It’s tempting to try to save money by eliminating daycare or a babysitter to care for your children in your absence. Although being home alone can help kids learn to be independent, it is imperative for them to be mature enough to handle the responsibility. Kids mature at different rates, so going by age alone is not necessarily the answer.
Open and honest communication between you and your children can help you make a determination. However, there are additional guidelines that you must consider as well.
How to Determine Readiness
Readiness to be home alone depends on both age and maturity, and both must be taken into account for your child’s venture into this new area of responsibility to be successful.
1. Take Age Into Account
A recent U.S. Census showed that 7 million of the nation’s 38 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are left home alone on a regular basis, while the average time spent alone is six hours per week. This might be fine for older kids, but it may not be safe for younger children.
Only a handful of states legislate at which age a child can legally be left home alone:
- Both Maryland and North Carolina prohibit children under the age of 8 from being left alone.
- In Oregon, it is unlawful to leave a child under the age of 10 home alone if the length of time would endanger the health or welfare of the child.
- A child in Illinois may not be left home alone without supervision “for an unreasonable period of time.”
Of the remaining states, the majority don’t address the issue. However, as more working parents lead to an increase in latchkey kids, some states issue non-legal guidelines for the minimum age at which a child should be left alone:
- Age 8: Georgia, South Carolina
- Age 9: North Dakota
- Age 10: Tennessee, Washington
- Age 11: Nebraska
- Age 12: Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Wisconsin, Wyoming
The National SAFE KIDS Campaign recommends that children not be left alone before the age of 12. If you have a child younger than 12 who you feel is mature enough to be home alone, you might prefer to follow the guidance below. These guidelines seem to offer a reasonable compromise between allowing responsible kids to be left alone while not endangering their safety or that of younger siblings:
- Children 8 years old and younger should never be left home alone.
- Kids 9 to 11 years old can be home alone for a limited amount of time, provided they meet maturity guidelines and adequate precautions are taken for emergencies and backup plans. They should not be left in charge of younger siblings.
- Kids 12 and older can handle longer periods of time alone and may be responsible for younger siblings for limited amounts of time.
2. Consider Maturity Level
To be successfully home alone, a child should be able to:
- Lock and unlock a door
- Use a phone appropriately, including knowing how to dial 9-1-1 and Poison Control
- Follow simple directions, such as “feed the dog” and “do your homework”
- Use good judgment in making decisions, such as what to do when a stranger rings the doorbell
- Recite your address and phone number and give clear directions to your home
- Name two responsible adults (preferably nearby) to contact in case of an emergency
- Know how to reach parents at work
- Read and write notes to keep the lines of communication open with parents and other siblings
- Find first aid supplies and know how to handle cuts, burns, scrapes, and nosebleeds
- Know how to handle more serious emergencies, such as choking on food or accidental poisoning
- Identify two routes of escape in case of fire
- Know what to do in case of a severe storm (close windows, find a flashlight, go to the basement)
- Make an appropriate snack, such as cereal or a healthy microwaveable meal
- Handle unexpected situations, such as school letting out early due to weather (which means extra time alone)
- Amuse him- or herself without supervision
- Talk openly about things that concern him or her
- Show interest, not fear, in being independent
- View time alone as an opportunity to be responsible, not get into mischief
Have an honest discussion with your child, touching on each point. If there are areas in which your child lacks confidence, work together to remedy the problems before you leave your child home alone.
3. Attend a Readiness Program
There may be local programs that you can attend with your child to help determine his or her readiness to be home alone. Your child may be asked to take a quiz to determine how he or she feels about being left alone, with questions such as:
- Do you want to stay home alone?
- Are you afraid of the dark or loud noises?
- Do you get lonely or frightened easily?
- Can you solve small problems by yourself?
- Are you prepared to handle an accident or emergency?
- Can you find something safe and constructive to do if you are bored?
- Can you complete homework and chores without supervision?
- Do you know when and how to get help if you need it?
In turn, you may be asked to assess your child’s readiness by answering the same questions. In comparing the two assessments, you might find verification that your child is ready, or it might illuminate issues your child has with being left alone.
4. Discuss “What If?” Scenarios
Knowing what to do before an incident occurs or emergency strikes is the best way to prepare your child. If he or she already knows how to respond in a given situation, this could save precious seconds or minutes when it’s crucial. Talk through as many “what if?” scenarios as you can anticipate and discuss how your child should handle them. For example:
- Your child gets home from school to find the power is out
- Your child uses the microwave to make a snack and it blows a fuse
- While home alone, the tornado warning siren sounds
- Your child lets the dog outside, that runs into the neighbor’s yard and won’t come back when called
- The refrigerator makes an alarming noise
- The smoke alarm goes off
How to Create a Plan for Kids Staying Home Alone
By establishing rules and procedures and thoroughly discussing them with your child before he is or she left alone, your child will be better equipped to handle a variety of situations.
