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Kids home alone: What’s the right age?

When are your kids old enough to be home alone? It’s pouring down rain, you’re making dinner, and you suddenly realize you’re missing a critical ingredient — say, eggs for omelets or milk for mac and cheese. Your 10-year-old is doing his homework quietly. The store is a 6-minute drive from your house. Can you leave your son at home alone while you run out?

Ten Year Old GirlAt some point when your child hits the early middle school years, you realize that by his age, you had occasional babysitting jobs. And if you were old enough to babysit, doesn’t that mean you don’t have to pay someone else to watch this child every time you leave the house? Can you free up that extra cash in your budget for something really important, like manicures?

All kidding aside, the decision to leave kids home alone isn’t one to be made lightly. It’s important to take your time and carefully consider a variety of factors.

Check the legality

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “State child abuse and neglect reporting laws do not specify the age at which a child can be left home alone. No consistent community standards exist describing when and under what circumstances children can be left alone or in the care of other children.”

However, HHS notes that you may find local, county, or state policies or ordinances that are enforced in your area, so call your local police department or Child Protective Services for information. You can find your local child protective services agency by calling Childhelp USA at 1.800.422.4453.

Listen to your gut

Even if your child is legally allowed to be home alone, he may not be emotionally ready. So, as tempting as it is to toss him $20 for a pizza and be out the door, stop and think first.

The National Network for Child Care has a checklist that you and your child can each answer separately to determine if you’re on the same page with your thinking. The yes or no questions include:

  • The child can explain how to handle first aid for cuts and scrapes, burns, nosebleeds, poisonings, bites, choking, and eye injuries.
  • The child can identify two escape routes from the home in case of fire.
  • The child knows how to reach parents or other responsible adults by phone.
  • The child can name five household rules and identify which ones were followed the previous week.
  • The child has indicated an interest or willingness to stay on his or her own.

The full list of questions can be found here.

Trial runs and testing

If you think your child is ready to stay home alone, start with a trial run. You are perfectly within your parental rights not to share all the details of this trial run with your child. Instead, give the normal instructions, leave the house with your cell phone on, and then choose one or more tests from the following:

  • Ask someone you trust but whom your child doesn’t know to go to your house and claim to need to come in and get something. Your child needs to be comfortable not opening the door to strangers, or opening the door and not allowing strangers inside, depending on his age and your rules.
  • Show up after 30-45 minutes and see what’s going on at home.
  • Have a friend send a child over to play. See if your child calls you to check.

Start small and move forward slowly

When you do feel comfortable leaving your child home alone, keep your first few outings to no more than an hour, and be sure you’re reachable by phone. Also, be sure to check out these 6 tips from SheKnows for protecting kids who are home alone.

Gradually, you can start increasing the amount of time you’re out of the house. Always remain reachable, but demonstrate your trust in your child by not calling him every 10 minutes.

One day, you’ll find that you haven’t paid for a babysitter in months. It’s a great feeling — and that’s a great kid you’ve got.

Tell us: What age do you think is appropriate to leave kids home alone? Comment below!

Read more on kids and safety:

Checklist questions reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Hansen, A. (1993). Home alone. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.), *School-age connections*, 3(1), pp. 1-3. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.

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