How to Decide at What Age Can Kids Stay Home Alone
By Janine Clements, 21st Century Mama
When I left my oldest daughter home alone for the first time, I felt a sense of freedom for the first time in years (although I only went to the post office). When you have kids, even running quick errands can turn into major missions, since getting your whole crew out of the house can take forever. It’s even more of a challenge when you want to go out for an extended period of time because you need to find a reliable, affordable and trustworthy babysitter. When your kids are finally at an age where they can stay home alone, it can be life-changing. However, you want to make sure they are always safe and it doesn’t turn into a disaster like in the iconic holiday movie franchise, Home Alone.
Deciding at what age you can leave kids home alone is never easy, and there is no magic formula. Instead, it depends on a variety of factors, including: age, state laws, and common sense.
At What Age Can Kids Be Left Home Alone According to State Law?
There’s plenty of debate when it comes to deciding at what age you can leave kids home alone. Different states have different rules, so it’s important to find out what they are for your family. In Illinois, the minimum age is 14, and in Maryland it’s eight, while in Kansas it’s six(!). Some states, including Colorado, have guidelines, but no definitive laws. While New York, California, and many other states have no legal age restrictions. Most states will follow the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines.
If you want to know at what age can kids be left home alone, here are some suggested guidelines:
- Under 8: Should never be left alone for any length of time
- Ages 8-10: Can be left alone for up to three hours
- Ages 11-13 Can be left alone for up to 12 hours
- Ages 14-15 Can be left alone for up to 24 hours
- Ages 16-17 Can be left alone for longer (if there is a proper plan in place for responding to an emergency)
Source: Dakota County, Minnesota
How Do You Know If Your Kids Are Ready to Stay Home Alone?
Knowing at what age kids can stay home alone often comes down to whether you’re confident your child has reached a level of maturity and responsibility to be able to handle it and manage themselves. This can be different for every child. For example, some 11-year-olds are a lot more mature and reliable than a hot-headed teen.
When asked at what age can parents leave kids home alone, early childhood psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg said, “It depends on how long you’re going to be away for and how far you’re going. For example, taking the dog for a walk is very different from jumping on a train and heading into the city.”
Here are some pointers for deciding whether to leave your kids home alone or not:
- How old are they?
- What are your state’s laws?
- Do you feel/sense that they are truly ready?
- Do they feel/sense they are ready?
- Are they anxious about being left home alone?
- Are they mature and responsible in other aspects of their lives?
- Do you trust them?
- Do they have any special needs to consider?
- How will they handle emergency situations?
- Do they mind being home alone when it’s dark?
Tips for Parents When Leaving Your Child Home Alone
If you’re planning on leaving your child home alone, it’s essential to make sure your child is safe, so here are a few useful tips:
The safety of your child is your top priority, so you need to childproof your home. This could include locking up firearms, prescription medicines, and alcohol and removing matches and lighters.
Establish House Rules
It’s very helpful to set up clear rules and expectations for your child, to ensure they avoid any potential pitfalls. Ideas for some rules include:
- Don’t touch the oven, cooktop or other kitchen appliances.
- Lock any doors from the inside.
- Don’t eat anything for the duration.
- Don’t go outside.
- Don’t answer the door for anyone.
- If anyone calls, don’t let the caller know anyone is home alone.
- Household internet and smartphone usage rules still apply.
Brief Them on Emergency Procedures
While unlikely, your child needs to know what they should do in an emergency, such as:
- Make sure they can contact you if they need to for any reason.
- Go over what they should do in the unlikely case of an emergency, i.e., to call 911 or go to a neighbor they can trust.
- Leave a list of emergency numbers and contacts on the fridge door or somewhere that’s readily accessible. This could include both parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends and/or colleagues.
- Be sure at least one phone is available, charged and unlocked. Check the Contact list for accuracy.
- Show them where they can find the first aid kit and how to use it.
- Run through emergency evacuation procedures with them.
No matter at what age you leave your kids home alone, most children will feel anxious the first few times. Start with only being away for five or ten minutes and then build up the time. This will help increase their confidence. As kids get older and more comfortable, you can leave them for more extended periods.
It’s worth checking in on your kids if you’re going to be out longer than a few minutes, especially the first few times. If they’re anxious, it will reassure them. If you’re running late, be sure to let them know in advance that you’ll be home later than expected.
When Can Kids Stay Home Alone and Supervise Siblings?
When considering what age kids can stay home alone while also supervising a younger sibling, the general advice is around age 12 or 13. Signing up older kids for a babysitting course through an organization such as the Red Cross is highly recommended.
As we guide our kids through life, we must prepare them for independence, even if it’s a little daunting at times. Reach out to other parents and experts for advice if you have additional concerns.