Mum's the Word

At what age can children be left alone?

Posted: Jan. 10, 2018 10:01 am Updated: Jan. 10, 2018 10:31 am

Let's dive in to what I'm guessing will be a very controversial piece.

Yeah! I can't wait for the hate mail.

Just kidding.

I've had so many discussions on when children can be left alone and when they are old enough to babysit. Before I start, I just want to say that this piece is not meant to condone nor judge any of your choices. Please do not use this as a platform.

Illinois law states that children under the age of 14 cannot be left “without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor.”

So ... what is an unreasonable amount of time? If I've regarded their individual abilities and welfare then make my choice accordingly, am I in the clear?

The American Red Cross, in every state, offers a babysitting course for children 11 and older. That suggests to me that if they can be trained as young as 11 and certified, society is deeming 11 an acceptable age to not only be left alone but to be able to care for another child, obviously for a "reasonable period of time."

So far, these are just the facts, not my personal opinion.

If I cross the river to Missouri, there is no legal age limit, and if I go as far as Kansas, instead of 14 being the minimum, insert the age of 6. I once got grounded for riding my bike around the block by myself at 6!

If I go all the way to Japan, my kindergarten-age kids can run to the grocery store, ride all public transport and pretty much make their own way to and from anywhere by themselves.

I don't know if any of this is helpful because it's not relevant. I just wanted a little perspective.

Every day, caring moms ask themselves, is this OK, and then have to make a judgement call. Every day we question things.

Maybe it's filling up the car with gas and the receipt doesn't print out and we're not sure if we paid so we need to ask but to unload all four kids seems crazy.

Maybe it's walking the dog. Is it safer for me to walk the dog or one of the children aged 7-11 to walk the dog? How far can I walk the dog without putting my children's lives in danger? If I can see the house are we cool?

I had a hard time letting my kindergarteners walk to school last year, even though they were accompanied by their two older siblings. Not to mention the school is three blocks away, I could see them the whole way and I know the crossing guard.

If kids can walk unattended to and from school, why can they not stay in the safety of their own home for that amount of time? Maybe if it takes them five minutes to walk to school, they can be in the house alone for five minutes while I walk the dog ... or maybe they can't.

Maybe I'm supposed to meet my soon-to-be teenager at the Junior high and hold her hand the whole way home.

My personal opinion is this: I started babysitting when I was 12. I'm talking in charge of up to three children, including infants. I had to handle all sorts of situations and always knew I could call for help if I needed to. This was back in the day, so I would have to use a land line. Now-a-days, kids 12 and up have their phones glued to their side.

Looking back, I don't think this was unreasonable, nor do I feel it's unreasonable today. Is the world a more dangerous place now or are we just more aware of every bad thing that happens and has ever happened and allow that to make us paranoid? Probably.

I also remember being 10 or 11 and being left in charge of myself for short periods of time. I don't think that was unreasonable and I felt very much capable of watching TV by myself for half-an-hour. It also didn't happen very often as my mom worked for child services and had a healthy (overbearing) amount of paranoia herself.

So, at what age can a child be left unattended or in charge of another child? Are you going to be gone for less than a reasonable amount of time? Did you take the child's welfare into consideration? Then, legally, you're probably OK. But if you live in Illinois and your kids are under 14, you may have to argue your case in front of a jury of your peers.

God forbid you try to free-range raise these kids and turn them loose on their bikes in the neighborhood before their hormones kick in and they want to do nothing.

Good luck, parents.

Jen Reekie was born and raised in Quincy and received a communications degree at the University of Kansas, which has come in quite handy as she communicates every day with four children who don't hear a word she says. This stay-at-home mom enjoys the challenge, though, and shares her experiences in this blog, "Mum's the Word." She welcomes your feedback, questions and stories about staying sane while raising kids.