Parenting is hard and our goal is to navigate some of the challenges together, from discipleship at home to the practical challenges of meal planning and summer schedules. The elementary years are full of milestones and new privileges. We shouldn’t be surprised when our kids start to ask to stay home alone as this privilege is right in line with their developmentally appropriate desire for more independence and autonomy. Many parents are asking questions around how to determine if their child is ready to stay home alone. Some states have laws in place, but most leave it up to the parent to decide when a child is ready.
The bottom line is that these kinds of parenting decisions cannot be prescriptive because each family and child are different. We are not promoting or encouraging any particular path but instead wanted to glean from the experience of several parents who have navigated this process. We asked them how they decided their child was ready to stay home alone and found that there are several baby steps you can take to determine and prepare for readiness. Here is what they had to say:
Parenting styles, a child’s temperament and their maturity combine to clarify when to leave our children “home alone”.
From the “free range parent” to the “helicopter parent” everyone embraces different comfort levels as to when to start leaving children on their own in the home.
Child development specialists recommend, in general, starting to leave children alone at the age of 11 or 12.
Cognitively, during this period of adolescence, the brain is developing reasoning skills and the ability to realize consequences which are necessary for self-regulation. Developmentally, children in this age range are ready to take on more responsibility.
When she turned 11, I started leaving my daughter home in short spurts, running errands or visiting a neighbor during daylight hours. She is a homebody and enjoys time to herself so is eager to stay put while the folks are away. Those successful short periods of independence built confidence and allowed her to exercise responsibility. Pleasantly, she can maintain peace and order with her little sister for short stints and dial “911” as well. Staying home at night by herself is another story, the idea unsettles her. Therefore, we still hire a sitter to “hang out” with the girls until we reach that comfort zone.
On the phone, I told my Florida friend, Mom of a wonderfully wily 12-year-old boy, I was running to the post office. She was surprised when I interrupted our conversation to let my girls know I was stepping out.
She proclaimed, “I could never do that, the boys would tear down the house!”
Maturity matters as we evaluate when and for what length of time we should leave our children home alone.
Before I head out, I always connect with my kids discussing the “Big 3”:
- What number do you call when there is an emergency?
- What neighbor can you go to if you have a problem?
- No knives! (I’m okay with stove and microwave cooking.)
Leslie Johnston, Barracks Row
In the wise words of a friend who has six children: "It's not about how many kids you have. It's about how old your oldest is."
Having "two sets" of children, separated by a four-year gap, set us up for leaving one of our older children home with the littles. It started when our second had rehearsals several nights a week in the late afternoon and I needed to leave before my husband could get home. Our oldest just needed to hold down the fort for 15 minutes between when I needed to leave and my husband would get home. She was in 5th grade and she was *stoked* to be responsible and care for her sisters. Then we incrementally started to leave them for longer. In those early days, we always tried to peg a neighborhood mom that she could call if she needed something. We also didn't allow cooking or eating to happen while we were gone.
When it comes to independence, we often let them take the lead. If they feel okay walking alone, we send them with a phone and have them call halfway and then again when they get there. If they want to make mac and cheese for lunch, we teach them how. Some of ours are eager to be autonomous while others still want us to handle the boiling water. We let them stay in the car unattended when they felt comfortable and there was more than one sister.
Tara Lewis, Ballston
Knowing when to let your child stay home alone is a big decision, and it isn’t an easy, one-age-fits-all answer. Our family lives in Virginia, and although our state does not have a definitive law mandating the age a child can legally stay home alone, they do offer the recommendation that children ages 8-10 can stay home alone for up to 1.5 hours during daylight hours and children ages 11-12 may be left home alone for up to three hours, again only during daylight hours. We have two children that fall into these age categories and the freedom we have allowed each of our older two children have varied. Our oldest daughter has proven herself trustworthy time and time again and in turn, we have been able to extend to her more freedom. At the age of eight years old, she was confident, trustworthy and responsible. We initially asked her if she would like to begin staying home alone for short periods of time and when she said yes, we began the process by allowing her to stay home alone for 15 minutes while I picked my husband up from the metro or while I ran to the grocery store to pick up one or two items. We did these short home alone opportunities frequently to allow lots of practice. As she drew closer to nine years old we began increasing the time to 30-minute periods, while I dropped her siblings off at a friend’s house or sports practice. My daughter is now 11 and although I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving her home alone for three hours at a time, I do feel she would be able to safely handle the opportunity. My son has had a different path. He tends to be much more anxious in situations and although he would like the freedom to stay home alone he has not had enough practice to prove ready. We will typically allow him to stay home alone with our daughter for 30 minutes at a time, but he has only stayed home alone by himself maybe two or three times.
