The first time we left our daughter home alone, she was nervous. We knew she’d be fine — she’s always been a responsible kid — but she didn’t know she’d be fine. She’s a bit of a worrier, so all of the what-if scenarios had her freaked.
We went through the scenarios together, we talked through what to do in each case, and we assured her that she had the common sense and skills to be able to spend an hour alone in the house. We knew that nothing but actually doing it — seeing for herself that she was capable — was going to calm her nerves. We also knew that it was time for this important milestone, both for our daughter’s sake and our own.
At some point, the time comes to let kids have some real independence without any adult supervision. When does that happen? At what age are kids ready to be left alone in the house for longer than a couple of minutes?
It’s a hard question to answer definitively because every child is different. Some kids are eager to take on that responsibility, and others are scared to death of being home alone. Some kids you can trust to make wise decisions and handle unlikely emergencies with aplomb, while other kids you’re not sure you can trust to not accidentally burn the house down.
Like most childhood milestones, there is no exact age for leaving a child home alone.
I spent the first 12 years of my parenting journey in Illinois, where the law states that kids have to be 14 to be left home alone. I assumed that all states had such laws, but it turns out only three do. In Maryland, a child has to be 8. In Oregon, it’s 10. Other states offer a recommended age or guideline (Washington, where we live now, recommends kids be at least 10 years old to stay home alone), but other than that, it’s up to the discretion of the parents.
Some kids will let you know when they’re ready to try staying home alone and ask to do so when they don’t want to join you for a quick store run or dropping off a sibling at their sports practice.
Other kids might have to be drawn into the idea a bit, even if they seem old enough and responsible enough to handle it. The most important thing is to know your kid. If they tend to be anxious about it, remind them that it’s important to be prepared, but it’s highly unlikely anything is going to happen. If they tend more toward the reckless side, remind them that it’s important to be prepared (and make good choices) because anything can happen.
Whatever age you decide to give it a try, here are some ways to prepare kids for this stage of independence:
Make sure they know how to handle emergencies.
They should have easy access to a phone and know how to call 911. Go through what to do if there is a fire. Teach them what to do if someone comes to the door. Go through various what-if scenarios together well beforehand and encourage them to think of some on their own.
Go over basic rules of safety, even if you think they are smart and sensible.
Kids sometimes do dumb things without thinking it through, so it never hurts to remind them. Don’t climb up on anything to reach something high. Don’t turn on the stove (unless you are 100% comfortable with your kids cooking — mine cook, but when we’re gone, I only allow our oldest teen to use the stove). No running near the stairs. Basic accident prevention.
Set rules ahead of time about friends coming over.
If you do allow your kid’s friend to come over when you’re gone, make absolutely sure that their parents know there aren’t going to be any adults present. (Again, this comes back to knowing your kid and your kid’s friend. Close family friends are a far cry from some random kid from school.)
I’ve found that the best way to build kids’ confidence and sense of security in being home alone (we have worriers in our household) is to start off leaving them for a very short amount of time. A 10-minute walk around the neighborhood. A 20-minute errand. A 45-minute trip to the store. A 90-minute coffee date with a friend. Move up to hours gradually, and by the time you get there, they’ll have the experience to feel totally okay with a longer absence.
Check in while you’re out.
If you’ve left them with a cellphone, a simple text to see how things are going can reassure them that you’re reachable. Don’t check in too much though — part of developing independence is them knowing that you trust them to be okay.
Every kid is different, so you’ll have to gauge readiness and ability with each child individually. You’ll also have to gauge your own readiness. Some parents have a hard time leaving their kids alone, and you might have to push yourself a bit to let it happen.
Just remember, staying home alone is a normal milestone to get to. If you determine that your child knows how to handle themselves in an emergency and you can trust them to make wise choices while you’re gone, it may be time for them to do some solo stays. Independence for them means more freedom for you, so enjoy that coffee date or trip to the store by yourself. By the time your kids are old enough to consider being left alone, you’ve definitely earned it.