At What Age Can a Child be Left Home Alone?

There is no universally agreed upon definition of “maturity.” It’s open to debate because no two people are alike. Seems like a fair process, but in reality, this ambivalence has led to a maelstrom of legal and ethical debates over human rights.

As a parent, understanding your child’s maturity is vital to gauging their growth and development. This becomes especially important when you are contemplating leaving your child at home alone for the first time. Without strict rules to guide your decision, you’re left asking yourself, at what age can a child be left at home alone?

Exposure To Risk

There are a lot of conflicting feelings over this matter, not just in terms of parental guidance, but especially in medical and legal circumstances. “Maturity” remains an ambiguous term, so many lean on parental and professional discretion to determine that competency on a case-by-case basis.

What can be agreed upon is that children need exposure to risk in order to develop. That risk, of course, should be commensurate to their age and abilities, but a risk nonetheless.

The Law – When Is A Child Old Enough To Stay Home Alone?

At present, there are only three states with regulations regarding leaving children at home. Those states are Maryland, Illinois, and Oregon, and those ages are 8, 14, and 10, respectively. For most other states, parents must rely on a set of guidelines, set forth by The Department of Health and Human Services.

The aforementioned guidelines take several factors into consideration, including age, maturity, and the safety of the surrounding area. HHS’s recommendations are meant to be qualified alongside each parent’s personal knowledge of their child. The guidelines state:

  • Children 7 and under should not be left unattended for any reason
  • Children 8-10 can only be left for a maximum of 1.5 hours and only during daylight hours
  • Children 11-12 can be left up to 3 hours, but not late at night
  • Teens 13-15 may go long periods unsupervised, but not overnight
  • Teens 16-17 can go unsupervised, including overnight stretches

Remember, these are not hard and fast rules. Children develop and mature at different rates, so parents are left to determine their child’s independence on a case-by-case analysis.

Listening To Children

A point that is often overlooked during this examination is the child’s opinion. Do they even want to be left alone? Are they scared or nervous? If you are considering leaving your child at home for the first time, sit down and talk with them. Ask them how they feel about being alone. They may not want to at all. Within a reasonable age group (8-12), you may decide your child is not ready.

Learning Vital Safety Tip

Emergency Situations

When leaving your child at home, it’s imperative that they know what to do in case of emergency. You should educate your child on the importance of emergency services, stressing the responsibility entailed with calling 9-1-1. Your child should memorize their full name, address, and age.

In the unlikely instance that they would need to call for help, they will need to be able to relay important information to a dispatcher. In order to help your child determine what is and what is not an emergency, you should open up dialogue and ask how they would react in certain scenarios. Make sure to post emergency contacts where your child can see them. This should include your number, 9-1-1, and possibly a neighbor’s number.

Strangers

Remind your child that it is never okay to open a door for a stranger. Repeat this conversation several times until you feel the message has taken. It’s every parent’s nightmare that their small child will unwittingly open the door to a thief, or worse.

Do your part and educate your child. You should also demonstrate how window and door locks work. It will make you and your child feel better to walk through these safety precautions.

Neighbors And Safe Houses

Tell a neighbor (that you know and trust) that your child will be home alone. This extra set of eyes should relieve some stress for you and your child. It may also be prudent to come up with a “safe house” plan, or a place where your child can run to if they feel unsafe or scared. Again, the safe house will likely belong to a neighbor that you trust.

Checking In

Check in. Give your kid a call and see how they are feeling and what they are up to. Keep an open line of communication with your child. Sure, the first few times you leave they may call a lot. But in time, they should gain confidence in being alone. Checking in every few hours is a great way to gauge their level of comfort.

little girl talking on the phone

Appliance Safety

Just as a general rule of thumb, appliances should only be used by mom or dad. Tell your child that they may not use the oven, stove, iron, etc. when you are gone. Explain that these appliances can cause fires, which are very dangerous.

Assessing Your Child

Despite all the noise, you’ll need to think critically about your own child. You know them best. Here are some tips to keep in mind when considering whether or not your child is ready:

  • Does your child follow directions? Are they a good listener? Will they be able to follow your instructions when you are not home?
  • Is your child calm or are they nervous? How do they handle strange and unfamiliar situations? Will they know what to do if you aren’t there to help?
  • Does your child know basic first aid? Band-aids? Neosporin?
  • Does your child exhibit sound judgment, relative to their age? Do they know not to talk to strangers? Not to play with fire? Not to go in the pool when you’re not home?

Where To Begin?

Start Small

A 30 min. practice run will give your child enough time to demonstrate their maturity. Try this more than one, and maybe throw in a surprise practice round. Examine each rehearsal and make the decision as to whether or not they are ready for longer, spontaneous runs.

Role Play

Run through some emergency scenarios, like smelling smoke, and observe your child’s reaction. You may want to try this several times if you have a nervous child. All parents yearn to leave the house for a moment of respite, but it is only worth it if the child is ready. Otherwise, you’ll be left worrying the entire time you are gone.

Set House Rules

Set some rules for when you are not home. Some ideas include:

  • Rules about TV and internet
  • Rules about who can come over and when
  • Rules about food
  • Rules about siblings

Growing Up – What Age Can Kids Stay At Home Alone?

Remember, there is no standard definition of maturity. Children grow and develop at different rates. Your child may be ready to stay home alone, but they also need time with you. Try not to go overboard with your newfound freedom. Staying at home may benefit you for quick trips, but children, of any age, should not be left unattended for long stretches of time.

Lastly, always remember to lock harmful substances away when you are gone. Weapons, alcohol, matches, lighters, etc. should not be within reach.

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