While child experts typically agree that 11 or 12 years old is an appropriate age to stay home alone for a few hours, there are a number of factors to consider. It is important to recognize that the right time will vary by family, so trust your instincts. With some advance planning and preparation, this milestone can be a great way to build your child's independence and confidence.
How to gauge if your child is ready for the responsibility
Knowing the right time is different for each family. Take into account the maturity of your child, where you live, your nearby support network, and how far away you will be. Some states do have
laws about when you can leave a child home alone, with minimum ages ranging from 8 to 14 years old. These laws typically include language about "unreasonable amounts of time," so check the details for your local regulations before setting a plan.
Here are some guidelines to consider when deciding whether your child is ready to be home alone:
Do you think your child is old and mature enough to take care of themselves? Keep in mind that each child's maturity and parents' comfort level may be different. Most children will not be mature enough to manage being alone on a regular basis until they are about 10 or 11 years old. However, some parents may be OK leaving a more mature 8- or 9-year-old home alone for a half hour or so once in a while.
Does your child think before they act? This is especially important for young teens, who may be tempted to
experiment with illegal activities such as sneaking a few sips of liquor from the liquor cabinet. How does your adolescent respond to peer pressure?
Would your child feel comfortable left alone? Have you directly asked your child if they would be OK home alone?
Would your child be able to make good judgements on their own. Do they have common sense? For example, if the milk smells sour or curdles when it's poured, would your child drink it?
Can your child keep busy without relying on relying on television or
video games? Can they creatively use their time with activities such as reading, drawing, making music, doing homework and playing with toys, among other things?
Would your child be able to remember and follow important safety rules? For example, can they tell you how they would respond to a fire, gas leak or other emergency? Can they follow other rules such as not opening the door, not telling telephone callers that they are alone, and not posting on social media that they are alone?
Once you have decided that your child is ready to take on this new responsibility, take some time to plan and talk as a family to ensure a successful experience. First, gather information that your child may need while you're gone.
Make sure your child knows your cell phone number, workplace numbers, how to reach key family members and your pediatrician contact information. Post these details in a visible location, such as on your refrigerator or a family bulletin board. Make sure your child is familiar with when to
First aid kit
Make sure to have a
first aid kit on accessible, including for all of the basics for minor injuries, such as bandages, alcohol wipes and antiseptic ointment. Teach your child when and how to use the supplies in the kit.
Show your child where you store flashlights and batteries and anything else they might need if the power goes out or something unexpected happens.
You will need to talk through common situations and potential emergencies so your child knows how to respond. This should include:
If you have an alarm system, show your child how to turn them off and on and watch as they practice.
What food is allowed when you are gone? Is cooking allowed? Make sure your child has practiced with you before using any appliances.
Emergency exit plan
What should your child do if there is a
fire or gas leak? Are they familiar with your home's smoke and carbon monoxide detectors?
Walk through your first aid kit and how to address minor injuries. Discuss when to call 911 and who to call first. In a life-threatening situation, remind your child to call 911 before taking time to contact you.
Do you have pets that need care while you are gone? What happens with the animals during an emergency?
Phones and doors
Do you want your child to answer the door or the phone? If they do, what should they say to someone who asks for you? Do they know when it is appropriate to let someone into the house?
If your child is locked out accidentally, does a neighbor have a key, or is there one hidden outside the house?
Take a test run, asking your child how they would handle different situations. Remind your child that although you aren't home, you are accessible by phone or text if anything should come up. If you won'' be available, make sure your child knows who the first point of contact should be if they have a question, there is an emergency, or if they just need some reassurance. If they will be looking after younger siblings, consider a first aid or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) class held locally.
Set the rules
Kids of all ages need to recognize rules and boundaries to keep them safe. This is particularly important as children become teenagers.
Always check in
Your child should contact you to check in when they first get home. It does not have to be a lengthy discussion, but a quick phone call or text creates a routine and gives you a chance to gauge how the day is going. If you or your child is anxious about the time alone, consider a video call or texting a few silly photos to provide peace of mind to both of you.
Set boundaries on socializing
Have clear expectations about friends. Provide rules about who can visit your home and where your child can go when you are not home. If your child will be going out or hosting friends, establish steps for notifying you, ensure the other parents are aware that no adult is home, and set limits on times and activities.
Set rules around media use
Provide options for what your child can and cannot do when they're home alone, including how they use media. Having a set list of daily chores and tasks can help keep them busy. Also, there are a number of tools parents can set up to set reasonable limits on various games and apps and even household Wi-Fi usage. Consider creating a
family media use plan.
Try it out
During your initial outings, set your child up for success by keeping the timeframe short or picking a time of day without more complex responsibilities, such as cooking. As both you and your child become more comfortable, you can extend the time your child is home alone.
Talk with your pediatrician if you have any questions about your child's safety and developmental readiness.