How do you know when your child is ready to stay home alone? While age certainly plays a factor, kids need to know and be able to do these 6 things before being left home alone.
Ever wonder how (and when) parents start to leave their children home alone? Or wonder how they prepare their kids for staying home alone for the first time?
As much as we would want to be able to stay by our kids' sides and protect them from every little thing, it's just not always possible.
Whether you have an appointment you have to go to, an unexpected work meeting or your childcare bails last second, the time will come when you have to start letting your kids stay home alone.
I don't know about you, but the thought of leaving my first child home alone produced huge amounts of anxiety. I couldn't stand the thought of leaving him home to deal with all sorts of different possible scenarios.
How Can You Tell When Your Child is Ready To Be Left Home Alone?
I seriously struggled with knowing what age was the magic number to let him start staying home. He had friends staying home a couple of years before I was ready to consider giving it a go!
Pro Tip: Most states don't have a law regarding the minimum age a child can stay home alone. However, 3 do have laws and some others have guidelines for parents. Check out the laws for staying home alone in your state!
In addition to checking the laws in your state, it's also important to consider how your child handles various situations.
Here are a few questions to think about when deciding if your child is ready to stay home alone:
- Does your child show signs of responsibility with things like homework, household chores, and following directions?
- How long will you be gone?
- Does your child understand and follow rules – even when you aren't around?
- Can your child understand and follow safety measures?
- Does your child use good judgment?
- How does your child handle unexpected situations? Does your child stay calm when things don't go as planned?
- Has your child learned basic first aid?
- Does your child follow rules about staying away from strangers?
- How safe is your neighborhood?
- Would your child feel safe staying alone?
The first time I left my oldest home, my heart was pounding the entire time I was gone! I kept imagining scenarios like in the movie Home Alone (and way worse – at least Home Alone is funny).
Not dramatic at all, right?!
Through my experience with my son, I learned that preparing kids was the key to successfully leaving them home alone. The following tips will help you learn how to do this safely and confidently.
How to Prepare Your Children to Stay Home Alone
Most of the time spent away from our children is spent wondering if they will be okay. This especially applies to parents who leave their kids alone at home for the first time.
That very first time that I left my son home alone was when I had to go teach an exercise class and he was home from school sick. Normally my husband's schedule is flexible enough that he can usually cover in situations like that, but it wasn't possible that time.
(I was so nervous and distracted that I could hardly teach my class!)
Before I left, I made sure he knew my phone number by heart in case he needed to get in touch with me. I also coached him on not answering the door or the phone (unless I was calling) until I got home.
Having a set of rules about what they can and cannot do while you are gone will help everyone feel calm, cool, and collected as you enter this new transition.
In addition to some safety rules, have a phone list with numbers for close family or friends, and neighbors, as well as emergency numbers in a place where it can always be quickly found.
1. Practice Is Important – Don't Just Throw Your Child In Over Her Head
While it turned out ok for me in my situation, I would very much have preferred to do a few short trial runs before leaving my son home alone for longer than an hour.
Honestly, I think it takes several home alone trials to allow both children and parents the chance to build confidence around staying home alone. Remember, this is a huge step for both kids and parents!
What is a trial run? Basically, it's just letting your child stay home alone for a short amount of time (30-60 minutes) while you remain pretty close and easily reachable.
When you return, talk through your child's feelings, how things went, and what you might want to change or skills that your child might need to learn for the next trial run.
At first, take a quick 20-minute drive to the pharmacy (or the post office, etc) and come right back home.
Gradually increase the time you spend out over several trial runs.
2. Don't Leave Younger Siblings at Home Right Away
Staying home alone is a major transition for any child. This milestone can bring up a huge range of feelings from being scared…to excited…to overwhelmed…to anxious.
Keeping in mind how big of a transition this is, wait a while before adding more stress such as leaving a younger sibling at home too.
Adding babysitting duties too quickly may be more than your child can handle right away.
3. Child Internet Safety is Crucial
Internet safety is an important issue that parents cannot afford to ignore – especially when kids start staying home alone!
Pre-teens love to play video games and chat online with friends when they are at home. However, if certain precautions aren't taken, kids can put their safety in jeopardy without even realizing it.
Include these basic internet safety tips for kids:
• how to safely be on the internet
• never give out personal information, like home address, phone number etc.
• be cautious about social media
4. Check-In Times
Regularly check in with your child at pre-arranged check-in times. Set these times up between you and your child before you leave home.
And encourage your child to set a timer if she is likely to be busy and forget your check in time.
The frequency of check-in times is completely up to you. Some parents want to check in every 30 minutes. Others may stretch it out to every hour or more.
I found myself about the 45-60 minute comfort level with the caveat that my son call me earlier if he needed me for any reason.
5. Teach Your Child Some Basic Skills
Talk with your child about possible scenarios, as well as serve as a resource for kids to fall back on if they are ever faced with the same situation as the scenario.
You can even try role-playing these scenarios for an even deeper level of understanding.
Regularly discuss some emergency scenarios. Examples to ask your child include what would he do if:
- he smelled smoke
- the power went out
- a stranger knocked at the door
- someone called for you while you're gone
In order to be able to stay home alone safely, kids should be able to do several things:
- Know how to get in touch with you, if needed.
- Be trustworthy to follow the rules.
- Master how to work the phone/cellphone
- Understand what is an emergency, how to call 9-1-1, what address information to give the dispatcher
- How to work the home security system (if you have one) and what to do if the alarm is accidentally set off
- Know how to lock and unlock doors
- How to turn lights off and on
- Know how to operate the microwave (and what to not put in it – yep, I learned that one the hard way when I was a kid when I put aluminum foil in it)
- Won’t be scared or nervous.
Additionally, your child should know what to do if (this is where the emergency scenario discussions come in):
- The smoke alarm goes off
- There's a tornado or other severe weather
- A stranger comes to the door
- There's a small fire in the kitchen
- Someone calls for a parent who isn't home
- There's a power outage
Think about the area where you live. Are there neighbors nearby you know and trust to help your child in case of an emergency? Do you live on a busy street with lots of traffic? Is there a lot of crime in or near your neighborhood?
Those factors can help you decide how you want to approach some of these other areas.
There are potentially so many moving pieces for a child staying home alone. It's a good idea to establish some ground rules and expectations to eliminate potential unnecessary dangers for your child.
Set special rules for when you're not home and make sure that your child knows and understands them. Consider setting rules about:
- Calling to check in when they get home (from school or anywhere else)
- Having a friend(s) over while you're not there – allowed? not allowed?
- Rooms of the house that are off limits, especially with friends
- Rules about the neighborhood and friends. Can he/she go outside at all?
- TV time and types of shows that are allowed
- Internet and computer rules
- Video game usage rules
- Kitchen and cooking (consider making the oven, stove, and sharp utensils off limits)
- Not opening the door for strangers
- Answering the phone and how to handle someone asking for a parent that isn't home
- Not telling anyone on social media or video games that he/she is alone
- How to lock and unlock all the doors and windows.
- Do a test run of this to make sure they know how to use all of the locks.
- Emergency Information – make sure it's posted somewhere easily seen/found.
- Let him/her ask any questions or address concerns.
You don’t want to give them too much information to frighten them, but you do need to have an open conversation to make sure both of you are comfortable with them being left alone.
Print and post our Home Alone Safety Rules in a prominent place to remind your children of what's allowed and what's not allowed when they stay home alone.
Learn even more with the Child Welfare Information Gateway pamphlet.
With some preparation, you and your child will both feel better about leaving her home alone. Just be sure to cover these 6 areas when preparing your child to stay home alone.