When Can I Leave My Kid Home Alone?

Maybe you should start by asking your kid.

little boy colors at table
Little boy colors at kitchen table.

DOF-PHOTO by Fulvio / Getty Images

For years, it felt like my babies would never grow up. Not that I wanted to rush it, but living four hours away from our closest relatives took its toll. My husband and I had to pay for every single hour of childcare, which meant less of a break from our kids than many of our friends got, who could call on grandparents and siblings anytime for backup help. 

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that I've been counting down the years until my oldest son could babysit his younger siblings, and I wouldn't have to fork over that painful $10/hour fee that young babysitters earn in this town. (I had to pay it to stay competitive in this market!) Now that he's 11, he says he's ready to assume that responsibility – and I think he is, too. 

Several people have expressed surprise that I'd let an 11-year-old be in charge of himself, let alone siblings. It has sparked some valuable discussions about a milestone that every parent must grapple with at some point. Is there a right age at which to leave a child (or children) unchaperoned by an adult?

The short answer is no, because that's an impossible thing to pinpoint, based on kids' different maturity levels and unique situations. Despite this, three U.S. states have mandated minimum age requirements to stay home alone – 8 years of age in Maryland, 10 in Oregon (which, ironically, is the only state with a law to protect free-range kids), 14 in Illinois – but you can see these vary drastically, which suggests they're arbitrary. There's no way the average 14-year-old in Illinois is six years less mature than a typical 8-year-old Maryland resident. Meanwhile, the National SAFEKIDS Campaign says no child under 12 should be left home alone. 

There are other factors, then, that must be weighed when deciding if a child can stay home alone or not. The first factor, I'd say, is how the child feels about it. Have you discussed staying home with your kid? Do they want to do it? If they're receptive, it's a good sign they're ready. If the thought fills them with terror or anxiety, you've got some work (and waiting) to do. 

Second, you have to think about what the child is actually capable of doing. If your child has a range of practical homemaking skills and knows generally how the household is run, she or he less likely to feel daunted by being solo, even if there's no expectation to engage in household work while you're away. It just makes the house as a whole seem less overwhelming when a kid knows its inner workings intimately. 

Ask if your child knows what to do in an emergency – if the smoke alarm goes off, if the toilet gets plugged, if someone gets cut, if a spider runs across the floor. Does he or she know where the fire extinguisher is, the first aid kit, the broom, the list of emergency phone numbers? Can he or she call 911 or contact a neighbor for assistance? Do you have neighbors your child knows and trusts? How do they handle the doorbell ringing or a parcel delivery? Talk through all of these scenarios.

Third, think about how long you'll be gone, as that affects a child's willingness to stay home independently. I'm less concerned about being away longer (up to one hour) when I know all of my children are at home together; they distract and entertain each other – and I believe they're safer together, too. I do make a point of telling them when I'll be back and making a safe, realistic estimate; that way, they're not left wondering where I am. If your child has a phone or iPad, show them how to get in touch with you if they have questions, although I would discourage constant communication when apart because that defeats the goal of promoting independence.

Set ground rules for what is and is not allowed when you're not home. My kids are forbidden from using the stove or oven, and from cutting food with sharp knives when I'm away. I have one friend who doesn't let his kids eat when he's gone for fear of choking, but I don't insist on that; based on all our years of eating together, we've never had a choking incident, so I prefer to base decisions on that, rather than a nebulous worst-case scenario (of which I'm sure we could all come up with many). 

Otherwise, I try not to place too many restrictions on their time alone. I remember looking forward to my parents' absence because it gave me free rein of the house. I could blast music, dance wildly, build living room pillow forts, jump on the bed. I want it to be a positive experience that they enjoy because that ends up being a win-win situation for all of us; they get a fun break from me, I enjoy a brief respite from mommyhood, and we reunite refreshed.