Laws, experts, and parents disagree on what age a child is mature enough to be left at home unsupervised.

By Ellen Sturm Niz
children walking home from school with colorful backpacks
Credit: Shutterstock

One day in the mid 1980s, when I was about 11, I came home from school and turned on the TV. An after-school special was on about "latchkey kids" and their sad, sad lives—left alone at home while their parents worked, at risk of danger and getting into shenanigans. I felt really bad for these poor latchkey kids, and then I realized, "Wait, I'm alone after school because my parents are at work. I'm a latchkey kid!" But I actually enjoyed being alone, wasn't about to turn on the stove and risk burning the house down, and didn't feel vulnerable to bad influences luring me into taboo activities. "Hmm," I thought. "I think this after-school special might be over-dramatizing things a bit."

Fast-forward three decades and the debate over if and when kids should be left alone rages on. Just this week, Canada's British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that an 8-year-old boy is too young to stay at home alone from 3 to 5 p.m., no matter how mature his mother believes him to be. While a social worker testified in the court case that children younger than 10 lack the cognitive ability to stay safe on their own due to potential incidents including accidental poisoning or fires, John-Paul Boyd, executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, told CBCNews he agrees with the child's mother that children mature at different ages and there's no legal definition of when a child is old enough to be left on their own.

"There are 7-year-old kids that I would trust with the keys to my house, and 17-year-old kids I would never trust with the keys to my house," Boyd said. "It's a parent's right to decide whether or not her particular child is old enough and mature enough to handle those decisions on his own."

Of course, there's been tons of coverage of free-range parenting lately, in which parents don't leave their kids alone at home but let them out into the world unsupervised. In many cases, the laws police and other authorities look to when deciding if a child is too young to walk to the park by himself are actually laws about the age at which a kid can be left at home unsupervised. The catch is that nobody agrees on what the age is: States' recommendations or laws range from age 6 to 14, and almost three-fourths of states actually don't have any age requirements at all.

So, what's a parent to do? Trying to decide when my nearly-9-year-old daughter will be allowed to walk the four blocks home from school alone or stay unsupervised in the apartment while I run to the store makes my head spin. I keep thinking I'll just instinctually know when she's ready, but I'm starting to think it may always feel a little uncomfortable until we try it and she and I (and her dad) develop confidence in this new level of responsibility.

There are so many risks that we have to let our kids undertake—riding a bike, going to a new friend's house, trying out for the school play—or else they won't grow and develop. As parents, we have to assess the risk vs. the reward, of course, but nothing is ever completely safe. Unless we plan on keeping them in a bubble forever, we're going to have to let them do things that carry some level of danger. The trick is knowing when and where to draw the line. I, for one, haven't figured it out yet.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who was shocked at the number of celebrities who starred in ABC Afterschool Specials. Check out Ellen's new Etsy shop and ollow her on Twitter and Pinterest.