When Can You Let Your Kids Stay Home Alone?

Letting kids stay home alone for the first time is a big deal. It’s a mark of maturity and parental trust. The hard part for the parents is deciding when it’s appropriate and for how long. Your idea of when to let your kids stay home alone may not match what they want.

But it isn’t all about what you think, or even what an individual child thinks. You have to consider a few things before you can let your kids stay home alone, for their safety and protection.

State Law

The laws on when kids can stay home alone vary from state to state, but most states decline to give an actual age requirement. Many give recommended ages, which can range from age 8 to 14. Considering that most places kids can start babysitting at age 12, I consider older than that to be overly strict on the state’s part. That’s something you have to consider when you’re making this decision.

A part of the rules effective in your state will depend on how safe the situation is. Being home alone for a while during the day is very different from being home alone all night.

Contacting CPS is an option if you aren’t certain about the rules in your area. Some of you will think this is a great idea. Some will consider it terrible. They may or may not give you good information. Sometimes you’ll get someone with very different ideas of what is safe versus what the law says. You don’t have to talk to them about it if you don’t want to. If other parents in your area have had problems, it may be a good idea. Facing legal issues over what you considered to be a good parenting decision would be hard.

Where Do You Live?

In asking where you live in this case, I don’t mean which state. We’ve looked at state laws already.

What we’re looking at here is the kind of neighborhood you live in. Do you feel safe letting your kids be home alone in your neighborhood?

There are neighborhoods where it’s a higher risk to have your kids home alone there than it would be elsewhere. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your kids home alone due to your neighborhood. You have to consider it, but it’s not something you can easily change. It’s not like “move” is a realistic answer for most families.

Maturity of Your Child

The simple truth of the matter is that some kids are ready to stay home alone sooner than others. You know your children best. You can decide when they’re ready to stay home alone for short periods and when you can be gone longer.

Your kids may be ready to stay home alone when you’re confident that your child won’t break too many of the rules you set for when you’re gone, such as having friends over, answering the door, cooking, and so forth. They should also know how to deal with minor problems and what to do in case of an emergency. They should know how to reach you at need. Cell phones are wonderful in this regard, as it makes it much easier for a child to reach a parent who is out and about.

It shouldn’t be a surprise if the kids don’t follow all the rules you set every time. Do you really think they’ll be perfect about screen time limits when you’re not around? Keep them reasonable. If your kids are like mine, you’ll come home to kids rushing to get assigned chores done. It’s normal. So long as the rules aren’t broken too badly, it’s rarely a big deal. But if the infraction is serious, deal with it appropriately.

Most of these rules should loosen up as your kids get older. They’re going to move out someday, and you want them comfortable doing normal adult things by then.

My son, for example, is about to have his first day alone without even siblings home. It’s his choice. I have to be an appraiser for his younger sister’s Destination Imagination tournament, and my husband has to be there with her. My oldest daughter has an archery tournament. I gave my middle child the choice of which to attend or to stay home, and home is what he chose. This doesn’t surprise me in the least. We’ll all be gone a significant chunk of the day. He knows he can call us if he needs help, and he has the phone numbers of various friends he could call if he needed an adult sooner than we could get back.

Siblings

A child with older siblings able to watch him or her can stay home without a parent younger than one without older siblings present. A child who has to watch younger siblings will need to be older before being allowed to watch them without parents home. Taking care of yourself and siblings is a much bigger deal than taking care of yourself.

I think about how old I was when I started babysitting, which included watching actual babies. I was 12.

That’s probably a pretty good age, state laws permitting, so long as your older kids are familiar with what the younger needs. They should also be fairly patient with the younger.

How Long?

How long are you going to leave your kids alone matters too. You can trust kids while you run a quick errand younger than you might trust them to be alone for a few hours.

For example, I’m willing to let my youngest stay home for a short time while I pick up her older siblings from school. Longer than that she’s not ready for.

They should also be a bit older if food preparation is required. Snacks may not be so difficult to deal with once rules are agreed upon. If a meal needs to be prepared, there’s more responsibility required of your child. This is true even if it’s just popping something in the microwave. It’s all too easy for an accidental burn to happen while taking food out of the microwave. Your child should know how to handle that without panicking.

Can Someone Come Help If Needed?

It’s a huge help if your kids know which neighbors or nearby family friends they can call upon at need. Most times, no one will be needed. On rare occasions, things happen. They need a trusted adult faster than you can come home. Plan for it so it’s not a bigger problem than it has to be.

Don’t make letting your kids stay home alone be a burden on neighbors or friends. If your kids need help from them often, they’re too young to be alone.

How Will They Contact You?

Make sure your kids know how to contact you in an emergency, even if it will take you a while to get home.

Most times, this is easy. Most of us have cell phones. If you don’t have a landline phone in your home, make sure your kids still have a way to contact you, of course.

There is an extra challenge if you’re somewhere that you cannot use your cell phone. Some jobs won’t let you carry one, for example. It’s rude, of course, to have your phone ringing at the movie theater or at a performance. Other times, there isn’t cell coverage where you’re going.

At these times, you need to have a backup plan for your kids. If they can’t reach you, who should they call?

What Options Do You Have?

Sometimes you aren’t entirely happy about leaving your child home alone, but you don’t have other options. If your child isn’t ready to be home alone, you will need to find a way to deal with that. You may need to talk to a family member, friend or neighbor about helping you out, or hire a babysitter. Sometimes you can arrange a playdate with one of your child’s friends when you need to get out without your child. If leaving your child alone isn’t the right choice, you have to pick an alternative and make it work.

When it comes right down to it, guidelines or no guidelines, and even state law, you know best when your child is ready to stay home alone and for how long. If you don’t feel your child is ready when the law or guidelines say they can do it, you don’t have to push the matter.

Allowing your kids to stay home alone is an important step in developing their independence. Keep the rules reasonable and they’ll have a lot of fun.