Do a Google News search for "child left home alone" and you'll soon be disturbed by a mom who left her infant home while she went to a bar, a mom who left her preschooler at a park while getting a tattoo, and a mom who left her middle schoolers home while she went on a European vacation.
You'll also be saddened by parents who find themselves in the impossible situation of choosing between their work and their kids and have had to risk danger to their children in order to make ends meet.
What you won't find are accounts of kids who were left home alone and then, in non-newsworthy fashion, were found completely fine or even improved after the experience.
In most reporting, "home alone" is a negative term, a sign of neglectful or forgetful parenting, so much so that parents may now feel guilty about any situation in which their kids are home alone.
The negative connotation associated with "home alone" is not representative of most cases, but it colors parents' decision-making process. Leaving the kids home alone becomes a risk-reward calculation where the risk isn't something bad happening to the child, but rather a parent getting arrested or publicly shamed.
What if staying home alone was viewed as a milestone that kids develop depending on their experience and maturity? What if "home alone" was imagined not as something parents do to kids ("leave them home alone"), but as something kids do for themselves ("stay home alone")?
Defining "home alone" as a developmental milestone
The Child Welfare Information Gateway asserts that staying home alone "can be a positive experience for a child who is mature and well prepared. It can boost the child's confidence and promote independence and responsibility."
One of the main determinants of that readiness is age, which is perhaps why some states have legal minimum ages for being left home alone. In Maryland, it's age eight. In Oregon, it's a more conservative age 10. In Illinois, it's 14, a surprising choice considering that the Red Cross offers babysitting courses to children three years younger than that.
Some states issue guidelines about when it is appropriate to leave a child home alone, from six years (Kansas) to 12 years (Colorado and Delaware).
In states without minimum ages for staying home alone, parents can still be arrested for leaving children home alone at an age that neighbors and/or law enforcement determine is too young.
That was the case with Maryland mother Susan Terrillion, who left her eight- and nine-year-old daughters at their vacation rental in Delaware while she drove to pick up dinner, only to be arrested upon her return for leaving them home alone. Fortunately, the charges against Terrillion were later dropped, but her experience demonstrates the wide range of interpretations about children's ability to stay home alone.
It's certainly possible that kids in Kansas are more mature than the rest of the nation's six-year-olds. But it's more likely that this range of ages suggests that "home alone," like all milestones, takes place on a spectrum.
Does walking to the mail room on the first floor of an apartment building count as leaving a child home alone? What about walking to a cluster of mailboxes down the street? What about leaving them in a locked hotel room while you retrieve a package from the front desk?
All of these situations are different from grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, date nights, and business trips, suggesting that proximity can help you determine whether or not it's appropriate to leave a child home alone.
Quiz: Is your child ready to stay home alone?
Social worker Ruthie Arbit outlines four main determinants in an interview for the Washington Post, which include:
Safety – Is your child prepared to handle emergencies?
Responsibility – Can your child complete basic household and self-care tasks without reminders?
Cognitive readiness – Can your child stay clear and focused even when things go wrong?
Emotional readiness – Can you leave the house without your child collapsing into tears?
These four factors are a useful way to gauge your child's readiness to stay home alone. Of course, it's important to have conversations about safety, and even run "what if?" scenarios to help prepare your child to stay home alone.
But all of this preparation may not be as useful as a single question that you can ask each time you want to let your children stay home alone: How would you react to the headline if you read about yourself in the news?
"Area mom arrested for leaving her three-year-old home alone while she returned the neighbor's snowblower." That's ridiculous. Return away.
"Man arrested for leaving 10-year-old home alone while buying milk." Also ridiculous. That child deserves to test his independence and responsibility.
"Vacationing mom arrested for leaving seven-year-old home alone while she went to the bar." That's not great. Even if the child is nearly ready to be home alone, it sounds like the person benefiting from the home alone time is the parent, not the child.
"Dad arrested for leaving baby in crib while he went to work." That's criminal.
Bonus Quiz: What should you do when someone else's kids are home alone?
When we see other kids left alone, we jump right to click-bait headlines and assume the worst of parents. Instead of leaping to judgment, we should do the same careful thinking about developmental milestones that we do with our own children.
Again, consider the headlines:
"Dad arrested after neighbor notices baby left alone overnight." By all means, call. Even better, offer help before things get to that point.
"Mom arrested after neighbor sees eight-year-old playing alone in the street." That's legal in most states. Just keep an eye or an ear on the house.
The same goes for a kid you see alone in a car. Hot car deaths do indeed happen, but not nearly so frequently as we think, and rarely after a couple of minutes. Before you start calling police or smashing windows to rescue an eight-year-old on an iPad, consider just watching for a few minutes.
How's the kid doing? Is she in distress? Might she even be enjoying the responsibility she is practicing? If you were her parent, would you be scared for her? Would you be proud of her?
In short, instead of looking at children left alone as their parents' moral failing, consider viewing those children as growing people reaching an important milestone.