Reaching the point when your child can be on his own for a couple hours after school or while you run Saturday morning errands is a game-changer for families—both in terms of flexibility and budgeting. But when are kids ready? Most parents know that a 16-year-old can fend for himself, and there’s no question that a 6- or 7-year-old shouldn’t be left without supervision, but deciding when a tween can stay home alone—even for short periods of time—can be tricky. Here’s how to know when your child is ready, and how to make a smooth transition from staying with a sitter to being home alone.
Age isn’t just a number.
How old should your children be before you allow them to stay by themselves? Most experts agree that around 11 years old—or about the time a child enters middle school—tends to be the right age to start testing the waters. Ultimately, it depends on your child’s level of maturity. Sometimes a slightly younger kid is ready, sometimes older kids are not.
But before you begin assessing your child’s readiness, find out your state’s laws regarding what age kids can be left home alone. In some cases, these laws function more as suggestions; others are hard and fast rules; and some states provide no guidance at all. Regardless, you don’t want your 45-minute grocery trip to turn into a legal ordeal, so do a little research first. Your state government’s website should provide an explanation of any rules.
Determine your child’s maturity.
Knowing your child is key to deciding whether or not he is ready to be home without a sitter or parent. Here are a few questions to consider:
1. Is your child emotionally ready to be left alone? Your 11-year-old may be excited at the prospect of newfound independence, but once he is alone in the house, fear and panic could set in. You know your child best: Is he likely to be scared without mom, dad or a sitter there to keep him company?
2. Does your child follow rules without too much intervention from an adult in charge? If a child struggles to follow house rules with you or a sitter, it’s not likely that she’ll be able to abide by your wishes once she’s on her own.
3. Could your child handle an emergency? Make sure your child knows how to dial 9-1-1, understands how to evacuate the house in the event of a fire, and can perform first aid basics. But evaluating your child’s ability to stay cool under pressure can be tough: Most parents haven’t had the opportunity to observe their kid in an emergency situation, so consider how she responds when something doesn’t go her way. Does your child tend to manage chaos with relative ease and flexibility? If the answer is no, you may want to hold off on having her stay home alone.
4. Does your child show good judgment? Daredevils may need oversight so they don’t turn the living room into a ninja-style obstacle course during your dentist appointment. But good judgment isn’t just about your kid’s desire to turn your house into his personal jungle gym. Does your child follow your instructions when it comes to interacting with strangers or will your outgoing kid open the door and invite anyone who shows up into the house? A child’s ability to evaluate risk and avoid dangerous situations is critical when home alone.
5. What other responsibilities come with being home alone? Are there younger siblings who your older child will be expected to watch? Will those younger kids listen to an older brother or sister? While a child may be ready to take care of himself, he may not yet be able to care for others.
If you’ve decided your child is ready for the responsibility, set your kid up for success by communicating clear expectations and ground rules for when he is in the house by himself. Go over safety instructions. Make sure your child has access to a cell phone so she can call you or another adult in case of an emergency. Quiz her on what to do if a stranger rings the doorbell. And maybe most importantly: Leave snacks that don’t require the use of kitchen appliances or sharp utensils in an accessible location.
Test the waters.
Leaving a child home alone for the first time can be scary for both of you—which is why you should start by leaving him for about 20 minutes and work up to longer periods of time. It’s also best if you can start by letting him stay home when you have short errands that you can easily abandon if things aren’t going well. Check in by phone or text every 10-15 minutes the first few times you leave your child. As you and your child get more comfortable, you can extend the amount of time you’re gone.
When in doubt, hire a sitter.
There’s really no reason to rush a child into staying home alone before she’s ready, and there are plenty of scenarios where a tween should have supervision. Ask yourself these questions when it comes to whether or not hiring a sitter makes sense:
Will I be gone more than 2-3 hours?
Is my full attention required at the event I’m attending? Will I be in a situation that is difficult to leave quickly (such as an important business dinner)?
Is it night time?
Will my child need to be transported somewhere while I’ll gone?
Are there other kids in the house who need supervision?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it makes sense to stick with a sitter for now. And there’s nothing wrong with that! You can continue giving your child more independence as your work up to longer periods of time home alone while still hiring a sitter for specific occasions to ensure your child’s safety.