It can be hard to know the age at which age your child is ready to stay alone at home. To some extent, it varies by child. However, this article will talk about the things to think about before leaving your child home alone.
That depends on where you live. Only Illinois, Oregon, and Maryland have state specified rules on how old a child must be to be left alone at home. Illinois requires children 14 and younger to have an adult at home to supervise them. Maryland requires children younger than 8 have someone 13 or older to supervise them. Oregon states that children under 10 should be supervised at home.
Other states leave the age you start leaving your child alone to your judgement. There are some factors each state suggests using when you make your decision. Each state reserves the right to charge you with neglect or abandonment of your child if they feel the child is not safe alone at home.
Guidelines for Leaving a Child Home Alone
There are no hard and fast rules for determining when a child can be home alone.
- 7 & Under–Never leave them alone no matter where you are with them
- 8 to 10 Years– Only during daylight and not more than 1 ½ hours at a time
- 11 to 12 Years– Up to 3 hours during the day or early evening
- 13 to 15 Years– No supervision required during day or early evening
- 16 to 17 Years– can be left alone up to two nights
These are not absolutes. A mature 10-year-old may do better at home than an immature 14-year-old. Because children mature at different rates, using age alone is not helpful. However, the Department of Health and Human Services does offer some questions to ask yourself when looking at the issue.
Is Your Child Mature Enough to Leave Alone?
If your child is independent and can get himself food and other necessities when you are there, that is a sign he is able to care for himself. Is the child needy? That may indicate that he is not able to care for himself. Only you can evaluate your child and know they are ready to care for themselves, even if only for a short time.
Does Your Child Have a Good Head on His Shoulders?
Is your child a risk taker? Do they break rules right and left? This indicates you might need to keep the child under supervision. On the other hand, if your child is obedient and makes good decisions, they may be safe to leave alone.
Does Your Child Panic in Emergencies?
How does your child react to something unexpected happening? Does it really knock them for a loop, or do they adapt to the situation? What happens when they get hurt, or hungry, or find themselves in another stressful situation. If the child falls apart when you are there, that is a sign they are not ready to be alone.
How Does Your Child Feel about Staying at Home Alone?
Most children start asking to stay home alone from errands or a similar situation before they are really ready. However, the question signals a time to prepare them for being alone. Do they know how to dial 911? Do they have a phone they can always reach when they are alone? Is there a neighbor they can contact in an emergency? Do they know their full name and address and phone number? These things may signal that they are mature enough to stay home alone. If the child is fearful of staying alone, it might be a bit early to let them do that.
Can You Go to Jail for Leaving Your Child Alone at Home?
Again, it depends. We all hear reports in the news that a woman or man has been arrested for neglect and/or child abandonment. What exactly triggers that kind of reaction from the police and Child Protective Services?
Is the Home Safe?
Usually, Child Protective Services (CPS) gets involved when something happens that may or does injure the child. When CPS is called about a child alone, they ask some questions. The answer to these questions governs what happens next. Does the child have a phone and know how to contact a parent or 911? Is the home well maintained? Is it clean? Is the home free of bugs such as cockroaches and bed bugs? Is there a place for the child to sleep, such as a mattress or bed? Has the child tried to use the stove or oven to fix food and caught something on fire? If the home is deemed “not safe,” CPS will usually remove the child from the situation and charge the parent with neglectful supervision. If the home is safe, CPS will move on to the next question.
Is the Child Clean and Well Fed?
A child goes to a neighbor to ask for food. They are messy and their clothes are not clean. They tell the neighbor they are home alone and there is no food left. The neighbor calls the police, who look at the kids, ask them some questions, and call CPS. In this scenario, CPS will remove the child, especially if he is underweight or hurt. You may be arrested and put in jail.
However, if the child goes to a neighbor and is clean and neatly kept, things are looked at differently. This is especially true if you have told asked your neighbor to be a resource for your child. If the child can calmly let the neighbor know what is wrong, the neighbor can appropriately handle the situation and allow the child to stay with her until you can come home.
How Long Has the Child Been Left Alone?
The third thing CPS looks at is how long has the child been left alone. CPS looks at the age and maturity of the child and the time they have been alone. Most CPS agencies use the same guidelines for leaving children alone as are mentioned above. The exception is if a child is left in a car. It is never safe to leave a child, no matter how old, in the car without an adult present. Cars can heat up fast in the summer or get cold in the winter. It is illegal in most states and the police will arrest you when you come back to your car.
If your child comes to the attention of CPS, the child may be removed. Depending on the reason for removal, you may be charged with neglectful supervision and jailed. Even if you do not go to jail, you will have to follow a roadmap CPS makes to get your child back.
Tips for Parents Leaving a Child Alone
If you have decided your child can stay alone at home, here are some tips that will make that process easier.
Set the Rules for When Your Child Is Alone.
You and your child need to discuss rules for when he is home alone. Is he expected to do his homework? What snack can he have? Is he allowed to have anyone over while he is alone? How much TV, how much playing video games, and how much phone time is allowed? What chores does he need to do while you are gone? Some people give their child a list of things to do while they are home so that they are kept busy and don’t get frightened or into trouble.
Planning for Unexpected Situations
Before you leave your child alone, you need to discuss dealing with unexpected situations. What if someone comes to the door? What if someone calls for you? What if the child becomes very scared? Is there a neighbor your child can call or go to if they have a problem? Role playing these scenarios before the child is left alone helps them be ready for anything that comes up.
Making some trial runs to build up your confidence in the child and his confidence in himself. A good recommendation is to do a trial period of 30 minutes alone while you talk to a neighbor or are somewhere else close. When you come back, discuss how the child felt while alone. Was it a good feeling or a bad feeling? What do you want to change for next time and what additional skills does the child need to learn? The Red Cross often has classes for adults and children that can teach your child first aid and CPR in case they have an accident while they are home alone.
Mike Zhang. Founder of FamilyLifeShare