There are so many times in your life as a parent where you’ll be faced with the decision to leave your child home alone or not. Even families with two parents sometimes have to juggle conflicting or changing schedules, emergencies, and other last-minute issues — a well-oiled but overstretched family can come to a screeching halt with just one dead battery or emergency meeting. So, when is it OK (or, more pointedly, legal) for your child to be home alone? And what should you make sure they do or know when they’re home by themselves?
For many people, the legalities are less of a worry than the actual logistics. Does your little bug know how to dial 911? Can they safely open the door and leave the house when they need to… and do they even know when they need to? Are they comfortable by themselves? What do they do if someone knocks or calls? With so many things to worry about when a child is left alone, it often doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes, though, you don’t even really get to make a decision about if your kid will be left home alone — suddenly, they just are.
Here’s what you and your child need to know before leaving them home alone.
When is it legal for a child to be home alone?
You might be surprised to know that most states actually don’t have legal age requirements for kids to be left by themselves. The states that do, however, seem to vary quite significantly on how old a child should be before you leave them home alone.
“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,” shares David Reischer, Esq., a family law attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice. “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.”
There is a six-year difference between Maryland and Illinois’ minimum age for leaving children home alone. That’s a pretty significant gap that basically makes up the length of junior high — our kids learn and grow a lot during those times.
“Z was definitely younger than 14 when he stayed home alone for the first time,” shares Chicago mom, Christina M. “I was a single mom, and he often got home from school before I could get home from work. I think he was about 12 when he first started staying home alone. By high school, he was watching his little sister after school.”
What should a child know before they’re left home alone?
Since most states base any court rulings on a child’s individual needs and abilities, it’s crucial to ensure your child is fully prepared to be left alone. The Bureau for Child Welfare actually has some tips for gauging if your child is ready to be left home alone.
First, answer these questions for yourself.
- Is your child able to care for themselves both physically and mentally?
- Can you trust your child to obey your house rules and make good decisions?
- Is your child capable of responding properly to scary or stressful situations?
- How does your child feel about being left alone?
Next, make sure your child knows all the basics.
- Do they habitually close and lock the door behind them?
- Do they know when to call 9-1-1 (and all the pertinent information to give dispatch)?
- Do they know what to say when they answer the phone?
- Do they know when to answer the door and when not?
- Do they know who to call if there is a less emergent problem?
- Do they know where to go if they need to leave the house?
- Does your child know how to contact you if they need to?
- Can your child walk you through what they would do in various scenarios, like fires, severe weather, or strangers at the door?
Of course, knowing these basics still doesn’t necessarily mean things will go smoothly.
“The first day my 3rd grader came home alone, I sent our neighbor and family friend to check in on her… and she wouldn’t answer the door!” said Debbie H., of Fort Myers, Florida. “She also wouldn’t answer the phone. Luckily, we still had an old-school answering machine. So, I called and talked to her over the answering machine. I told her I would call her right back and that she needed to answer because it was her mom. Then I called, and I told her who was coming to the door. Lesson learned! We made a family code word after that.”
Finally, make sure your child understands the situation.
Beyond caring for themselves during stressful or emergency situations, your child should fully grasp what to expect from your absence. If possible, your child should be alerted to the fact that they’ll be home alone before it happens. Your child should know when to expect you home. Everyone in the family should agree on the house rules for a child home alone, which might include having friends over, going outside, preparing a snack or meal for themselves, and when they should check in with a parent.
What are some tips for easing everyone’s nerves?
Cell phones make it nearly impossible for someone ever to be entirely alone or unreachable. However, tweens do occasionally leave their cell phones uncharged, and younger kids may not even have cells. There are other ways to ensure your child is safe when home alone. Though, not all of these might be options during emergencies.
- Install a “nanny cam.” This doesn’t need to be an invasion of privacy. Setting up that old baby monitor in the kitchen or living room, near the front door, or pointed towards the homework area is a great way to check in on your kiddo.
- Do a trial run (or ten). Leave your child home alone while you run up the street to get gas for tomorrow. Let them demonstrate their responsibility while you walk down to the neighbors’ to return their axe or just say hi.
- Role play. We’re not suggesting you traumatize your kid with an active shooter drill. But practice using the ring doorbell or communicate with (or ignore) visitors. Pretend the Easy Mac bursts into flames in the microwave and ask them to put it out.
- Have check-in times. If you’ll be unreachable, establish a time for your child to check in with a neighbor or call the aunt who works from home nearby. Maybe even arrange for them to have dinner with their best friend down the street. The more people who have scheduled contact with your child during their time alone, the more likely you are to be alerted promptly if something goes wrong.
- Establish firm, easy-to-follow rules. If your child is coming home from school to an empty house, banning them from eating at all might be hard to follow. Setting a firm boundary in regards to the gas stovetop is completely reasonable. If your child has trustworthy friends, you might be OK with one friend over. If, however, you need to be selective about which friends can and can’t come over when you’re not home, it might just be simpler to enforce a “no friends period” rule.