At What Age Is It Okay for Kids to Stay at Home by Themselves?
by Suzanne Robin, RNDec 11, 2012
If your 10-year-old is begging to stay home alone for a few hours after school rather than go to the after-school program, you may be in a quandry over whether or not to let him. Kids are ready to stay alone for a few hours at wildly different ages, depending on their maturity level, their quotient of common sense and, last but not least, the laws in your state, if any, on the legal age for leaving children without an adult present.
Because state laws are more than a guideline—they're a legal requirement that could land you in court if something goes wrong—it's always best to start there when deciding when it's time for a little freedom on the home front. Only a few states have laws mandating when children can be left alone, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Maryland, for example, specifies that children must be at least 8 years old to stay alone but also lists a number of stipulations that parents should consider, such as the duration of time alone, the child's access to help and whether he understands what to do in an emergency. Illinois lists the age as 14, but also qualifies this by saying the amount of time left, whether other kids are present and the circumstances also should be considered.
Your Child's Desires
Some kids love the idea of a few hours alone in the house, while others are paralyzed with fear at the thought. If your child is on the young side for being left alone—age 10 or 11—don't push the idea if you know they're apprehensive about it. Most authorities believe that the average 12-year-old can handle staying at home alone for a few hours, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. To assess your child's readiness for this step, according to child psychologist and author Dr. Ellinor Burke, "Give the child several opportunities at being home alone. By giving him several opportunities, you can then decide if he's ready." He might not do well the first time out, so don't give up after one try. Try again for a lesser amount of time or after more conversation on the subject in a few weeks.
Your child needs to be able to handle minor emergencies without panicking to stay home alone, as well as the ability to recognize what's really an emergency and what isn't. But he also needs the common sense and ability to resist peer pressure to know that letting three of his buddies—who have a bottle of whiskey stolen from dad's liquor cabinet—in the house for an afternoon party isn't a good idea. Make a checklist of items that your child might have to address in an emergency and review them thoroughly to make sure he's capable of carrying them out, perhaps by having "drills" that assess his ability to take action.
Going from never being alone at home to being alone for hours isn't the best way to transition to a big change. Instead, start with leaving your child in the house alone for short periods of time, perhaps when you're at a neighbor's house and within easy reach. Dr. Burke puts it this way. "Try a few short dry runs. If your child seems comfortable after a brief 10 minutes away, then lengthen it to 15 and try again. If he handles it well, increase the time as long as you're both comfortable."
Staying home alone can build your child's confidence and also teach him how to handle small emergencies or stresses. Giving kids more responsibility for themselves fosters emotional maturity and helps them take on more serious responsibilities during the teen years.