At What Age Can Children Start Staying Home Alone?

Melissa H. left a comment on this post:

At what age can/do children start staying home alone?

In our situation we’re talking about one kid home alone for up to, say, 30 minutes while a parent runs to the store. She is pretty mature for her age and she is pleased with this arrangement (she doesn’t have to run the errand). When I mentioned this to a friend I could tell they were slightly horrified we left her home and they have not left their years older son home at all. Our kid is 7.5–is this too young?

 

At our house I’m finding a big difference in what age each child Seems Ready. My eldest (age 14) seemed ready when he was quite young, because he’s always been the responsible and cautious type; I’m STILL not entirely confident about my secondborn (age 12) (I do leave him, but I worry more).

I probably base it mostly on my confidence in the child’s ability to use the phone. Do I think they could use it to call 911, or to call my cell phone, or to call their grandparents up the street? Do I think we’ve had enough conversations on the topic that they’d know for what situations to call each number? Do I feel pretty sure they’d know NOT to use the phone if there was a fire, but instead to run next door?

I also base it on how much interest the child has shown in hypotheticals. Three of my kids think it’s fun to talk about things like would they be allowed to use the microwave, and what would they do if someone came to the door, and what would they do if the phone rang, and what would they do if they got a small cut but I was due back in 5 minutes. Two of my kids find such discussions boring, and they tune out if I try to discuss it with them. The two who tune out don’t get left on their own as much—and I prefer to leave them with one of the other three, just in case.

I also base it on how quickly and easily I could get home again. If I’m walking next door to talk to a neighbor, I’m much more likely to leave a responsible child on his or her own than I would be if I were going ten miles away, or if I were going somewhere I might not have phone service, or if I were going somewhere I wouldn’t be able to leave. I can easily abandon a grocery cart, but would reallllllly not feel comfortable leaving in the middle of a hair cut or a doctor or dentist appointment.

And finally, there’s the miscellaneous issues for an individual trip: how many other kids are home and which ones are they (is there likely to be fighting?); whether the kids are playing nicely at the moment or whether they’ve been bugging each other; how much faster/easier it would be for me not to bring them; whether I’m pretty sure my parents are home in case there’s a problem; etc.

 

How do you make the decision about when a child is old enough to be home on his or her own?

Edited to add: I think when we’re discussing this it would be useful to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between leaving a child at home for half an hour to run an errand, and leaving a child alone for a workday or overnight. I suspect the laws and recommendations are set up mostly to address the latter situation, not the former.

39 thoughts on “At What Age Can Children Start Staying Home Alone?

  1. Lisa

    The first time I left my oldest home alone was when he was 8. I had to go to a WW meeting — just to weigh and leave — and he was enthralled in a video game and asked if he could just stay there. (I took his then-4yo brother with me.) I told him to stay right in his room and not answer the front door. I gave him the cordless phone, and told him to answer it only if it was me or his grandparents (Caller ID on the handset). He did fine.

    When he was around 10 or 11, we started leaving him home during the day in the summer. At the time, my MIL and FIL lived next door, so it wasn’t like he was REALLY alone, but still. He was only allowed to use the microwave, if needed and he already knew the rules about the phone/front door. He’s always been a sort of loner, so he liked having the house all to himself.

    I didn’t leave them home alone TOGETHER until they were waaaay older, like 16 and 12. My oldest is very rules-orientated – the younger not so much – so I knew there’d be a lot of “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME” crap and I wanted to avoid that.

  2. Amanda

    It depends on the kid. We call our oldest the “Safety Officer” and have felt confident in his problem solving abilities and trust him not to get into trouble. Our youngest is now the age at which we started leaving the oldest home alone and we do not feel comfortable leaving her by herself. She is more apt to think something ridiculous is a good idea and while I’m sure she could operate the phone just fine and remove herself from a dangerous situation should one arize, I’m not so sure she wouldn’t be the one to cause one of those.

    When I was 12 I was watching multiple other children often for entire days. I was extremely responsible and loved little kids. My brother was apt to set the house on fire while lighting bottle rockets inside. You have to go on the individual kid’s level of responsibility.

  3. Gwen

    I’m glad this topic has come up. Right now I only leave my kids home alone to go on runs. (We live at a minimum of 20 minutes from anywhere else) But, I leave them with a movie to ensure that they will get along, and I’m only gone for 30 minutes and am a 1/4 away at the most. I do sometimes leave them alone inside while I visit with the neighbors or work in the yard and they are very responsible on those occasions.

