Quick: At what point is your child ready to be left unsupervised? As in, without you? It happens, eventually. But figuring out the “when” and the “how” depends on a lot of things—and age is maybe the least of them.
Check out what other parents said about their kids’ readiness for independence in the Pew Research Center’s recent “Parenting in America” survey. Here’s how they answered three key questions:
Average age a child should be able to…
- Play outside in front of their own house unsupervised (with an adult inside): 10
- Stay home alone for an hour: 12
- Spend time at a public park unsupervised: 14
Surprised? Satisfied? Shocked? Horrified? Do those ages seem too old? Too young? About right?
Our feelings about the “right” age to turn our kids loose depend on a surprising number of factors—which means there isn’t really a fixed “best” age, says Sarah C. Bauer, developmental pediatrician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University.
For starters, she told me, consider…
Where you live: Parents in the Pew study who rated their neighborhood as “excellent” or “very good” were comfortable letting their kids go unsupervised a full year earlier than the average answers given above. Those who said their neighborhood was “fair” or “poor,” on the other hand, felt kids should be 11 to play outside of their own homes and 15 to go to a park alone—a full year later than the averages. Then there are differences of setting: A front yard facing a busy street just isn’t the same as one on a quiet cul de sac. A public park may be sleepy in one area but known for sketchy characters in another.
Only three states have set laws about the age kids can stay home alone: Illinois (14), Maryland (8), and Oregon (10).
Your child’s development: The “right” age to be left unsupervised is more about developmental age than how many birthdays, Bauer says. Some kids are more mature and independent earlier than others. She works with a lot of children with autism and learning differences, whose parents “tend to be pretty cautious,” she says.
Your family background: If you have fond memories of being a free-range kid long before that label was ever invented, you might tilt that way as a parent. If your parents kept you close, lots of supervision might seem more natural to you. Culture also plays a big role. In the Pew study, Hispanics gave older ages for the three situations than did blacks or whites.
Your parenting style: We all know there’s a whole spectrum of approaches about this.
Even the strongest advocates of free-range parenting wouldn’t leave an 8-year-old to fend for himself while they head to Europe (see: Home Alone). But sooner or later, Bauer says—certainly some time before they graduate from high school—our kids want, and need, to play alone and stay home alone.
To move toward that day, she told me, it helps to keep these things in mind:
Remember that getting out from under us is a natural part of growing up. Ultimately, we want confident, responsible kids who can navigate the world by themselves. Getting practice being away from adult supervision is a key way kids learn this. “It’s a lot like when your baby was learning to sleep or feed himself or dress herself,” Bauer says. “You have to know when to be able to pull away and let your child try.”
Follow your child’s lead. Ideally, you build confidence by letting kids try things when they show interest, Bauer says. You don’t want to supervise so incessantly that they become either frustrated or complacent and fearful.
Put risks into perspective. It’s true that we live in a world of many dangers (although “stranger danger” is often exaggerated). But it’s impossible to keep our eyes on our kids 24/7 until college. And not every situation is the same. Better to gradually teach our kids how to be alert and smart when they’re developmentally ready. Kids lose out by not practicing the skills of independence in safe ways, Bauer says.
If you’re nervous, break it into smaller steps. “Find ways to give your child a feeling of independence and mastery, while feeling comfortable yourself,” Bauer suggests. If letting your child outside alone doesn’t seem realistic, what would you feel comfortable with? Maybe you let your child play in the backyard while you watch out the window at first, for example. Maybe you first leave your child in the house while you’re working in the yard, and later when you walk around the block.
Practice basic “what ifs.” Play-acting hypothetical situations is one of the best ways to teach safety. What if the phone rings? What if you cut your knee? What if someone invites you to look at their puppy in their car?
Clarify the rules. Examples: No leaving the yard without asking. No having friends over when you’re home alone. If the doorbell rings, it’s okay to ignore it. Be home before dark. Sounds obvious, but this falls into the category of Things Kids Don’t Know Unless You Tell ‘Em.
What’s the bottom line?
Like anything involving our kids, it’s a long process. “Unsupervised” is a scary word, especially when our goal from birth has been to keep a careful, watchful eye on our kids—to keep them safe.
After looking at all the data, Bauer has a simple conclusion: “It’s a personal decision.”
We all get there, she told me—just on different timetables.