Care and Feeding

My Neighbors Crossed a Line With My Daughter

I asked my daughter to come home.

Two young girls looking out a window, standing alone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our neighbor has a daughter who is the same age as our oldest daughter (9). They are great friends and play often, many times at the neighbor’s house. We get along with her parents but aren’t quite friends as they are a bit older than us. They also have a son who is a freshman in high school. We have different parenting styles, which is where my concern comes in.

They often leave the 9-year-old home alone. Our rule for our daughter is that if there isn’t a parent present at a friend’s house, she cannot be there. It seemed to work until today; she was visiting the neighbors when the dad left the kids at home alone without telling them he was leaving. I noticed his car wasn’t in the drive when I went to get the mail so I asked my daughter to come home. She is generally a rule follower and I believe her when she says they didn’t know.

Am I overthinking this? Is 9 too young to be home alone? I think I’m more upset about him not telling them he was leaving, but is it worth a discussion with them?

—Different Strokes

Dear Different Strokes,

It’s concerning that your neighbor would leave the kids alone in the house without telling them he was gone. What if an emergency occurred when he left? I have some questions, though. Is there a chance your daughter knew that he was gone and might’ve been afraid to tell you? Was the older son home? (Which would change the situation a bit, but I’m inferring that he wasn’t.) Either way, it’s worth mentioning to them that you don’t yet allow your daughter to stay in the house without an adult present and that if he or his partner chooses to leave while your daughter is visiting, she’ll need to come home.

Relatedly, I would also limit visits to times when you are home yourself, so you can keep a watchful eye in case this family is in the habit of routinely leaving the children unsupervised. Again, I am assuming you mean they leave their daughter all alone, and not in the care of her older brother. But even if her brother is around, while he may be a suitable caregiver for her, it’s totally OK for you to feel that he isn’t the kind of supervision your daughter needs.

The “appropriate” age for a kid to stay home alone varies drastically based on a family’s needs and the maturity of the child in question. Some states even have laws that set a minimum age you can leave a child home alone, ranging from as young as 6 years old to 14. So, before you leave your daughter home alone, I’d check for any laws in your own state. The Safe Kids campaign, dedicated to preventing childhood injuries, suggests that kids can be left alone beginning at ages 12 or 13. I personally think a responsible 10 or 11-year-old can handle being solo for an hour or two, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with waiting until your child is a little older.

You know your child. Is she prepared to handle herself in an emergency without you, knows what to do if an unexpected person comes to the door, and will feel safe and secure alone? You have to make that decision for your daughter based on who she is, who you are, and the laws in your state—not what the folks next door deem to be OK for their family.

—Jamilah

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