    But I have wondered about this. My oldest at 9 is very safety conscious and would be fine to leave on a trip to the store, although he’s so safety oriented that I’m sure he would flip out. (And, I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the whining from the other two if we left their older brother.)

  4. chris

    In my state, the minimum age is 14 and if you leave a child younger than that you could be convicted of child abuse!

    I was staying home alone with my younger sister all day when I was 12 and she was 9. My next door neighbor babysat for us at age 13 before we knew of this law. My younger child gets off the bus about 30 minutes after his sister. Sometimes if she is still working on homework, I leave her at home for 10 minutes while I run down the street to the bus stop and feel guilty the whole time. She is almost 10.

    1. fairydogmother

      Wow, that minimum age seems a little…crazy…to me. It is as if it is saying that no individual children are capable of, or responsible enough for, safely being on their own without supervision for any amount of time whatsoever until age 14. But then relatively quickly after that they are magically responsible enough to hold down jobs & safely drive moving vehicles? Then in a couple more years magically responsible enough for making adult decisions, living on their own, and dying for their country.

      Um????

      (Perhaps this is one of those days where I should not have been allowed on the internet sans sufficient levels of caffeine in my bloodstream.)

      1. Alice

        I agree, fairygodmother! This topic got me curious, and I’ve been reassured that what I’ve found via google indicates that even in states that have ages in their statutes about neglect, age is only one factor in determining whether there’s a legal issue or not. 14 as a hard and fast rule makes no sense to me, but having it as an element that CPS can use *in conjunction with other problems* is a lot more reasonable.

        As for the original question, I was an occasional latchkey kid starting around age 7 or 8, but my younger brother wasn’t left alone until he was older. There are so many issues at play in addition to individual kids’ temperaments, too: neighborhood, time of day, how close you’ll be, proximity of friendly neighbors …

        Based on the kids I’ve worked with, I’m a big fan of the gradual approach. Trying out a 10-minute jaunt to the store is pretty low-risk when you feel your kid is ready, but it gives you each a feel for what Being Alone is like.

  5. Misty

    I think I based my assessment of whether a child is able to stay home alone on the same things you did. Whether the child could call 911. What the child would do in an emergency situation, etc.

    And I will be honest, I think that a seven year old child should probably not be left alone. I could try to expound, but just sound like a jerk. So I will leave it at that.

  6. Maggie

    The state I live in has a statute that makes it illegal to leave kids home alone before the age of 10. I question how often this is enforced, but since I’m an attorney I thought it would be unacceptable for me to leave oldest home alone before he was 10 and violate the law. That said, if we didn’t have that law on the books, I would have felt quite comfortable leaving oldest home alone at least for short periods of time before he was 10 (probably around 8 or 8.5) because he has always been a cautious and responsible kid and we know all of our neighbors really well so he would have somewhere familiar and safe to go if things really went sideways before I could get home.

    Youngest is a different story. She is years away from this being an issue, but her personality is already much less cautious, responsible, or interested in following the rules. Obviously this may change, but right now, I feel like it’s going to be a bigger endeavor for me to feel comfortable leaving her home alone even when she’s 10.

  7. Lawyerish

    I had no idea that states had laws/regulations about this sort of thing. I just looked up my state, and there’s no set age. I have no idea what age we’ll decide is acceptable to leave F home alone since she’s still little, but I completely think it’s a discretionary/judgment thing that depends on all the factors that Swistle identified. I think I was first left home alone for a VERY short while when I was five, but I was out playing with some neighborhood kids and could watch for my mom’s car the whole time (I think it was an emergency situation and was less than 15 minutes). I probably wasn’t left home again after that until I was maybe seven, but I had an older brother so he was usually around and I don’t consider that completely “alone.”

    Not long ago my husband asked me how soon we could leave our daughter for long enough to walk the dog (barely 5-10 minutes). I said MAYBE age 7, depending on how she is at that age. He was SHOCKED. He thought we could start doing that, like, a year from now (she just turned three). Haaaa!

  8. StephLove

    My kids are 7 and almost 12. We started leaving the older one alone when he was 8 for short periods and now we will leave him alone for hours, but I won’t leave them alone together. Maybe when they’re 8 and 13, I’ll do that.

    We used the law in our state (8) as earliest starting point and decided when the older one was 8 that he was ready. I think the younger one will be, too.

  9. Sally

    I just checked and there is no law in Kansas but the suggestion is that kids be supervised until 12. Mine are 8 and 5 so we are still a ways off but I think I would be comfortable leaving them for 20-30 minutes when the oldest is 10ish (especially if I knew our good friend – and ER nurse – neighbor was home). Guess that is something to consider (and reconsider) in the next couple of years.

