Think back, if you will, to a time before you had kids when the only obstacle that prevented you from leaving the house was convincing yourself to lose the sweatpants and put on a clean pair of jeans. Oh, how blissfully naïve you were! Flash-forward to the present, and you’re lucky if you can get everyone dressed and out the door, let alone carve out any time for a kid-free adventure. But leaving the kids home alone is a controversial and legally murky subject.
As it stands, only three states have laws on the books clearly defining which age is appropriate to leave children unattended: Illinois, Oregon, and Maryland state the ages as 14, 10, and 8, respectively. And while other states, such as Kansas, Washington, and Mississippi, offer guidelines, they ultimately leave the decision up to parents and guardians.
A recent survey of 485 social workers didn’t make things much clearer. The majority agreed that leaving children under the age of 12 unsupervised at home for four hours or more could constitute neglect; however, the respondents couldn’t come to a clear consensus on an exact age that would be appropriate. With so much ambiguity, how are you supposed to know how young is too young to leave kids at home?
Determined to find an answer, SheKnows consulted with several experts: psychologists, psychotherapists, parenting authors, counselors, professors, and lawyers. Sadly, none of them could agree on how old children should be before they can stay home alone, either, and their answers ranged from 12 to 15 years old. (It is worth noting that none of the experts said they’d leave a child under 12 home alone for an extended period.) Alas, they were able to provide a helpful framework for parents to decide for themselves. Ahead are some of the main things parents should take into consideration before deciding if your kid is ready to stay home alone.
The first consideration, they said, was to think about maturity levels, rather than ages. “You can’t just start by leaving them at home because they’re 12 or 13,” Dr. Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, tells SheKnows. “It has nothing to do with that.”
“Kids might be a certain age, but I’ll ask the parents, ‘How old do you really think they are when you talk to them emotionally? Their judgment?'” he adds. “Often, that doesn’t match up.”
At the very minimum, kids need “to be physically and mentally able to care for themselves,” Dr. Nancy Sherman, Professor in Bradley University’s Online Masters of Counseling Program, says. While that criteria certainly includes accessing snacks and being able to use the restroom without assistance, it extends to cover much more, such as being able to “appropriately handle unfamiliar or stressful situations,” she adds.
“Independence, autonomy, and freedom are earned by consistent demonstration of responsible behavior,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS TV, and co-star on WE tv. “I define responsible behavior as all-inclusive of the following: gets good academic grades; listens consistently to parents’ directions and rules with one request (not asking 20 times); has friends and a healthy social life; does household chores; speaks respectfully to parents; and has a reasonably amicable relationship with all siblings.”
Does this mean you can’t leave multiple children at home unsupervised if they don’t all fit the above criteria? Not exactly, though Walfish notes that “younger children do not automatically get the same privileges their older sibling may have earned.” This could mean that the most responsible child is the only one allowed to answer the phone or use the microwave, depending on your rules.
At the risk of sounding too dramatic, there’s a lot that can go wrong when kids are left unsupervised. Research published in the American Journal of Nursing Science found that kids who are frequently home (aka “latchkey kids“) alone engage in riskier behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use and sex. Some children were also more susceptible to anxiety and depression. But parents can help mitigate these side effects if they equip their kids with a plan and a clear set of rules.
“Parents should let a child know where they are and how to contact them at all times,” Sherman says. She adds that kids should also know when to call 911, as well as have access to a list of emergency contacts, such as nearby relatives or family friends. It’s not a bad idea to also go over fire safety and have kids complete a CPR training course.
Be explicit with your expectations for when you’re out of the house too. Are your kids allowed to cook on the stove or in the microwave? How about shower or bathe? Can they answer the phone or door? How much time, if any, are you comfortable with them using the internet? Sherman says coming up with a list of activities can help prevent boredom and rule-breaking. Preparedness starts with communication.
Once you’ve established the ground rules, it’s time to start practicing — slowly. “You build up to [leaving kids home alone],” Herman says. “It might be starting off with half an hour. Even when the kids are smaller, it could be you going outside when they’re staying inside.”
The more you practice, the more independent your kid is going to feel, he adds. “You can’t gain confidence without doing things; it’s not something that just happens,” Herman says. “You have to be able to master something or be able to handle situations and not be super anxious.”
Though preparing kids for home-alone stints is primarily about ensuring their safety, it can also help protect you from legal trouble, says David Reischer, Esq., family law attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. “Most states will follow 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,” he tells SheKnows. “The state will evaluate various factors, including the child’s age and maturity, the overall safety of the surrounding area, and any arrangements made to secure the child’s safety.”
You’ve made it this far and you still don’t have a clear answer. (Sorry!) Don’t get too discouraged, though. Ultimately, parents know their children best and can determine their overall readiness to stay home alone for short periods.