At What Age Is It Safe to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

Reviewed on 8/13/2021

Staying home alone is something that most kids will learn how to do as they get older. But, what age is best to start?
Staying home alone is something that most kids will learn how to do as they get older. But, what age is best to start?

Some kids can't wait to be independent and have time to themselves, while others feel more nervous at the prospect of being left at home alone. Either way, staying home alone is something that most kids will learn how to do as they get older. But, what age is best to start? The answer might be different for each child.

How to tell if your child is ready to be alone at home

Leaving a child at home alone can feel like a big step, and it may cause stress not knowing if they’re ready. Some helpful questions to consider to make the decision feel more comfortable are:

  • Is your child generally responsible? Do they follow directions?
  • Does your child usually stay calm in difficult situations?
  • Can your child do basic tasks like making a simple snack for themselves?
  • Does your child know basic first aid?
  • Does your child know how to call 911 if needed?
  • Does your child know how to contact you? Does your child know where to find the contact information for other trusted adults if you’re not available? 
  • Has your child memorized their full name, address, and phone number?
  • Does your child know how to use the phone and computer to contact adults?
  • Does your child know how to lock the door? Does your child know what to do if they get locked out? 
  • Does your child know what to do if someone comes to the door?
  • Does your child say they feel comfortable staying home alone?

There are also other factors to consider:

Will there be other children at home? Children and teens who are ready to be at home alone for a few hours may not be ready to care for younger siblings at the same time.

How long will your child be alone? There is a big difference between being left alone for an hour and a whole evening.

Is your home relatively safe? Before leaving a child at home alone, make sure alcohol, tobacco, car keys, prescriptions, and poisonous cleaners are locked away, and all smoke detectors work properly.

Tips for leaving your child home alone for the first time

Both parents and children may be nervous about staying home by themselves for the first time. However, there are many things you can do to ensure a positive experience.

Test it out. Leave your child at home alone for a short period of time while you go somewhere close by, like a neighbor's house or the neighborhood market. This will be a good way to gauge how both of you feel about the experience.

Make rules. You might consider writing out a list of rules about what they can do while home alone. These rules may include things like:

  • Whether or not other kids can come over
  • How long they can use screens
  • Chores they need to get done while home alone

Role play. Before leaving them home alone, role play a few different difficult scenarios, like a stranger coming to the door, to make sure they definitely know what to do.

Check your pantry. Stock up on snacks your child likes and things that are easy for your child to make for themself. Some experts recommend only having foods that don't require a stove, to cut down on fire risk.

Schedule a check-in. Make a clear time that you expect your child to check in with you on the phone. When they call at that time, you will know everything is okay.

Laws about leaving your child home alone

Each state has different laws about leaving your child at home alone. Some states have a minimum age, while others simply leave this parenting decision up to the parent's judgment. For example, in Colorado, the minimum age is 12, but in California, there is no minimum age.

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Alternatives to leaving your child home alone

If you decide that you're not quite ready to leave your child at home alone, there are plenty of other options. 

Residential daycare. A small daycare in someone's home. Make sure the caregiver has proper licensure if your state requires it. Many parents like this because siblings of different ages can stay together.

Child care center. A daycare center or preschool program where kids are usually grouped into classes by age.

After-school program. These programs may be centered around an activity like sports or music, or can just be a place for kids to get supervision after school and do their homework.

Summer camp or school vacation care. These programs provide care at times when kids don't have to go to school. They usually provide fun and educational activities.

Babysitter or nanny. This is a person who comes to your home to watch your children. Make sure whoever you hire is trained in CPR and has good references.

Friends, family, and neighbors. Sometimes, people you know are able to care for your child at a lower cost than other services.

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References
ChildCare.gov: "Care in Your Own Home," "Child Care Centers," "Family Child Care Homes," "Family, Friend, and Neighbor Care," "School-Age Child Care," "Vacation and Summer Child Care Programs."
Child Welfare Information Gateway: "Leaving Your Child Home Alone."
Kids Health: "Leaving Your Child Home Alone."
Washington Post: "Latchkey children age restrictions by state."
Youth First: "When is it Okay to Leave a Child Home Alone?"

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