Anyone who is a parent knows that leaving a child to fend for themselves for any period of time can be a highly stressful situation. Even a quick trip to your local gas station has the potential to create a web of ‘what-if’ scenarios in your mind. Because of this, it’s hard to know exactly when a child is old enough to stay home alone and when you still need to bring in a babysitter. They might be absolutely fine, but this doesn’t stop you from worrying.
At some point, however, you’re going to have to adjust to the fact that your child is slowly becoming more and more independent. There is no hard and fast rule about what age a child should be when you first choose to leave them alone in the house. There are major factors that come into play, like your kid’s personality and the length of time you plan to leave them alone. And then there are external elements that can have a significant impact on your decision:
Old Enough to Stay Home Alone? What Does the Law Say?
If you’re a cautious parent and aren’t sure where to turn, sometimes looking to what the law says about child-rearing can guide you. However, with regards to when a child is old enough to be left home alone, the law is very vague.
There are child protection laws in every state. But only three are specific about the age a child is considered old enough to be left at home alone. Illinois is the strictest in this regard. A child has to be fourteen in order to be left alone in Illinois. Maryland and Oregon are the two other states that have similar laws, but the ages are much lower. If your kid is only eight years old, it’s perfectly lawful to leave them home alone in Maryland. In Oregon they have to be ten.
The rest of the states don’t have specific age laws, but their child protection laws define child neglect as ‘failing to provide adequate supervision of a child’. There is no detailed discussion as to what this really means. Is leaving a seven year old alone for twenty minutes in a locked house failing to provide them with adequate supervision?
Evidently, the question of when is a child old enough to stay home alone requires a large dose of common sense. When the law fails to give us specifics, it’s up to us as parents to rely on our own instinct and discernment. This is why when you ask yourself if your child is ready to be left home alone, common sense rules:
Common Sense Rules
As a parent, no one knows your child better than you. Deciding when your child is old enough to stay home alone can be an overwhelming decision, but it can be made a lot easier by relying on your common sense. Here are some ways you can use your common sense in order to make the best choice for both you and your child:
A. Personality and Maturity Level
The personality and maturity level of your child surely plays the major role in deciding when you first leave them home alone. If your child is naturally curious and has an adventurous spirit, you will undoubtedly have to be more careful than if your child is a natural introvert who prefers being on their own. The curious child might want to explore outside the house when you’re gone, while the introvert will probably enjoy spending time in their room alone.
This is not to say that a curious child is never to be left alone, but you will probably have to have more safeguards in place when leaving the house. For example, alerting your neighbor that you’re going to the store will help to ensure that even if the curious child unlocks the doors and goes outside, they are still being supervised by an adult.
The other biggest factor that helps to determine when a child is old enough to stay home alone is the duration; the length of time you’re going to be leaving them to their own devices. As a general rule, age and duration go hand in hand. In other words, the longer you’re leaving them on their own, the older they should be.
Using the loose framework of the law, it’s clear that an eight-year-old can be left alone for a short duration of time. This means that anything that can be completed in an hour or less is perfectly fine, as long as you give the child clear instructions and lock the doors for safety.
If you’re going somewhere overnight, you do not leave an eight-year-old alone. A child in their early teens who can fend for themselves without burning the house down may be fine to leave alone overnight. Leave them clear instructions regarding acceptable behavior, notify your neighbors, and everything will go smoothly.
More Tips for Parents
The government’s Children’s Bureau offers the following additional advice for parents who have determined that their child is ready to stay home alone:
1. Have a trial period
Start by leaving them for short times, and don’t go too far away.
2. Role play
Walk them through possible scenarios that could arise and explain what they should do.
3. Establish rules
Set clear limits on what is and isn’t allowed when you are not home.
4. Discuss emergencies
Talk about what would be an emergency, and establish a code word they can use.
5. Check in
Call them while you’re out, and perhaps have a neighbor look in also.
6. Talk about it
Discuss with your child their feelings about being at home alone before leaving them, and then debrief afterward as well. Make sure your child feels confident enough.
7. Don’t overdo it
Even if your child does well, they shouldn’t be left at home too much. If you must leave, you might consider a care program or bring in a sitter.
Further Recommended Reading:
- Last Minute Babysitter: How to Find One (and Stay Worry-Free)
- What is the Going Rate for Babysitting? [Infographic]
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