  10. Sharon

    I’m glad people brought up the issue of legal ages, as I was ready to go there. I’m not sure how accurate/up to date this list is, but here’s a state by state chart:
    [snipped by Swistle; see below]

    People may agree or not, but it’s important to know what the law says, and what would be considered child neglect.

    1. Swistle Post author

      I notice that that article is selling a service; I don’t usually allow such links, and am not sure if I’ll let this one stand or not. It seems like it might have some useful info—but again, their main focus is selling a product, not keeping legal information up to date or accurate.

    2. Swistle Post author

      Okay, I’ve thought about it and have decided to remove the link to the paid service—but wanted to leave the rest of the comment, since that part is good.

  11. Trina

    I also think it depends on the child. My oldest is 8 and I’d leave her to run to the store or something quick (no more than 30 minutes). I will not however let her go to or from the bus stop (4 blocks away) alone.

    My question is, when is it OK to let your kids go to the bus stop 4 1/2 blocks away alone? Every morning we see these 2 girls (twins) standing at the bus stop alone and a lot of the time roaming around the neighborhood alone. We say hello to them every morning on our way to our bus stop, and I asked them one day how old they were and they just turned 7. I know for sure our state doesn’t have a law on age to be left alone. I’ve been worried about these girls since September and I know I am not the only adult in this neighborhood that feels that way.

  12. M.Amanda

    My daughter is only 4, so this isn’t an issue for me yet, but it seems reasonable to take into account the child’s maturity level and ability to handle situations.

    I remember back in grade school when a classmate babysitting the neighbor’s toddler. He became difficult, she panicked, could not reach a parent (the child’s or her own) and called her teacher, who in turn called social services. We were 9 years old at the time. I remember the law stating 9 was the age children were allowed to stay home alone and 12 years was when they could watch younger children. However, in researching the current law, I couldn’t confirm this is the case now.

  13. surely

    WA state recommends 12 years old AND not in charge of others. *shrug*

    I’m thinking about the bigs & littles. They are 11, 9, and almost 7. I honestly think that they could manage it in varying degrees, like length of time, and what combination of children. The 9 year old is anxious and won’t go upstairs alone so with a sibling, he might be fine. Not so much alone though.

    The littles would be fine for 15 minutes or so. *But* Girl Little would not be fine, just based on the ability for mischief.

    The eleven year old would be fine all day, I think. He’s super responsible, go figure with four younger siblings.

    I think you’re on the right track with “it depends on…” It almost seems like one needs a flowchart to determine such a thing though because each child, setting, circumstance is so different.

  14. Elizabeth

    My daughter was probably 10 or 11 before I started leaving her home alone for brief periods of time. We have certain rules (no cooking, no using sharp knives, no answering the door), and she’s good about following them. She’s a pretty timid kid, just like her old lady.

  15. Melissa H

    Thanks for posting this–it’s really interesting to see the responses and I totally agree that about 90% of it depends on the child. Mine happens to be very responsible for her age and she knows all our neighbors well and could go to any of them (she also knows safety stuff ie don’t answer the door, go outside for fire etc). But maybe I should drag her on errands for a few more months as 8 seems to be the lowest legal age to leave kids–although my state has no law and that’s leaving kids for “hours” rather than “minutes.”

    I thought the comment about walking to the bus stop was interesting–4 blocks at age 8 (even 7 with a friend) seems fine to me but that’s assuming it’s 4 neighborhood blocks, low traffic, sidewalks etc. There’s no way I’d let the kid on a busy street or across a stop light. I rode my bike over a mile to school each day (with a friend but no parent) starting at age 8 and never had a problem but that was the 80’s :)

    Finally, does anyone else read the Free Range Kids blog? Interesting perspective. The blog seems to be down (for me) but here’s her twitter https://twitter.com/FreeRangeKids

  16. Say Rah

    First, I am one of those free range kid parents. I think kids should taught how to be independent and responsible early. I think a 7 or 8 year old is plenty capable of walking 4 blocks to a bus stop. At 8, I was walking a mile to the neighborhood pool and swimming (lifeguard on duty) with my other 8 year old friends.

    I have a nearly 6 year old who I would leave home alone for 30 minutes if I needed to run to the store to grab something and he didn’t want to go. He’s not yet But him, alone, watching a show or playing in his room while I grabbed something from the store, yes. No question.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-57455011/why-my-child-will-be-your-childs-boss/

  17. Maureen

    Oh, I remember how I worried about this when my daughter was young! I think we started leaving my daughter alone for very short periods when she was about 10, and we gradually increased as time went on, and we saw how comfortable she was. I think she really enjoyed being on her own, having her own time without us around. We had an added bonus of living in a duplex, and having a tenant right upstairs, who was around quite often when we would run errands. So that made us feel better about leaving her.

