At what age can children stay at home alone? That’s a question all parents battle with at some point in their parenting journey. It could be a meeting at work during the summer to an evening out. At some point, every child needs to be left at home alone. And because children mature differently, not many states set a legal age to leave a child alone at home. The three that do, Illinois, 14 years old; Maryland, 8 years old; and Oregon, 10 years old, have quite a range. As with most things, it is dependent on the age of your child and how you have scaffolded the process for them.
Why Is It Important to Get Your Child Started on Staying at Home Alone?
Even if some unexpected event doesn’t force the situation, getting your child to stay at home is an integral part of their development. This is one of the earliest steps you can take to prepare your child for independence. Being home alone can be a positive experience. Not only does it promote responsibility and independence, but it also boosts the child’s confidence in themself.
But before taking this step, there are some things you need to consider. They include the child’s maturity, comfortability, readiness, and preparation. Maturity is especially essential, and it’s something not determined by age alone. It might be OK to leave a mature 8-year-old at home for 30 minutes to go to the shop, but not a 14-year-old boy who has shown less maturity. Although few places have a fixed age, laws and child protection policies in most areas make it illegal to leave your child unsupervised at home if it puts the child in danger. This is subjective and your decision would have to be justifiable.
At What Age Can a Child Be Left Home Alone According to Social Workers?
That gray period between 9 and 12 is the time when many parents start to wonder: Can 10-year-olds stay home alone? Can 12-year-olds stay home alone? Exactly how old can children stay at home alone? Dr. Charles Jennissen, clinical professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Iowa, surveyed 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers. The aim being to canvas their professional opinion of what age would constitute child neglect if children were left on their own at home for four hours.
Their answers varied. In situations where no one got hurt and no laws stating the appropriate age, nearly all the social workers agreed that leaving a six-year-old at home was neglect. 83 percent said leaving an 8-year-old at home alone was neglect. It reduced to 51 percent for a 10-year-old. So what is the appropriate age?
“Every child is different, of course, and every situation may be different,” said Dr. Jennissen. “But overall, these social workers say that kids really shouldn’t be home alone under the age of at least 12.” Put simply, 12 years old is when you should start considering leaving your child alone at home and watching him or her to see if they’re ready for such a step. Not that 12 is the age when every parent can leave their child alone at home. There’s no one-size-fits-all age for that. Some will be younger and some older.
Dr. Suzanne Haney, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, agreed with Dr. Jennissen that 12 is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. “I certainly agree that 12 years of age and up, for the most part, depending on how they are developmentally, is probably OK, but there also are 12-year-olds who are not able to handle it,” said Haney. “So it’s really hard to give a safe age because of all the factors that play into it. We have lots of kids who have learning disabilities or cognitive disabilities or behavioral issues, and they may be 14, and they’re not safe.”
Preparing Your Child Before Leaving Them Alone at Home and Factors to Consider
So far, the bottom line remains that the decision of when to leave a child alone at home rests heavily on the parents’ discretion. This means that you have to rely on your knowledge of the child to make that decision. Below are some of the factors to consider before leaving your child alone at home.
- Check their maturity level. Even if you live in a state where the law makes it OK for you to leave your child alone at home at a certain age, that still isn’t enough to go on. This is because a 14-year-old can be less mature, less ready than a 12-year-old, and there are other factors like disability and illness. Only you can know when it’s safe to leave your child alone at home. One way to ascertain your child’s readiness is to ask yourself if your child follows basic rules. And if you leave them with directions on how to get help in an emergency, would they be able to follow it? Another thing to consider is whether your child has demonstrated sound judgment in past situations. Do they show compliance with chores even when it’s the last thing they want to do? Is your child comfortable with the idea of being home alone? Getting the answers to these questions will go a long way in helping you decide if your child is ready to be left alone at home.
- Consider the environment. You need to consider both the immediate environment (inside the house) and the wider environment (the neighborhood). Is your neighborhood rural or residential? Do you have neighbors who can get to your house quickly in case of an emergency? Do you have an alarm system your child can operate? Is the crime rate in your area high or low? The answers to the above questions will determine the extra steps you will have to take before leaving your child alone at home.
- Do a test run. Before leaving your child at home for long periods, you need to start gradually to see how they fare. Your first test run should be around thirty minutes or an hour maximum. Your child needs to know that this is a trial run and that the result will determine if they’re ready to be left alone at home. During these test runs, make sure you’re easily reachable. After each trial run, talk with your child and find out the problems they faced. Then gradually extend the time.
- Establish some house rules. Before leaving your child at home, let them know what to do in specific scenarios. Don’t just expect them to know what to do. This includes how many friends are allowed to come to the house at once, what to do if a stranger is at the door, a list of chores to do and whether they’re allowed to leave the house at all. While it’s important to establish these rules, you don’t want to structure your child’s time at home alone too strictly. It’s simply not possible to control everything he or she does while you’re away. You may see structuring as a way to keep your child engaged so they don’t get in trouble, but it’s better to just let them know ahead of time that there will be consequences for bad behavior. For me, when my children were still primary school age, if I went out for an hour, I simply put on a film and tell them not to try and cook anything. Now as pre-teens they can let themselves in and cook something in the microwave.
- Have an emergency plan. An emergency plan is crucial. Your child needs to know who to call in specific emergencies. What should they do if there’s a fire? Or terrible weather? And what if the cat or dog runs away? Write down phone numbers or save them on your child’s phone.
Final Thoughts of the Right Age to Leave Your Child at Home
The first time that your child is home alone should not be for a day. It should be while you go to the local shop for a loaf of bread. Then when you go next door to see a neighbor for an hour. As you, and them, build in confidence, it will become easier and more intuitive. So rather than a right age, think of it as a process and how far along it your child is. Can they do 5 minutes, half an hour, an hour, over a meal?