When Is My Child Old Enough to Stay Home Alone?

Boy lying on a couch in his pj's cuddling his cat
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Letting an older child stay home while you run a quick errand or even for an hour or two after school until you get home from work is often more cost-effective and practical than trying to find childcare. With appropriate rules and maturity level, a home-alone arrangement can work. However, there are numerous safety and behavior pitfalls to avoid.

What Age Is Considered Safe?

The age at which a child may legally be left home alone varies from state to state or may not be spelled out for your location.

KidsHealth.org notes that it's not a good idea to leave kids younger than 10 at home alone. But the age at which a child is ready will vary, even for siblings. With a seemingly endless list of safety concerns, many conservative parents and caregivers will strongly argue that kids should never be left home alone. While sound advice, it may not always be practical.

Many families allow their older elementary-age or middle school kids be home alone after school. But child experts warn that "latchkey kids" are the ones who are most apt to get into trouble when home alone, as there are opportunities to initiate inappropriate online communications, watch television shows you would never allow, experiment with drugs or alcohol, or even to put themselves in harm's way with strangers.

Home Alone for Middle School Kids

If you choose to allow your child to stay home alone, experts recommend that kids entering middle school can most likely handle the responsibility effectively.

If you plan to begin allowing your child to stay home alone after school, introduce the arrangement as a phased-in process, where you gradually allow increased opportunities for your child to demonstrate readiness.

For example, you might try running a quick errand or going to the grocery store and ask your child to check in with you every 15 minutes by phone.

Knowing that your child can safely and accurately call you is a first step in the right direction. From there, you can gradually increase the time home alone until you both are comfortable with the situation.

Checklist and Safety Rules

Establish a written checklist of safety and ground rules that your child must follow. For example, call the minute he arrives home, check that doors are locked, don't answer the phone unless it is a parent or approved family member, no unsupervised computer use, and complete all homework).

Make sure your child understands the rules and agrees to them. Of greatest importance is not allowing your child to answer the door, play outside in the front yard, or tell anyone (in person or online) that he is home alone.

You'll also want to establish specific rules about food. You will probably feel safest if you don't allow your child to cook any food except in the microwave. You don't want to worry about accidental cooking fires or burners being left on. Ensure your child knows the steps to take in case of a fire or other emergency.

Problem Behavior Can Develop

Parents should know that the home-alone trial stage can be misleading. The arrangement typically goes well because both the parent and the child want it to be a success.

The danger comes when a child has become comfortable with being home alone and begins to crave even greater independence. Boredom can breed the temptation to have a friend over, go outside in the front yard, or take a quick walk. That's when the potential for danger or trouble escalates.

The tween and early teen years are when most parents typically agree to let a child stay home alone. However, adolescence is also entering the picture and with it the desire to test rules and challenge authority. Because of the increased risks, many schools and city recreation programs have after-school activities (either for a very minimal cost or even free) to avoid tween/teens from going home to an empty house.

Monitoring the Arrangement

If you choose to let your child stay home alone, you'll need to be vigilant in checking that the rules are being followed while you are away. Kids often capitalize on the fact that working parents are stressed and tired and aren't careful in checking for details.

Finally, try to find a neighbor who is aware your child will be home alone. Ask him to keep a discreet eye on your home (and your kid) and to call you if any unwanted behaviors or actions are noted.

Sources:

Home Alone Children. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. http://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Home_Alone_Children_46.aspx.

Leaving Your Child Home Alone. KidsHealth from Nemours. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/home-alone.html

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