How old does a child have to be to stay home alone?
Each month, thousands of people google this type of question. Of course, there's no easy answer. The question of when to let a child stay home alone is complex, and it demonstrates how heavy decisions can sometimes feel to parents in today’s world. It's a world where even if you feel that you are making the best, most informed decision, your nosy neighbor may not agree. Reaching this important milestone, however, can foster independence and be a positive experience for both you and your child. So don't shy away from the question. Figure out the answer and empower your kids instead.
How do you figure out the right answer?
There are many factors to consider when thinking about leaving a child at home alone. After all, each child and situation is unique. The Internet consensus as to what’s “appropriate” tends to range from ages 10–14. The Kids Health Organization recommends that kids under 10 not be left home alone, while the National Safe Kids Campaign believes that 12 may be the magic age.
The real question may be at what age could it be considered neglect, and that can really depend on where you live. Only three states have an age stipulation when it comes to leaving a child at home alone: Illinois (14!), Maryland (8), and Oregon (10).
The fact that there is no clear consensus, that the ages those three states landed upon vary so wildly, and that current child neglect laws remain frustratingly vague and broad further demonstrate that picking one “age” may not be the right approach at all and that ultimately it is up to the parents to make a thoughtful determination.
For example, I have left my mature 10-year-old at home alone while running an errand that took less than 30 minutes. I went over all safety protocols beforehand, it was in the middle of the day, and my neighbor that I trust was home next door. Now would some people believe I was a neglectful mother? Maybe. Probably. But it’s these situations where I must admit that I am grateful to live in the only state, Utah, that has a free-range-parenting law. It gives me more freedom and flexibility to figure out what works for my family.
Before you leave your child home alone, consider this.
I have three boys, and I've been thinking about this question for a while. So let me break down what to consider about when it comes to leaving a child alone. (By the way, this is a good time to tell you I have no authority here. Yes, I've researched it and looked up recommendations from experts. But this is just parent-to-parent, common-sense advice.)
Some factors to consider before leaving a child at home alone include:
- The age/maturity level of the child
- Ages and number of other children being left alone with the child
- How the child feels about being home alone
- How long they will be alone
- Whether it's during the day or evening
- Whether or not the child works well independently and follows directions.
Go over the rules with your child.
It’s a good idea to go over some rules beforehand. My oldest son is 13, and we have rules about not having friends over while we are gone (or even answering the door) and ask that our three sons refrain from using the oven or stove while they are home alone. Of course, it's also important to review all safety information. Kids Health has some practical guidance regarding this. Before leaving your child at home alone, some questions to answer include:
- Does your child know how to use a cell phone and how to reach you?
- Would they know when to call 911 and what address to give a dispatcher?
- Does your child know basic first-aid skills?
- Is there a neighbor that you and your child trust who could check in?
Making sure that your house is equipped with emergency supplies and a list of important phone numbers is also important. Along with knowing what you should have on hand, also consider what should be locked away in the home while you are gone, such as any alcohol, matches or lighters, tobacco, firearms, or even car keys. To help ease any concerns or fears your child may have, you could run over different scenarios before you go and make plans to call them while you are away.
Leaving older kids home alone builds trust and their confidence.
Do you remember the first time you got to stay home alone? It can be exciting! It’s also a way to build trust. When my oldest son was 12, he started asking us if he could earn some money by taking care of his younger brothers while my husband and I had a date night. My son has always enjoyed being around younger kids. I even wrote an article once about how boys can be just as good at babysitting as girls. (It's also an answer to those who would ask me, “Aren’t you sad you don’t have a daughter to help with babysitting?”)
We started our date nights small, going over all safety information beforehand and leaving early in the evening, before it was dark. We typically go out to dinner and check in a couple times while we’re away. We’ve never had a problem and have been having date nights for over a year now. Date nights at our house have become something that we all look forward to. My 10- and 5-year-old love having the attention of their big brother. My 13-year-old knows that he has his parents’ trust. And my husband and I get some time for our relationship.
Kids tend to be more capable than we give them credit for. And the confidence my kids gain by staying home alone is good for all of them. There may not be a one-size-fits-all age for leaving a child home alone, but there are many signs that will tell a parent when the time is right and when a child is ready to take on this level of independence. So consider this the next time you think about that question, How old does a child have to be to stay home alone? Find a way to tackle it in a way that works best for your family.