Somewhere between never leaving them home alone and sending them off to college, we start leaving our children home alone for short periods. Here’s how to transition between the two extremes.
Leaving your child home alone for the first time can be scary and stressful. It’s a big step in your child’s development, taking them one step closer to independence and autonomy. You want to make sure they feel ready for it, that you have a concrete emergency plan in place, and that you touch base regularly. Don’t worry; we’re here to help you think through all the details.
When Can You Start Leaving Your Kid Home Alone?
First, research if your state has a law specifying when children can be left alone at home. There are a few states that list a required age, whereas other states list a “recommended age” or don’t comment on this topic at all. For example, Illinois is 14, whereas North Carolina is 8. That’s a big difference!
The consensus is to never leave a child home, unattended, before the age of eight. After eight-years-old is where it starts to get a bit fuzzy.
The site Thirty Handmade Days has a printable chart with a guide of how to approach the different ages. In general, ages 8-10 can usually handle an hour or two at a time, but only during daytime or early evening hours. Ages 10-15 can be left alone longer, but never overnight. And ages 16-17 can be left unsupervised for a day or two, including overnight.
The National SAFEKIDS campaign highly recommends that children under the age of 12 never be left unsupervised.
Ultimately, it depends on you and your child. If you feel like your child doesn’t have the maturity to be left alone, then listen to your gut. Also, if your child vocalizes his thoughts about being scared, overwhelmed, or anxious at the thought of not having you there, then now might not be the right time.
You want to make sure your child can follow instructions and rules, to not open the door to strangers, to know what to do in the case of an emergency, and to be able to reach you if needed. Until your child can do all of those things, we say wait.
Talk About Responsibilities and Rules
Sit down and have a good talk with your child about what being home alone involves. Make sure you are both on the same page. You definitely don’t want to leave your child alone if she is pushing back about any of the rules that you set.
- Meal Planning: If your child is being left home alone for a short period, they probably don’t need to eat. For longer stretches of alone time, make sure there are easy-to-prepare snacks or microwavable meals. Don’t let younger kids use the stove, oven, knives, or sharp utensils while alone.
- Homework: Is your child able to do her homework independently? This is a crucial step to leaving your child home alone, especially if it’s right after school.
- Pets: If you have pets, can your child handle feeding them and taking care of their needs?
- Friends: We advise against letting friends come over when an adult isn’t present. If you do decide to let a friend come over, make sure you inform the parents that the children will be home alone.
- Opening the Door: Your child should know never to open the door while home alone. This also applies to windows, the garage, playing outside, etc. Discuss how to keep a low profile at home and what to do if someone is aggressively knocking on the door or poking around the property
- Cleaning Up: Does your child know how to do general chores? You don’t want to come home to a house that is destroyed by all her art projects, snacks, and so on.
- Communication: Have a way to touch base every hour or so. Also, make sure your child has a way to reach you at any time. If your child ignores your phone calls while you’re away, then that’s a red flag that they aren’t quite ready to handle this.
Establish an Emergency Protocol
Spend some time going over all the what-ifs, so your child is prepared in an emergency. Here are some tips to get you started.
- List of Numbers: Post a list of numbers on the fridge, including neighbors, doctors, grandparents, babysitters, and anyone else who can help out in the case of an emergency. If you have a rapport with your neighbors, make sure your children know their names, and who to reach out to for help.
- Fire Safety: Show your kid how to use a fire extinguisher, go over basic safety drills, talk about how to escape from every room in the house, and make sure all the smoke alarms are working.
- Calling 911: Does your child have his own phone? If not, make sure there’s a landline he can use to call 911.
- First Aid Skills: There are now many babysitter classes that start taking kids as young as 10-years-old. These classes will prep them with many excellent life skills, as well as some essential First Aid skills.
- Choking: Make sure your child avoids foods that pose a choking risk, such as popcorn and nuts, and know how to do the Heimlich Method on their own.
- Flashlights: Have flashlights easily accessible in case of a power outage. Check that the batteries work before leaving. Don’t let your child use candles.
Lock Up the Dangerous Stuff
Anything you don’t want your child to have access to while you’re away from home should be locked up. If they’re old enough to stay home alone then obviously worries about them crawling under the sink and drinking the Windex aren’t there, but that doesn’t mean that older kids can’t get into trouble.
Make sure things like alcohol, firearms, fireworks, the keys to the spare car or recreational vehicles, or any other stuff an older curious kid might get into are adequately secured. Make doubly sure those things are locked up if they’re staying home alone with a friend. Even if your child isn’t the sort to get into trouble that doesn’t mean their friend’s curiosity won’t drag them into a mess.
What to Do With Siblings
Maybe your child is ready to be left home alone, but her little sister isn’t. Is your older child capable of taking care of herself and a younger sibling?
If an older child hasn’t been left alone before, do a few trial runs, without the added responsibility of looking after younger siblings. If all goes well, you can see how she does watching the younger sibling while you’re around, maybe doing garden work outside.
Don’t leave siblings home alone if there’s a history of them fighting, beating each other up, or neglecting younger children. Also, if your older child says “no” to watching younger siblings, then listen to them. They might not feel ready to take on that level of responsibility.
Still Feeling Nervous?
If you’re still super anxious about leaving your kid home alone, we get it. This is a big step in growing up!
Consider doing a short trial run, maybe leaving your child home alone for 30 minutes, but staying nearby.
Some parents also rely on the Nest security camera, which allows them to log in from their phones and keep an “eye” on their children when they are home alone.
Another option to consider is hiring a babysitter closer to your child’s age. For example, you can hire a 14-year-old to come hang out with your 11-year-old, helping him do homework, preparing a snack, and being an extra layer of security. Just make sure the teen knows all the emergency details, plus has a way to reach you.
Leaving your child home alone can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking. But hopefully, with our tips, you’ll have a bit more peace of mind. Just make sure they are ready to handle it, and that you trust in their abilities. And keep in touch—hearing their voice will help reassure you that everything is okay.