THE BLOG

How Old Is Old Enough?

02/09/2012 11:49 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012

How long is too long? How young is too young? How old is old enough?

These are questions parents ask themselves daily, sometimes hourly. And every single answer is really just a guess.

Periodically these morph into very public questions, as they did recently when the mother of a 5-year-old boy left him napping alone in a hotel room at the Mohegan Sun casino while she spent an hour at the blackjack table. That led Gina Bellafante to muse in the New York Times about how when it comes to parenting rules, what "some people view as efficient and reasonable and others regard as complete lunacy."

And over at Jezebel, Bellafante's story led Tracy Moore to parse the question even further. "For How Many Seconds, Exactly, Can You Leave Your Baby Alone?" read the headline on her piece, in which she did the math as follows:

Yes, you can't leave a kid alone, even for a second -- every idiot knows that. But then you become a parent and you find yourself in a bona fide seconds deficit. Suddenly, you're constantly assessing which seconds are OK seconds to leave your kid alone and which seconds are not OK seconds. Need to take a shower before work? OK seconds. In a rush at the grocery store? Not OK seconds.

So, back to the original algorithms -- How long is too long? How old is old enough? When are they ready? When are YOU?

A reader, who prefers we call her Concerned Aunt, wrote to me with a version of that question recently. She has started staying with her eight-year-old nephew in the evenings while the boy's mother -- recently separated -- works at a new job.

She explained:

I don't have kids of my own, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut, but it seems like my sister is much too overprotective. There is a firm list of rules that he (and I) have to follow when my sister is gone. She still gives him his bath every night, sitting by the tub with him for fear of drowning. He is eight! And what about his privacy? There are other things too. He can't play with any friend from school who is not on a preapproved list, meaning my sister has gotten to know that kid's parents. She writes out the clothes he needs to wear the next day, and he gets no say, and we put them on his chair in advance. How old is old enough to be bathing alone? Going to a friend's house? Deciding what to wear to school?

Odds are (casino pun intended) that if you polled any group of parents you would get a range of answers. So, let's try that. What follows are a number of judgment calls parents make every day (and one that very few other than one headline making mother in Connecticut seems to have made.) At what age would you let your child do each of these things?

By the way, Googling the law won't be of much help to you here, which is part of the point. On the question of "how old is old enough to leave a child alone at home", for instance, the website Latchkey-Kids.com finds that only 13 states have laws setting limits, and those range from 8 to 14. These are only "guidelines," and the other 38 leave this to the parents to decide. But they also reserve the right to bring action against those parents if the state agency decides your decision is wrong.

In other words, it's your call. Just like real life.

Please use the comments to elaborate on why you chose the way you did. And to answer Concerned Aunt's question about whether her sister is overly protective...

At what age did you/will you draw these lines?