Ask The Experts: When Is It OK to Leave Your Child Home Alone?
What should parents prioritize: freedom or safety? Many difficult parenting decisions boil down to this one heavy question. When kids are young, it’s easy to err on the side of protection. But as they grow, parents have to decide when their kids are ready to take on the vulnerabilities that come with big milestones, like being left unattended for the first time.
Is it legal to leave your child alone?
First and foremost, let’s address what the law says. For the most part, the legality of leaving your child home alone must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“Only three states currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone, including Illinois, 14 years old; Maryland, 8 years old; and Oregon, 10 years old,” explains Attorney David Reischer of LegalAdvice.com. “However, most states will follow guidelines with the Department of Health and Human Services or other child protective agencies that test a child’s ability to be left home alone. The state will evaluate various factors including the child’s age and maturity, the overall safety of the surrounding area, and any arrangements made to secure the child’s safety.”
No two children are alike
The law seems to make few hard and fast rules, and for good reason – no two children, households or situations are alike. Kids mature at different rates; homes and neighborhoods present different types of hazards.
“Knowing when a child is ready to be left home alone without a babysitter has a lot to do with the individual child. Some children are simply more responsible, more mature, than others,” says Varda Epstein, mother of 12 and writer at the parenting education blog Kars 4 Kids. She offers a few loose age guidelines but emphasizes that length of time and the child’s comfort level are huge factors in the decision.
“A mature eight-year-old may be just fine left at home alone, if not for too many hours. Ten-year-olds can usually manage on their own. But again, if your child is 11 and afraid to be left home alone, do hire a babysitter and let your child know it’s fine to want to have someone there with them. Even a 13-year-old can get lonesome or frightened.”
What to consider before leaving your child alone
Since you can’t base your decision to leave your child alone entirely on age, you should also assess his or her qualities, maturity level and personality. Also consider the risk factors in and around the house and the resources available to them if there is a time of need.
- Does your child follow rules and instructions well?
- Is your child capable of solving everyday problems or handling accidents (scrapes, falls, spills) on their own?
- Does your child feel scared or nervous to be on their own?
- Are there potential hazards in your home, such as a pool, construction area or any potentially dangerous items (illicit substances, firearms, etc.) that are unsecured?
- Is your neighborhood generally safe?
- Does your home have a monitored security system, surveillance camera or other protective technology in place?
- Will you be reachable by phone? If you can’t return quickly in the event of an emergency, is there another trusted adult nearby who can?
What mistakes to parents make when leaving kids home alone?
Deciding whether or not your child is ready is only the first step. You also need to lay some groundwork to prepare him or her to go it alone.
- Failing to plan for unexpected situations – Even cautious parents sometimes fail to set up game plans with their kids ahead of time. Justin Lavelle of BeenVerified.com, which links families with safety data, suggests that parents and kids “[d]iscuss rules and plans for certain situations they might encounter…What should they do if a stranger calls or comes to the door? Do they know how to contact you and where you are? Can they tell a trusted adult or officer their/your full name, address and phone number? Do they know how to contact a trusted adult or the police if they can not contact you in case of emergency?”
- Granting authority when sibling rivalry gets in the way – Older kids are often tasked with babysitting their younger siblings. Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker notes that this practice is generally more successful when the older sibling is at least five years older and doesn’t resent the responsibility: “If the older child experiences doing care as having status and embraces the responsibility, it can have a positive impact on both. But too often, kids only a couple of years older are charged with taking care of younger sibs. Often the older child resents the younger ones and the younger ones won’t grant the older one any authority. Instead of being company for each other, the children end up alternately fighting with and ignoring each other.”
- Not allowing kids to be left alone enough – Experts agree that it’s important for your child to have short trial absences when you first start to leave them unattended. Short trips away will help both parents and children feel more at ease. These experiences help you assess your child’s comfort level and see if any issues came up that you forgot to plan for. And perhaps more importantly, they represent an opportunity for kids to develop a sense of confidence and independence that will serve them throughout their lives. Elizabeth Malson, President of the Amslee Institute for childcare education, explains that “It’s important to develop a sense of self-support in our children. Providing time to be alone in the home can be an opportunity for age-appropriate children to gain a sense of independence and responsibility.”
Safety & security products put your mind at ease
One of the great things about home security devices is that they allow for peace of mind, remote monitoring and quick responses even without round-the-clock helicopter parenting.
Nanny cams and security cameras that stream live to your computer or smartphone allow you to quickly check in to make sure everything is in order. Seeing what’s going on in your house is especially reassuring if your child isn’t responsive to phone calls or texts for some reason. Outdoor security cameras and video doorbells let you see everyone who is coming or going. The best indoor cameras and nanny cams have handy features like 2-way audio for quick check-ins.
Home security systems can help parents take a more hands-off approach, since they can leave the monitoring to the professionals. The most thorough systems allow security devices like motion sensors, cameras, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and home automation devices to work together to keep all of your household members fully protected and informed.
If you’re getting ready to leave your kids home alone and you haven’t reviewed your general home safety in a while, we recommend checking our new home security checklist to see if you’ve covered all the best practices.