In "Brutally Honest" series, Kelly Wallace takes on provocative parenting questions
Only a few states have laws setting a minimum age on when a child can be left home alone
"Trust and verify" when leaving kids home alone overnight, says a family therapist and author
Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when my mom went away for a night and left my older sister and me home alone.
What I remember clearly though is the “talking to” I received when my mom returned and learned from our next-door neighbor that my sister and I had a party, which involved alcohol.
“I’m so disappointed in you,” my mother would say over and over again, which were crushing words for a perfectionist straight-A student, who vowed never to let that happen again.
And it didn’t.
But the story illustrates two challenges for parents: 1) What age is OK to leave your teens home alone overnight? and 2) What if something goes wrong when you do?
Parents can’t really rely on the law for answers, especially since only a few states set a minimum age that a child can be left home alone.
Louise Sattler, a mom of two grown children in Los Angeles, said she never left her kids alone overnight until they were college age because of something that happened to a former colleague.
That colleague left her high school son home alone and had the neighbors check up on him. “Well, lo and behold, kids in the neighborhood found out there was a ‘parent-free zone’ and it all ended up in disaster,” said Sattler, a psychologist, educational consultant and owner of a business providing sign language instruction.
The night resulted in drunken teens, unruly arguments, even a pregnancy, according to Sattler. Some parents also considered suing the teen and his family, she added.
So, to Sattler, the answer was saying no, until college, to any requests from her children to stay home alone overnight and even then, she said she begged them not to advertise their home as “parent-free.”
“You may trust your kid, but in this digital age this is a recipe for chaos and trouble,” she said.
‘Trust and verify’
Tricia Ferrara, a Philadelphia-area licensed family therapist and parenting strategist who has been in private practice for more than a decade, agrees. She said that even if you have done everything right to prepare your child, “a predatory peer” could well pounce on the opportunity to take advantage of you being away.
Her advice is to “trust and verify,” she said. “Kids with a solid track record of good, independent decisions should be given latitude and a long leash but not complete freedom,” added Ferrara, author of the recently released “Parenting 2.0: Think in the Future, Act in the Now.”
Some measure of adult oversight, such as neighbors or a family friend repeatedly checking in, is recommended, she said.
Ferrara also stressed that every child is different in terms of when he or she can be alone, for how long and under what circumstances.
Janis Brett Elspas said the maturity level of each of her kids is one of the main factors in deciding whether they can be left home alone.
She said her oldest was 17 when he was left home alone while the rest of the family went on vacation in a foreign country.
“We really didn’t worry that something would go wrong … because he has proven how responsible he is,” said Brett Elspas, founder of Mommy Blog Expert. “Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about our triplets, now 17, who we have deemed not to be mature enough to be left alone overnight, much less for a week while we travel abroad because they tend to be unintentionally careless.”
Knowing your child can definitely help guide the decision on when it’s OK to leave them alone for the weekend, said Julie Cole, a mother of six and a co-founder of Mabel’s Labels, which provides labels for children’s products and clothing.
“If your kid is a strong, independent older teen who does not get swayed by peers, chances are they are going to respect the family home, and it won’t get destroyed in a house party,” said Cole, who also blogs regularly about parenting.
“If your teenager has friends who are a bit on the cheeky side, and your child seems to be a bit of a follower, I would be reluctant to leave them alone.”
‘He blew it in spades’
Being home alone can be teenagers’ first chance to experience what it feels like to be grown up, but if they make a misstep, it can hurt them for years to come.
That is what Terry Greenwald, a divorced father of three in Alaska, said happened to his then-17-year-old son.
Greenwald worked at a lodge and had an apartment below the lodge, and decided, after much discussion, that he could leave his son alone.
“I found out when I got home that before my plane even left the ground on my departure, he was sneaking his girlfriend through the trees and into the apartment,” Greenwald said. “To this day, it’s something that comes up now and then as it was his first big chance to be grown up, and he blew it in spades.”
Ferrara, the family therapist, said allowing children to stay home alone overnight is a process, not a decision. “Good habits build a capable child,” she said, so preparing them at younger ages by leaving them alone during short, planned outings or errands can help and watching how they respond to minor emergencies can give you a sense of their ability to handle a challenging situation of their own.
Kelli Arena, a mom of three in Houston, has yet to leave her daughter, who just turned 17, alone for a night. Because she has younger kids also (a 13- and 14-year-old), she always felt that it would be too much to expect her daughter to take care of herself and her siblings if she and her husband went away.
“But with the college acceptances pouring on, reality has struck,” said Arena, executive director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at Sam Houston State University. “We need to leave her on her own in a place she is comfortable to help ease the transition.”
Arena said she’s now looking at a time early in the new year she can leave her daughter alone for a weekend.
“We figure it’s a good way for her to be on her own in a familiar environment. Of course, I’ll make sure there is food!”