The answer: "Most likely when you think they're ready" -- but here are a few things to consider anyways.
Staying home alone is a big step toward independence. It also makes life a lot easier for parents, who do not have to arrange child care or take kids along wherever they go. The rules vary widely from state to state and throughout the Canadian provinces as to when a child can be legally left alone at home. Kansas, for example, says age 6 is appropriate for short periods of time. In Maryland, the minimum is 7 years. Other places wait until age 12, such as Delaware and Manitoba. In Illinois, it’s 14.
Many places leave it up to the parents’ discretion, which seems like a better plan. Parents know their children best and can discern how responsible a child is more effectively than a legal limit can. After all, it’s in a parent’s best interest to ensure their child is safe.
There are some valuable discussions to be had surrounding independence at home, as the time approaches. Most importantly, as Child Safe Canada urges, being home alone is not an event, but rather an ongoing process.
“Being home alone should be a process that is initiated in gradual and supervised stages. Start with small periods of time, and slowly increase with the child’s skills and growing maturity level.”
If you doubt whether or not your child is ready to stay at home, then they’re probably not.
When you do proceed in that direction, consider the following:
Make sure your child knows how to operate the locks on doors and windows. Set basic ground rules, such as not answering the door or phone unless it’s a parent.
Have your child memorize all his/her relevant information: full name, address, phone numbers, etc. Does he/she know strategies for handling emergencies? Test your kid on “What if…?” scenarios.
Tell close neighbors that your child will be home alone so they’ll be on the lookout. (This may also reduce the likelihood of anxious calls to Child Protective Services.)
Establish a ‘safe house’ to which your child can run if he/she feels unsafe, although your child should not go into any other house without your permission.
Do not allow young children to operate the stove unsupervised.
Maintain contact with the child during the time you’re away, whether it’s a quick phone call or some texts.
Offer or revoke the privilege of independence based on how your child handles it.
Never leave an unwilling or fearful child alone, as that can decrease a child’s ability to respond appropriately to emergencies. A child must feel comfortable being alone.
While this lengthy list of tips might seem like staying home is a huge deal, it’s not. Keep in mind that children used to stay alone all the time, often caring for younger siblings, managing chores, and traipsing long distances to school alone, so expecting your 10-year-old to entertain himself for a few hours after school is not the end of the world. Understand that this transition to new independence is a natural part of growing up, and treat it as celebratory, rather than something scary or dangerous; in other words, avoid negativity that will brush off onto your child and create unnecessary fear.
You can check out this colorful printable from Thirty Handmade Days to learn more about U.S. guidelines for leaving kids alone.