How to know when your kid's old enough to stay alone

Aug. 19, 2020

Being able to leave your child home alone is an exciting milestone. Independence! Freedom — for all! But it can also be nerve-wracking. The potential for things to go wrong is, in a way, in your hands. So practice, preparation and, perhaps most importantly, intuition are crucial.

So how do you know when your child is ready to stay home on their own? Most parents go with their gut — because, after all, who knows your child better than you? But, depending on where you live, it may actually be illegal to leave your child without a sitter. A few states currently have binding laws about the minimum age a child must be in order to be left home alone. In Illinois, it’s 14 years old and in Maryland, it’s 8. Other states simply offer recommendations.

“I recommend consulting the guidelines for your state, which can be accessed by contacting the local Child Protective Services agency,” says Amie Bettencourt, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins. “At the end of the day, though, deciding if your child is ready to be left alone should be child-specific and based on a number of factors besides their age.”

If you’re thinking of cancelling your sitter, here’s what to consider before leaving your child home alone.

1. Consider maturity level more than age

When it comes to leaving children without adult supervision, there’s no magic age — hence, the laws varying by six years between Illinois and Maryland. This is because, ultimately, no two kids are alike.

“Finding an exact age is difficult because children mature at different paces,” says Ruthie Arbit, a maternal and pediatric psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. “In general, states that have regulations about this usually note that ‘developmental readiness’ can happen between 8 to 12, but that’s very dependent on the child.”

Arbit notes that, while specific age requirements can be a helpful guide, they shouldn’t be seen as the determining factor when deciding to forgo a babysitter.

“Two 12-year-olds can have very different maturity levels,” she says.

2. Assess the child’s comfort level

Another thing to consider besides your child’s maturity is their comfort level with being left on their own.

“You can have an incredibly responsible child, but if he or she is easily stressed or scared, they’re probably not ready to be left on their own,” says Bettencourt.

3. Gauge their ability to deal with challenges

Even if you’re confident your child won’t burn the house down while you’re gone, it’s also important to gauge their ability to deal with unexpected challenges that may arise.

“Before leaving your child home alone, evaluate whether they’re a good decision-maker, since things don’t always go as planned,” says Bettencourt. “Do they understand what constitutes an emergency and what they should do in that situation? Would they know what to do if they fell down and got hurt? How do they normally handle making decisions when something unexpected happens?”

4. Look for signs your child may be ready

In conjunction with gauging the emotional development and confidence level of your child, Bettencourt recommends taking a number of practical factors into consideration.

“Does your child know his full name, address and phone number?” she says. “Does he understand and follow the house rules without assistance on a regular basis? Does he know what to do in case of an emergency, including how to contact you and other relevant adults, and how to call 911 if needed? These are a few things to consider.”

Additional questions Arbit recommends taking into account are:

  • How safe is your home and community?

  • How responsible and independent is your child? Do they ever watch younger siblings?

  • Do they do household activities on their own, such as light cooking and dishwashing?

  • Would your child know what to do if he or she was hungry?

  • Does your child regularly follow house rules?

Arbit also notes that children with special needs or with mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, require special consideration.

“If there is a therapist involved in the child’s care, he or she should be included in the plan,” she says.

How to prepare your child to stay home alone

Start small

Just as you wouldn’t make baby’s first meal a T-bone steak, you’re not going to go to a wedding three hours away the first time you leave your child alone. Start with quick, close-by trips and work your way up from there. Not only will it get both of you acclimated to the situation, you’ll also figure out potential hiccups.

“We’re inching our way toward staying home alone,” says Ilene Palmieri, of Howell, New Jersey, about leaving her 10-year-old without a babysitter. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but as a starting point, I’ve been going for short walks around the neighborhood with a friend. I leave my phone with my daughter in case anything goes wrong. So far, no phone calls!”

Before leaving your child for an extended period of time, Bettencourt recommends doing a few pilot tests, such as 20-minute trips to the store, and then checking in when you return.

“Debrief with your child about how things went when you were gone,” she says. “Ask how they felt and what questions they still have about what to do when they are left home alone.”

It should also go without saying to check in at least once when you’re away to see how things are going.

Establish rules

It may elicit an eye-roll, but establishing rules is a must before leaving a child on their own — and it’s not a bad idea to write them down on a piece of paper.

“Before leaving your child home alone, post house rules and emergency contact information on a piece of paper and go over them so you’re sure they understand,” Bettencourt says. “It’s also helpful to share potential problems that may arise during the separation in order to help them problem solve.”

Every household is different, but Bettencourt and Arbit recommend implementing the following ground rules when leaving children home alone:

  • No answering the phone or door.

  • Stay inside the house with the doors and windows locked.

  • No using household appliances, such as the stove.

  • No unannounced friends over.

  • Time limits on the television and internet.

“Parents should also consider placing parental controls on all electronic devices and the TV,” says Bettencourt. “This way, they can manage what information the child is accessing without their direct supervision.”

Put precautions into place

While communicating general rules to your child is key, it’s important to do work on the front-end to make sure your house is as safe as possible. Think of it as childproofing for your big kid.

“Parents need to consider whether there are things at home that the child could possibly access or be exposed to that would be potentially harmful or dangerous,” Bettencourt says. “For example: Are all the medications, household cleaning supplies, firearms and alcohol properly stored so that children cannot access them?”

Arbit also advises parents to think about the time of day in which their child will be left alone.

“If the time alone is during a routine, such as eating a meal, then the routine should be followed,” she says. “You don’t want to leave a hungry child or come home to a starving kiddo. To play it safe, either prepare food ahead of time or leave items that can be prepared by the child easily — without the use of an oven or stove.”

Take siblings into consideration

When you have more than one child, you have more than one person to take into account when leaving kids home alone. For instance, your 10-year-old may be fine without supervision, but is he mature enough to care for a younger sibling?

“We’ve left our 11-year-old alone for quick trips here and there,” says Kristen Keller, of Brooklyn, New York. “But I don’t think he’s mature enough to take care of his 5-year-old brother, so we’ll only do it when he’s completely on his own with no one else to worry about.”

Celebrate their independence

Once you’ve successfully left your child alone, it’s important to debrief and go over any safety issues — potential or otherwise — that may have arisen, Bettencourt says. But it’s equally important to congratulate them on a rite of passage and a job well done. Because after all, confidence begets confidence.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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