As kids grow up to become more capable and independent, every parent faces the dilemma of when it’s okay to leave children at home by themselves. Do you still need a babysitter, or will your kids know how to handle themselves? Will you get in legal trouble or be judged by neighbors if something goes wrong?
While there are laws and child welfare recommendations out there, and social trends among the families in your town or city, the decision is ultimately unique to each family because it’s based on so many different factors.
Here are some of the most important factors to consider, and steps to take, before leaving your child home alone.
Consider local laws
First, find out if your state has any laws about what age children can legally be left alone — the policies and recommendations range a lot from state to state, so contact your local child welfare agency for more information. Consider that the majority of social workers believe children should be at least 12 years old before being left home alone for four hours or longer.
However, many states and child welfare agencies don’t specify an age — for many officials, the question of whether they should be left alone is usually much more about kids’ maturity level, the safety of the home, and the amount of time the child has been left alone.
Also consider your specific community, and the dynamic your family has with neighbors and local police: Are there outside factors that would make your home or neighborhood particularly unsafe for kids when you leave?
Is your child ready to stay home alone?
It’s important to consider more than the minimum legal requirements — you know your own children best. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you consider leaving your kids home alone. If you answer “no” to any of these, they’re probably not ready yet for an extended period of time on their own.
- Does your child typically understand and follow important safety rules in the house, including online safety guidelines?
- Do they act responsibly when they’re left without supervision in a different room or part of the home?
- If there are siblings and/or pets involved, do they get along well and act safely when together?
- Would your child feel safe being by themselves at home?
- Is your child okay managing their own physical and mental health on a day-to-day basis?
- Do they know how to help themselves if they get a minor injury like a cut?
- Can they help themselves to food and drinks while staying safe in the kitchen?
- Can they use a phone to call you and other emergency contacts?
- Do they know what to do if there’s a fire in the house?
- Does your child have good judgment about what (and who) is safe and unsafe?
Safety must-do’s before leaving the house
Once you’ve determined you can trust your child to be left alone, there are still several safety arrangements to make so that their surroundings are ready for unsupervised time.
- If there are any guns in the home, make sure each one is unloaded and locked in a lockbox or safe, and that the passcode or key is not accessible in any way. Firearms are the number one cause of child deaths.
- Make sure that medicine, alcohol, tobacco or cannabis products, and any other toxic substances (such as bleach) or dangerous items are not accessible to kids.
- Any digital devices that are not specifically set up for the kids’ use should be secured with a passcode that kids don’t know.
- Talk to a trusted relative or neighbor who can be an alternate contact for the child, just in case they can’t reach you right away but they need something. Give this person a spare key if appropriate.
- Write or print a short list of emergency numbers, including your phone number, another family member, 911 (or your local emergency number), poison control, doctor or therapist (if there are medical or mental health needs), and a crisis hotline. You can also include information like where a fire extinguisher or your first aid kit are located. Post it in a visible place like on the fridge. (Click here to get a free printable emergency contact list you can personalize!)
- Discuss what kinds of emergencies it’s appropriate to call 911 for. Be sure that they understand what each of the numbers on the list are for, and how exactly to call them.
- Be sure your child knows how to recite their own address, name, and phone number, and that it’s okay to reveal these to a 911 dispatcher or emergency worker.
- Ideally you will have already discussed with kids what to do if there’s fire, smoke, or a gas smell in the home. Be sure that smoke detectors have been tested recently, and review the basic safety plan.
- Write down a short list of rules for while you’re gone, and discuss each item to make sure they understand the reasons behind each one. The list could include things like:
- Don’t tell anyone you’re home alone.
- Don’t invite anyone over, and don’t answer the door or let anyone in (exceptions: if you’ve called 911 or your trusted relative to help, and they arrive)
- Stay at home and keep doors locked (exceptions: fire, smoke, gas, or another emergency in the home)
- Always answer calls from parents.
- Don’t use the stove or oven, candles, or any kind of flame.
- No fighting, and continue to follow all household rules.
- Call parents to check in, or with any questions or problems.
Test it out before you take the leap
Before making plans to be away for hours at a time, you’ll want to test out your child’s readiness — and your own comfort level! — for staying home alone. Start with a short walk around the block, and have kids practice their phone skills and call you while you’re “out.” When you come back, ask your child how the alone time went for them.
If all goes okay, and they can remember all the safety rules, you can ramp up to longer walks and quick errands during daylight hours only. Or arrange your day so that you can swing by home between errands. Call them during one of these medium-length outings to make sure they are responsive.
Once you’ve tried these types of hybrid scenarios, you can consider gradually increasing the period of time your kids stay home alone, as necessary. And remember that autonomy can actually be great for your kids’ development — so even if they’re not ready for this major milestone, they may be ready for other forms of practicing independence.