Is your child ready to be home alone? The answer often depends on a number of factors. However, if he or she is becoming more responsible and asking for more independence, that’s a good sign that they’re ready to start staying home alone on occasion.
Of course, our desire to protect our children often makes it hard to know exactly when to let them be more independent and for how long. Most states don’t give a specific age when a child can legally stay home alone because it depends on the child’s maturity, not their age.
Tips to help you decide if your child is ready to be home alone.
A child is probably ready to stay home alone when he or she can demonstrate responsibility.
If kids aren’t able to behave and do the right sorts of things most of the time when you’re with them, it’s doubtful they’ll be able to do it if you’re gone.
One way you can help kids busy (and out of trouble!) while they’re alone is to give them a few chores to complete, such as homework, taking care of the pets, cleaning their room or taking out the trash.
You may also allow your child to invite a friend over during their time alone, so long as the friend’s parents are comfortable with the idea. The friend should be someone you know and trust to behave.
It’s a good idea for your child to check in with you at some point during their time alone, with a text or even better, a phone call. If they’ll be coming home from school to an empty house, have them call you when they get there so you know they’ve arrived safely.
A child shouldn’t stay home alone until you’re confident they can keep themselves safe in the house.
Your child should be able to follow the basics of home safety, such as not playing with matches or any kind of fire, not opening up the door to strangers and not engaging in risky behavior of any kind, including online behavior. Have your child lock any entry doors when they’re home alone and make sure to leave them a number where they can reach you or another family member or family friend if needed. They should also know how to get help if something goes wrong – i.e. summoning a nearby neighbor or calling 911.
A child should be comfortable with the idea of being home alone.
Talk to your child to see how what they think about staying home alone. If they seem excited about the idea, that’s a good sign they’re probably ready. If they become nervous or scared during the discussion, it’s probably best to wait and revisit the idea a few months down the road.
You should never pressure your child to stay home alone if they’re not wild about the idea, but you can help prepare him or her to eventually be on their own by practicing how to stay safe inside the house, talking about what a privilege it is to stay home alone, and role playing what to do if something does go wrong.
Once your child is ready is to be home alone, start out small.
When you believe your child is ready to be home alone, start them off in some small increments, like 10-minute “tests” while you go to the neighbor’s or take a walk around the block. Gradually build up to a grocery store run that takes 30 minutes or so.
If your child consistently demonstrates that they can be trusted and are comfortable on their own, you can gradually increase the amount of time they spend home alone — though long stretches of time spent alone in the house should be avoided until your child is much older.
Much like losing a first tooth or learning how to ride a bike, staying home alone is an important childhood milestone. While it shouldn’t be rushed, it should be celebrated as yet another amazing step in your child’s journey toward becoming a responsible, independent adult.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.