Latchkey kids should be at least 10, experts say

BOISE, Idaho — Are 8-year-olds ready to stay home alone after school for the hour or two it takes their working parents to walk through the door? And what about summer, when kids are out of school all day while parents work? With household budgets stretched tight, more working parents wonder how to keep their “tweens” — kids ages 8 to 14 — out of trouble.

Most states don’t have laws requiring kids to reach a certain age before they stay home unsupervised. Authorities generally get involved only when kids appear to be in danger or if someone calls them.

“The run-of-the-mill 9-year-old who is home from school in third-grade and (his mom) runs to Albertsons” does not usually come to the attention of authorities, said Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Jean Fisher, supervisor for crimes against children.

With 8-year-olds, issues are not so cut and dried. It comes down to when parents get home and whether there is a backup plan if they are late, Fisher, who is a mother herself, said.

“It is kind of a personal preference issue, based on what they feel their child can handle,” said Joey Schueler, director of the Meridian, Idaho, Boys & Girls Club.

Schueler was a latchkey kid, and he doesn’t recommend it. He was lonely when he was younger, and he got into trouble when he was older. The bottom line is that it depends on each child’s maturity, most experts say. Some kids may be ready at 10; some kids may not be ready until much later.

Fisher leans toward children being older than 10 before Mom and Dad leave them alone for several hours at a time. Younger children can’t necessarily be expected to decide when to answer the doorbell or what to do if they flip through TV channels to a scary movie, Fisher said.

“Is that really a responsibility you want to put on a 10-year-old, no matter what the circumstances?” Fisher asked.

The issue gets even more confusing, because experts do not agree.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s CareLine 2-1-1 takes a very conservative approach. An informational page on the CareLine Web site says, “Many experts believe a child should be at least 12 before being left home alone, and at least 15 before your child can care for a younger sibling.” “These are the minimum ages,” the site tells parents. “Not every child is ready then.” However, some children are babysitting other kids by the time they are about 11.

Many local hospitals and other organizations sponsor classes to help kids prepare for the job. For instance, St. Luke’s Health System, based in Boise, offers very popular baby-sitting classes for 11- to 13-year-olds who want to earn extra money.

“It’s a great class that gives kids hands-on skills for baby-sitting,” said Sherry Iverson, executive director of the Idaho chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Siblings add a wrinkle. Leaving children who are close in age and generally get along together is good. Leaving a 9-year-old with a 1-year-old isn’t. Being completely alone isn’t necessarily better because some children get lonely.

Anecdotally, it appears many parents feel comfortable with 9-year-olds, or kids in third grade and up, staying home alone until 5 or 5:30 p.m., said Jeanne Buschine, coordinator of counseling services for the Meridian School District.