    In retrospect, it was really what we were comfortable with, she probably could have been left by herself at a younger age.

  18. Rosa

    Lol, love the article Say Rah, thank you for sharing!

    I don’t remember at what age my parents started leaving me alone, age 10 max (I got my own housekey then). But I got to ride my bike to school by myself from age 7-8. But of course school was less than a mile away and the teacher would’ve called if I hadn’t arrived.
    When I was 10 though I went to a different school 9 km (6 miles?) away and I did that on my own. Bad neighbourhoods too. My parents picked out my route, rode it with me until they were sure I remembered, gave me a cellphone and that was it. Only problems I had was when my bike broke down some times and I got hit by a car once, and in all those cases I just walked home :D (I was such a badass when I was 10!)
    I live in the Netherlands though, different culture ^^

    1. Melissa H

      That link was interesting–thanks– and made pretty good sense at the younger years but I had to laugh that 16-17 “could be left for up to two consecutive nights” I moved out when I was 17. I’m pretty sure the 17 year olds can handle it :)

  19. Clarabella

    I think about this all the time, but not in the case of leaving my child (he’s not yet 6), but in how young a baby-sitter I can trust. Case in point: we have good friends who have an 11YO who wants to start babysitting. We live in a tiny town, & her mom or dad would be just a street over were she to come to our house (and we would be 20-30 minutes away), but it just seems SO. YOUNG. BUT! At age 11, I was baby-sitting a 7MO, 2YO & 3YO down the street from my parents. Different times? I was responsible enough? Do I know that?
    Also complicating the matter in our situation is no home phone. We haven’t had a landline in 10 years, and, since most older kids have phones, it’s never occurred to me. But when I considered using my friend’s daughter, it occurred to me that one of us would have to leave our phone here were she to come to our house (and possibly teach her how to use it: iPhone). Anyhow, my friend has offered to let me (and other friends with young children) drop them off at HER house for the 11YO to watch, but then I just feel like I’m asking my friend to watch my son. For the time being, we’re just sticking with our 21YO neighbor baby-sitter.
    In other news, I have no idea when I would consider leaving my son home alone, as he’s shown little disposition toward responsibility thus far. Heh, his head is still much in the clouds these days.

  20. Ms. Key

    Good question! As everyone else said, depends on the child… I’d probably feel comfortable around age 10… because I’d want my kids to have a bit of a “world view” so they could think before they acted, and knew a lot more about safety rules and stranger danger. I was left alone for short stints at about age 10, it felt right. I was then an anxiety case of a person and hated being alone, so most of the time I never, ever wanted to be alone.. so I guess my mom didn’t have to worry much about it? haha.

    I started to baby-sit at around age 12, though… which NOW seem so crazy to me! However, I was incredibly responsible and took the job very seriously and felt very much like I was doing the right thing at the time… looking back, though, I don’t know how I’d ever trust a 12-year-old to baby-sit my kids. What if a huge, real emergency had of happened? Was I prepared?! I hope so, I did take the “baby-sitters course”… but still. Whoa. I don’t know.

    I think that between 8 – 10, short stints to the store and your child is probably fine if you’ve reviewed the rules. I would leave them alone for any number of hours at time until around 12 – 13. Baby-sitters should be 16+? But then again, I was good at it at 12… so who knows (though WHOA!? TWELVE?! I can’t believe it, and it was MY LIFE, haha).

  21. Linda

    I worry more about what happens if I don’t come back (car accident, sudden death, traffic jam, etc) right away. Will my kids (ages 8, 8, 5) stop watching TV and eating potato chips long enough to realize that it’s been THREE HOURS when I said I’d be gone 30 minutes?

    Right now, I leave them only to go for a run (30 minutes out, stop back by the house to check on them, gone another 30 minutes) and they know that if I’m not home by X time they need to call my husband.

    I’ve left them “alone” for years when I worked night shift. I would go upstairs and sleep after lunch so I’d be ready for work that night. We went over an exhaustive list of what was an emergency and what was not, how the doors were locked and no one except Daddy could come in, what to do if someone knocked insistently at the door, etc. So far, all three have shown good judgment and gotten along well. I can see leaving them for longer periods of time if needed and my older two are 9 next month.

