Some parents dread it, while others are anxiously awaiting it…the decision to leave your child home alone for the first time. How do you determine if your child is ready to stay home alone? Only a few states have laws that specify the age when a child can be left home alone, including Maryland (age 8) and Illinois (age 14). In Kansas and Missouri, state laws do not specify the age at which a child can be left home alone.
Most states have guidelines with the Department of Health and Human Services or other child protective agencies that test a child’s ability to be left home alone. According to the Child Welfare Reform Information Gateway, here are some questions to consider before leaving your child home alone:
- Does your child feel comfortable being home alone?
- Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
- Is your child physically and mentally able to care for himself?
- How does your child respond to stressful situations?
- How long will your child be left home alone?
- What time of day will your child be left alone?
- What routines well your child be responsible for? (i.e. Will your child need to fix a meal?)
- Is your home safe and free of hazards?
- How safe is your neighborhood?
- Are there adults nearby that you trust and you are home and can offer mediate systems if there’s an emergency or if your child get scared?
- Does your child know what to do if a visitor comes to the door?
- Does your family have a safety plan for emergencies? Can your child follow this plan?
- Does your child no his or her full name, address, and phone number?
- Does your child know where you are and how to contact you at all times?
- Does your child know who to contact if you cannot be reached?
Once you have determined that your child is ready to stay home alone, the following tips may help prepare your child to feel more comfortable about staying home alone:
- Communicate. Encourage your child to share his feelings with you about staying home alone. Have this conversation before leaving and when you return.
- Establish rules. Make sure your child knows what is (and is not allowed) when you’re not home. Set clear limits. Some experts suggest making a list of chores or other tasks to keep children busy while you are gone.
- Have a trial period. Leave your child home alone for a short time while walking the dog around the block or running a quick errand to the grocery store. This is a good way to see how your child will manage on their own.
- Role-play. Act out possible scenarios to help your child learn what to do if a visitor comes to the door and how to answer phone calls in a way that doesn’t reveal that a parent is not at home.
- Discuss emergencies. Talk about what your child considers an emergency and what you consider an emergency. Create a form with the plan and contact numbers in the event of an emergency.
- Prepare. Spend time with your child before you leave preparing simple snacks and meals, making sure doors are locked, reviewing house rules and expectations for behavior. This is a great opportunity to fill your child’s bucket and let them know how much you care about them and their safety.
- Check in. Call your child while you are away to see how everything is going. If you are not able to check in, ask a trusted neighbor or friend to do this for you.
- Don’t overdo it. Even a mature responsible child needs interaction with their peers and adults. Consider other options such as programs offered by schools, community centers, youth organizations or faith-based organizations.
If you determine your child is not ready to be left home alone consider these options for childcare:
- The Family Conservancy Summer Camps Guide
- Vacation Bible School
- Co-op with a neighbor
- Hire a college or high school student to “nanny”