1. Determine the House Rules
Your house rules should generally take into account:
- Who can come over (if anyone) while your child is home alone
- Rules for TV watching, Internet use, and gaming (and be sure you have parental filters set up on your TV and computer)
- Which appliances can be used and which cannot
- What types of activities can be engaged in and what is off-limits (no playing outside while home alone)
- Rules for completing homework (for example, homework must be done before watching TV)
- Rules for younger siblings if your child is in charge of them
2. Take Safety Precautions
In addition to the guidelines above that take safety into account (such as knowing what to do when the smoke alarm goes off), there are other safety precautions you may want to consider:
- Have Home Entry Backup Plans. If your child enters the house by utilizing a garage door keypad, have your child carry a house key in case of malfunction. Also, instead of hiding a key outside your house where anyone could find it, keep the house key on a long string in your child’s backpack. This also eliminates a common mistake kids often make of leaving the key in the door after opening it. You might also keep a spare house key with a neighbor as backup.
- Make Sure Your Home Is Safe. No home is 100% secure, but make sure yours is as safe as it can be. Be sure the windows and doors lock easily, there are working flashlights handy, you have adequate first aid supplies, and your home has working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (check the batteries regularly). Be sure anything harmful, such as guns, prescription medications, tobacco, alcohol, and lighters, is inaccessible.
- Get the Word Out. Let trusted neighbors know when your child will be home alone so they can keep an eye out for strangers coming to the house or be available by phone in case of an emergency.
3. Solve Communication Issues
- Keep a Cell Phone Handy. Accessibility is a two-way street. Kids must be able to reach you or a responsible adult, and you must be able to reach them. For this reason, it might be an appropriate time to get your child a cell phone. Texting you as soon as he or she gets home from school is a good way to keep you connected even when you can’t immediately respond.
- Keep Your Land Line. Younger kids may misplace their cell phone or let the battery die. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep your land line if you still have one. It’s nice to have a backup system of communication just in case.
- Memorize Numbers. Have kids memorize key phone numbers. We tend to rely on speed dial without even knowing anyone’s phone number, but kids may need to call you from a friend’s house, or from a friend’s phone if they have lost theirs. They should have both your work and cell phone numbers memorized.
- Define Emergencies. Be sure kids know what kind of “emergency” warrants a phone call to you at work. The dog making a mess of the garbage likely doesn’t qualify, but the refrigerator leaking all over the floor probably does.
4. Take an Incremental Approach
Work up to greater independence gradually. Start leaving kids alone for very short periods of time – 10 minutes or so when they are younger, such as 9 or 10. Gradually lengthen the time as they mature. As you increase how long you are gone, how far away you are, and how frequently you check in, you help to build your child’s confidence.
- Make the Initial Time at Home Alone Brief. You might start with quick trips to a nearby store, or a walk around the block. Wherever you go, be accessible by cell phone. You might even want to test your child: Ask him or her to call you, or call home yourself to see if he or she answers the phone.
- Stay Close By at First. If you are going out to eat for a couple hours, choose someplace close by in case your child gets scared or has a problem.
- Increase Time Between Check-Ins. Check in periodically while you are away, gradually increasing the time between check-ins as your child becomes more comfortable being home alone.
- Treat Daytime and Nighttime Differently. Some kids are fine being left alone during the day, but are not comfortable being left alone at night. You may want to hold off leaving your child alone during the evening until the age of at least 12. It’s one thing for a child to be alone for a couple hours in the evening, but it’s quite another for a child to go to bed in an empty house. Be sure your child is ready for such responsibility.
- Treat a Few Hours and Full Days Differently. A child who is fine being home alone for a few hours after school may not be mature enough to be home alone all day during the summer when parents are at work. Even if your child is too old for daycare, you might want to find other arrangements, such as a babysitting co-op, if you think your child isn’t ready for full days alone.
Watching Younger Siblings
While some kids are ready to watch younger siblings at age 12, you might want to wait until they are teenagers before giving them that responsibility. This depends not only on the older child’s maturity, but also on how many younger siblings they must watch, the ages of the siblings, and how well they get along.
Here are several factors to consider:
- Make Sure They Get Along. You should only put your child in charge of younger siblings if they get along with minimal fighting. The younger siblings must respect and listen to the older child, and the older child has to feel comfortable with the responsibility.
- Start With Short Test Runs. It’s best to let the older child watch his or her siblings during short test runs while you are nearby before working up to longer sessions.
- Consider Paying the Responsible Child. Heaping too much responsibility for younger siblings on an older child can lead to resentment. They may feel that they are being made to do “your” job. Consider paying them for babysitting their younger siblings. This makes it a potentially lucrative business transaction that they might even look forward to.
- Consider the Additional Responsibilities. Caring for others brings with it a new list of scenarios you should discuss with your child. What if the younger sister throws a tantrum? What if the younger brother won’t listen? Does your oldest child have to prepare dinner or give baths? Be sure your child is ready to handle whatever may be needed.
Don’t worry if your child seems to be lagging in maturity or readiness to be left alone. If your child is fearful, be supportive and understanding. Discuss these concerns, and try to determine what can be done to make your child feel more empowered. Never force your child to be alone if he or she is not comfortable. Instead, be supportive and offer a little more time. They all get there eventually.
At what ages did you start leaving your kids home alone? Did you encounter any problems?