As children mature and grow, it's normal to wonder what the legal age for children to stay home alone is. Most parents want to allow their child an appropriate amount of freedom without burdening him with responsibilities for which he is not ready.
Legal Age for Children to Stay Home Alone: Guidelines
Most states do not actually have an official legal age for children to stay home alone. Only a few have set legal guidelines:
- Georgia - 9
- Illinois - 14
- Maryland - 8
- Oregon - 10
However, many states have guidelines officially listed and encouraged by various child protective agencies:
- Colorado - 12
- Delaware - 12
- Kansas - 12
- Nebraska - 11
- North Dakota - 9
- South Carolina - 8
- Tennessee - 10
- Washington - 10
- Wisconsin - 12
- Wyoming - 12
Any state that is not listed, has no official statewide guidelines or laws concerning the legal age for children to stay home alone. With that said, the National SAFE KIDS Campaign recommends that no child be left alone under the age of twelve (despite the fact that some states recommend or even have laws that allow you to leave your child home alone at a younger age.) If your child is not at least twelve, most agencies recommend finding another child care solution.
Other Considerations Before Leaving Your Child Home Alone
Any parent knows that age does not always match maturity level. There are many children who even at twelve or thirteen are still not ready to be left alone. Keep in mind your child's maturity level.
Attitude and Ability to Follow Directions
Is your child impulsive and prone towards behavior that is rash or hasty? Does he or she consistently make poor decisions with regards to personal behavior? This is a sign that your child is not mature enough to be left home alone. You need to know that your child has the ability to think in case of an emergency and follow through with any directions that you might leave.
In Case of an Emergency
Another thing that you should think about is what your child is to do during an emergency. Is there a neighbor your child can run to should someone get hurt or something else happen? Are you going to be far away or unreachable? A child should always have a back up adult that is close by that he/she can call in case of an emergency. This adult should be available to come should the need arise. In some cases, it might be acceptable to run to the grocery store for fifteen minutes. . .but not on a longer errand that would take several hours.
How Does Your Child Feel
If your child is afraid to stay home alone, that's a good indication that he or she is not ready. Keep in mind that you should periodically ask your child about his/her feelings about staying home. While he/she might not mind staying home while you run to the grocery story in the middle of the afternoon, he/she might well mind staying home during the evening hours.
Caring for Younger Siblings
Common sense should prevail if you are thinking of leaving younger siblings in the care of your oldest child. The general suggestion is that older siblings not be in charge of younger siblings until they are teenagers. Of course it does depend on how young the younger sibling is and how willingly she will follow the lead of the older child. You don't want to set up your child for failure by forcing him to care for a younger sibling that's going to make staying home alone miserable.
Preparing for Children to Stay Home Alone
Nothing can prepare your child to be more mature. However, if your child seems like he/she might be ready to stay home alone, there are things you can do to help prepare your child for this big step.
- When you first leave your child home alone, leave for only a short while. Run a quick errand or even consider running to a neighbor's house for a quick cup of coffee. This way, you are not unattainable if your child needs you.
- Make sure your child knows how to use a phone. Place emergency contact numbers and other information in a prominent place.
- Make sure your child knows what he/she can or cannot do. This includes what food he/she can eat, what he/she can watch and possibly what he or she can do on the computer.
Leaving your child home alone for the first time can be scary. However, when your child is mature enough, it can be an important step towards building confidence and independence. For more information see:
- Child Welfare Services offers tips and guidelines to help you decide if your child is ready.
- KidsHealth opens the discussion even further with regards to factors to consider before leaving your child at home.
- Latchkey-Kids offers a system called CARE, which calls children who are home alone to make sure that they are safe and doing okay. The system is used by a variety of law enforcement and child welfare agencies to help parents who must work and leave their children home alone.