    1. Kate

      Right- it’s not just how long you expect to be gone, but what might happen along the way. And it’s very fact specific. That’s why I’d leave my 5 year old in the house alone while I walked 2 traffic-free blocks to pick up milk, but I wouldn’t do the same if I had to drive — even if the typical round trip time were the same.

  22. StephLove

    As for the question about walking to the bus stop. We let our son start walking home from the bus stop in the afternoons (about a mile walk) when he was in 4th grade (9 years old). I had to get his sister from preschool and couldn’t be in 2 places at once, but he was ready and he enjoyed the independence. He’s in 6th now and my wife still walks him TO the stop in the mornings just to make sure he doesn’t miss the bus.

  23. d e v a n

    I do think it depends on the child. My oldest child is 8 and very mature. However, he has never been left at home for any length of time unless you count me walking to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. I just think he’s too young, if there were an actual emergency, to think clearly. Also, I’m a huge worrier and it wouldn’t be worth it for me, because I’d fret the whole time and negate any convenience factor. Plus, he has 3 younger siblings who I’d have to take with me anyway, so I imagine it will be several years before I leave any of them. 12 maybe?

  24. Monique

    Mine are currently 19(F), 14(F) and 4(M). I started leaving the oldest home alone for a brief run to the store, 30 minutes max, when she was about 8, but she is very responsible. I didn’t leave her sister alone for that long until she was about 10, way too flighty in her thinking. They didn’t stay alone together until the older was 14 or so, and we started with 30 minutes and worked our way up. At the rate the 4 year old is going he may never be left alone ;). For Tennessee I found: “There is no legal age for children to stay at home alone. Parents are advised to use their best judgment, keeping the child’s maturity level and safety issues in mind. Younger children have a greater need for supervision and care than older children. Obviously, young children under age 10 should not be left without supervision at any time. In most cases, older teenage children may be left alone for short periods of time.” But this was in the FAQ section of the family and juvenile courts and most of the other questions concerned probation, hearings and whether a child had to disclose his juvenile record when applying for a job. Sooooo, that being said, I think there is a big difference in an 8 year old responsible child who knows how to use the phone, knows not to use the appliances and lives in a duplex with a well liked neighbor who is at home next door being left alone for 30 minutes, and a 10 year old who looks for mischief as soon as the parents backs are turned, much less out of the house.

  25. Alligator

    So I OBVIOUSLY don’t recommend this – but my mother in law left my husband alone for two weeks to go to Australia when he was 8. I still can’t get over that – but he survived, even got himself up, made breakfast and went to school. It was nice of her to leave him grocery money.

    Maybe this is why there are now laws on the books….

  26. Kate

    I can’t imagine leaving a 7 year old for any length of time. I would say it depends on the child, but I wouldn’t leave any child younger than 12. I think that is the law here in Kentucky anway. My sons are grown now, (19 and 26), but I know I never left them by themselves when they were younger than 12.

  27. Jenny Grace

    Well. I live in the country and my only neighbors are my parents, my aunt and her family, and my uncle. And the woods. So. If I leave Gabriel I tend to send him over to my parents’ and tell them I’m leaving, or if he’s at my aunt’s call over there and see if they’ll be home for awhile, etc. But I would in theory also leave and tell him to run over if something happened, and make sure there was an adult in one of the other three houses.
    But we used to live not-in-the-sticks, and even then, I would leave him to go across the street for a gallon of milk, or for coffee, but I wouldn’t have have left him if it required the car to do so. So…he’s seven now, the youngest at which I would have left him to run across the street was 6. At which age I also allowed him to walk to the neighbors, and to go to the coffee shop and buy my coffee for him (it was next door). I feel like all of your considerations are legit. Gabriel is a single, independent child made more mature by the fact that it’s just me and him. I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving TWO children alone unless one of them was a lot older, and they were definitely getting along.

  28. chrissy

    We did sporatic going-to-the-store-real-quick jaunts for a while, but then my 10 YO got mono, and has had it for MONTHS, and I work full time, thankfully only a mile away, so I am sorry to say that he has had to be home alone during much of that time. My husband has been going in late- between 9 and 10, and I come home for lunch from 11-12, and his older sister (12) comes home at 3, so he is really only home for a few hours, AND we have wonderful home-schooling neighbors who are available if needed, but STILL, it bugs me that I have to leave him. My husband is anxious for the day we can go to the movies w/out a sitter, but with the movies being 20 minutes away, I just can’t commit to that yet. We have gone to a quick dinner in town, and it was so so lovely.

Comments are closed.