long children should be left alone. (Under 7? Never. Eleven? Less than three hours, and never at night.) The article also recommends specifically outlining rules: Can the children use the kitchen? Can they go outside? Are they allowed to use electronics?
As always, expert recommendations are best used in conjunction with what you already know about your child. Follow the answer in your gut, and if you think your kid is ready to go solo, plan and prepare for success.
This means creating a list that includes the rules of the house and emergency contacts. Also, provide some structure for how they can spend the time — chores, homework, play — and let them know you'll hold them accountable. Yes, trust is important. But physical, mental and emotional safety are, too. Being home alone is a responsibility and, ideally, involves more than just eating junk food and watching TV.