Choosing to leave your kids home alone is a big decision. There's a lot to consider, from how long they'll be home alone to how far away you'll be and who's going to be nearby in case of an emergency. In the process, you may be asking:
- What age is too young? Can I leave my 9-year-old home alone?
- How will I know when my kids are ready for the responsibility of staying home on their own?
- How can I prepare them so they'll be safe?
Laws About Leaving Kids Home Alone
Very few states and municipalities have laws that dictate when parents can legally leave kids home alone. However, before you even consider letting your kids stay home alone, you should check — and double check — your local laws. Recognize, too, that kids mature at different rates. That's the reason why most states don't have laws about leaving kids home alone. A mature 12-year-old may be ready for the responsibility. On the other hand, an impulsive teen may be 'old enough' to stay home alone, but not be ready for making safe decisions. In addition, there are issues beyond maturity to think about, such as how well your kids get along when they're left on their own and whether they can be trusted not to engage in risky behaviors when there's no adult in the house.
Before You Leave Your Kids Home Alone
- Consider your children's ages and individual maturity levels. Take the online quiz Is My Child Ready to Stay Home Alone? for help deciding whether your child is mature enough for this level of independence.
- Leave a phone number where you can be reached. If possible, provide a landline as well as your cell phone number. In addition, make sure the volume is up on your cell so you won't miss any calls.
- Call home to check on your child. Having a regular 'check in' routine will provide a level of comfort for both of you.
- If your child will be home alone for more than an hour, make arrangements for an additional check in, either with you or with a relative or neighbor.
- Consider using video technology to add an extra layer of assurance. This can be as simple as using your cell phone's video capabilities, or you can install a video monitor so you can see your kids on your phone or computer while you're at work.
- Thoroughly prepare your kids for staying home alone. Go to the library and check out books like Dottie Raymer's Staying Home Alone or books on how to babysit. Read them together and discuss what it means to make safe choices.
- Post all emergency contact numbers on your refrigerator, including: 911, police, fire, ambulance, poison control, family members' cell, home and work numbers, neighbors, and back-up childcare providers. Even though your kids may know most of these numbers off the top of their heads, they're easy to forget in an emergency.
- Discuss your specific expectations for how your kids should use their time while they're home alone. For example:
- Is the TV allowed?
- If so, are there any channels that are off-limits?
- Do you want your kids to answer the phone?
- Should homework be completed before you arrive?
- May the use the computer?
- Can your kids have friends over while you're not home?
- Can they go to other friends' houses?
- Make sure your home is childproof. For example:
- Are medications kept in a locked cabinet?
- Are there firearms in the home?
- If so, are they in a locked cabinet and do they have child safety locks?
- What could your children potentially get into that might cause them harm?
- Prepare your kids for emergencies before leaving them home on their own. For example:
- What would you do in an emergency?
- What if someone was trying to get into the house?
- What would you do in the event of a fire?
- Role play with your kids how you want them to handle emergency and non-emergency situations. For example, how would they handle an asthma attack or allergic reaction? What would they do if someone came to the door? What would they do if the electricity went out or the phones stopped working? Planning ahead for these scenarios will help your kids think more clearly about how to handle unexpected situations in real life.
- Finally, ask your kids if they feel confident and ready to stay home. If staying home alone is a scary concept for them, you'll know that you need to hire a babysitter and revisit this issue in six months.