How young is too young to leave your kids home alone?

Hear from experts, parents about the right age

ROANOKE, Va. – How young is too young to leave your kids home alone?

Only a few states have laws regarding the a minimum age kids can be left unsupervised. In Maryland it's 8 and Illinois it's 14. Everywhere else, there are suggested ages or it's simply up for debate -- as in Virginia.

It's a tough question for which every parent has a different answer.

"Well, we set a rule in our house at the age of 12," said Andrea Carter, a mom of three. "I have one child that maybe wouldn't be left home alone at 12 and another that would most definitely be ready to."

Edel Rath has two boys.

"I would say 12, 13," Rath said. 

Roanoke City Family Services Manager Susan Reese said it's not just about a number:
"The maturity of the child, if there are any medical issues, if there are any developmental issues. It's not just based on chronological age," Reese said.
There are guidelines every parent should follow, according to Child Protective Services supervisor Don Goss.
"No child under the age of, you know, 12 should be supervising other kids and children 9 and under should not be left alone at any time," Goss said.

What about older siblings watching younger brothers and sisters? Reese said parents need to consider a few factors.
"Are they capable of taking care of younger children? Do they have that relationship where they're going to go by what older brother or sister tells them to do?" Reese said.

Knowing whether or not to leave your kids alone overnight is another difficult decision.

"I believe it depends on how much you've taught your children to be independent, what to do if there is an emergency, how to reach out to other people," Rath said.
Even older kids can get into trouble. That's exactly what happened to Rath's youngest son when he had the house to himself for the first time as a teen.
"I knew something was up and I go, 'What did you do?'" Rath said. "He goes, 'Oh mom, all I did was snowboard off the roof. Don't worry I missed the car and I'm OK.'"
Would a law in Virginia help keep children safer? Not necessarily, according to experts.
"I think having it too tightly defined would allow for a lot of loopholes," Goss said. "Parents could say the child is this age, but they're overlooking another issue."
The risks are real. Guardians could face jail time and kids could get hurt or worse. But if you do decide your children are old enough:

1. Set ground rules.

"There will be no screen time while we're gone. At first, it will probably be no cooking, no using the stove and probably also no friends over as well," Carter said.

"No friends over. Don't try touching the stove," said Jessica Ricker, a mom of two.

2. Make sure kids memorize their full name, guardian's full names, address and emergency phone numbers or post them where kids can see.
3. Let trusted family, friends or neighbors know your kids will be home alone
4. Check in several times while you're away.
5. Make an emergency plan if they need to call 911.

"Just go over all the things that could possibly happen," Ricker said.
Experts and guardians agree it's a personal parenting decision that's never easy to make.

"Just use common sense," Rath said.

"I'm more nervous than they are. They'll be excited for me to leave and then I'll get to panic when I'm not at home," Carter said. "It'll be a short trip wherever I go."
Some families have a tough time juggling work and paying for a sitter or day care, but there are resources for them.
The Department of Social Services offers day care and even overnight care for low-income families who qualify. To learn more about applying, contact the Roanoke city department by calling 540-853-2305 or visiting commonhelp.virginia.gov.

There are also free or reduced-price summer camps and programs available for children.

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