Safety Tips/Rules that our family considered when training our children to stay home alone:
- My children may not cook or eat while I am gone.
- We have a home cell phone that is intended for emergency use only. It only has necessary phone numbers saved that my children can call or text if they have questions, concerns and/or an emergency. The numbers include parents, neighbors, poison control, etc.
- Our house is always locked when my children are home alone and they are not to answer the door for ANYONE, even for neighbors or close friends.
- Their friends are not allowed to be at our house when both my husband and I are not home.
- My children are not allowed to play outside when we are gone.
- If we will be gone for more than 30 minutes we will let a specific neighbor know so that if our kids need anything they can call them.
- We will text back and forth with our children while they are home alone just to check in and to let them know when we will be home.
Kellie Ortiz, Ballston
I had a hunch our nine-year-old daughter was ready when there were tears and tears every time I needed to go to the grocery store, which is only one block away. So I casually asked if she just wanted to stay home while I ran to pick up a few things real quick, and got a definitive yes. The first few times, I would be gone less than 20 minutes, and I kept her on FaceTime the whole time. Then we transitioned to text messages (like "I've arrived at the store", "I'm paying", "I'm heading home", etc.) and she would call me if she needed something. I still don't leave her home alone more than about 45 minutes. We laid down some ground rules (no cooking, don't leave the condo, don't answer the door, set up a meeting spot if the fire alarm goes off and she has to evacuate, etc.). We live in a secure building, with 24-hour concierge and security guard, so that was definitely a factor in deciding she could stay home alone, as well. This next school year we are considering her riding the bus home from school and being home alone until I get home from work.
Emily Smith, Potomac Yard
At my son's school, the students are able to be released without a parent present starting in 4th grade. While I certainly don't let the school's rules dictate my parenting decisions, we felt like this was at least a guideline that some kids at this age are maybe being allowed to walk home to unsupervised homes.
Last year we decided for our family, after Christmas break, we would evaluate if our oldest was ready to walk home from school alone and it has been great. Along with that came more and more opportunities for him to stay home alone, for only ten minutes at first and now we have built up to over an hour for times when I am taking younger siblings to and from activities.
We laid out very strict guidelines on what is expected while home alone and also clear plans of what to do in various specific emergency situations. For example, no cooking anything on the stove or in the oven and never answering the door, even if it is just the mail carrier. We also have clear plans of what to do in various specific emergency situations. We are fortunate in our neighborhood that we have many trusted neighbors who I know are home during the day. In case of fire or smelling smoke, he is to go to one of their houses immediately and have them contact me. Also, if for some reason I am not home at the time I specified and he is unable to contact me he should go to a designated neighbor for help.
We do not have a home phone but it is an idea we have seriously considered. We have iPads that are set up with our apple ids, meaning you can text from them. There have been times that I have communicated with Owen via the iPad while I was gone (which is funny because my phone tells me it is from my husband Robert but with 12 dozen emojis I know who it’s actually from). We had a young babysitter who did not have a cell phone, which also made us consider getting a home phone. Thankfully she kept her mom’s phone while she babysat, but that is another reason we could potentially see activating one.
Lastly, my friend recently suffered from an odd health-related scare while my daughter was at her house. She was well enough to call me and I came to retrieve my daughter and stayed with her until her husband came home and took her to the ER, but the whole thing scared her enough to get a home phone and teach their children to call 911 and other programmed numbers. It's interesting because I think more and more those of us who have only existed with cell phones for the past 10 years are starting to go back to having that one tried and true method of communication at home.
Stacey McGinnis, Potomac Yard