Everything you need to know about the recommended guidelines for when it’s OK for children to be left home alone. Also includes how to determine if your child is ready.
I remember a day when my daughter was five and her friend’s mom arrived to pick her up after a playdate at our house.
Coming in from the cold with a big smile on her face, the mother immediately exclaimed that she’d just left her two older sons, ages 8 and 10, alone at her house for the first time.
I knew the mom was only going to be gone for a few minutes. But my head couldn’t quite process what it would feel like to have that freedom – to know my kids were old enough and mature enough to be on their own for even a few minutes.
At the time, with a 5-year-old and 3-year-old in the house, it was hard to imagine. Everywhere I went throughout the day, my daughters went with me.
Having the freedom to travel independently for a few minutes sounded incredible – like a 20-minute mini-vacation, free from the hassle of winter coats, car seats, or even just the inordinate amount of time it took everyone to get shoes on their feet.
Most parents, like I did, long for the day when their kids will be independent enough to stay home alone. And even kids long for this independence since spending time at home alone can be a proud milestone of greater maturity.
But at what age is it appropriate to leave kids at home alone? And how can we know if our kids are ready?
Know the law first
The answer to the first question – at what age? – first needs to be guided by the laws in your state (or country).
In the United States, there are fourteen states that indicate when a child can be left alone – either with an explicit suggestion or an actual law on the books. Illinois is the strictest: their law says it’s age 14. Kansas is near the opposite end of the spectrum, with a recommendation of age 6. To see what you state recommends or requires, see: Home Alone Children Age Restrictions by State.
Also be aware that this is a serious topic, and is related to issues of child protection. Many states’ laws classify “failing to provide adequate supervision of a child” as child neglect – but then do not provide any detail on what is considered “adequate supervision.”
“In some States, it is considered neglect when a child has been left without supervision at an inappropriate age or in inappropriate circumstances, after considering factors such as the child’s age, mental ability, physical condition, the length of the parent’s absence, or the home environment—any combination of factors that creates a situation that puts the child at risk of harm,” according to the government-sponsored Child Welfare Information Gateway
If all this legalese has your head spinning and still wondering when you should feel comfortable leaving your child alone and for how long, the website FindLaw provides these general guidelines (but keep in mind that they are only guidelines):
7 & under – Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.
8 to 10 years – Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.
11 to 12 years – May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.
13 to 15 years – May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.
16 to 17 years – May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).
But more importantly: is your child ready?
Beyond legal matters, parents need also to consider the maturity and willingness of their child.
While a responsible eight-year-old could potentially be left alone for a few minutes, a ten-year-old, who tends to get into mischief, probably shouldn’t.
Appropriate questions to ask include:
- Is your child physically and mentally able to care for him- or herself?
- Does your child tend to obey rules and make good decisions?
- How does your child respond to unfamiliar or stressful situations?
- Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?
Other questions to consider include:
- For how long will you be gone? (See the earlier chart from FindLaw for age/time guidance)
- Will you be gone during daylight hours or at night?
- Will older siblings or kids be with your child? (this can impact the security of the youngest child if the older sibling is responsible and mature enough to care for him/her)
- How safe is your neighborhood?
- Does your child know how to reach you when you’re away?
Rules and guidelines for staying home alone
Every family will need to come up with their own rules and guidelines for when kids are home alone. But in all cases, it’s important to discuss your expectations with your child.
Some of what your family could discuss includes:
- When it is and isn’t appropriate for your child to open the door to a stranger or neighbor.
- If it is OK for your child to have a friend over when parents are not at home.
- If it is OK for your child to leave the house while you’re gone and go to other people’s homes or other places within the neighborhood
- Who your child should call in an emergency and in what order (make sure your child has memorized your address and knows your phone number)
- When possible, which neighbor your child should turn to if there is an immediate need (and make this neighbor aware of this plan).
- Whether or not it is appropriate for your children to use the stove or partake in cooking when parents are away.
- What restrictions are expected in terms of internet use or TV watching
- Make sure your child knows how to lock doors and windows in order to increase safety
Want a printout of these home alone guidelines and rules to discuss with your children? Click the image below to get your free copy and sign up for my weekly-ish newsletter:
The moment finally arrives
I’ll never forget the moment when I was finally able to leave my oldest home alone.
She was 8-years-old at the time – almost 9 – and I needed to pick up her sister at gymnastics – a 10-minute car trip there and back.
“Can I just stay home?” my daughter asked after I told her we needed to pick up her sister.
Pondering this question for a moment, I decided it would be alright. We live in a safe neighborhood, my trust-worthy neighbor was outside in case she needed anything and my daughter was mature enough not to do anything irresponsible. Besides, she would be doing nothing else besides finishing up her TV show while I was gone.
For the next few minutes before I left, I quickly reviewed with her: no answering the door, no eating, and essentially she was not allowed to do anything except watch TV while I was gone.
I locked the doors, got in the car and pulled out of the driveway.
It was only 10 minutes – less than a mile from our house – but it still felt like a big step in our daughter’s maturity.
Since then, we’ve reviewed more family rules about what to do and not to do while at home alone. And over the past year, we’ve left her alone for longer stretches of time as we grow into this new responsibility as a family.
Allowing me the opportunity to experience that mini-vacation I could only imagine just a few years before. 😊
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