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That first smile. Those first solids. The first steps. Their first temper tantrum, "I don't need your help, I can do it myself", putting the dishes in the sink, feeding the cat, their first day of school. Your child's life to date has been filled with all kinds of firsts, firsts on their road towards independence. All those moments have been spent under your watchful eye, or the watchful eye of someone else you trust. The next milestone is fundamentally different, though. Is your child ready to walk to school by themselves, or over to their friend's house, or go shopping on their own, or stay at home for a few hours while you attend a party? Is your child, in short, ready to start taking responsibility for their own safety?
This is a scary and exciting moment, both at once — your child has grown and matured to the extent that you're now wondering whether they are ready to stand on their own for a while, to keep themselves in one piece confidently, with skill.
There is, incidentally, no magic age at which all children become ready for this new level of responsibility, and your child's first steps into the big wide world on their own test you as much as they test your child. It will be you, after all, who needs to decide when your child can handle this. What does your child need to know before they're ready? What do you need to know?
The Very Basics
Any child who is going anywhere on their own needs to know their neighborhood thoroughly in order to avoid getting lost. They should have a deep understanding of road safety as pedestrians and be able to put this knowledge into practice — including, for instance, looking for a quieter crossing as opposed to a really busy one. Your child should know their full name, address, and your phone numbers. They should be able to use a cell phone and have one, ideally.
You will also have to consider whether it's safer for your child to go out completely by themselves, or for instance with a sibling or friend. Both have pros and cons. If your child is together with others, one can go grab help if something happens. However, children who are busty chattering away with their friends or siblings may also pay less attention to the road and to other people.
When it comes to staying at home alone, you'll have to talk about some basics too. At my house, that includes not using the stove and running to a neighbor in case of fire, rather than trying to put the fire out. (That means, by the way, that your child will have to be proficient at locking and unlocking doors. Never lock them in without a way to get out because of the risk of fire.)
Of course, opening the door to strangers is never OK, and neither is letting a stranger know that they are home alone, whether through the door or on the phone — this can let potential predators know that your children are vulnerable. "Mom is in the bath" is a safer thing to say than "mom's not home right now".